ASK FATHER: Crossing arms to receive Communion

From a reader…


 I have been regularly attending the Traditional Latin Mass for the last two years and have been an altar boy at the TLM for the past year and a half. I have noticed that a fair number of communicants at the TLM cross their arms in the shape of an “X” when they receive Holy Communion. I have seen it commonly done in Byzantine Catholic Churches and I thought that crossing your arms when going up for Holy Communion was a sign to the priest that you were not receiving Holy Communion (at least in the Ordinary Form)? Is there a reason why some communicants cross their arms to receive Holy Communion in the Extraordinary Form? What’s the point in doing that? Were these people taught to receive Holy Communion by crossing their arms? This is quite confusing to me!

I see no reason to cross your arms to receive Communion, at least in the Latin Church, either in the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form.

It could be that some of those people attending the TLM had sought refuge for a while at an Eastern Catholic church for their reverent Divine Liturgy. They started doing that and carried it over.

I don’t see anything especially wrong with it, but,these days, it sends a confusing signal.

The custom that has arisen – wrongly I think, for Communion time is NOT the time to give blessings – of people presenting themselves with crossed arms at Communion time for a blessing may confuse others into thinking that that is the way it is done.  So, when faced with people who have their arms crossed, it can be tough to tell if they are seeking to communicate or seeking a blessing.

As a matter of fact, I sometimes see people kneel at the Communion rail to receive on the tongue and they put their hands out!  These are usually TLM newbies.

Some people don’t think much about what they are about when they do things in Church. They get into patterns.  But, hey!… it has every been so.

It is good to think about what we do in church and why.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I remember seeing Lech Walesa receiving Communion with his arms crossed over his breast. Perhaps this is a Polish custom? If for any reason I don’t receive Communion I certainly don’t ‘go up for a blessing’ . What’s the point? We are all blessed at the end of Mass. Another recent custom which should be discouraged (not that it ever will be).

  2. Papabile says:

    The nuns taught us to cross our arms if there was no counseling cloth. This supposedly ensured that the altar boys paten would not hit your hands.

    [I haven’t heard that term “counseling cloth” before. Has anyone else?]

  3. WGS says:

    Surely, Papabile is referring to a “houseling cloth”. [That’s it.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  4. This is a real problem.

    If memory serves me well at my advanced age, this all started with the Cursillo and Marriage Encounter movements inthe 1970s. So as not to exclude the non-Catholics who were attending Mass, well-intentioned but ill-advised priests invited non-Catholics to come up as if they were going to receive Holy Communion but instructed them to cross their arms in the form of an “X” so that the priest would know to offer them a blessing.

    Since that time, parents in many parishes have had their baptized children who have not yet received First Holy Communion come up for a blessing, too.

    Why is this a problem?

    First, and not first in terms of importance and as you noted Fr. Z, it is confusing to the minister of Holy Communion. Is this person desiring to receive Holy Communion or a blessing?

    Second, and more important, to deny a blessing can be interpreted in a wide variety of ways, many of which make the priest appear to be a harsh and judgmental ogre.

    Third, and most important, the “blessing” is given to the congregation following the closing prayer and during the Rite of Dismissal as the community is sent out into the world to witness to the faith. To move the blessing to Holy Communion for those who are unable to receive Holy Communion in the first place is to do violence to the logic of the liturgical rites.

    Periodically I will briefly explain two items from the pulpit:

    1) The Cross leads the last person into and first person out of Mass, as Christ in the person of the priest has gathered the community into the Church and leads the community out of the Church. (That works for one week for those who come late and leave early.)

    2) At Mass, the blessing is not bestowed upon individuals by the priest but upon the community after the closing prayer as its members are sent forth in the Rite of Dismissal into the world to witness to the faith. The blessing is not part of the Rite of Communion and should not be treated as such nor should it be expected that a priest will provide a blessing during Holy Communion. (That works. However, oftentimes another minister of Holy Communion will provide blessings and the whole problem starts all over again. Knowing my position on the issue, some people will even change lines to get the blessing.)

  5. Sliwka says:

    Last Divine Liturgy I attended on Jordan (??????) Father instructed us to cross our hands over our hearts when receiving Communion.

