Receiving Holy Communion

Author: Fr William Saunders


Father William Saunders

We have always been taught that when you receive holy Communion, we are to consume it all and not to break it. A few weeks ago at Mass, I saw a lady receive Communion, then turn her back from the priest and break it and give part of it to her young child. I didn't know what to do. What should I have done? Can you help?—An eighth-grader at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington

Before addressing what you should have done, I think it is best to preface my response by reviewing the importance of the holy Eucharist and the regulations for receiving holy Communion. As Catholics, we firmly believe that the holy Eucharist truly is the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ and that Christ Himself is present in a real and substantial manner (Catechism, No. 1373-1381). The Church, therefore, must always cherish and guard this great gift of our Lord.

Priests in particular must be guardians of the holy Eucharist. At their ordination to the sacrificial priesthood, the bishop hands to the newly ordained priest the paten and chalice with the prepared bread and wine to be offered, and says, "Accept from the Holy people of God the gifts to be offered to Him. Know what you are doing, and imitate the mystery you celebrate: Model your life on the mystery of the Lord's cross."

Inspired by this text, our Holy Father in <On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist> ("Dominicae Cenae," 1980) wrote, "Thus it is necessary for all of us who are ministers of the Eucharist to examine carefully our actions at the altar, in particular the way in which we handle that Food and Drink which are the Body and Blood of the Lord our God in our hands: the way in which we distribute holy Communion; the way in which we perform the purification."

Likewise, the laity must also guard the Eucharist in their souls and actions. For this reason, our Church has always had certain regulations concerning the reception of holy Communion, binding for all of the faithful. For example, pastors and parents, in accord with norms established by the bishop, must insure that children who have reached the age of reason are properly prepared for first penance and holy Eucharist (Code of Canon Law, No. 777 and 914). Afterwards, proper catechesis must be given to enable and to encourage the faithful to examine their consciences and periodically to receive absolution so as to have a soul properly prepared and in a state of grace to receive our Lord.

We must also guard our Eucharistic Lord in our actions. While we have the option of receiving holy Communion either on the tongue or on the hand, we must always be mindful of receiving our Lord respectfully. Interestingly, during the Middle Ages, the reception of Holy Communion was restricted to "on the tongue" because of abuses. However, since 1969, the Holy See has granted permission to bishops' conferences who have requested it for holy Communion to be received on the hand. Repeating instructions given by St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) to newly baptized catechumens, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship stated that the faithful should extend both hands making with "the left hand a throne for the right hand, which receives the King." The person then steps to the side, faces the altar, and consumes the sacred Host. The recipient must be mindful of any particles, consuming those also. Sadly, our Holy Father lamented, "Cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the Church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist" (Dominicae Cenae, No. 11).

Given this perhaps lengthy foundation, we see what happens when we drop our guard and become lax. The lady in question suffers from ignorance in several possible areas. First, this lady truly may not believe in what she is receiving or know how to receive it. I remember once I was distributing holy Communion and a person approached. I said, "The Body of Christ," and this person clearly did not know what to do. I asked, "Are you a Catholic?" She said, "No, but I always take one of those when I come here" --well, not that time. I gave her a blessing and said, "Please see me after Mass." Perhaps some Catholic in ignorance told her she could receive holy Communion when she really could not. In either case, we see the lack of proper catechesis.

Second, the lady in question may think it "nice" or "meaningful" for her child to receive the Host. Or maybe seeing Mommy get "something to eat," the child said, as I sometimes hear from little ones, "I want some too." Mommy has no right to usurp the authority of the Church in deciding who receives and who does not, no matter how nice or sensitive we may want to be. Moreover, the child without instruction cannot begin to appreciate this great gift.

Given the ignorance these days because of little or poor catechesis, all of us have to be on guard. The priest or Eucharistic minister must be mindful that the person receiving holy Communion does so properly and consumes the sacred Host. In every parish assignment I have had, the sacred Host at some time has been found in a hymnal. Once I stopped a woman after Mass whom I was not sure had consumed the Host. When I approached her after Mass, she took the Host from her pocket. Taking it, I said, "This is very sacred to us," and gave have her a short catechesis on the Eucharist.

More frightening, however, is the fact that devil worshippers try to steal the Host to desecrate it in their "Black Mass."

When we see these abuses, we should first ask the Holy Spirit for prudence and fortitude. Then, approach the person and politely yet firmly instruct him about what is the proper way for receiving holy Communion. If a person has not consumed the Host, remind him either to do so or return it. Or, find a priest right away, so he can deal with the matter. Moreover, we must all take responsibility for properly teaching others about the sacredness of the holy Eucharist through our words and actions. In so doing, we will be the faithful guardians of this precious gift.

Fr. Saunders is president of the Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor at Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the November 11, 1994 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.