The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

On receiving communion in the hand

[My diocese, like many, has instituted new guidelines for receiving Holy Communion, amid growing concerns about the H1N1 virus.  One of those is the suggestion that Catholics, at least until the spring, only receive in the hand, not on the tongue.  Some people in my parish are balking at that.  Others do it, but haphazardly.  So I decided to offer the reflection below, which was published this week in our parish bulletin.]

Once, there was no question, and no choice.

When I was first receiving communion in the mid-1960’s – and when a lot of Catholics of A Certain Age were starting to receive – you knelt and received the slender white wafer on your tongue. To touch The Body of Christ with your hands was unthinkable. Only the priest could do that. Right?


How times have changed.

20090705--112834-loc_02.jpgIn the wave of reforms instituted after Vatican II, one significant change involved receiving communion in the hand. In 1969, Pope Paul VI granted permission to receive the wafer in the hand, echoing the ancient instructions of St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who wrote around the year 350 A.D.: “When you approach Holy Communion, make the left hand into a throne for the right, which will receive the King. Then with your lower hand, take the consecrated Host and place it in your mouth.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?


Anyway: I think it’s worth revisiting all this now, as Bishop DiMarzio is asking the faithful to receive in the hand to avoid spreading the increasingly worrisome H1N1 virus (better known as swine flu).

I can’t disagree with his reasoning; the bishop is also asking us to refrain from shaking hands during the “sign of peace” and to not share the chalice containing the Precious Blood. If you look around the country, you’ll see that other dioceses, and other denominations, are taking the same precautions.

But I think this also presents a good opportunity for us to think more deeply and more prayerfully about why we receive communion this way – and how we can grow in our appreciation for this form of taking the eucharist.


I started receiving it in the hand decades ago because it seemed simpler and, frankly, a little more daring. (In the early ’70s, when this became popular, tambourines and drums at mass were daring, too. But I digress…) Over time, it just seemed more natural and more comfortable.

But we shouldn’t forget that this form of reception is an invitation, and a challenge. It requires a kind of consciousness and participation. When we take communion in the hand, we offer our hands outstretched, like the humble beggars that we are. We do not just receive; we extend ourselves to accept a graciously offered gift – in fact, the greatest gift of all, Christ himself. We then complete the action by bringing this gift into ourselves. What began at the altar of sacrifice, at the hands of the priest, becomes complete in our own hands, with our own “Amen,” and our own consuming of the Body of Christ. Something profound is offered – and, significantly, taken.


In the words of the popular Spanish hymn: “We become what we receive.” Speaking for myself, I think that receiving in the hand makes that sacramental truth even more powerful.

Of course, receiving communion in the hand also asks us to be more keenly aware of what we are doing, and why.

Pope Paul’s 1969 instruction on this, Memoriale Domini, sums it up beautifully:

“The option offered to the faithful of receiving the Eucharistic bread in their hand and putting it into their own mouth must not turn out to be the occasion for regarding it as ordinary bread or as just another religious article. Instead this option must increase in them a consciousness of the dignity of the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, into which they are incorporated by baptism and by the grace of the Eucharist. It must also increase their faith in the sublime reality of the Lord’s body and blood, which they touch with their hand.”

Forty years later, as more of us receive this sacrament this way, it’s still a message we need to hear.

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Deacon Kevin Murray

posted November 1, 2009 at 10:37 am

Distributing communion to the faithful has made me aware that placing it on the communicant’s outstretched tongue seems less respectful (and certainly less sanitary) than placing it into the hand. Trying to get the host onto the tongue of people can be tricky… My fingers often are very close to touching the lips of the person, and then I’m back to getting another host for the next person. Not a very sanitary act.
Jesus chose bread to be his body. He said, “eat this.” I’m pretty sure that at the last supper they used their hands, and so should we!s

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Your Name

posted November 1, 2009 at 10:38 am

In our diocese, this crisis is approached with a desire of not causing panic among the faithful. Hence, the approach is educational/catichetical in matters of proper liturgical manners and decorum in church bulletins, such as “If you are sick, stay home,” “Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap.” etc.
It is also noted that communion by cup is safer than dipping your finger in the baptismal cups of water at the entrance of the church. The alcohol content in the wine is sufficient to kill germs. Besides, it is required by the liturgical norms. Again, without causing undue panic!

