The Red Herring of Communion in the Hand
Written by I. Shawn McElhinney and ‘Matt1618’


For some reason, the topic of communion in the hand is a popular red herring among self-styled 'traditionalists'. It is not unusual in fact for a multi-topical discussion to end up with the focus of the 'traditionalist' on this subject as if it somehow defines their resistance to Church policies or provisions. Since this is a topic that comes up again and again, it seems proper to refute once and for all the noxious half-truths that are put forth by not only 'traditionalists' but also liberals. The crux of the problem on both sides is resistance to authority.

It is not uncommon for 'traditionalists' to pass off earlier Church disciplines as uniform when they were not, and use this mythical "uniformity" coupled with their profound misunderstanding about what constitutes Tradition and what does not to complain about current practices in the Church that they do not like. This small paper will hopefully let the air out of their so-often insolent little balloons; however, not without pointing out a key point that indirectly benefits the 'traditionalist' case on this issue.

The controversy on communion in the hand started in Europe in the 1960’s and was actually practiced by dissidents before the practice was made licit by the Holy See. From this standpoint the 'traditionalist' has a point as far as objecting to the way in which this practice came about in recent times but of course they do not wish to proceed along that track which would indeed be a credible approach for them to take. No, the 'traditionalist’ chooses instead to construct a fictitious past with regards to communion in the hand as their means of fighting what they see as a great evil of our time. It stems again from the common ignorance of Church history and the 'traditionalist' feeling that the uniformity of worship, policy, devotions, etc. that prevailed after the Council of Trent was somehow the norm for Church history. In reality, the history of the Church in almost all of the realms where the 'traditionalist' gripes about was not as neat and tidy as they would like it to be. A few examples are the subjects of clerical celibacy, plural prayer forms, vernacular liturgies, active laity participation in the liturgy, sacramental norms of administration, and (of course) different procedures of communion reception. Among many other elements of note these to some extent varied from locale to locale without the strict uniformity that the 'traditionalist' insists is mandatory or "traditional".

Communion by Hand — Early Patristic Evidences:

Self-styled 'traditionalists' are almost superstitious in their notions about what does and does not constitute reverence and what is and is not sacrilegious. They even go as far as to circulate misleading pamphlets claiming that communion in the hand was not an apostolic custom. This is probably because many groups favouring communion in the hand circulate misleading pamphlets claiming that it was universal in the early church to receive by hand. In short both the 'traditionalist' (who argues communion on the tongue)  and the liberal (who argues for communion by hand) are both wrong in trying to retroject their views as some kind of "uniform norm" in the first millennium as in neither case was this so. Since the 'traditionalist' generally has their heart in the right place (being muddled in the mind), they need to focus instead on where the problem really lies: poor catechizing from predominantly 1960-1990. (Though the problems with catechesis started some time before 1960.) Unless of course the 'traditionalist' wishes to denigrate the early Fathers, councils, and Our Lord Himself for contributing to a "lessening of reverence" for the Holy Eucharist. To quote the Catholic Encyclopedia from 1913 on the matter:

