Communion on the hand or on the tongue?

A priest handing out Communion at Mass

This is a question I had not thought about until recently: is it more reverent to receive Holy Communion standing and in the hand or kneeling and on the tongue? The reason I pose it is because I have just come across a most moving and scholarly little book that makes a powerful plea for the latter mode of reception. It is called Dominus Est – It is the Lord! by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, who was the auxiliary bishop of Karaganda, Kazakhstan and is now the auxiliary of the Kazak capital Astana in Central Asia. (I add these geographical details because until I read the book I had not heard of Karaganda and although I had heard of Kazakhstan I had only the vaguest idea of its whereabouts.) It is available from Gracewing for £5. 99.

I guess that my question is a polarising one: on the one side are almost all the faithful who attend the Novus Ordo Mass; and on the other is the eloquent, passionate and often learned minority who attend Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I have friends in both camps but my own practice is to worship in our local parish church in the Ordinary Form. At the same time, I have always knelt to receive Communion on the tongue. Why? Because I could see no good reason to change the practice I had been taught as a child.

Reading Bishop Schneider makes me think that perhaps I was also clinging to the idea of a reverence that I did not think I would feel if I changed my custom. It so happens that I have rarely attended Mass where there have not been altar rails or at least a place to kneel and the priests I know have always made it clear that parishioners are free to choose either mode of reception.

Yet reading this book has concentrated the mind wonderfully, so much so that there now seems only one answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the blog. Bishop Schneider does not provide liturgical arguments in favour of the Extraordinary Form of Mass (though I suspect he is sympathetic to it); he simply asks, what is the reverence that is due to God at the supreme moment of our Communion with Him, and how do we properly show it? He begins with an affecting personal history: the story of three ‘Eucharistic women’, his mother, his great-aunt and a parishioner, all of who taught him by their example of “extraordinary love, care and the greatest reverence possible.”

The Schneider family, along with other German Catholics, were exiled after the war to central Asia. There they struggled to live their Catholic Faith, far from a priest, parish or church. A visiting priest once allowed the Bishop’s mother to have a consecrated Host to give to her dying mother; for this she wore new white gloves, held the Host with tweezers and burnt the envelope in which it had been kept. His great-aunt was allowed to retain a Host to display secretly for an hour’s adoration on the nine first Fridays of each month before reverently consuming it. The lady parishioner travelled several hundred miles every year to receive a pyx containing consecrated Hosts, which she would distribute on Sundays in her hidden ‘parish’ for 30 years.

In the second part of the book, the Bishop provides scholarly references to the Church Fathers and the saints concerning reception of Our Lord kneeling and on the tongue. He includes a quotation from Fr Faber while still an Anglican, deeply impressed by the sight of the Pope in the Church of St John Lateran in 1843, as he “descended from his throne and knelt at the foot of the altar…a scene more touching than I had ever seen before.”

The book’s preface is written by Bishop Malcolm Ranjith, secretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. He writes: “It is now time to evaluate carefully the practice of Communion in the hand and if necessary to abandon what was never actually called for in the Vatican document, Sacrosanctum Consilium.”
Bishop Schneider himself concludes: “The Church must be reformed, starting with the Eucharist!”

There you have it; and I am at last able to give reasons for clinging to an old habit other than an inchoate sense that it was appropriate.