    I think and firmly hope that folded hands (or even clasped) at the chest will be reclaimed in the Latin Church as the standard posture of prayer rather than being thought of as childlike. There is a reason when teaching the stupor mundi (thanks to Fr Zed for using this phrase) we teach them the folded hands posture. It brings to signal physically that we are entering God’s presence.

    [EVERYONE: Use unicode for special characters and languages. HERE]

  6. Jack says:

    I have found, particularly when traveling outside my home parish, that it helps those of us that want to receive the Blessed Sacrament on the tongue to cross my hands on my chest. Otherwise, if I maintain a folded hands position as I approach for Communion, somebody is guaranteed to try to force me to receive in my hand and seems otherwise baffled by the concept of a more reverent approach.

    I don’t know if this is “officially” correct, but it seems to be the most reverent way I can think of to eliminate the confusion.

  7. Sliwka says:

    Sorry if you see a bunch of question marks like I do, I wrote some Cyrillic

  8. The Masked Chicken says:

    “If memory serves me well at my advanced age, this all started with the Cursillo and Marriage Encounter movements inthe 1970s.”

    Hmmm…Tell me more. Was this a 1970’s innovation in the Cursillo Movement, because CM goes back much farther than the 1970s. I could have happened that way, given the experimentation of the period, just like the raising of the hands at the Our father (the Orans position) among the laity came out of the Charismatic Renewal movement. Curiously, there is an historical link between the Cursillo Movement and the Charismatic Renewal, but I strongly doubt that the hand movements have any connection.

    The Chicken

  9. jfk03 says:

    I attend a Greek Catholic Church. It is our custom to cross our arms over our breast when receiving the Holy Mysteries. However, when I attend a Latin church, I do not do this because it confuses the priest, who thinks I am asking for a blessing, not communion.

  10. ppb says:

    I haven’t noticed if people at our TLM cross their arms while receiving Holy Communion, but I have seen some people cross their arms while striking their breast at the triple “Domine, non sum dignus” before Holy Communion, and sometimes at the elevations as well. I’ve concluded that there must have been a variety of little customs like this in various parts of the country pre-Vatican II. The people I know are not importing gestures from the OF or from the Eastern liturgies, they’re doing what they were taught to do when they were growing up with the TLM. I see no problem with a variety of devotional gestures as long as they don’t detract from the Mass.

  11. Nun2OCDS says:

    Perhaps those who kneel at the communion rail and put their hands out are former Episcopalians I am a former Episcopalian and that is what we did. [Interesting.]

    As a Catholic, I experienced approaching an EMHC with my hands folded to indicate my desire to receive on the tongue and the EMHC repeatedly tapped my finger tips with the Host. [?!? Good grief!] After Mass I spoke to the pastor who said he would speak to the EMHC and assured me this would never happen again. Thanks are due to the priests who use EMHC (not that it is the most desirable thing) and catechize them well.

  12. Tradster says:

    Echoing what Papabile said, my pre-V2 sisters (mostly St Joseph sisters) taught us to cross our arms to avoid accidental contact with the priest’s hands or the paten. Actually, it was only fairly recently – due, if memory serves, to this blog – that I stopped doing crossing my arms, as well as no longer making the sign of the cross before leaving the rail.

  13. chantgirl says:

    I have small children who can’t be left behind in the pew for Communion. Since some priests have attempted to give some of my young ones Communion (I remember an incident when I had to perform a “diving-touchdown” move to prevent this), I have instructed them to cross their arms so that the priests know they can’t receive yet. That way, they practice going up to the altar rail with me and see how adults receive, and hopefully don’t accidentally receive themselves. I don’t feel the need for the priest to bless them since they are blessed at the end of Mass, but most priests do anyway. Unfortunately, many EF churches are not in great parts of their cities, and we frequently have interesting people walk in off of the street during Mass, so I don’t feel comfortable leaving the small ones in the pew.

  14. seattle_cdn says:

    When I’m serving a mass where kneeling at the rail is used, I hold the paten over any outstretched hands so Fr doesn’t see them and goes straight for the tongue.

  15. Chicken:

    That’s as far back as I go with it. The “tradition” may extend farther back, but my experience doesn’t.


