Benedict XVI and Communion in the Hand: Put Aside Your Illusions

"Not opposed in principle."

EVER SINCE the post-Vatican II revolution began, the liturgical change that faithful Catholics regarded as most horrifying was communion in the hand. It overthrew everything — everything — we had been taught to believe about the ineffable holiness of the Real Presence and the sacred character of the priesthood.

The 16th-century Protestant heretics who abolished communion on the tongue and introduced communion in the hand were well aware of the doctrines the old practice represented, and changed the mode of receiving communion precisely in order to overthrow these teachings.

So too, during and after Vatican II. The modernist heretics great and small (and I knew many in the latter category) who promoted errors such as transfinalization, transignification, a “transient” presence of Christ in the Eucharist, assembly theology or a “lay” priesthood inevitably also advocated communion in the hand. Denying Catholic dogmas on the Real Presence and the priesthood went together with the new ritual practice — which said “Nothing special here; just plain old bread.”

Many who now advocate more traditional liturgical practices have looked upon Benedict XVI as a sympathetic ally who seeks to restore tradition in Catholic worship. Hence, the permission given for the old Mass, the reappearance of old-style vestments at St. Peter’s, the encouragement given to worthy sacred music, etc.

Since the reception of communion on the tongue logically would seem to be part of this package, and since Benedict XVI was rumored to be opposed to communion in the hand, many were shocked to see pictures of him personally distributing communion in the hand, most recently, to the Queen of Spain.

Various explanations were offered in the pro-Benedict traditionalist camp: the poor pope had been pressured into the practice, he did not want to cause scandal (!) by refusing someone communion, pastoral prudence motivated him, etc., etc. Few, it seems, wanted to put aside the image of Benedict as the Great-but-Patient-Restorer-of-Catholic-Liturgical-Tradition

One need speculate no longer about possible explanations. In an interview just published as a book (Light of the World), Benedict XVI says:

I am not opposed in principle to Communion in the hand; I have both administered and received Communion in this way myself.

So there we have it in Benedict’s own words: he  believes that there is nothing wrong in itself with communion in the hand.

But if there is no principle to oppose, why the widely-publicized business of communicants in St. Peter’s being made to kneel and receive on the tongue?

The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of Mass events we hold at Saint Peter’s, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving Communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir.

The return to the traditional practice was, in other words, merely a practical expediency to forestall the incidental, by-the-way, regrettable problems of superficiality and souvenir hunting.

In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion — everyone else is going up, so I will, too—I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear:  Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the  One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention!

This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.

A question of "context."

In the foregoing passage and those which preceded it, we find more of the convolution so typical of modernist theological discourse. A few bones are thrown towards Catholics who hunger for tradition and the old dogmas (thus: “underscoring the Real Presence,” “something special,” “not just some social ritual”), while the larger and more fundamental issue at stake is rendered completely relative (“in this context,” “danger” of superficiality).

We have seen this before in Ratztinger/Benedict’s pronouncements on the liturgy. He comes out in favor of some traditional practice: the old Mass, facing “east” for the Eucharistic prayer, more Latin, traditional vestments, high-quality music, etc. Beleaguered conservatives and traditionalists rejoice: the restoration has begun!

But upon closer examination, one quickly discovers that Ratzinger/Benedict’s starting point for arriving at these conclusions is often located in another theological universe: e.g., attractive “sacrality,” culture, sensibilities, the Teilhardian cosmos, richness. (See Work of Human Hands, 5–6,  170–72)

This should come as no surprise, because the young Josef Ratzinger was himself formed in the mid-20th century modernist theological universe that rejected the methods and principles of Thomist (i.e. Catholic) theology.

So the traditional tone of Benedict’s practical conclusions should not divert us from the poisonous principles behind them. The modernist George Tyrrell (1861–1909), after all, was likewise a great fan of the Latin High Mass, “with all its suggestion of mystery, faith and reverence.” (Through Scylla and Charybdis, 34)

Courtesy of Benedict XVI, conservatives and advocates of officially-sanctioned celebrations of the old Mass are thus left without a fixed theological principle upon which to hang their opposition to communion in the hand. It’s all “context” now — the Holy Father says so!

As for sending what Benedict called “a clear signal,” ever since the advent of the Protestant and Modernist heresies on the nature of the Eucharist, the signal communion in the hand has sent is very clear indeed: I repudiate the dogma of transubstantiation.

So too, the signal Benedict XVI’s recent statement should send to conservatives: It is time to put aside your illusions.

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  1. Timothy
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Father Cekada:

    Given this post, could you comment on the ancient practice of communion in the hand? I have heard that St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in his catechetical lectures makes reference to this practice in his day. I have been told that both in the west, and in the east (and even in among the Copts) communion became a direct-to-tongue practice for practical purposes to prevent abuse (along with mixing both elements into the chalice in the east, though this was never followed among the Copts, and restricting communion to the laity to sub una specie).

    Because of this precedent, would this not be the line of reasoning that people would follow who advocate communion in the hand in our times? Please comment on the ancient precedent and its relation to your post. Thank you.

  2. Posted November 23, 2010 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

    I briefly discuss the historical aspect of the question in Work of Human Hands, 369–70. Here is the pertinent passage:

    1. History. When communion in the hand was introduced after Vatican II, those who promoted it tried to convey the general impression that it represented the restoration of a practice once universally followed by the ancient Church. The argument, often left unstated, was, how could one possibly object to an early Christian practice as disrespectful or somehow unorthodox?

