Communion in the hand and the threat of death

Fellow patristicist and blogger … hmmm… patristiblogger Mike Aquilina posted a nice riff over at his place.  I tip my biretta to him.  o{]:¬)  It got me thinking (which nearly always results in trouble).  Here is the blurb that got me going, but you should read the whole piece.

Tarcisius was a boy of third-century Rome. His virtue and devotion were so strong that the clergy trusted him to bring the Blessed Sacrament to the sick. Once, while carrying a pyx, he was recognized and set upon by a pagan mob. They flung themselves upon him, trying to pry the pyx from his hands. They wanted more than anything to profane the Sacrament. Tarcisius’ biographer, the fourth-century Pope Damasus, compared them to a pack of rabid dogs. Tarcisius “preferred to give up his life rather than yield up the Body of Christ.” Even at such an early age, Tarcisius was aware of the stakes. Jesus had died for love of Tarcisius. Tarcisius did not hesitate to die for love of Jesus.

I always uphold the legal right, according to the Church’s legislation, of people to receive Communion in the hand, if they choose.  I don’t like it, but it is (for now) a right in those places where it is permitted (it isn’t everywhere) and according to the manner described by competent authority.

Where am I going with this?  People will often defend Communion in the hand by coming unto my turf (Fathers of the Church).  They site beautiful texts, not without a measure of sentimentality and with no concomitant reference to social history.  Mike’s blurb, though hagiographical, points to something really important: the social context.

When people say, "But Father!  But Father!  Back in the early Church people received in the hand!  St. Cyril says so!"

Okay, that was then and this is now.  The passage about Tarcisius reminds us that people could be KILLED for their relationship to the Church and possession of the Blessed Sacrament. 

I think I would have very little problem with Communion in the hand in an environment in which we could be killed for receiving Communion.  There is nothing like the threat of death to sharpen the mind. 

However, when I see the way most people receive Communion in the hand I have to ask myself, are these people ready to DIE for what is going on in this church today?  Is Mass something "to die for", to borrow a phrase?

While the Fathers are a critical source for our theological reflection, in the centuries that followed our understanding of the Eucharist deepened.  Kneeling and reception on the tongue developed for good reason.  In this day of reduced understanding of the Blessed Sacrament and even belief in the Real Presence, in this age of "me, my, mine, I, I, I", we need to reinforce what we confess through physical gestures.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Cathy_of_Alex says:

    Father, IMHO, if Communion in the hand were disallowed, we would
    not have the scandalous spectacle of people breaking up the Host and
    passing it around to those to whom the Body of Christ has been refused because
    of their obvious public sin.
    I refer to the recent Rainbow Sash incident on Pentecost 2006 at the
    Cathedral of St. Paul, MN, to make my case.

  2. CaesarMagnus says:

    Amen, Pater!

  3. Séamas says:

    An interesting article on this topic from the Homelitic and Pastoral Review, from March 1997:

    I’m not sure the author gets everything right, but does give patristic evidence for communion in the mouth from an early time, and suggests that communion in the hand was an exception in times of persecution, when priests were not always available and the faithful kept the Blessed Sacrament in their homes. Under these exceptional circumstances, the faithful would often have given themselves communion, from their own hands, but this was not the normative way.

  4. forzajuv says:

    While I know about Tarcisius from when I was very young, it has never struck me in this way before. In this part of the world, it is not often that I see people receiving Communion on the tongue. In fact, it is quite a rarity.

    What I observe is the casuality by which people treat mass and Communion. I think part of the blame goes to poor catechesis. It seems that the Church’s full teaching on the Eucharist has not been taught properly to the people, resulting in their lack of understanding on the meaning of the Eucharist.

  5. John says:

    The only thing that matters is whether or not receiving Holy Communion in the hand is licit in some places.
    Since it is licit (judged prudent by better and higher men than you and I), it is at least a venial sin to criticize the practice. I am ashamed of everyone who criticizes it, be he lay or clergy.

  6. forzajuv says:

    I agree with you there, John. I have no problem with receiving Communion on the hand. What I do not like is the casual attitude that some people have for Holy Communion.

  7. John wrote: “…it is at least a venial sin to criticize the practice. I am ashamed of everyone who criticizes it, be he lay or clergy.”

    That’s just silly.

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