What modern Catholics can learn from Eastern Christians and Protestants about reverent Communion
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May 18, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) – Anyone reading the title of this article might assume that its author had gone off his rocker. Why would Catholics of the Latin Rite be looking outside their rite to Eastern Christians, or to Christians in the West who are divided from us in creed and cult, to learn about the proper treatment of the most venerable mystery of the Holy Eucharist?
Well, if Catholics of the West were simply faithful to their own tradition, they would not need to be reminded of basic truths by other traditions; but in an age of confusion and infidelity, it can be helpful, and humbling, to see how other Christian bodies have preserved certain elements that belong by right to Catholics and must be revived by us if we are to avoid offending the Lord. We should be provoked by shame into returning to a path from which we should never have diverged.
As readers may know, I have written extensively about the problems connected with communion in the hand, and taken while standing; my work on this question has been gathered in the book The Holy Bread of Eternal Life published last year by Sophia Institute Press. The carelessness, informality, and sacrilege of our postconciliar practice is a massive problem; advocates for it ignore the reasons why certain customs found in the early Church were universally abandoned later on.
Scholars, too, often seem blinded by their prejudices. For example, when Fr. Robert Taft discusses communion in the hand and the ancient sources on it (see Through Their Own Eyes: Liturgy as the Byzantines Saw It, pp. 112–21), he misses the whole point as to why communion in the hand was abandoned.
The old Byzantine practice is described in the Council of Trullo (also known as the Quinisext Council) from 691, an Eastern council not accepted by the Roman Church. It is, in any case, a valuable witness to Eastern belief and practice. The manner of receiving Communion at this time is similar to that enjoined by St. Cyril of Jerusalem:
The great and divine Apostle Paul with loud voice calls man created in the image of God, the body and temple of Christ. Excelling, therefore, every sensible creature, he who by the saving Passion has attained to the celestial dignity, eating and drinking Christ, is fitted in all respects for eternal life, sanctifying his soul and body by the participation of divine grace. Wherefore, if any one wishes to be a participator of the immaculate Body in the time of the Synaxis [Divine Liturgy or Mass], and to offer himself for the communion, let him draw near, arranging his hands in the form of a cross, and so let him receive the communion of grace. But such as, instead of their hands, make vessels of gold or other materials for the reception of the divine gift, and by these receive the immaculate communion, we by no means allow to come, as preferring inanimate and inferior matter to the image of God. But if any one shall be found imparting the immaculate Communion to those who bring vessels of this kind, let him be cut off as well as the one who brings them. (Canon 101)
The interesting thing about this reasoning is that it discourages laymen from bringing a vessel in which the Body of Christ would be placed, as if in a ciborium for storage, but asks him to receive the Eucharist with a direct contact of his own body. If the purpose of communion is a uniting of Christ to the Christian, it makes sense that the gift would be given to the person, and not to some inanimate object. The later (Eastern and Western) practice of communion on the tongue fulfills the reasoning of Canon 101 to perfection, while also avoiding the inconvenience and lack of fittingness that accompany the older method. For one thing, the Eucharist received into the hand could not be soaked in the blood of Christ, otherwise a mess would result.
For a better understanding of Canon 101, one should take into account what St. Symeon of Thessalonica says in his book On the Sacred Liturgy (see The Liturgical Commentaries, Pontifical Institute Medieval Studies, 2013, n. 95, p. 225): “So it was the custom for the laity also to receive communion thus, receiving the bread in their hand as the Sixth Council [Trullo] said. Later the fathers thought that communion should be given to the laity by a spoon because of some incidents.” One cannot help but be intrigued by this ominious mention of unspecified “incidents.” Canon 101 was not sufficient, in any case, to prevent the natural and supernatural development of a superior method of giving communion in the East as well as in the West.
While much of Trullo is anti-Roman, anti-African, and anti-Armenian, we should pay attention to a number of canons that can reveal to Romans today the abuses perpetrated by laity who receive in the hand as well as those who are called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion”:
None of those who are in the order of laymen may distribute the Divine Mysteries to himself if a bishop, presbyter, or deacon be present. But whoso shall dare to do such a thing, as acting contrary to what has been determined, shall be cut off for a week and thenceforth let him learn not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. (Canon 58)
An ancient epitome of Canon 58 reads: “A layman shall not communicate himself. Should he do so, let him be cut off for a week.” Yet every time someone receives in the hand and then feeds himself the Body of Christ, he is self-communicating. The commentator Van Espen explains:
It is well known that in the first centuries it was customary that the Holy Eucharist should be taken back by the faithful to their houses; and that at home they received it at their own hands. It is evident that this was what was done by the anchorites and monks who lived in the deserts, as may be seen proved by Cardinal Bona (De Rebus Liturg., Lib. II, cap. xvii). From this domestic communion, it is easily seen how the abuse arose which is condemned in this canon.
