The Reception of Holy Communion in the United States


May 20, 2015

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis has decided to mark the occasion with the “Year of Mercy.” Despite much happy-talk and positive papal press, it is a time of foreboding in the Church. The anxiety over the coming Synod on the Family is substantial and growing, with the German bishops’ recent moves to formally ignore the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and the family. Their corruption, and the decayed state of the Church in Europe, is a source of much distress.

The social and political situation in the United States is also of concern. Soon, the Supreme Court may declare homosexual “marriage” a constitutional right. The Obama era has been marked by a series of assaults on religious liberty and the Church’s future ability to freely exercise its prerogatives is uncertain.

It seems an apt time, therefore, for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to take stock of the state of affairs ad intra Eccelsiam. By clearly examining the health of the inner life of the American Church, the bishops can lay a better foundation for dealing with the challenges from the outside.

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Of particular concern these fifty years after the Council ought to be the changes made to the liturgy in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, implemented by, and under the authority of, the bishops’ conference. And the most fundamental of these changes relates to the manner of reception of Holy Communion at Mass, whereby the vast majority of today’s communicants receive Communion in the hand while standing.

In reviewing the challenges both inside and outside the Church, based upon several decades of experience, the bishops must ask themselves a simple, profound and concrete question: Have the changes to the manner in which the Faithful receive the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament assisted the Faithful in their understanding of, and active participation in, the mystery, beauty and essential purposes of the Holy Mass?

Reception of Holy Communion in the Hand
Today, the practice of receipt of Holy Communion at Mass in the hand is extremely widespread. Like other changes that followed the Council, many Catholics incorrectly associate this manner of reception with the “reforms” of Vatican II. In truth, the Council gave no permission to allow the Faithful to receive the Blessed Sacrament by hand, nor was it made part of the rubrics for the Novus Ordo missal of 1969.

The movement to permit this manner of reception grew in force after the close of the Council. The idea, it seems, was based on a kind of antiquarianism that associated reception in the hand with the practice of the early Church. It was also part of the effort to promote the understanding of the Mass as a community meal over the conception of the Mass as primarily a Holy Sacrifice.

It seems apparent, however, that these lofty concepts were hardly embraced or understood by the vast majority of the laity. For his part, Pope Paul VI perceived significant dangers in allowing for the practice. Responding to the pleas of a minority of progressive European bishops (sound familiar?) to permit in-hand reception, in May 1969, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship declared that “the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way [via the tongue] of administering holy communion to the faithful.” (See Memoriale Domini at para. 11.)

The Holy See apprehended the gravity of permitting a change in the solemn manner of the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. It recognized that the proposed change “carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering holy communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.” (See Id. para. 10.) By a two-to-one margin, the bishops worldwide voted in support of the position of the Holy Father.

Nonetheless, in the typical fashion of the times, the pope undercut his own declaration by allowing the various bishops’ conferences the right to permit Communion in the hand in their respective territories via a secret, two-thirds majority vote of the bodies. (See Id. at para. 11-12.)

In the United States, the bishops’ conference voted in favor of reception in the hand in 1977. The conference had rejected the practice in votes held in each of the preceding two years. Cardinal Bernadin, the outgoing president of the conference in 1977, apparently by means of parliamentary tricks, secured the two-thirds majority as one of his final “achievements” as conference leader.

The practice grew widely and quickly thereafter, and the American episcopacy seems committed to its maintenance. Discussing the implementation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal, the January 2012 Newsletter of the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship proclaims as follows:
With regard to receiving Communion in the hand, there is a significant development from the 1985 GIRM to the 2003/2011 edition. Whereas in 1985, Communion in the hand was granted by virtue of an indult received in 1977, in the Roman Missal, Third Edition, Communion in the hand is now ordinary liturgical law for the United States, though every communicant retains the equal right of receiving on the tongue. (See January 2012 Newsletter of the Committee on Divine Worship at p. 3; emphasis added.)
The support for this claim—that “Communion in the hand is now the ordinary liturgical law for the United States,” supplanting the need for the indult—is rather dubious, as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (“GIRM”) does not seem to support the notion. While the GIRM notes that a communicant may receive either by tongue or in the hand, it places a caveat on in-hand reception. “The communicant replies, Amen, and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant.” (See GIRM at ¶161; emphasis added). Thus, the description of the legal status on reception in the hand offered by the Newsletter seems inaccurate. 

Reception of Holy Communion While Standing
The practice of receiving the Blessed Sacrament while standing preceded the limited permission for in-hand reception.

