We have all heard of the supposed historical sources which confirm that Communion in the hand was common in the early Church. What if all of that was pure conjecture? Those who have supported this most irreverent posture of receiving Holy Communion often try and use history to defend their position. While it is obvious that the practice of Communion in the hand puts the Sacred Species of the Eucharist at risk for profanation, it also seems that history is not a friend of the practice either. A friend sent over this article written by a Franciscan priest. I reproduced the entire article from the source found at this web address.
Some Considerations on Holy Communion in the Hand
Following your editor's request for information, here are some
patristic and historical considerations on Communion on the hand, as well as
an additional aspect.
Was it universal? The history of Communion in the hand is often
presented in certain quarters as follows: From the Last Supper on, Holy
Communion was, as the norm, continually given in the hand. So it was during
the age of the martyrs. And it continued to be so during that golden age of
the Fathers and of the liturgy after the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D.
And it continued to be the common practice until at least the tenth century.
Thus for over half of the life of the Church it was the norm.
An argument for the above is held to be found in a text of St. Cyril of
Jerusalem's fifth Mystagogic Catechesis (21f), which he preached to
neophytes in 348 A.D., in which he counsels the faithful to "place your left
hand as the throne of your right one, which is to receive the King [in Holy
Communion]" (apudL'Osservatore Romano. English edition of June 14, 1973, p.
6). This Father of the Church further counsels great care for any Fragments
which might remain on one's hands.
According to some critics' version of history, popular in certain
quarters, Communion on the tongue became the universal norm in this way:
During the Middle Ages certain distortions in the faith and/or in approaches
to it gradually developed. These included an excessive fear of God and an
over-concern about sin, judgment and punishment, as well as an over-emphasis
on Christ's divinity-- so emphasized as to down-play His sacred humanity or
virtually deny it; also an over-emphasis on the priest's role in the sacred
liturgy, and a loss of the sense of the community which the Church, in fact,
is. In particular, because of excessive emphasis on adoring Christ in the
Holy Eucharist and an over-strict approach to moral matters, Holy Communion
became more and more rare. It was considered enough to gaze upon the Sacred
Host during the elevation. (In fact, in certain critics' minds the
elevation, exposition and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament find their
origins during the 'unfortunate' Middle Ages, a period whose liturgical
practices we would do well-- so they think-- to rid ourselves of.) It was in
this atmosphere and under these circumstances, they argue, that the practice
of Communion in the hand began to be restricted. The practice of the priest
placing the consecrated Bread directly into the mouth of the communicant
thus developed and, they think, was unwisely imposed.
The conclusion is rather clear: We should get rid of this custom. We
should forbid or at least discourage the Communion-on-the-tongue practice
whereby the faithful are not allowed to "take and eat," and should return to
the pristine usage of the Fathers and Apostles, namely, Communion in the hand.
It is a compelling story. It is too bad that it is not true.
The sacred Council of Trent declared that the custom whereby only the
priest-celebrant gives Communion to himself (with his own hands), and the
laity receive It from him, is an Apostolic tradition.
A more rigorous study of available evidence from Church history and
from writings of the Fathers does not support the assertion that Communion
in the hand was a universal practice which was gradually supplanted and
eventually replaced by the practice of Communion on the tongue. Rather,
facts seem to point to a different conclusion: Pope St. Leo the Great
(440-461) is an early witness of the traditional practice. In his comments
on the sixth chapter of St. John's Gospel he speaks of Communion in the
mouth as the current usage: "One receives in the mouth what one believes by
faith." (2) The Pope does not speak as if he were introducing a novelty, but
as if this were a well established thing.
A century and a half later Pope St. Gregory the Great (died in 604) is
another witness. In his dialogues he relates how Pope St. Agapitus performed
a miracle during Mass, after having placed the Body of the Lord into
We are not claiming that under no circumstances whatever did the
faithful receive by their own hands. But under what conditions did this
happen? It does seem that from very early times on, it was usual for the
priest to place the Sacred Host into the mouth of the communicant. However,
during times of persecution, when priests were not readily available, and
when the faithful took the Sacrament to their homes, they gave Communion to
themselves by their own hand. Rather than be totally deprived of the Bread
of Life, they could receive by their own hand. The same applied to monks who
had gone out into the desert, where they would not have the services of a
priest and would not want to give up the practice of daily holy Communion.
