It has long been an important item on the agenda of those who wish to de-catholicize the Catholic Church that the Holy Eucharist should be treated in a casual ordinary way. This treatment has included an emphasis on the Mass as a banquet, rather than as a sacrifice, the sanctuary as containing a table, rather than an altar, the Host as offered to everyone, rather than received only by those in the state of grace, and Holy Communion distributed in the hand, rather than on the tongue. The models followed by these sacramental vandals have been both Protestantism and secularism – the former rejecting the Holy Eucharist as the literal Body and Blood of Christ, the latter rejecting the very notion of sacred persons and objects.
Because Protestants do not believe in or have the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist, they make no fuss over the manner in which the communion bread is to be taken. In fact, from the first days of the Protestant rebellion, the practice of communion in the hand became an important means of conveying to the congregation that – contrary to Catholic “superstition” – the substance distributed was bread and nothing more. It commemorated and symbolized the Passion of Our Lord, but it itself remained objectively unchanged during the communion service. Thus, belief in the Real Presence was effectively undermined by treating the communion bread in a casual way; that is, by receiving it in the hand as one would receive any other piece of bread.
During the present coronavirus spell, the same sacramental vandals have taken full advantage of the opportunity to promote – in the alleged name of preventing further spread of the virus – the practice of receiving Holy Communion in the hand. In most parishes, there is simply no option to receive on the tongue. Just as our constitutional rights were all at once suspended in the name of the pandemic, so, within the Catholic Church, our sacramental rights to receive Holy Communion in the time-tested traditional manner were all at once rescinded. And we, the faithful, were expected to have nothing whatsoever to say about it. Our only duty was immediate and unquestioning obedience to the episcopal powers that be.
To be clear, the magisterium of the Church has formally declared that every Catholic has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue if he or she so wishes, and no priest has the right to forbid it. To do so is to violate the rights of the laity. Nor has the priest a right to withhold Holy Communion from a Catholic who approaches to receives on the tongue, or while kneeling. Such is the law of the Church, which has been shockingly thrown aside in the name of preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
This situation has been a source of agony for many devout Catholics who rightly consider the Holy Mass to be the pinnacle of life, Holy Communion to be the highest point of that pinnacle, and therefore, regard the manner in which they receive their Eucharistic Lord as a matter of the gravest importance. And how wrong it is that the manner of this reception has been dictated to them through the bishops by medical professionals who, almost without exception, are not Catholics themselves.
If one dares to openly disagree with the current pandemic practice of receiving Holy Communion only in the hand, one is quickly and sternly informed that he or she is disobedient and selfish. Or else, one is “tongue-shamed” with unfriendly glares. Apparently, stopping the spread of the virus is of little interest to such a person, who probably also suffers from scrupulosity. To care deeply about the manner in which Christ is received is now considered a moral and psychological disorder!
If such insults are not enough, another popular approach is to assert that the Apostles received Holy Communion in the hand at the Last Supper, so what’s the problem with doing the same? Isn’t this the Apostolic Church? So then, do as the Apostles did.
To answer the second claim first, it’s actually not plainly stated in Holy Scripture that the Apostles received Holy Communion in the hand. It may have been the case, but it’s not entirely clear. More importantly, it simply doesn’t matter, because the twelve Apostles were not lay people; they were the first bishops of the Catholic Church. So even if they did receive Holy Communion in the hand, it has nothing to do with the prersent manner in which Holy Communion is distributed to the faithful at Mass.
Now the above first claim – that receiving Holy Communion in the hand is a matter of safety – has been corrected by Catholic health professionals. And they are not the first folks to make the argument, but only the most recent. Twenty-one Austrian doctors have just released a letter addressed to the bishops of their country explaining why, for health reasons, communion on the tongue is preferable to communion in the hand. It is sad that we must turn to “experts” for reasons that are altogether obvious and commonsensical, but such is our world of specialists who thrill at pontificating to us helpless little ignoramuses.
