We occasionally hold a reading group at our home in which someone brings a selection, and we read aloud. This past Thursday, we read through a short book (and essay, really) that I obtained back in 2009. It prompted me to dig up the review I wrote. Enjoy!
“It is true that if it is possible to receive on the tongue, one can also receive on the hand, both being bodily organs of equal dignity…. Yet, whatever the reasons put forth to sustain this practice, we cannot ignore what happens at the practical level when this method is used. This practice contributes to a gradual, growing weakening of the attitude of reverence toward the Scared Eucharistic Species. The earlier practice, on the other hand, better safeguards the sense of reverence. Instead, an alarming lack of recollection and an overall spirit of carelessness have entered into liturgical celebrations.”
The above words were written by the Most Reverend Malcom Ranjith, the Secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, in the Preface of a timely and concise book called Dominus Est!- It is the Lord! by the Most Reverend Athanasius Schneider. Archbishop Ranjith concludes his Preface, “I think it is now time to evaluate carefully the practice of Communion-in-the-hand and, if necessary, to abandon what was actually never called for in the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium nor by the Council Fathers but was, in fact, “accepted” after it was introduced as an abuse in some countries.”
This brief 33 page work by Bishop Schneider comes at a time when many in the Church are discussing postures during the Holy Mass. In fact, the publisher of the book muses that one cannot help but wonder whether the text itself had a role to play in the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to return to the traditional mode of distributing Communion at his Masses, on the tongue to kneeling communicants.
In order to answer this question of the correct posture for reception of the Most Holy Eucharist, we must divide the inquiry itself into two more refined questions. The first is, what is the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharistic Species? The second is, what are the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament? As noted in the previous post the fundamental principle of sacramentality is that the sacrament effects what it signifies. Therefore, not only must the postures with which we approach the Eucharist as well as our mode of reception conform to the dignity of the Sacrament itself, but also that same posture and mode of reception will affect the attitudes we form in regards to the Eucharist. In other words, our actions are not only indicative of our person, but also our person is formed by our actions.
Regarding the first question, the most appropriate bodily response to the reality present in the Sacred Eucharist Species, Bishop Schneider takes the reader through a vast array of evidence from the testimony of the Fathers of the Church, the Early Church, the Magisterium, the Liturgical Rites themselves, Holy Scripture, and finally the Eastern Churches and even the Protestant Communities. The tradition of the Church is unanimous in the insistence that the only proper response to an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ is to fall down on one’s knees.
It is interesting to note that the liturgical norms of the Church require a separate act of reverence and adoration if one receives standing, typically a bow. However, if one receives kneeling, no such gesture is required since kneeling is already a gesture of reverence and adoration. It is true that in the United States, as elsewhere in the world, when a dignitary enters the room, the people give their sign of respect by standing up. However, Jesus Christ is no mere dignitary. The fact that we stand for important persons necessitates that we have a separate, even more dignifying response to the God of the universe.
Regarding reception on the tongue, we begin with the principle that “the attitude of a child is the truest and most profound attitude of a Christian before his Savior, who nourishes him with his Body and Blood” (Schneider, 29). We can then see that,
“The word of Christ, which invites us to receive the Kingdom of God like a child (see Luke 18:17), can find its illustration in that very beautiful and impressive manner of receiving the Eucharistic Bread directly into one’s mouth and on one’s knees. This ritual manifests in an opportune and felicitous way the interior attitude of a child who allows himself to be fed, united to the gesture of the centurion’s humility and to the gesture of ‘wonder and adoration’” (Schneider, 29).
While issues regarding the proper posture of the individual due to the sacredness of the Sacrament, the very practical implication should not go overlooked. That is, it is in receiving on the tongue that we can best minimize the risks of losing even the tiniest particle of the Sacred Host. Quoting St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Bishop Schneider exhorts us to “take care to lose no part of It [the Body of the Lord]. Such a loss would be the mutilation of your own body. Why, if you had been given gold-dust, would you not take the utmost care to hold it fast, not letting a grain slip through your fingers, lest you be so much the poorer? How much more carefully, then, will you guard against losing so much as a crumb of that which is more precious than gold or precious stones?” (34). (St. Cyril lived in the fourth century.)
Regarding the second question, the practical implications of the suggested postures in forming our attitudes towards the God of the Universe who is fully present in the Sacrament, it is time, roughly 30 or 40 years after the practice of communion standing and in-the-hand became widespread, to ask ourselves the inevitable question. Did the experiment work? Have we seen greater Eucharistic reverence, or have we seen an increase in lackadaisical attitudes? Has attendance at Mass gone up or down? Are people better able to explain and internalize the Real Presence in the Eucharist? An honest evaluation of the state of Eucharistic Piety in our time is bound to be dismal and disappointing.
What, then, are we to do? Must we have a long, drawn out process of educating the laity before we can return to the posture and mode of reception that has been far more prevalent in the history of our Church? Perhaps Romano Guardini was ahead of his time in 1965 when he prophetically wrote, “The man of today is not capable of a liturgical act. For this action, it is not enough to have instruction or education; no, initiation is needed, which at root is nothing but the performance of the act” (quoted in Schneider, 47). This is a much more eloquent way of saying that orthopraxy will bring about orthodoxy. Right actions will educate and enliven doctrine. It should be pointed out that the Holy Father, in his return to distributing communion on the tongue while kneeling, seems to have subscribe to the advice of Guardini. He simply made the return, and the people have responded.
While the mode of reception is at the center of Biship Schneider’s book Dominus Est, the book is an inspiring exposition of how to best reverence the miracle of the Eucharistic Lord.