    The key text employed to this end was a passage from the fourth century Mystagogic Catecheses (instructions in the faith for new converts) attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem, but in fact probably not written by him:

    “When you approach, do not go stretching out your open hands or having your fingers spread out, but make the left hand into a throne for the right hand which shall receive the King, and then cup your open hand and take the Body of Christ, reciting the Amen… ”

    Jungmann cites other texts from this period and somewhat later (mainly Eastern) that seem to corroborate the practice as described, and Archdale King cites texts from Tertullian (+225), St. Cyprian (+258) and St. Augustine (+430).

    Father P.M. Gy, however, observes that communion was always given in the mouth to the sick, and up until the twelfth century, also to babies. Moreover, in antiquity elements of imperial court ceremonial also influenced the liturgy, which then incorporated different practices for receiving communion in a hand covered with a veil. As regards the latter practice in the West, Jungmann records that Caesarius of Arles (+543) and the Synod of Auxerre (578 or 585) both mention the requirement that women receive communion only with a hand covered with a veil.

    So, despite the endlessly recycled text attributed to Cyril, it is by no means certain that the exact method it seems to describe — a host placed into the communicant’s bare palm — was the same for all communicants or obtained everywhere.

    Growing devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, as well as a deepening respect for the priesthood, eventually led to the practice of the priest placing the host directly into communicant’s mouth. The host seems to have been received at Rome this way about the time of St. Gregory the Great (590–604), and according to Archdale King, communion in the hand was condemned by a synod held at Rouen under Clovis II in about 650 AD.

    Liturgical scholars have been unable to fix an exact date for when communion on the tongue became the universal practice. Gy maintains that it was hastened in part by the universal adoption in Carolingian times (eighth century) of the ceremony for the consecration of priest’s hands at ordination.

    This would be consistent with the explanation that St. Thomas gives for communion in the mouth. Out of reverence for this sacrament, nothing touches it but what is consecrated, hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hand for touching this sacrament.


    As may be seen from the foregoing, it is often very difficult to resolve with certitude questions about details of ritual practices in the the Church’s earlier days.

    Those who favored introducing communion in the hand after Vatican II were in fact modernists who sought to destroy traditional Catholic teaching on transubstantiation, the priesthood and the nature of the Mass, and who viewed communion in the hand as a ritual means to achieve this end. The popular heresies at that time were transignification (the “meaning” of the bread changes) and transfinalization (the “purpose” of the bread changes). The practice of communion in the hand arose in the Low Countries (hotbeds of these modernist heresies during Vatican II) and quickly spread to “progressive” circles throughout the world.

    Naturally, the innovators appealed to “antiquity” as their precedent. But the affection of heretics for antiquity is limited to those practices they can twist to serve their new doctrines; whatever in antiquity contradicts their new doctrines is passed over in silence or “hidden from the eyes of the crowd,” as Dom Guéranger said.

    Hence, one heard no calls from the communion in the hand advocates in the 1960s for the “restoration” of other early Christian ritual practices such as public penance for sins confessed, all-night vigils, separation by sexes during Mass, prohibitions against women functioning as liturgical ministers, and veiling for women who assist at Mass. These did not fit in with the modernist program.

    The appeal to “antiquity,” therefore, must be regarded as camouflage for the underlying (heretical) theological agenda.

    While the reception of communion in the hand in the early Church — if, when, where and how it may have been practiced — would not have had an unorthodox theological connotation, the heresies of the 16th-century Protestants and the 20th-century modernists have certainly given it one.

  3. Fr. Kudriavtsev
    Posted November 24, 2010 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    Dear Father Cekada,

    Thank you very much for this post. Being a Greek Catholic Byzantine Rite priest I can say that in the Divine Liturgies of St. Jacob, St. Basil the Great, St. John the Chrysostom and St. Gregory the Great a priest gives the Communion on the tongue always. God bless you.

  4. Timothy
    Posted November 24, 2010 at 5:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your lengthy response, Father Cekada. I understand the basic crux of the argument, and that the evidence is unclear in any case whether or not one is in favor. But the problem that you point out of course, is that mining something from “antiquity” however obscure and making it into something “more orthodox” is essentially a Protestant sham, unfortunately. Even from a pastoral perspective, it would seem that the standardization of the Tridentine Mass and the bull which ratified it (and threatened anyone who changed it!) did so to prevent against the heresies at work through the Protestant reformers.

    Perhaps the reason communion in the hand might have been practiced at one time in one place was because these heresies were not threatening the Church and things were more secretive.

    However, since we are living in a post-Reformation (and post-Christian) world, the bewilderment of Ottaviani on this point seems well placed: why exactly does one think that the context in which Pope St. Pius V made his bull is no longer applicable? If anything, it’s even more relevant today because the Reformation has begun to bear its true fruit in abundance: secularism. Father forgive them…

  5. Posted November 24, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    And indeed that is the crux of the problem. While communion in the hand in ancient times would not have carried any heretical baggage, it does now.

    Every gesture in the liturgy, said Antonelli, conveys a theological idea. Courtesy of first, the Protestants, and then the modernists, the theological idea that communion in the hand came to convey was a repudiation of Catholic dogma on the Eucharist and the priesthood.

  6. ciaran
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    “Let the Jew depart, let the heathen depart!” As pointed out in a Quidlibet post, this was an authentic “bidding prayer” that an ordained deacon would have used.

    In my salad days, when, during primary school I used to serve the parish Novus Ordo, I sometimes had the opportunity of reciting the bidding prayers. So convinced was the parish priest of my decency (a layman of good character!) that sometimes I was allowed to compose the bidding prayers myself.

    Had I, in the name of antiquity, and inspired by the integrity of early Church worship, brought this bidding prayer to the lectern, that would have been the end of my days as an altar boy!

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