  16. YorkshireStudent says:

    To combine some of the themes in the question and the subsequent comments – if you are serving at an OF Mass and communion is distributed with you using a Communion plate, what is the best thing to do when people are receiving via the hand?
    (Suggestions of ‘force them to kneel and drag their tongue out of their mouths’ are unlikely to be acted upon…

    The first time I was faced with this problem, I had (incidentally) been reading a suggestion from a manual written after the advent of Communion on the hand, but before the general demise of the Communion plate. I seemed to remember (whilst crossing the sanctuary to aid with the distribution) that it advised servers to not use the plate when hands were offered. After a few minutes of this it seemed to insufficient protection to the Host, especially compared to the ‘tracking to the chin’ method used for reception on the tongue. Is there an official rule? A widely practiced method?
    Thank you, in advance

  17. Edelwald says:

    Actually, in Churches where they offer intinction, my experience has been that the priest will instruct the faithful who wish to receive in this manner to cross their arms to indicate to the priest that the communicant will receive through intinction. Others are instructed not to cross their arms if they don’t want to receive through intinction. I’ve experienced this at several places and it works perfectly well.

  18. Geoffrey says:

    @Edelwald: That is rather brilliant. My parish suffers from a few communicants who take it upon themselves to self-intinct; the EMHCs try to discreetly tell direct them otherwise, but I have been told it never ends well.

  19. Alan22 says:

    Father, this post has stirred memories of my younger days as a child in the Church of England. The only non-communicants to be presented at the altar rails would be babies carried in their mothers’ arms. Unconfirmed children old enough to walk remained in the pews while their parents went to Holy Communion.

    The practice in my childhood parish was that we went into the aisle to form an orderly procession beginning with the people in the front pews (no rushing up from the back to be among the first to receive Holy Communion). Once in the Communion queue, we knelt until it was time to move up to the altar rail. At the rail we knelt upright with arms crossed both as an act of reverence and also not to impede the altar boy with the Communion plate.

  20. Titus says:

    I sometimes see people kneel at the Communion rail to receive on the tongue and they put their hands out!

    A delightful old Italian-American priest from my childhood parish (may God rest his soul) had a lengthy taxonomy of bad ways to approach for Holy Communion. This one (opening the mouth and holding out one’s hands) was the “Trick or Treat.”

    if you are serving at an OF Mass and communion is distributed with you using a Communion plate, what is the best thing to do when people are receiving via the hand?

    Place the paten under the communicant’s hands: that’s where there is the greatest risk of an accident.

    Not everyone who comes up with crossed arms is fishing for a blessing. Some people do this simply to reverence the Blessed Sacrament (especially if staying in the pew would gum up traffic). I’ve seen it among known readers of this blog who I suspect strongly agree with Father’s point about no-extra-blessings-during-Mass.

  21. Hans says:

    I have seen this gesture of crossed arms for those coming to receive communion — and not a blessing — with a few in the Spanish-speaking contingent in our parish, though it’s rare. They usually have wanted to receive on the tongue. I don’t know know if it’s more common at the Spanish Mass, since mine isn’t good enough to read the Gospel and I’m rarely there. I don’t know if they would have learned it directly from Cursillo, since they have been younger — late teens or early twenties.

  22. disco says:

    I’ve seen people do the cross over the heart thing AFTER receiving communion, but never before. I always thought the after thing was kind of a nice gesture almost as if protecting the Eucharistic Lord within ones own heart. I never knew if that’s really what that’s all about though so hands folded always for me.

  23. Rachel Pineda says:

    I too was wondering if people crossing their arms may be because some of the communicants are used to receiving Holy Communion in an Eastern Rite parish. When I receive Communion in an Eastern Rite parish I have always taken the houseling cloth and placed it under my chin as I saw some of my Eastern Rite brothers and sisters doing that. I became used to doing this and I hope it is a proper thing to do but I will not worry too much as the priest has not told me otherwise. In a local TLM parish I also attend I think most people fold their hands and lay them on the communion rail. It would not surprise me if some crossed them over their chest because we do have other people who attend Byzantine churches that visit often.
    Recently after a local TLM Mass was finished, the priest instructed everyone present how to receive on the tongue properly. He also instructed us on where to place our hands so as not to accidentally hit the paten or worse God forbid, cause the hosts to fall to the floor.

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