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posted November 1, 2009 at 11:04 am

Thank you for printing this! I recently wrote an article in our parish bulletin to remind people HOW to receive the Eucharist, since we have had two times that the Eucharist has been desecrated recently. The Pastor and Parochial Vicar and I have had some long discussions on reception of the Eucharist- they are insistent that we teach children to receive First Communion on the tongue (because it’s the ‘norm’ in other countries) while I teach that children should receive in their hands since it is the ‘norm’ in the US for First and Second and Third…etc. Communion! Both of the priests are from Africa. They said that in the hand is not ‘valid’ even though I have shown them the historical references and Church documents.

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posted November 1, 2009 at 11:11 am

As always, we must pay attention to where our attention goes…

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Deacon Scott

posted November 1, 2009 at 11:26 am

Apart from Paul VI’s papal instructions, the bishops of the United States have norms for receiving communion and have had for quite a few years. The norm is communion in the hand and receiving under both species. It seems a good time to remind people about this.

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Your Name

posted November 1, 2009 at 2:36 pm

Regardless of how we receive, the issue should be one of reverence. My problem with reception on the hand is that, in my seven years as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, I have rarely seen the aforementioned “make the left hand into a throne for the right, which will receive the King. Then with your lower hand, take the consecrated Host and place it in your mouth.” More often than not, people will receive on the hand and then gulp the Host with a move that resembles a pancake flip, bring the mouth to the open hand as if feeding from a trough, or performing a single hand move that looks more like a coin trick as they single-handedly move the Host from the palm to the fingers and into the mouth. Also, on several ocassions I have had to follow someone to the pew to tell him or her about having to consume the Host.

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Ray Marshall

posted November 1, 2009 at 6:57 pm

I was taught that we were to “receive” Holy Communion.
It is a sacrilege for someone to “take” a consecrated host and intinct it in the chalice rather than taking a drink from the Chalice. Only a Priest or Deacon may intinct, I believe.
If someone places the Eucharist in one of my hands and I “take” it with the other and put it in my mouth, is that still “receiving?’
There is no doubt but that I am receiving when the Priest, Deacon or Extraordinary Minister puts it on my tongue.

I can’t figure out why either method might affect the transmission of disease unless someone licks another’s fingers.
I cannot figure why makes its codes so difficult to decipher. I rarely can make a comment without two or three tries and I have excellent eyesight.

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Fan of the Fathers

posted November 1, 2009 at 6:59 pm

“Become what you receive” is from St. Augustine…having twice lately seen someone denigrate hymns that include that line or something close to it as liberal nonsense, and since you are nicely reminding us of another wise father’s words in Cyril – I would love for the patron of my church get his due.

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Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

posted November 1, 2009 at 8:07 pm

We have not made any changes in our diocese yet.
There is some opportunity for catechesis here and your words are well meant for that effort. We need to be mindful of what is happening when we receive – and that may be far more pressing than how we receive.
When people come for communion and they open their mouth so slightly and barely extend their tongue, it is a challenge for me. I really pray for help at those times. My hand is often in contact with their lips or tongue, despite trying to avoid that.
Some people look so reverent whether it is their hands or their tongue. Some people just look so starved.
When I first came back to church in 1990 I had to deal with my feelings about receiving in the hand and the priest who was my spiritual director used those words from St. Cyril. I have never forgotten them and hopefully never forgotten the reverence due to God each time I receive communion.

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Gen X Revert

posted November 2, 2009 at 7:32 am

When communion in the hand was first approved in the US it was approved as an option? Now the deacon above is stating it is the “norm” and many seem to be forcing people to receive in the hand even when there was no flu epidemic. Michele – you are doing an injustice teaching first communicants to receive in the hand – there are two options and you should be teaching both. I will continue to receive on the tongue – it would not be so bad to give communion out this way if CHurches still used altar rails so we could kneel to receive.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 10:48 am

If someone places the Eucharist in one of my hands and I “take” it with the other and put it in my mouth, is that still “receiving?’