Once again, the Church learns from experience, and, dare one say it, learns from mistakes in the prudential order. The idea of placing Communion in the hands of laity and then sending them home with it for further communicating or for the sick was an experiment that lasted for a time and was then wisely discontinued — until the Modernists of our day artificially and arbitrarily revived ancient practices that they deemed suitable for their radical agenda.
More tellingly, Trullo establishes a rule that (unlike communion in the hand) was destined to endure:
It is not permitted to a layman to enter the sanctuary (in Greek: holy altar), though, in accordance with a certain ancient tradition, the imperial power and authority is by no means prohibited from this when he wishes to offer his gifts to the Creator. (Canon 69)
Van Espen again helpfully comments:
That in the Latin Church as well as in the Greek for many centuries it was the constant custom, ratified by various councils, that laymen are to be excluded from the sanctuary and from the place marked off for the priests who are celebrating the divine mysteries, is so notorious as to need no proof, and the present canon shows that among the Greeks the laity were not admitted to the sacrarium even to make offerings.
The Synod makes but one exception, to wit, the Emperor, who can enter the rails of the holy altar by its permission “when he wishes to offer his gifts to the Creator, according to ancient custom.” Not without foundation does the Synod claim “ancient custom” for this; for long before, it is evident, it was the case from the words of the Emperor Theodosius the Younger. See also Theodoret (Historia Ecclesiastica, lib. V, cap. xvii). In the Latin Church, not only to emperors, kings, and great princes but also to patrons of churches, to toparchs of places, and even to magistrates, seats have been wont to be assigned honoris causa within the sanctuary or choir, and it has been contended that these are properly due to such persons. It is evident from Balsamon’s note that the later Greeks at least looked upon the Emperor as being (like the kings of England and France) a persona mixta, sharing in some degree the sacerdotal character, as being anointed not merely with oil, but with the sacred chrism. Vide in this connexion J. Wickham Legg, “The Sacring of the English Kings,” in The Archaeological Journal, March 1894.
The prohibition of the entry of laity into the sanctuary of a church is indeed ancient, universal, and well-grounded; the only exception that has been made is for vested men or boys who are assigned tasks in place of ordained lectors and acolytes. Certainly there is neither necessity nor fittingness in laity taking up the Holy Eucharist as the clergy do and distributing it to other laymen. From the Orthodox, then, we are reminded that only the clergy should handle the Body of Christ, as only they may consecrate it. Catholics already knew this once upon a time, but have by and large forgotten it. Now we must awaken from our forgetfulness.
Modern Catholics are also put to shame by certain more conservative Protestants who show a greater reverence toward a mere symbol than Catholics show toward a reality they profess (or at least are obliged to profess) is Jesus Christ Himself. A correspondent wrote to me, in reaction to one of my articles on communion in the hand:
I believe there’s something intrinsically irreverent about standing to receive. If nothing else, it feels wrong. But I wondered if Fr Longnecker is a former Episcopalian? Some Episcopalians receive reverently kneeling and in the hand (talk about a strange combination!). Also, as a Lutheran, my Grandmother received kneeling at an altar rail. They had Communion only four times a year and they took it very seriously. There was self-examination and the warning from St Paul: “Anyone who eats this Body and drinks this Blood unworthily eats his own damnation.” That was enough to discourage the irreverent!
I don’t think that there’s something intrinsically wrong about standing to receive, if it is one’s uninterrupted custom, as it is in the East. But it has not been our custom in the West for a thousand years, and kneeling has become second-nature to us as an expression of reverence for what is most holy. With that in mind, think about what my correspondent is saying. Old-school Episcopalians and Lutherans kneel for communion at an altar rail, and do so simply out of reverence for what the Eucharist symbolizes. That, in itself, is a reproach to Catholics who have abandoned the same sign of reverence even as, simultaneously, they have tended to abandon Eucharistic realism in their beliefs. Yet, at the same time, Episcopalians and Lutherans receive in the hand, presumably to emphasize that they do not believe what “Papists” believe about the Mass, the priesthood, and transubstantiation, or to show some kind of “fidelity” to “ancient practice,” according to a false antiquarianism and corruptionism. Thus, by receiving at once standing and in the hand, modern Roman Catholics thumb their noses simultaneously at their own longstanding tradition and at conservative Protestantism. And by entering the sanctuary or self-communicating (or both), they thumb their noses at the Eastern Orthodox. How’s that for a triple whammy?
Perhaps it’s time for the leaders of the Catholic Church to practice as enthusiastic a form of ecumenism towards their own Catholic tradition as they do toward the liberal Protestants, globalist agnostics, and scientific atheists who win invitations to special events in Rome.