In the early days of the Church the faithful frequently carried the Blessed Eucharist with them to their homes (cf. Tertullian, "Ad uxor.", II, v; Cyprian, "De lapsis", xxvi) or upon long journeys (Ambrose, De excessu fratris, I, 43, 46), while the deacons were accustomed to take the Blessed Sacrament to those who did not attend Divine service (cf. Justin, Apol., I, n. 67), as well as to the martyrs, the incarcerated, and the infirm (cf. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., VI, xliv). The deacons were also obliged to transfer the particles that remained to specially prepared repositories called Pastophoria (cf. Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, xiii). [1]
So according to the late second- early third century Church writer Tertullian and St. Cyprian, the faithful took the Blessed Sacrament home with them. According to St. Ambrose (from the late fourth century) and St. Justin Martyr (early to mid second century) the faithful took the Eucharist with them on long journeys and the deacons made sick calls to those who did not attend Mass. The latter was also witnessed to by the late fourth century Apostolic Constitutions, one of the earliest compilations we have of ancient church worship and practice. There is also of course the well-known citation from St. Cyril of Jerusalem that 'traditionalists' often try to pass off as a forgery. They make comments such as "well there are no other examples in the early Church of this practice so this citation is almost certainly not genuine". Of course the reason they say this is because they are ignorant of Church history. One of the most common 'traditionalist' quotes against communion in the hand is one that circulates on a pamphlet where they claim that St. Basil the Great said that outside of persecution it was never proper to receive by hand. They cite from his Epistle 93 and obviously have not read the Epistle except to prooftext a single line from the work. (Unless they are blatantly deceptive in citing the source of course.) The reason it is doubtful that they bothered to read it is because the great Cappadocian Doctor of the Church says the exact opposite of what 'traditionalists' claim he said. Further still, this is outside of the times of persecution (approximately 378 AD) when the Arian crisis was winding down:
It is good and beneficial to communicate every day, and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ. For He distinctly says, "He that eateth my flesh and drinketh my blood hath eternal life." And who doubts that to share frequently in life, is the same thing as to have manifold life. I, indeed, communicate four times a week, on the Lord's day, on Wednesday, on Friday, and on the Sabbath, and on the other days if there is a commemoration of any Saint. It is needless to point out that for anyone in times of persecution to be compelled to take the communion in his own hand without the presence of a priest or minister is not a serious offence, as long custom sanctions this practice from the facts themselves. All the solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, take the communion themselves, keeping communion at home. And at Alexandria and in Egypt, each one of the laity, for the most part, keeps the communion, at his own house, and participates in it when he likes. For when once the priest has completed the offering, and given it, the recipient, participating in it each time as entire, is bound to believe that he properly takes and receives it from the giver.And even in the church, when the priest gives the portion, the recipient takes it with complete power over it, and so lifts it to his lips with his own hand. It has the same validity whether one portion or several portions are received from the priest at the same time. [2]
Since St. Basil says the exact opposite of what 'traditionalists' try to make him say, he cannot be cited as a witness for their arguments against hand reception. It is also popular for 'traditionalists' to quote the directives of local councils which restricted communion by hand to claim "see the early Church discouraged it". Again, they fail to realize that there was no uniformity of practice throughout the Church in the first millennium in this regard or many others. Usually the Synod of Rouen from 650 AD is cited by the 'traditionalists' who for some reason overlook the 692 Synod of Trullo. This is a significant omission because the Synod of Trullo was a far more authoritative synod then Rouen. In fact, the Synod of Trullo was intended by the Emperor to be an Ecumenical Council. The Pope did not accept it as Ecumenical, but the synod is still recognized as authoritative by the East and is very influential on the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Catholic Churches today. Here is what Trullo stated about communion reception by hand:
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, 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.
Whoever comes to receive the Eucharist holds his hands in the form of a cross, and takes it with his mouth; whoever shall prepare a receptacle of gold or of any other material instead of his hand, shall be cut off.


At first, perchance, this was invented from pious feelings, because the hand which came in contact with base and unworthy things was not worthy to receive the Lord's body, but, as time went on, piety was turned to the injury of the soul, so that those who did this when they came to receive with an arrogant and insolent bearing, were preferred to the poor. [3]

As we can see, the synod was claiming that those who did not receive by hand or who sought to receive onto a receptacle of some other kind was to be cut off!!! Not only that but the synod admonished people for perhaps initially having good intentions but "as time went on piety was turned to the injury of the soul, so that those who did this when they came to receive with an arrogant and insolent bearing". Is this not the way many 'traditionalists' often act today towards those who do not receive as they think all people should??? Now it should be pointed out that this was around the time when the West and East were starting to have relationship problems so this passage is perhaps reflecting of an Eastern polemic against the West. But it is still interesting to note that according to the Easterners, the custom of by mouth reception in many places of the West had given the Westerners an uppity attitude whereby they looked down on their Eastern brethren for receiving in the ancient manner outlined in Canon 101. It would seem strange for this to be an issue if it was some uniform practice of receiving by mouth as the 'traditionalists' often seeks to claim. Oh and for those who question the authenticity of St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s citation from his Fifth Mystagogical Catechesis  circa 350 AD, the Synod of Trullo cites it in Canon 101: ST. CYRIL OF JERUSALEM.

