Like a traveler ordering a cheeseburger in a highway cafeteria, I wrote somewhere, when I arrived at the Episcopal seminary to find that everyone stood for communion at the weekly Eucharist. That now strikes me as a really snotty remark.
It was a practice I’d never seen in my years as an Episcopalian. In every parish we’d ever been to, the people knelt at the altar rail, as the minister came down the line with the bread and then a lay minster with the wine. The order and the efficiency contributed to the feeling of reverence, though most people on either side of me were memorialists.
It’s also, as I found some years later after we entered the Church, a choice that sets Catholics at each other’s throats, especially when combined with the choice of receiving communion on the hand or the tongue. The two mark differences about the Church’s life and future, a marker quickly weaponized. They make a statement for or against a vision of Catholic life.
It keeps coming up. Three years ago, the late bishop of Madison encouraged his people to receive Communion kneeling and on the tongue. In his Chrism Mass homily, Bishop Robert Morlino said “There is no question that Communion on the tongue is more reverent. And it doesn’t lend itself to a casual kind of behavior.” Friends reacted, some cheering, some booing.
Cardinal Robert Sarah has said the same thing, only from his prominence as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. In the preface to a recent book published in Italy titled The Distribution of Communion on the Hand, Sarah wrote: “Let us come as children and humbly receive the Body of Christ on our knees and on our tongue.” The alternatives show an “attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God.” He suggests they discourage the crucial belief in Jesus’s real presence in the Sacrament.
My friends reacted: some cheering, some hissing.
The investment in who does what seems excessive, speaking as one who entered the Church long after the sides had climbed into the trenches for the long battle. Kneel, don’t kneel, receive communion in the hand or on the tongue, do whatever you find helpful. But don’t make a thing of it. You can be reverent or irreverent in either mode. Both can be sincere or performative. Neither will change things much.
That said, I’ve come to favor the traditionalist practice for myself. When we became Catholics, I took a “when in Rome” approach. This is what the Church did, so I did it. After a couple of years of Catholic life, I started receiving communion on the tongue. Though not for the best reason. Our second child went to a conservative Catholic school and did what his peers did. I wasn’t going to be outflanked on the traditional side by my son.
The piety grows on you. It came to feel not only natural but necessary, as more fitting for the Mystery. One Sunday, visiting a new church, the elderly priest celebrating that Mass asked me to hold out my hands because his hands shook too much to place the Host on my tongue. I did, but it felt wrong. I wouldn’t have gone forward had I known.
You are enacting, you are saying, something slightly different when you receive on the tongue or in the hand. Not to touch the Host, to be given it (Him) without taking it, declares more boldly what is happening. Kneeling, too, has a unique dramatic effect, different from standing.
We knelt as Episcopalians, except for the seminary Eucharist. We’ve stood for all but maybe five Masses in the nineteen years we’ve been Catholics. I’ll do whatever the parish tells me to do. But I’d like to kneel.
Standing feels to me (I don’t mean to be flippant) dramatically more like a drive-up window. We should kneel at the Eucharist — during the Eucharistic prayer as well as at the altar rail — because we are asking God for a great gift of which we know ourselves to be unworthy. We embody this by asking for it on our knees. Standing implies equality.
There is a cultural analogue for this, in a man’s dropping to his knee to propose marriage to his beloved. He does not kneel because he’s asking her forgiveness, nor because he’s begging her to accept him. He kneels at her feet because he is asking for a great gift (a woman’s life) of which he knows himself to be unworthy. It would not be right to do so while standing above her, or even sitting beside her. He should ask for such a gift, even if he knows she will grant it, from below.
There’s another argument for kneeling (preferably at an altar rail) and receiving on the tongue (preferably from a priest). It’s odd and inefficient. We don’t do this kind of thing anywhere else. Like stained glass windows create a space set aside, it points to the great gift we’re receiving, and effectively dramatizes the truth that something unique is being done here. That would help, not as an aesthetic experience, but as help in taking Jesus with me as I go back into the world.
David Mills is editor of Hour of Our Death and is finishing a book for Sophia Press titled When Catholics Die.
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