When the Faithful Take the Host Directly

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When the Faithful Take the Host Directly

ROME, 12 JAN. 2010 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Recently I asked one of my priests to prepare the faithful to discontinue the practice in their parish whereby the people dip the sacred host into the chalice. This has been a long-standing practice in the parish, and it was started by a certain missionary from India who said to me that this was a custom in wide usage in that country. In response to my didactic approach emphasizing the role of the minister in giving Communion, and the recipient receiving the gift, the parish priest quoted "Memoriale Domini" of 1969, which, in Paragraph 4 states as follows: "With regard to the manner of administering the sacrament, one may follow the traditional method, which emphasized the ministerial function of the priest or deacon, in having them place the host in the hand of the communicant. One may also adopt a simpler method, allowing the communicant himself to take the host from the ciborium. In either case, the communicant ought to consume the host before returning to his place [...]." I cannot for the life of me trace the progression from "Memoriale Domini" to Paragraph 92 of "Redemptionis Sacramentum," which states: "'Although each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice, if any communicant should wish to receive the Sacrament in the hand, in areas where the Bishops’ Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission, the sacred host is to be administered to him or her. However, special care should be taken to ensure that the host is consumed by the communicant in the presence of the minister, so that no one goes away carrying the Eucharistic species in his hand. If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful.'" I have indicated the key issues by italics. I am sure you will be able to throw more light on this issue. — A bishop in South Africa

A: First of all, it is necessary to point out that, strictly speaking, the parish priest was not quoting from the instruction "Memoriale Domini" but from a letter, published in French, which was annexed to the original instruction. It was a sample of the letter on practical applications sent to bishops' conferences that had received permission to allow Communion in the hand.

Therefore, the suggestion regarding the people's taking hosts directly from the ciborium has almost no value as a legal norm. Likewise, since it is intimately united to the question of Communion in the hand, it falls under the aegis of the bishop as the authority permitting this practice.

I would also mention that this question would not justify the practice in this parish since the very same letter quoted by the priest says two paragraphs later: "When the communion is distributed under both kinds, it is never permitted to place in the hands of the communicants hosts which have first been placed in the Blood of the Lord." This at least implies that the option of the faithful dipping a host into the chalice was not contemplated.

Thus, rather than a magisterial document we are before an initial attempt to regulate a nascent practice. The suggestion that the faithful take the hosts themselves never made the cut and was not incorporated into any formal documents. Indeed, very soon the opposite practice became normative.

In January 1973 the Congregation for the Sacraments published the instruction "Immensae Caritatis." When dealing with Communion in the hand this document makes no mention of the option of the faithful taking the host from the ciborium but simply says:

"Ever since the Instruction Memoriale Domini three years ago, some of the conferences of bishops have been requesting the Apostolic See for the faculty to allow ministers distributing communion to place the eucharistic bread in the hand of the faithful. The same Instruction contained a reminder that 'the laws of the Church and the writings of the Fathers give ample witness of a supreme reverence and utmost caution toward the eucharist' and that this must continue. Particularly in regard to this way of receiving communion, experience suggests certain matters requiring careful attention.

"On the part of both the minister and the recipient, whenever the host is placed in the hand of a communicant there must be careful concern and caution, especially about particles that might fall from the hosts."

Later in 1973 "Eucharistiae Sacramentum" published the new Rite for Eucharistic Worship and Communion Outside of Mass. The introductory norms (No. 21) quote the "Memoriale Domini" letter almost literally but excise the clause regarding the faithful's taking the host from the ciborium.

Indeed, the document insists very clearly that whether the Eucharist is received on the tongue or in the hand, "Holy Communion must be distributed by the proper competent minister, who presents and gives the consecrated host to the communicant saying the formula 'The Body of Christ …'" [my translation].

Finally, in 1985 the Congregation for Divine Worship sent a letter to the president of the U.S. bishops' conference. This letter approved the practice and offered an example of the present letter that replaced the one annexed to "Memoriale Domini":

"The Holy See, since 1969, while maintaining the traditional manner of distributing communion, has granted to those Episcopal Conferences that have requested it, the faculty of distributing communion by placing the host in the hands of the faithful .... It would seem opportune to draw attention to the following points:

"1. Communion in the hand should show, as much as communion on the tongue, due respect towards the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For this reason emphasis should be laid, as was done by the Fathers of the Church, upon the dignity of the gesture of the communicant. Thus, the newly baptized at the end of the fourth century were directed to stretch out both hands making 'the left hand a throne for the right hand, which receives the King' (Fifth mystagogical catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, n. 21: PG 33. col 1125, or Sources chretiennes, 126, p 171; Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 47: PG 63, col. 898. etc.).*

"* In practice the opposite direction has to be given to the faithful: the left hand is to be placed upon the right hand, so that the sacred host can be conveyed to the mouth with the right hand.

