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Renowned scholar debunks myths around Communion in the hand

Dr. Peter Kwasniewski shares the real history of the Church's practice of receiving Communion in the hand
Thu Jul 23, 2020 - 3:07 pm EST
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July 23, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — Today’s special episode of The John-Henry Westen Show is an interview I did last last week with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, Thomistic theologian, liturgical scholar and choral composer who, aside from authoring books and essays for many of the most well-known Catholic websites in the world, also writes a column here at LifeSite.

Peter and I spoke for about 45 minutes as part of the “Love and reverence to Our Lord: Let’s always receive Holy Communion on the tongue” conference. The conference was organized by Voice of the Family and broadcast on LifeSite’s YouTube page. Click here to watch a recording of the entire conference for free.

Our conversation was wide-ranging but focused primarily on the necessity of receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, as this was the practice of the church for over a thousand years.

We also discussed some of the lesser known facts surrounding the reception of communion in the hand. And, we explored, in depth, various declarations made by the Church in the past (as well in recent years) regarding the proper reception of the Eucharist.

“Early centuries of the Church don't give us as full a picture as we would like to have,” Peter told me. “We have a lot of fragmentary evidence. It seems that there was a diversity of manners of receiving communion in the early centuries. Communion was received in the hands, but…not [in] the way it's done today.”

“We also have evidence from St Ephrem the Syrian, from the Liturgy of St. James, from St Gregory the Great, and other Fathers of the Church that Communion was given in the mouths as well, and that the clergy were the ones who most properly Communicated with their own hands.”

He added that the Council of Rouen, “a regional council [held] in the year 878, mandated communion in the mouth.”

Ultimately, Peter believes that “there's a very heightened awareness early on [in the Church] of the awesomeness of the Sacrament…in fact, it's this growing sense of reverence that leads the church over time progressively to restrict and finally to abolish communion in the hands. Except, of course, for the clergy…but for the laity, by the time you reach the year 1000…communion in the mouth is universal…what we're dealing with here is, in my opinion, a clear example of organic development.”

I wanted to know why, if Communion in the hand had largely been done away with and receiving Our Lord on the tongue was the norm for over a thousand years, how did it ever get revived again in the 20th century. 

Peter said that in the 1960s priests were experimenting with Communion in the hand and that bishops’ conferences were agitating for it. Paul VI, who tended to favor liturgical change on a huge scale but initially opposed communion in the hand, decided to ask the bishops of the world if receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue should be discontinued. Their answer was a resounding no, and was published in Memoriale Domini, an instruction approved by Paul VI in 1969. 

But, Peter added, “the weird thing is, is that in the same document, after laying this out and giving the results of the vote and saying it should be retained, [Paul VI said that] since there are some places in the world where Communion in the hand has already been introduced, in order to regulate it better, the Episcopal conferences are allowed to permit it under certain conditions.” 

“It's it's an odd document,” Peter added, “because it really persuades you rhetorically as you're going through it that we should keep this traditional matter. And then it says, but the Episcopal conferences can decide otherwise.”

Peter then debunked the claim that receiving Communion in the hand is a sort of restoration or return to what the early Church did.

“What we're doing now, there is very little resemblance to what” the Church did in the Patristic age. The ancient manner of receiving Communion is not the same as is done in the Novus Ordo Missae, he said. Instead of holding up your left hand and then placing the host on your tongue, what you would do is receive Communion on your right hand and bow down and take it up with your mouth. “Sometimes a cloth was used.”

Citing Pope Pius XII, Peter also stated that there is a “false antiquarianism” that was introduced in an attempt to go back to previous practices. “It’s a mistake to try to restore later in the Church's history practices that occurred much earlier on because it was not without the guidance of the Holy Spirit that the church developed in the way that she did,” he argued.

If we say that “for many centuries…the church went off the rails…and if we want the authentic Christian church, we have to go back to the apostles or at least to the apostolic period, that’s a Protestant error…lo and behold, there were some liturgical reformers in the 20th century saying exactly the same thing.”

I then asked Peter what are the main problems with receiving Holy Communion in the hand. He told me that it is contrary to at least a thousand years of tradition, that it shows a lack of reverence to the Blessed Sacrament, that it decreases belief in the Real Presence, that it lessense the awareness of the anointed hands of and dignity of the priest, and that it fosters a culture of casual and unworthy Communion.

“Many bishops are abusing their authority right now because…they’re supposed to uphold Canon Law and Canon Law is really clear that the faithful have the right to receive communion on the tongue. That's it,” he said. 

A bishop cannot refuse or forbid Holy Communion on the tongue, he stated. “Communion in the hand is an exception. It's what's called an indult. It is a permission.” “I think what this coronavirus is bringing out is a real crisis in the faith of the bishops, in the real presence of Our Lord and in the reverence and adoration we owe him.”

We concluded our conversation by discussing how receiving Communion on the tongue is more fitting and more reverent than receiving it on the hand.  

“In the traditional rite of Baptism, the priest blesses and exorcises some salt…and then he puts a little of the salt into the mouth of the child…the meaning of that is that the tongue is being blessed for the essential reception of the Bread of Life…your tongue is blessed so that it may properly receives the host.”

Listen to our enlightening conversation below.

The John-Henry Westen Show is available by video on the show’s YouTube channel and right here on my LifeSite blog.

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  communion, communion on the tongue, eucahrist, holy communion, mass, peter kwasniewski, reverence, the john-henry westen show

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