St. Basil the Great (330-379) indicates that reception of Communion by one's
own hand was permitted precisely because of persecution, or, as was the case
with monks in the desert, when no deacon or priest was available to give It.
In his article on "Communion" in the Dictionaire d'Archeologiae
Chretienne, Leclerq declares that the peace of Constantine in 313 A.D.
served toward bringing the practice of Communion in the hand to an end.
After persecution had ceased, evidently the practice of Communion in the
hand persisted here and there. Church authority apparently judged that it
invited abuse and deemed it contrary to the custom of the Apostles.
Thus the Synod of Rouen, France, in about 878 directed: "Do not put the
Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywomen, but only in their mouths"
("nulli autem laico aut feminae eucharistiam in manibus ponat, sed tantum in
os eius"). (4) A non-ecumenical Council of Constantinople known as "In
Trullo" in 692 A.D. prohibited the faithful from giving Communion to
themselves (which is of course what happens when the Sacred Particle is
placed in the hand of communicants), and decreed a censure against those who
would do so in the presence of a bishop, priest or deacon.
Promoters of Communion in the hand generally make little mention of the
evidence we have brought forward, but do make constant use of the text
attributed above to St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who lived in the fourth century
at the time of St. Basil. But scholars dispute the authenticity of the St.
Cyril text, according to Jungmann-Brunner, op. cit., p. 191, n.25.
It is not impossible that the text is really the work of the Patriarch John,
who succeeded Cyril in Jerusalem. This John was of suspect orthodoxy, as we
know from the correspondence of St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine.
But is it not a form of clericalism to allow the priest to touch the
Sacred Host and to forbid the laity to do the same? But even priests were
not allowed to touch the Blessed Sacrament except out of some need to do so.
In fact, other than the celebrant of the Mass itself, no one else receiving
Communion, not even a priest, could receive It in the hand. And so, in the
traditional liturgical practice of the Roman Rite, if a priest were
assisting at Mass (and not celebarating) and if he wished to receive Holy
Communion, he did not do so by his own hand; he received on the tongue from
another priest. The same would be true of a Bishop or even a Pope. When Pope
St. Pius X was on his deathbed in August of 1914, and Holy Communion was
brought to him as Viaticum, he did not and was not allowed to receive in the
hand. He received on the tongue according to the law and practice of the
This confirms a basic point: Out of reverence it seems better that
there be no unnecessary touching of the Sacred Host. Obviously someone is
needed to distribute the Bread of Life. But it is not needful to make each
man, woman and child into his own 'eucharistic minister' and multiply the
handling and fumbling and danger of dropping and loss of Fragments. Even
those whose hands have been specially consecrated to touch the Most Holy
Eucharist, namely the priests, should not do so needlessly.
As for the present situation, in those countries where the indult for
Communion in the hand has been granted by the Holy See, an individual bishop
may forbid the practice; but no Bishop has authority to forbid the
traditional way of receiving Our Lord on the tongue.
But surely the Apostles received Communion in the hand at the Last
Supper? It is usually presumed that this was so. Even if it were, though, we
would point out that the Apostles were themselves priests, or even Bishops.
But we must not forget a traditional custom of middle-eastern hospitality
which was in practice in Jesus' time and which is still the case; that is,
one feeds his guests with one's own hand, placing a symbolic morsel in the
mouth of the guest. And we have this text of St. John's Gospel (13:26-30):
"Jesus answered, 'It is he to whom I shall give this Morsel when I have
dipped It.' So when He had dipped the Morsel, He gave It to Judas... So,
after receiving the Morsel, he [Judas] immediately went out..."
Did Our Lord place this wet Morsel into Judas' hand? That would be
rather messy. Did He not perhaps extend to the one whom He addressed later
in the garden as "friend" the gesture of hospitality spoken of above? And if
so, why not with Holy Communion, "giving Himself by His own Hand"? --
CANADA. Fr. Paul McDonald, Pastor, St. Patrick's Church, 123 King St., Pt.
