This spring I was out of the country for a week. Attending Mass shortly after my return, I went forward to receive the Eucharist and opened my mouth in the traditional way. But I received, instead of Jesus, a frown, a shake of the head, and silence. Distressed, I opened my hands questioningly, and the priest pressed the Host into my palm. Back in my pew I watched as this small drama was reenacted with other communicants. Afterward, on a back table I found a letter from our archbishop, outlining “temporary precautions for the celebration of Mass” due to the spreading of swine flu.
When I entered the Catholic Church in 1996, I was taught by an energetic, abrasive, and intensely orthodox Dominican priest. He taught mostly from memory, stalking about in a theatrical way, fingering a large rosary that hung from his waist. His teaching was both unsystematic and vivid, and when he spoke about the Eucharist I remember he urged us to receive Communion on the tongue—because, he said, we should be as docile and receptive as children being fed by their mother.
The idea alarmed me, like the idea of kissing a crucifix on Good Friday or viewing a corpse at a wake. Open my mouth and stick out my tongue? Let the priest see the inside of my mouth? In the meantime, when I attended Mass in those days, I watched with interest as the priest washed his hands before consecrating the Host, praying quietly as he did so: “Lord, wash away my iniquities and cleanse me from my sin.” More than the argument from docility, it was this ritual cleansing on the altar that persuaded me, as if it had been a surface refreshment of the deeper mystery of the priest’s consecrated hands. From his consecrated hands to my mouth! Whatever my apprehensions, I grasped that this was the essential transaction, the core mystery of communication. Lay ministers were a regrettable detour, as were my own hands.
Only recently, in Martin Mosebach’s The Heresy of Formlessness, did I discover the original, all-but-suppressed reason for giving the Eucharist on the tongue: “Communion in the hand is inappropriate, not because the hands are less worthy to receive the Host than the tongue . . . or because they might be dirty, but because it would be impossible to rinse every participant’s hands after Communion (that is, to make sure no particles of the Host are lost).”
After thirteen years of daily Mass and wide reading, this was the first I had heard of the traditional understanding of the Church: that not even a tiny particle of the sacred Host should be accidentally stepped on or brushed away. Now I understood why the priest rinsed his fingers over the chalice at the end of the Mass. Now I understood why a particularly conscientious priest always thrust a small plate, or paten, under the chins or hands of communicants, a paten which he later carefully cleaned.
Even Jesus’ words in John 6, following the miraculous feeding that foreshadows the Eucharist, resonated for me with a new and unexpected significance: “Gather up the fragments so that nothing may be lost.” If a Host fell in the past, Mosebach explained, the priest would wipe the floor with a special cloth—a cloth he later rinsed, along with the cloth used to purify the chalice, in a sink that emptied directly into the earth.
Clearly, belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and certain liturgical practices go together. On our altars, our priests still take certain precautions and observe certain forms, but more and more they are robbed of practical significance. To be effective, a liturgy should be consistent. It should be made up of mutually corroborative, interlocking elements, rituals that illuminate and reinforce one another. Instead, as things stand, particular teachings and rituals of the altar are eclipsed by rival rituals. The priest may carefully rinse his fingers over the chalice after Communion, but as a teaching the ritual is meaningless so long as the laity are casually carrying off the Host in their hands.
So why, once Communion in the hand was permitted in the United States, did it so swiftly and almost universally become preferred? The answer is obvious. For a twentieth-century American, receiving on the tongue seems difficult. It is undignified and dependent, uncomfortably intimate and interior. By an act of will, one must set aside one’s pride and embarrassment and make a conscious decision to see the priest as Christ.
The analogy to the sacrament of confession is clear. What is required in confession? That one open one’s heart and mouth and show the priest what is inside. With docility and courage, one must trust that the priest acts in the person of Christ. Only then will one dare to confess everything and receive the full benefit of the sacrament. Only then can one discover, experientially, Christ’s promised presence.