I’m not sure that I understand your distinction between “take” and “receive”. In common usage, “to receive” is a proper subset of “to take” — one “receives” what is freely offered, while one can take what is freely offered, or take by force, or take by fraud, or take by theft. So “receiving” is always “taking”, but “taking” can be “receiving” or not. I don’t think that there is any dispute that the Church offers Communion freely to all of those who are properly disposed, so all of our “takings”, whether on the tongue or in the hand, are also “receivings.”
Part of the reason why we, in the western church, reserve Communion for those who have reached the age of reason is that the act of taking Communion is the act of giving assent to the Church’s teachings. Becoming, and remaining, in Communion with the Church is a grave and solemn act of free will.
If, Ray, you are trying to make some other distinction, that somehow “receiving” is passive while “taking” is active, then I think that you are completely wrong. When you receive Communion on the tongue you are “taking” just as surely and as actively as when you receive in the hand — you assent to the state of being in Communion when you approach the altar of your own free will, and by the act of swallowing. Sure, receiving in the hand has a few more actions, but receiving on the tongue is plenty active enough.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I sorry your premise and idea that recieving communion by the hand will stem a spread of the swine HiNi virus. I asked two DRS. well known in spread of diseases will do little or nothing. They furthercommented that placing it directly on the tongue stands less change of spreading anything. Also, the spread is more apt to take place in the food they eat. Yes, it is good to teach people to be more reverent in recieving the “HOST OF CHRIST” than they do now.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

It didn’t take much research to find what St. Cyril really thought about receiving our Lord in the Hand:
…”In fact, in the first centuries, Communion in the hand was permitted only by exception, when because of a grave reason the faithful faced the alternative of not receiving Communion or receiving by themselves. St. Basil (330-379) says clearly that communicating with one’s own hand is permitted ONLY in times of persecution, or–as happened with the monks in the desert–when no priest or deacon was there to administer it. “It is not necessary to show that it does not constitute a grave fault or a person to communicate with his own hand in a time of persecution when there is no priest or deacon” (Letter 93). And the Saint based his opinion on the custom which the monks who lived in solitude, where there is no priest, had of keeping Communion in their house, which they would take with their own hands. In this passage, St. Basil considered Communion in the hand to be so irregular that he did not hesitate to consider it a “grave fault”, when ther were no exceptional circumstances to justify it. Leclerq (Dictionnaire d’Archelogie Chretienne, verb “Communion”) declares that the peace conceded to the Church by Constantine was bringing the use of Communion in the hand to an end, thus confirming the affirmation of St. Basil that the persecutions created the alternative of either not communicating of communicating with one’s own hand.”

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted November 2, 2009 at 1:38 pm

What about when the priest or deacon places it on the tongue, and his fingers touch the tongue, and then touch a host, and then touch another tongue or hand or host?
Dcn. G.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 1:43 pm

FYI, Pope Bebedict ONLY gives communion on the tongue. I honestly think much of the loss of the “Real Presence” is because “hand communion” has become so casual. Also, I have personally witnessed much abuse and more than once have found “Jesus in the pews.”
For folks like you Dcn. Greg, no problem, but for the poorly catechized, I think hand communion is a very bad idea, and certainly NOT the norm in the US. The “ordinary” form is still by mouth. I think even St. Cyril would agree in these times.
On the up side, it’s great not to have to shake hands, especially right before the main part of the mass; unnecessary distraction.

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C.Sun-ne-Boy Gy

posted November 2, 2009 at 2:00 pm

In regards to the H1N1 possibilities in physically shaking hands during the sign of peace, my parish and so many others have not address the same precautions when the faithful parishioners provide and perform a venue or conceivably an equal opportunity for cross contamination when the fingers are dipped, touched ,or tipped into the Holy Water,upon entering and exiting their parish. I believe in having the faith and pray to our all mighty savior for protection and safety, but I do believe this is a concern also,as is in the shaking of the hands.