Colborne, Ontario L3K 4G3.
EDITOR'S NOTE TO READER: If any of you fear that Fr. McDonald has drawn
some of this material from mistaken historical data, and you can cite
precise sources which show anything Father says to be inaccurate or
misleading, he and we would be grateful if you would write us about it. --
(1) "It has always been the practice in the Church of God in the
reception of the Sacrament, that laypersons receive Communion from priests
and that the priest-celebrants give Communion to themselves. This practice,
coming down lawfully and justly from Apostolic tradition, ought to be
retained." ("... In sacramentali autem sumptione semper in Ecclesia Dei mos
fuit, ut laici a sacerdotibus communionem acciperent, sacerdotes autem
celebrantes se ipsos communicarent; qui mos tamquam ex traditione apostolica
descendens iure ac merito retineri debet.") -- Council of Trent, Sess. 13,
chapter 8 (DS 1648). While this ranks as unapostolic the practice today of
laypersons directly helping themselves to Hosts from the tabernacle or altar
or ciborium, and its lesson seems out of harmony with the extensive use of
lay ministers whereby they give Communion when the celebrant could just as
well give It; yet the description in the text as worded here does not
necessarily exclude the possibility of laypersons receiving Our Lord from
the priest into their hands, and giving It then to themselves. --A.M.S.,
(2) "Hoc enim ore sumitur quod fide creditur" (Serm. 91.3). Of course
this, too, proves no more of Fr. McDonald's thesis than the text quoted in
footnote 1, except 'sumitur' can suggest receiving directly from the priest
into the mouth.
Passages from various Fathers of the Church are sometimes cited as
authority that in their day Communion in the hand was universal. But the
texts we have found assembled in literature promoting this practice, prove
to us only that the practice existed, and perhaps prevailed in the area in
which the writer lived, but not that it was the only method at that time in
the whole Church. Nor do ancient materials quoted tell us whether the
Apostles taught laypersons to receive holy Communion in the hand. Hence the
Council of Trent and other witnessses here cited, may well have had
important further information.
Let me remark in passing that a writer in L'Osservatore Romano, English
edition of June 14, 1973, pp. 6-7, influenced many when, in a long article
he presents historical testimonies and references evidently intended to
support his statement that: "The literary and monumental sources of the
first nine centuries are unanimous in testifying to the use of receiving the
eucharistic Bread in the hand throughout the whole Church." Note that this
does not state Communion in the hand was the only method of communion during
that period, as some have wrongly thought, nor do testimonies quoted in that
writer's article tell us whether it was the most common method everywhere in
the Church most of the time throughout the first nine centuries. --A.M.S.,
(3) "If one feels he should in times of persecution, in the absence of
a priest or deacon, receive Communion by his own hand, there should be no
need to point out that this certainly shows no grave immoderation; for long
custom allows this in such cases. In fact, all solitaries in the desert,
where there is no priest, reserving Communion in their dwellings, receive It
from their own hands."
(Our translation of St. Basil's words in M. J. Rout
de Journel's Enchiridion Patristicum, n. 916-- Barcelona, 1946). --A.M.S.,
(4) Can. 2 (Mansi, X, 1199). Apud Jungmann-Brunner, The Mass of the
Roman Rite, vol. 2, pp. 381f, New York, Benziger Bros., 1955.
Rev. Paul J. McDonald
Parish Priest (Pastor)
St. Patrick's Church
123 King Street
Pt. Colborne, ON, Canada
tel (905) 834 6426
fax (905) 834 1215
My brothers, all of you, if you are condemned to see the triumph of evil,
never applaud it. Never say to evil: you are good; to decadence: you are
progress; to the night: you are light; to death: you are life. Sanctify
yourselves in the times wherein God has placed you; bewail the evils and the
disorders which God tolerates; oppose them with the energy of your works and
your efforts, your life uncontaminated by error, free from being led astray,
in such a way that having lived here below, united with the Spirit of the
Lord, you will be admitted to be made but one with Him forever and ever: Qui
adhearet Deo unus spiritus est (I Cor 6:17)
Cardinal Pie of Poitiers