"2. Again following the teaching of the Fathers, insistence is to be laid upon the importance of the Amen said in response to the formula of the minister, 'the Body of Christ'; this Amen is an affirmation of faith: "Cum ergo petieris, dicit tibi sacerdos 'Corpus Christi' et tu dicis 'Amen', hoc est 'verum'; quod confitetur lingua, teneat afectus"(Saint Ambrose, De Sacramentis 4, 25: SC 25 bis, p 116).

"3. The communicant who has received the Eucharist in the hand is to consume it before returning to his place, moving aside yet remaining facing the altar in order to allow the person following to approach the minister.

"4. It is from the Church that the faithful receive the Holy Eucharist, which is communion in the Body of the Lord and in the Church; for this reason the communicant should not take from the paten or container, as would be done for ordinary bread, but the hands must be stretched out to receive from the minister of communion.

"5. Out of respect for the Eucharist, cleanliness of hands is expected. Children need to be reminded of this.

"6. It is necessary that the faithful receive sound catechesis in this matter, and that insistence be laid upon the sentiments of adoration and respect that are required towards this most holy sacrament. (cf. Dominicae cenae, n. 11). Care must be taken that fragments of the consecrated host are not lost (cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 2, 1972: Prot: no. 89/71, in Notitiae 1972, p. 227).

"7. The faithful are not to be obliged to adopt the practice of communion in the hand. Each one is free to communicate in one way or the other.

"These norms and those indicated in the documents cited above are designed to recall the duty of respect for the Eucharist and apply independently of the way in which communion is received.

"Those who have the care of souls should insist not only upon the necessary dispositions for the fruitful reception of communion, which in certain instances demands recourse to the sacrament of Reconciliation, but also upon an external attitude which conveys a sense of respect in general and expresses in particular the belief of the faithful in the Eucharist.

"From the Congregation for Divine Worship, April 3, 1985.

+ Augustin Mayer, OSB — Prefect"

While this is not an exhaustive study of the theme, I believe I have provided His Excellency with enough material to demonstrate to his hesitant parish priest that "Redemptionis Sacramentum" is in continuity with the most relevant teachings and practice of the Church and so discontinue this erroneous practice in the parish.

* * *

Follow-up: When the Faithful Take the Host Directly [1-26-2010]

Related to our comments on the laity taking the host directly (Jan. 12), a lay extraordinary minister of Holy Communion from Manila, Philippines, presented a particular case: "Each weekend I distribute Communion among the sick in our parish. Occasionally, because of the absence of some of the sick, I end my rounds with an unconsumed, consecrated host or two. I am told that it is all right to consume the hosts myself. However, I want to know if self-communion is really allowed as a practice. At the moment, the only option is to make the long way back to return the hosts to the church."

The rite for distributing the Eucharist to the sick in this kind of case does not foresee the extraordinary minister receiving Communion; nor does it foresee that hosts might be left over. An exception occurs when Communion to the sick is made under the species of wine; in that case, the minister always consumes the extra species after administering the sacrament.

The rite for Communion outside of Mass by an extraordinary minister, however, does make allowances for the minister to take Communion and for reservation in the tabernacle.

The reason for this difference is that the rite supposes that in the first case the minister to the sick has had ample opportunity to receive Communion from a sacred minister, whereas the second circumstance normally presupposes the absence of an ordained minister. It would be paradoxical in the latter situation that the only person inhibited from receiving the host would be the minister who is giving out Communion.

The fact that the second rite permits the "self-communion" of the extraordinary minister proves that its absence in the rite for the sick is based on practical and not theological grounds. There are probably some circumstances in which the extraordinary minister to the sick could receive Communion if it were the only opportunity to do so on a given weekday.

It must also be remembered, however, that one may receive Communion twice in a day only if the second time is at Mass. Viaticum is an exception to this rule (see canons 917 and 921.2 of the Code of Canon Law).

Therefore, I do not think that the minister consuming the extra hosts is the most apt solution.

I would suggest that the easiest and most practical solution to having one or two extra hosts is to administer two hosts to the last communicants. This may be done to the sick if they are able, or to one of those attending the sick. Receiving more than one host at the same time, or receiving half a host, in no way increases or diminishes the grace received and constitutes a single act of communion.

A reader from Ireland asked: "In our parish it is the practice that the ministers of Communion self-administer the chalice from the altar and the last minister brings the chalice to a side table for the members of the public who are celiac to self-administer the blood of Christ. Can you advise if this practice is acceptable?"

The short answer is no. Everybody except the priest should receive the Eucharist from a minister. Even the deacon should receive the host and the chalice from the priest, after the priest has made his communion.

In the case of those who are celiac, the minister should go to a suitable place and present the chalice to them one by one, saying, "The blood of Christ." They may then take the chalice and reverently consume the species as this is not a case of self-communion but the most practical means of avoiding any loss of the Precious Blood. An acolyte with a Communion plate should be present, and the minister should have a purificator available in order to wipe the chalice rim.  

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