In 1967, the Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated Eucharisticum Mysterium, wherein the Holy See declared that the Faithful may receive the Blessed Sacrament either standing or kneeling. Again, the bishops’ conferences were empowered to set the proper posture for their respective territories. (See Eucharisticum Mysterium at para. 32.) (This document also reminds us of the incredible speed at which the age-old liturgy was transformed, as it allowed the priest to sing aloud the Canon, an instruction that would become moot within two years.)

The American bishops, however, did not formally adopt a norm on the proper posture for the reception of Holy Communion until 2002. Such lack of formal direction, of course, did nothing to impede the removal of altar rails in countless parishes across the country, as the practice of taking Communion on one’s knees was nearly entirely abandoned.

In 2002, the USCCB formally named reception while standing as the proper posture for American Catholics. At that time, the bishops inserted language into the GIRM that, while not prohibiting a communicant to kneel, marked anyone who did so for “catechesis” so that he might come to learn the “reasons for” standing. (See GIRM 2002 at para. 160.) At the behest of the Holy See, the language on “catechesis” for those who wish to kneel was removed from the GIRM in 2010.

The Current State of Affairs
According to a 2013 study performed for Georgetown’s Center for Applied Research on the Apostolate, only 63 percent of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Nearly 1 in 5 believers in the Real Presence apparently hold to the belief without an awareness that it is taught by the Church. And of course well-over a third of Catholics do not believe at all in the Real Presence (and yet our bishops were eager to catechize those who kneel down before the Real Presence of the Lord!).

It is not here necessary to rehash other statistical information on the decline of American Catholicism following the Council and the changes to the Mass, such as the sharp drops in Mass attendance and vocations. While the experience of the last 50 years has not been uniformly negative, the tendency of the hierarchy to trumpet the “springtime of renewal” is a sad joke.

Furthermore, as the digital pages of this publication and so many other highlight daily, the American Church is increasingly isolated in a culture that is under constant, and effective, assault from an aggressive secularist, modernist ideology. Many American bishops have courageously and articulately proclaimed and defended the Church’s teachings on life, marriage and religious liberty, and yet, especially with marriage, there is a sense that the Church is rapidly losing ground and is, essentially, ignored.

In sum, we are not properly catechizing ad intra or ad extra Eccelsiam. The reasons for the problem are many, but at the core, the problem stems from our diminished liturgy, the diminishment of which is highlighted by the manner in which the Faithful receive Corpus Christi. Since, as the Council proclaimed in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the liturgy is the “summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed” and is also “the font from which her power flows,” we must first graft the spiritual life of the Faithful wholly onto the liturgy before we can hope to broadly evangelize inside and outside the Church. And reverence before the Eucharist is the heart of liturgical spirituality.

As has always been the case, the Mass is the greatest tool for teaching and handing on the Faith. The Church need not convert the entire body of believers into Thomistic scholars in order for the Faithful to fully understand and embrace the True Presence.

In a simple and profound way, the faithful can learn this truth merely through the reverent reception of the Blessed Sacrament and by observing the way in which we treat the Sacred Species. Its reception should be done in a manner that is unlike any other experienced in daily life.
In deep reverence, we come to Communion on our knees. Nothing else given to us requires us to kneel down in awe and respect.
We do not touch it, as we would any other object someone might give to us, for it alone is too holy.
We receive it with a paten under our chins, lest even a crumb fall to the ground. No other food is so honored.
Finally, it is essential for the episcopacy to be mindful of the geneses of Communion in the hand and the standing posture. Neither is the work of the Council. Sacrosanctum Concilium says nothing regarding a change in the manner of the reception of Holy Communion.

Neither is mentioned in the rubrics of the Novus Ordo; even the substantial changes instituted in the “Mass of Paul VI” gave no directive for these practices.

Indeed, Blessed Paul VI himself, the pope of the Council, refused to endorse in-hand reception and strongly counseled against it.

Thus, there is no reason given by the magisterium to retain these practices. Whatever abstract or academic notions prompted their adoption, the experience of the Church in the decades since shows that the underlying theology of the changes did nothing to catechize the faithful and enhance their devotion to the sacred liturgy.

The American bishops rightly wish to engage the culture on a wide range of issues, including the so-called “social issues.” Yet it is only the action of grace, the working of the Holy Spirit, that can ultimately convert hearts, and then minds. Until the Church fully reclaims the Sacred Liturgy and realizes the long-lost desire of the Council to draw the faithful into a deeper spiritual life, with the Liturgy at it center, the New Evangelization will not succeed.

Our shepherds need now to look to the inside in order to be prepared to reach to the outside. Promote honor and reverence for the Blessed Sacrament; the rest will follow.

(Photo credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring) (Dec. 24, 2012)


  • Christian Browne

    Christian Browne is a practicing attorney in New York state. A board member of the Nassau County Catholic Lawyers Guild, he earned his J.D. from Fordham University in 2004.

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