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Your Name

posted November 2, 2009 at 2:19 pm

This is all so very sad to me. I am a convert and have been stunned at so many changes and “watering downs” of Catholic practices and traditions that I have born witness to since my confirmation. The very act of receiving the BODY of our LORD JESUS IN the HOLY EUCHARIST is our statement that We Believe: HE Is There – just as HE said – and that we DO TRUST in HIM and we do want HIM to be a part of our being, thus we receive HIM. I want and expect to receive HIM by the hand of the very Priest HE appointed and chose to give HIS EUCHARIST to me. The priest’s hand is GOD’s instrument. The Priest alone is who I want to handle the HOLY EUCHARIST and I will continue to receive on my tongue and I will continue to present myself to my priest as I should: having gone to confession and bowing in reverence and extending my tongue out properly to have My Lord’s Chosen Priest administer this Most Sacred Gift to me. I will always declare “Amen! (I do believe that HE is present in this: HIS EUCHARISTIC GIFT)”. The church has been weakened by so many outside intrusions, I see this as yet one more: an inFLUence for the negative. Far too many people already demonstrate a lack of reverence that this seems to only feed into a very sad problem currently in existance. It would be most appropriate for our priests to reiterate the proper guidelines for parishners to be mindful of as they receive but not to shirk their responsibility out of fear of getting H1N1 nor any other disease. It truely is about TRUST. We all need to show our trust in GOD more by following through as we committed to do when we first said “I DO”. I am a nurse and I believe that more than ever the priest alone should be administering The HOLY EUCHARIST and controlling any spread of infection by placing it directly on the tongues of his parishners. Poor hand washing techniques alone provide reason enough for me to refuse to receive from any one else. God bless you all, each and every one.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 5:33 pm

(Your name) I just wanted to share with you that when I first went back to the CC, I too held the belief that “I must receive from a priest only.” It became so obsessive I would find myself switching lines, trying to outguess which “side” to sit on (priest or EM), etc. I became so obsessive about it I began to pray about it, and sure enough, one day I was vacationing in Vancouver BC, thought I would stop in church for a quick visit, only to discover I had walked in on the start of the Eucharistic Congress. Sure enough, the Bishop was giving a catechesis on the Eucharist. He said one of the saddest things is when he sees people jumping hoops to “receive from a priest”, thinking the “Jesus from the hands of a priest is better.” He made it clear that if we get that obsessed with whom we receive FROM, we can’t have much thought on WHO it is we are receiving. He also told the story of the little boy saint who carried the Eucharist in some heroic way. I can’t remember the story, or even the name of the saint, but do remember that if this kid became a saint and “hand carried the Eucharist”, there must be a message in there for me (in addition of “being careful what you pray for).
From that day on I stopped being concerned from whom I would receive. I also had this thought that I try to apply to everything about the church “I” prefer would be more suited to my liking. I now try and always ask this question: What if EVERYONE did that? The bottom line is the Church not only has the authority but ALLOWS us to receive from EU’s. Yes, they are often abused and used more often than necessary for the sake of “inclusiveness”, but at a Sunday mass with a packed parish, at least a few are usually necessary, which is a good time to ask, “What if everyone only went to the line of the priest”?
That said, you reverence and belief in the Real Presence is admirable. I’m just suggesting that perhaps at least at certain times, there might be more merit and charity in being “OK with what the Church allows.” Besides, the way this world is going, we may well live in a time when we can only receive “underground”, or even worse, like the saint whose name I can’t remember, be EU’s to others as the only source of the Eucharist.

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posted November 2, 2009 at 10:51 pm

As one who regularly ministers Communion, I experience people receiving the host in their hands or on their tongues. There is nothing particularly reverent about extending one’s tongue. There is nothing inherently respectful about sticking out hands in a hurried, grabbing manner. My point is that reverence or respect comes from within the individual who recognizes that Jesus is present to us in a simple way, yet in the most profound gift we can accept. Take to heart the words of St. Cyril of Jerusalem and you will give reverent witness to the Body of Christ.

