Is it a sacrilege to take communion in hand?
The short answer is no! However some may believe otherwise.
If it were sacrileges, the present teaching do not reflect that to be the case. Rome allows this by indult in the New Rite. If it were a sacrilege, that indult would not have been accorded by Rome.
Both ways are permitted within the Ordinary Form of the Mass. While communion on the hand is forbidden in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and is given while kneeling only, unless prohibited due to physical illness.
Communion on the hand may seem less reverent than communion on the tongue, especially to the more traditionally minded Catholics; it is not a sacrilege. The real sacrilege here would be in receiving Our Lord while in the state of mortal sin!
For the first three centuries the Eucharist was celebrated in the houses and homes of Christians. In times of persecution these celebrations would have been in secret, in catacombs and other hidden spots. At other times Christians gathered together openly in each others’ homes or in ‘house churches’ for the Eucharist though Mass was not celebrated publicly as it is in our own time.
In fact, the first Martyr of the Eucharist was a young boy of the age of 12. Although a layman, he was also an acolyte. He died taking the Eucharist to the faithful who were held either in prisons for their faith or to homes of the faithful. Priests could have done this, but it was deemed safe if the young lad went in their stead! He was caught and martyred on the spot.
How can one say it is a sacrilege to receive the Lord on our hands as children carried it in the Early Church.
Tarsicius or Tarcisius was a martyr of the early Christian church who lived in the 3rd century. The little that is known about him comes from a metrical inscription by Pope Damasus I, who was pope in the second half of the 4th century.
The only positive information concerning this Roman martyr is found in a poem composed in his honour by Pope Damasus (366–384), who compares him to the deacon Saint Stephen and says that, as Stephen was stoned by a crowd, so Tarcisius, carrying the Blessed Sacrament, was attacked by a group and beaten to death.
Nothing else definite is known concerning Tarcisius. Since Damasus compares him to Stephen, he may have been a deacon; however, a 6th-century account makes him an acolyte. According to one version of the detailed legend that developed later, Tarsicius was a young boy during one of the fierce 3rd-century Roman persecutions, probably during the reign of Emperor Valerian (253–259). One day, he was entrusted with the task of bringing the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison. He preferred death at the hands of a mob rather than deliver to them the Blessed Sacrament which he was carrying.
He was originally buried in the Catacombs of San Callisto and the inscription by Damasus was placed later on his tomb. Some time later his relics were moved to the San Silvestro in Capite church in Rome. His feast day is celebrated on 15 August; that day is widely observed as the Feast of the Assumption, therefore he is not mentioned in the General Roman Calendar, but only in the Roman Martyrology.
He is the patron saint of altar servers and first communicants.
Communion on the hand may possibly been an Apostolic Tradition. St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of it in the following way:
While the Didache concentrates on prayer and thanksgiving, Cyril’s instructions emphasize technique:
“Approaching (Communion)…come not with your palms extended and stretched flat nor with your fingers open. But make your left hand as if a throne for the right, and hollowing your palm receive the body of Christ saying after it, Amen. Then after you have with care sanctified your eyes by the touch of the holy Body, partake…giving heed lest you lose any particle of it (the bread). For should you lose any of it, it is as though you have lost a member of your own body, for tell me, if any one gave you gold dust, would you not with all precaution keep it fast, being on the guard lest you lose any of it and thus suffer loss? How much more cautiously then will you observe that not a crumb falls from you, of what is more precious than gold and precious stones. Then having partaken of the Body of Christ, approach also the cup of His blood; not extending your hands, but bending low and saying in the way of worship and reverence, Amen, be you sanctified by partaking, also of the blood of Christ.” Catechetical Lecture 5
Communion in the Early Church
The BC Catholic on July 28, 2019 published an article entitled Receiving Holy Communion: tongue or hand? It show that communion on the hands has been around a lot longer than we think. It also shows both side of the issue at hand. I find it quite enlightening.
Memoriale Domini, a 1969 Church document on reception of Communion, outlined St. Paul VI’s decision on this matter. After much study and special consultation with all the Bishops of the world, he concluded that “Communion [on the tongue] must be retained ... not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful’s reverence for the Eucharist ... This reverence shows that it is not a sharing in ‘ordinary bread and wine’ that is involved, but in the Body and Blood of the Lord.”