(Cateches. Mystagog. v.(1))

When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen. [4]

As the Synod of Trullo in its one hundred and first Canon cited St. Cyril, the 'traditionalist' accusation that the citation is a possible forgery is effectively falsified. Nevertheless, the reader must understand that this method of reception as outlined by St. Basil, St. Cyril, and other early Fathers is not how people today receive by hand. In ancient times, the hands would be shaped as a cross and the host would be placed in the palm of the top hand. From there the communicant would lift both hands to the mouth and take it that way. Nevertheless, the host does touch the palm with either method of reception which presents an interesting problem for the 'traditionalists' who denigrate this means of reception. After all, unless our early Christian brethren were committing sacrilege or being disrespectful to God, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the faithful touching the Body and Blood of Our Lord with their hands. Disrespect for the Eucharist cannot logically come from holding Our Lord in one’s hands or the early Christians were profoundly disrespectful since they not only held Our Lord in their hands but they took Him home also. Since it is certain that there was not a priest on hand in every home to administer the sacrament, will self-styled 'traditionalists' now call the early Christians "sacrilegious" for their actions??? Was St. John Damascus "sacrilegious" or promoting "irreverence" when he wrote: The bread and the wine are not merely figures of the body and blood of Christ (God forbid!) but the deified body of the Lord itself: for the Lord has said, "This is My body," not, this is a figure of My body: and "My blood," not, a figure of My blood. And on a previous occasion He had said to the Jews, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. For My flesh is meat indeed and My blood is drink indeed. And again, He that eateth Me, shall live.

Wherefore with all fear and a pure conscience and certain faith let us draw near and it will assuredly be to us as we believe, doubting nothing. Let us pay homage to it in all purity both of soul and body: for it is twofold. Let us draw near to it with an ardent desire, and with our hands held in the form of the cross let us receive the body of the Crucified One: and let us apply our eyes and lips and brows and partake of the divine coal, in order that the fire of the longing, that is in us, with the additional heat derived from the coal may utterly consume our sins and illumine our hearts, and that we may be inflamed and deified by the participation in the divine fire. Isaiah saw the coal. But coal is not plain wood but wood united with fire: in like manner also the bread of the communion is not plain bread but bread united with divinity. But a body which is united with divinity is not one nature, but has one nature belonging to the body and another belonging to the divinity that is united to it, so that the compound is not one nature but two. [5]

And lest anyone think this practice was only Eastern in orientation, the following is from the generally very reliable Catholic Encyclopedia and its article on communion patens:
The word paten comes from a Latin form patina or patena, evidently imitated from the Greek patane. It seems from the beginning to have been used to denote a flat open vessel of the nature of a plate or dish. Such vessels in the first centuries were used in the service of the altar, and probably served to collect the offerings of bread made by the faithful and also to distribute the consecrated fragments which, after the loaf had been broken by the celebrant, were brought down to the communicants, WHO IN THEIR OWN HANDS RECEIVED EACH A PORTION FROM THE PATINA… When towards the ninth century the zeal of the faithful regarding the frequent reception of Holy Communion very much declined, the system of consecrating the bread offered by the faithful and of distributing Communion from the patinæ seems gradually to have changed, and the use of the large and proportionately deep patinæ ministeriales fell into abeyance. It was probably about the same time that the custom grew up for the priest himself to use a paten at the altar to contain the sacred Host, and obviate the danger of scattered particles after the Fraction. This paten, however, was of much smaller size and resembled those with which we are now familiar. [6]
So according to St. Justin Martyr, Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Basil the Great, the Synod of Trullo, St. John Damascus, and the Catholic Encyclopedia, communion by hand was not at all uncommon in the early Church. In fact, it was a recommended manner of reception in many places. Unless these Fathers and Doctors (and all but Tertullian are saints) were thus "sacrilegious" or promoting a "lessening of respect for the Eucharist", the self-styled 'traditionalist' who denigrates this practice in and of itself has some serious explaining to do. Communion by hand was accepted in the first millennium. Nor for the most part was it considered irregular. However, it was not a uniform practice or universal so the liberals who claim it was are lying about this. However the 'traditionalist' who tries to make communion by mouth into an Apostolic Tradition is just as guilty of blatant lying as the liberal who revises history to suit their personal agendas. This is the problem that 'traditionalists' put themselves in when they make these kinds of ill-informed arguments.