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posted November 3, 2009 at 4:48 am

I firmly believe and accept the suggestion to receive the Holy Communion by hand – this is done in most parishes my home country. But if there could so many changes over years, then, allow those of us who are married but not had the sacrament of Holy Matrimony (wedding) to go for the Sacrament of the holy Communion. We are being starved!

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Franklin Jennings

posted November 3, 2009 at 8:50 am

Nothing beats using a respiratory-borne virus (therefore exceedingly difficult to transmit via reception on the tongue) as a chance to beat the drum for the superiority of reception in the hand.
PS: While I receive on the tongue, I really could care less how any receives as long as they do so licitly and reverently. Which is why you’ll never see me using a scabies pandemic to promote my own preference.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted November 3, 2009 at 9:13 am

These tips on avoiding the flu — any type of flu — from the CDC might be useful.
In sum:
Avoid close contact.
Avoid close contact with people who are sick. When you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
Stay home when you are sick.
If possible, stay home from work, school, and errands when you are sick. You will help prevent others from catching your illness.
Cover your mouth and nose.
Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
Clean your hands.
Washing your hands often will help protect you from germs.
Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.
Germs are often spread when a person touches something that is contaminated with germs and then touches his or her eyes, nose, or mouth.
Practice other good health habits.
Get plenty of sleep, be physically active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids, and eat nutritious food.
Dcn. G.

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Your Name

posted November 3, 2009 at 3:35 pm

Oh, how wonderful, Deacon. I’ll send you some links to the CCC. It isn’t as though I haven’t learned basic flu prevention in my nursing education.
Your cut-n-paste job does nothing to justify moving the point of contact from tongue to hands. In fact, the hands are a more common reservior for influenza virii, per most studies.
So you’re still using scare tactics to justify your preferences.

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posted November 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm

When the option for receiving the Eucharist in the hand was initially allowed in the US our pastor in MD was asked his opinion. He said that from a practical point it was easier than trying to place it on the tongue.
As to the argument that it was less reverent and our hands were ‘not clean’ he offered the following: “I only wish that I had done as little damage with my tongue as I have with my hands. I have sinned more often by what comes out of my mouth than what I have done with my hands.”
That thought has stayed with me for over 32 years.

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Your Name

posted November 13, 2009 at 6:39 am

Here is a link to Memoriale Domini [which is not from Paul VI, but from the Congregation for Divine Worship].

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posted January 21, 2010 at 4:01 pm

As a 51 yr old re-vert to the faith I’ve been shocked to find how liberal reletivistic attitudes have destroyed almost all that is sacred within the Church. I cannot wait for experiments like “communion-in-the- hand” to ended. Enough already with the rationalization to excuse our irreverance. This protestance based practice has already destroyed the faith of millions.

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posted February 1, 2010 at 6:43 pm

I agree Kevin! I’m 18 and I’m struggling right now to learn more about the traditions that we have abandoned, and so God has led me to the internet because certainly none of the Catholics I know could explain these things to me. Things such as indulgences, the chapel veil, even communion on the tongue, I did not understand until God compelled me to try them. Check out the video I linked. Really watch it, and take to heart that this happens every time we receive in the hand. That’s the real thing at stake, the deplorable FACT that pieces of Our Lord Jesus Christ fall to the ground and are trampled when we feel the need to have control and take Our Lord unworthily into our own hands. It’s sickening.
Watch the video and contemplate how many times you yourself have unknowingly added to the suffering of Our Lord.

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posted August 21, 2011 at 8:14 pm

So this escapee from the 70’s, who thinks it’s oh-so wonderful to be “daring”, fondly remembers drums, tambourines and communion-in-the-hand, but conveniently forgets that our churches are half empty, the children of most of his generation have deserted, and a significant percentage of “catholics” no longer believe in the real presence. Is it really oh-so difficult to connect the dots?

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clare tamura

posted September 2, 2012 at 2:13 am


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