A Privilege of the Ordained

Published on the Web with Permission of the Author

12. Communion in the Hand
Should Be Rejected

by Dr. Dietrich van Hildebrand

There can be no doubt that Communion in the hand is an expression of the trend towards desacralization in the Church in general and irreverence in approaching the Eucharist in particular. The ineffable mystery of the bodily presence of Christ in the consecrated host calls for a deeply reverent attitude. (To take the Body of Christ in our unanointed hands---just as if it were a mere piece of bread is something in itself deeply irreverent and detrimental for our faith.) Dealing with this unfathomable mystery as if we were merely dealing with nothing but another piece of bread, something we naturally do every day with mere bread, makes the act of faith in the bodily presence of Christ more difficult.

 Such behavior toward the consecrated host slowly corrodes our faith in the bodily presence and fosters the idea that it is only a symbol of Christ. To claim that taking the bread in our hands increases our sense of the reality of the bread is an absurd argument. The reality of the bread is not what matters---that is also visible for any atheist. But the fact that the host is in reality the Body of Christ---the fact that transubstantiation has taken place---this is the theme which must be stressed.

Early Christian Practice No Valid Argument

Arguments for Communion in the hand based upon the fact that this practice can be found among the early Christians are not really valid. They overlook the dangers and the inadequacy of reintroducing the practice today. Pope Pius XII spoke in very clear and unmistakable terms against the idea that one could reintroduce today customs from the times of the catacombs.

 Certainly we should try to renew in the souls of Catholics today the spirit, fervor, and heroic devotion found in the faith of the early Christians and the many Martyrs from among their ranks. But simply adopting their customs is something else again; customs can assume a completely new function today, and we cannot and should not simply try to reintroduce them.

In the days of the catacombs the danger of desacralization and irreverence which threatens today was not present. The contrast between the saeculum and the holy Church was constantly in the minds of Christians. Thus a custom which was not a danger in those times can constitute a grave pastoral danger in our day.

St. Francis on the Dignity of the Priesthood

Consider how St. Francis regarded the extraordinary dignity of the priest which consists exactly in the fact that he is allowed to touch the Body of Christ with his anointed hands. St. Francis said: "If I were to meet at the same time a Saint from Heaven and a poor priest I would first show my respect to the priest and quickly kiss his hand, and then I would say: 'O wait, St. Lawrence, for the hands of this man touch the Word of Life and possess a good which far surpasses everything that is human'."

Someone may say: but did not St. Tarcisius distribute Communion though he was no priest? Surely no one was scandalized because he touched the consecrated host with his hands. And in an emergency, a layman is today allowed to give Communion to others.

But this exception for emergency cases is not something which implies a lack of respect for the holy Body of Christ---which should be accepted with a trembling heart (and should remain a privilege, reserved only for an emergency).

But there is a great difference between this case of touching the consecrated host with our unanointed hands and that of taking Communion in the hand as a matter of course---on all occasions. To be allowed to touch the consecrated host with the unanointed hand is in no way presented to the faithful as an awe-inspiring privilege. It becomes the normal form of receiving Communion. And this fosters an irreverent attitude and thus corrodes faith in the real bodily presence of Christ.

It is taken for granted that everyone receives the consecrated host in his hand. The layman to whom the great privilege is granted for special reasons has to touch the host, of course. But there is no reason for receiving Communion in the hand; only an immanent spirit of paltry familiarity with our Lord.

Reprinted from "The Maryfaithful", March-April, 1985.