Here are the three primary reasons given by the doctors, along with my own comments.
The hand is the part of the body most likely to have come in contact with coronavirus germs.
I can speak only for myself, but I generally don’t open church doors with my tongue. I use my hand to grasp a handle that undoubtedly many other hands have grasped as well. Germs galore. When I genuflect at the pew, my knees rest on the dirty floor, which I might touch with my hands when standing up again. I may also hold onto the end of the pew to steady myself. After standing up, I slide into the pew using my hands, pull down a kneeler, kneel on it, and lean on the back of the pew in front of me while praying. Throughout the Mass, I repeatedly use my hands in standing, sitting, and kneeling. In many parishes, old missallettes or hymnals are used. Again and again, germs galore. Within a couple of minutes of appraoching the church, my hands have already made contact with multiple surfaces that may have virus germs on them, and this continues throughout the Mass. And all the while, I’ve kept my tongue in my mouth. Thus, if I’m carrying the germs, it is far more likely that they’re on the outside of my person than on the inside, and most likely that they’re on my hands, rather than in my mouth. If at Holy Communion the priest places a host in my hand, then that host has directly contacted the part of my body most likely to have come in contact with coronavirus germs. If I then take that host into my other hand and place it in my mouth, then there is a real possibility that I have ingested coronavirus germs.
In addition, even if a priest cleanses his hands with a disinfectant immediately before distributing Holy Communion, he will still come in contact with as many hands as he inadvertantly touches during the rite.
The danger our hands pose is demonstrated in two other ways: in the prudent discontinuation of the sign of peace with its handshake, and in the fact that when we leave a public establishment such as a grocery store and return to our car, we cleanse, not our mouths with mouthwash, but our hands with a towelette.
If a priest were to come in contact with a communicant’s tongue, he could immediately cleanse his hands in a reverent way.
A priest who is experienced at distributing Holy Communion on the tongue is capable of avoiding contact. The exceptions to this would be few in number, if any at all. But if he did accidentally touch a communicant’s tongue, he could reverently cleanse his fingers with the assistance of a server. It would be quick and easy, and would be regarded as a nuisance only by a man who didn’t care about the apex of his priestly vocation.
Kneeling would make the reception of Holy Communion even safer.
As another advantage to Catholic traditional practice, receiving Holy Communion while kneeling would further remove the priest and communicant from a potentially dangerous face-to-face encounter. Standing so close to each other at the same height would allow for contamination through virus droplets released by speaking or breathing. Kneeling communicants would pose much less of a risk because they would be farther from the priest’s face.
If the wearing of a mask is supposed to prevent this contamination by droplets, it also is the cause of an extremely awkward situation in which communicants must say “Amen,” lift their mask up or down, place the Host in their mouth either below the mask or above it, and then replace their mask, all while walking away from the priest. And yet, the magisterium has legislated (Redemptionis Sacramentum 92) that communicants are to consume the Host in the presence of the priest, while standing immediately in front of him, and not while they are walking away. This is to eliminate the possibility of a person taking a Host out of the church for the purpose of desecration. It is yet another piece of prudent liturgical law that has been suddenly swept aside in the great anti-pandemic crusade.
The present pandemic practice of distributing Holy Communion only in the hand to those who are standing and wearing masks is the cause of multiple opportunities for dropping the Host. This is a horrific and an avoidable abuse of Our Lord, but one which is of little concern to contemporary Catholics, many of whom do not believe in Catholic Eucharistic teaching. Such carelessness only helps to further erode what little Eucharistic faith and reverence remains in the Church.
From all of this, one could offer a reasonable and happily reverent suggestion to the bishops for avoiding the spread of the coronavirus through Holy Communion: simply, return to the vernerable Catholic tradition of distributing Holy Communion only on the tongue to kneeling communicants. And after this long pandemic nightmare has ended, continue doing the same, for the love of our Eucharistic Lord and the edification of the faithful.