Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Communion in the hand?

Steve Skojec has been posting (here, here, and here) on receiving Communion in the hand.

As I noted in my comment to his first post, I personally receive on the tongue. However, I disagree with Steve's apparent assertion that there is an atemporal, absolute causal relationship between reception of the Eucharist in the hand and a decline in belief in the Real Presence. After all, reception in the hand was common in the first millenium. While in our times today there may be some relationship between the two, I disagree that such a relationship is absolute or firm. I know plenty of people who receive on the tongue and believe 100% in the Real Presence.

In his reply (the second of the posts), Steve offers a number of quotes. However, at least some of them do not say what it seems Steve thinks they say. For instance, his citation of Pope St. Sixtus I refers to the sacred vessels, not to the reception of Communion, and I think that they are two different things; the quote from St. Basil doesn't seem to prohibit Communion in the hand per se (he's talking about receiving in the presence of a cleric); the canons of Saragossa and Toledo condemns not consuming in the Church, not reception in the hand; Pope St. Leo speaks about receiving in the mouth, but those who receive in the hand do receive in the mouth (the context of the quote might resolve the ambiguity, in Steve's favor or mine); the synod of Rouen refers to the laity who cannot discern the Body of the Lord, not the laity per se; etc. So it seems to me that Steve's contention that reception in the hand was uncommon and unacceptable remains unproven. And I will argue below that the opposite is actually the case.

Steve also makes an assertion that I'm not sure he means, or perhaps I misunderstand him; in the same post, he states: "The body of doctrine and law we have today is, at least in sizeable part, the fruit of the error of earlier centuries." I'm fairly certain that Steve knows of the Church's infallibility and indefectability, and hence that there can be no error in the body of doctrine, yesterday, today, or tomorrow. He also states, "I believe that if the early practice were not problematic - if it ever was truly normative at all - it would not have been changed." I disagree -- the Church sees fit to adapt herself to the times for various reasons, and has done so throughout history. In many cases it's a matter of "meeting the people where they are," i.e. adapting her customs to be more intelligible to a particular era. That doesn't necessarily mean that the prior practice is less acceptable -- although that can be the case, it isn't always the case.

Generally, Steve believes that the reception of the Eucharist in the hand is less sacred. I disagree. I'd like to allow others to speak on my behalf, however, so without futher ado...

In his book A Short Primer for Unsettled Laymen the great twentieth century theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote about the ancient origin of many of the elements of the Missal of 1969. With regard to the reception of Communion, he wrote, "the reception of the Host standing and in the hand was customary until the ninth century and that the Fathers of the Church attest that the faithful touched their yes and ears with the Host in blessing before they consumed" (p. 117). He proceeds to quote from a 1978 sermon of a well-known German theologian, who said:
    the second objection we wanted to consider was directed against the act of receiving Communion: kneeling--standing, hand--mouth. Well, first of all, I would like to say that both attitudes are possible, and I would like therefore to ask all priests to exercise tolerance and to recognize the decision of each person; and I would further like to ask you all to exercise the same tolerance and not cast aspersions on anyone who may have opted for this or that way of doing it. But you will ask: Is tolerance the proper answer here? Or is it not misplaced with respect to this most holy thing? Well, here again we know that until the ninth century Communion was received in the hand, standing. That does not of course mean that it should always be so. For what is fine, sublime, about the Church is that she is growing, maturing, understanding the mystery more profoundly. In that sense the new development that began after the ninth century is quite justified, as an expression of reverence, and is well-founded. But, on the other hand, we have to say that the Church could not possibly have been celebrating the Eucharist unworthily for nine hundred years. [Emphasis added.]

    If we read what the Fathers say, we can see in what a spirit of reverence they received Communion. We find a particularly fine passage in the writings of Cyril of Jerusalem, from the fourth century. In his catechetical homilies he tells the candidates for baptism what they should do at Communion. They should make a throne of their hands, laying the right upon the let to forma throne for the King, forming at the same time a cross. This symbolic gesture, so fine and so profound, is what concerns him: the hands of man form a cross, which becomes a throne, down into which the King inclines himself. The open, outstretched hand can thus become a sign of the way that a man offers himself to the Lord, opens hands for him, that they may become an instrument of his presence and a throne of his mercies in this world. Anyone who reflects on this will recognize that on this point it is quite wrong to argue about this or that form of behavior. We should be concerned only to argue in favor of what the Church's efforts were directed toward, both before and after the ninth century, that is a reverence in the heart, an inner submission before the mystery of God that puts himself into our hands. Thus we should not forget that not only our hands are impure but also our tongue and also our heart and that we often sin more with the tongue than with the hands. God takes an enormous risk--and at the same time this is an expression of his merciful goodness--in allowing not only our hand and our tongue but even our heart to come into contact with him. [Emphasis added.]
Who is this theologian? Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then-Archbishop of Munich (the sermon from which this citation was taken was just recently published in a compilation of various essays by Ratzinger on the Eucharist in the text God Is Near Us at pp. 69-71).

Now, it seems likely to me that Balthasar and Ratzinger have accurately represented the history of the matter. (Steve quotes an article which in turn quotes a Dr. Henri LeClerq who claims that the text from Cyril alluded to by Balthasar and spelled out in more detail by Ratzinger is of dubious origin and questionable content; however, he offers no proof of this assertion, and personally doubt that both of the theologians I quoted would refer to the text were it not actually from Cyril.)

More importantly, I think that the second passage which I italicized from Ratzinger makes a profound point: the most important thing is the disposition of the communicant's heart; with these two eminent theologians, I believe that it is completely possible to receive the Eucharist in the hand with the proper faith and disposition. After all, as Ratzinger states so well, the tongue is no more pure than the hands, and ultimately it's the heart that matters. To assert that receiving on the tongue is intrinsically more reverent seems to me to be begging the question, in that that is precisely the point in dispute. Again, I personally receive on the tongue, but I believe that someone can believe just as strongly as I do in the Real Presence (or of course, even more strongly than me) and receive in the hand.

With that, I close these remarks, reserving the right to revise and extend, Mr. Speaker.

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