So how did it happen that some countries were eventually allowed the indult of reception in the hand as well?
A few countries had already illicitly allowed Communion in the hand. Chief among the reasons was that some felt Communion in the hand represented the most ancient form of Communion in the early Church.
But while it is true that Communion in the hand certainly happened in the early Church, it is unclear exactly when this practice started and how universal it was. There are quotes from Church Fathers supporting both practices.
A quote, purported to be from St. Cyril of Jerusalem (around AD 350), is often given in support of reception in the hand: “placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King ... receive the body of Christ.” But scholars now tell us that this quote was likely not written by St. Cyril at all, and several ancient manuscripts attest to this.
On the other hand, there is also ample testimony from great saints like St. Basil, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Leo the Great, among others, suggesting that reception on the tongue was the standard for the early Church.
For example, St. Basil the Great, doctor of the Church (AD 330–379), would teach: “The right to receive Holy Communion in the hand is permitted only in times of persecution” (e.g., the laity could touch the Host to distribute it secretly).
The Councils of Saragossa (AD 380) and Toledo (fifth to seventh centuries) threatened excommunication to anyone who continued receiving holy Communion by hand.
Similarly, the Synod of Rouen (AD 650) decreed: “Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywoman ... only in their mouths.”
The Sixth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (AD 680–681) also forbade the taking of Communion in the hand by the laity, under threat of excommunication. And the Council of Trent (1565) added, “The fact that only the priest gives Holy Communion with his consecrated hands is an Apostolic Tradition.”
This brings us to St. Thomas Aquinas: “The dispensing of Christ’s body belongs to the priest ... out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity” (Summa Theologica). This is a powerful testimony, as much of the Church’s theology is based on the theology of St. Thomas.
Taking all this into consideration, Memoriale Domini declared: “From the time of the Fathers of the Church ... Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favor of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue. The motivation for this practice is two-fold: a) first, to avoid ... the dropping of Eucharistic particles [today, consecrated Hosts are regularly stolen for use in satanic Masses and other blasphemous practices – even sold on eBay!]; b) second, to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.”
It then mandated that “this method of distributing Holy Communion [on the tongue] must be retained” and “emphatically” urged “bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed ... by the majority of Catholic bishops.”
But after all this, Memoriale Domini then added a surprising disclaimer, leaving an avenue open to those bishops currently in disobedience over this issue. “Where ... Communion on the hand prevails,” bishops could request an indult to continue this practice, and Rome would consider it.
And these countries requested exactly that – and the indults were given – I am sure much to the sadness of St. Paul VI. A flood of requests then followed from countries, including Canada, where Communion on the hand did not prevail. These countries hadn’t been given permission to even ask for this indult. But ask they did.
Now some might say, “What’s the big deal?” After all, we are talking disciplines here and not unchangeable doctrines. True. And this is certainly not an area about which to quarrel or to judge one another’s spiritual intentions. Many insist that they feel equal reverence when receiving in the hand, and that the key is the attitude of the heart. There is truth in this too.
But the point is that the very document that permitted the seeking of an indult for Communion on the hand in very limited cases at the same time strongly advocated for Communion on the tongue, adding that it “is a sign of the reverence of the faithful toward the Eucharist” and is “needed for the most fruitful reception of the Lord’s body” (Memoriale Domini).
With bodily signs we show interior beliefs. In “The Theology of Kneeling,” an excerpt from his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000), Cardinal Ratzinger highlights this truth: “the bodily gesture itself is the bearer of the spiritual meaning ... when someone tries to take worship back into the purely spiritual realm and refuses to give it embodied form, the act of worship evaporates.” Later, as Pope Benedict XVI, in continuity with St. John Paul II, he gave Communion to the faithful on the tongue while they knelt.
I write this not to stir up controversy, but to provide a context against which individuals may decide how best to receive Jesus’ Precious Body and Blood, especially in our current culture. Many faithful Catholics are unaware of all of this background, as I was. Perhaps it is worthwhile to reconsider how we receive the Eucharist, for “not as common bread and common drink do we receive these” (St. Justin Martyr, AD 150).