Even among those still going to confession sporadically, an attitude of reservation and selective participation has crept in. The life of the Church is closely woven, every thread of ritual and teaching depending for its vitality and integrity on every other. Appreciation for the priest and his uniquely venerable hands; belief in the Real Presence; the habit of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue; frequent, transparent confession—all these go together. Even the sanctity of life itself was perpetually dramatized for the faithful in past ages by the tender, chivalric consideration shown by the Church to every particle of the Host. “Who is so vulnerable as the child in the womb?” defenders of the unborn are fond of asking, as if it were a rhetorical question, but there is an answer: Jesus present in the Eucharist. He is the prototype of all vulnerable, hidden life.
All of which explains why receiving the Eucharist in the hand is neither a normative nor a universal practice. Juridically speaking, it remains an indult, “an exemption from a general requirement granted by the Vatican to those bishops conferences which have requested it.” Underscoring this reality, since June 2008 Pope Benedict XVI has been placing the Eucharist on the tongues of kneeling communicants. According to Monsignor Guido Marini, master of papal liturgical ceremonies, “The pope’s adoption of the traditional practice . . . aims to highlight the force of the valid norm for the whole Church.”
So what should we make of the recent guidelines from our bishops? Some published no special guidelines at all. Others, following the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, offered mild, commonsensical suggestions: wash your hands; stay home if you’re sick. Still others issued highly detailed, strongly worded directives. But most, like my archbishop, suggested that, in addition to eliminating the sign of peace and withholding the chalice, “communicants should be encouraged to receive the Host in their hands.”
The first suggestions are reasonable enough. We receive Christ in his totality in the Eucharistic bread; we share Christ’s peace implicitly when we approach the altar together. But the last suggestion is different. It concerns the core moment of Communion, the quick of the Mass. What we gain—a safer environment from a public-health point of view, for example—should demonstrably outweigh what we lose.
The argument has not been made. On the contrary, how many times have we been told that there are as many germs on the hands as on the tongue, and that frequent hand washing is the best way to avoid contagious disease? Moreover, it is not necessary for the priest to touch the mouth of a communicant when he distributes Communion on the tongue.
Having said this, we need to ask if an attitude of fastidiousness, a fear of physical contact between priest and communicant, is Catholic. What the priest consecrates—not just with his words, but with his hands—we eat. That physical contact is the point of the sacrament. Furthermore, we almost never receive the Eucharist alone; the Mass is a communal meal, a sharing in the one Cup, or at least the one Bread. The Mass is not a sterile environment.
It is true that recklessness is not holiness, and prudence is a cardinal virtue. But at what point does prudence become false prudence—Joseph Pieper’s “anxious senility of a frantic self-preservation?” The Church has reached such a point when her professed belief in the Real Presence makes no concrete difference in the decisions she makes or the ways she behaves. At this point, the Church becomes indistinguishable from the world.
The Church seems in danger of forgetting that the communication of germs is not the only mystery at issue. The infinitely more sublime mystery is the communication of God himself, the source of all life and health. This is our faith. This is what we mean by the doctrine of the Real Presence, the mystery that reception of the Eucharist on the tongue both dramatizes and protects.
We cannot expect the world to appreciate or even to acknowledge this mystery. We live in an age of heightened anxiety about germs, a time of rapid globalization and corresponding efforts to wall ourselves off. When I was traveling in May, the smell of hand sanitizer filled the plane, some individuals wore masks, and in the business section a privileged few sat in a zone of mainly psychological protection.
But I was traveling to Lourdes, the small French town where Mary appeared to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858. I was going to the grotto where a spring welled up in which pilgrims have been bathing ever since. In Lourdes, the sick are everywhere, and they take pride of place. Without masks or plastic gloves volunteers from all over the world assist them at Eucharistic Adoration and help them into the baths. And in the baths, as in the sacraments, great benefits and hypothetical risks go together. If you want the benefits of that stream, you have to get in the water, the same water as everyone else.
There will be other flus, and worse. To this point the bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship has exhibited a prudent and peaceful confidence that individual bishops would do well to emulate. Dispense with what is redundant, and let everyone wash his hands. But do not forget that, as St. Francis kissed the leper, Christ desires to embrace us. Leave those of us who cherish it permission to receive the Eucharist on the tongue. Spare us that noncommittal equivalent of a handshake that turns every communicant into his own Eucharistic minister. Immediately and intimately, let Jesus—in the person of the priest—give me Jesus.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.