The problem that 'traditionalists' have in these areas is that they can at times commit the sin of partiality (James 2:1, 2:9, 4:11-13) by elevating to the status of what is and is not "proper" their personal likes and dislikes. Because of this, even though their intentions are much more noble then the liberal, they end up being two peas in the same pod because the same disobedience is prevalent in both cases. And as the synod of Trullo noted, they feel that they are somehow more respectful or better people because of the way they receive communion. Some of the real crusaders have even gone so far as to put condemnations of communion by hand in the mouths of Mother Theresa and Our Lady which goes to show just what lengths of deception they will go to promote their agenda as neither Mother Theresa nor Our Lady would council disobedience to the Magisterium of the Church. (Mother Theresa in fact denounced the use of her name by those crusading against communion by hand.)

As for the claims of apparitions concerning this practice, this is in fact one of the first thing the Church looks at when verifying apparitions and it make perfect sense. After all, if the apparition encourages disobedience to the Church then it is obviously not genuine. Finally, before looking into the current disciplines permitted by the Church, as the 'traditionalists' love to cite from the Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, let us consider the viewpoint of St. Thomas. In this case, the 'traditionalist' appeals to St. Thomas Aquinas over and above the Living Magisterium of the Church much the way Anglicans appeal to the first five centuries of Church history in their disputes with Rome. (Or as the Jansenists appealed to the works of Augustine over and against the Magisterium in their time.) The 'traditionalists' who do this simultaneously claim that they do not act like Protestants or act like Jansenists or Montanists or Donatists, etc. Actions of course speak much louder then their words and he who acts like a schismatic is schismatic. So the 'traditionalists' cite St. Thomas against the Living Magisterium of the Church all the while ignoring the famous last words of the Angelic Doctor. It is a pity that they do this because these are the very words of faith that any faithful son of the Church should take to heart and profess:

If in this world there be any knowledge of this sacrament stronger than that of faith, I wish now to use it in affirming that I firmly believe and know as certain that Jesus Christ, True God and True Man, Son of God and Son of the Virgin Mary, is in this Sacrament . . . I receive Thee, the price of my redemption, for Whose love I have watched, studied, and laboured. Thee have I preached; Thee have I taught. Never have I said anything against Thee: if anything was not well said, that is to be attributed to my ignorance. Neither do I wish to be obstinate in my opinions, but if I have written anything erroneous concerning this sacrament or other matters, I SUBMIT ALL TO THE JUDGMENT AND CORRECTION OF THE HOLY ROMAN CHURCH, in whose obedience I now pass from this life. [7]
Notice the Angelic Doctor does not say "I submit all to the judgment of the Holy Roman Church unless I think she contradicts Tradition". Such a notion would have struck the Angelic Doctor as schismatic, arguably heretical, and indicative of someone who has no faith at all. It is not possible for the Church to promulgate error in doctrine or to sanction practices that are in any way disrespectful or demeaning of the Lord in and of themselves. To claim that this is even possible is to assert blasphemy as it is a claim that the Lord in giving complete power of governance to the Church actually authorized His own dishonour. As God cannot contradict Himself, His Church cannot officially bind anyone to error or sacrilege. However, the words of the Lord were "whatsoever you bind/loose" not "whatsoever you bind/loose unless you bind error". It is taken as a given that the Church is protected in such matters. And if communion in the hand is a sacrilege or is promoting of irreverence in and of itself, then think of the accusations the 'traditionalist' casts upon Saints, Doctors, and Councils of the Church for not only permitting sacrilege or irreverence but actually encouraging it!!!

Further still, hink of how hollow the decrees from Florence and Vatican I are about the authority of the Roman Pontiff in the areas of primacy, discipline, and government of the Church if the assertions of the 'traditionalists' are valid. Finally, it should be pointed out that the 'traditionalist' by their very actions repudiate the teaching of these Councils making the very concept of Magisterial authority in discipline and government a dead letter. After all, authority is a dead letter if one is only obedient when they want to be. However noble the intentions, the road to hell is also paved with good intentions - and this is a path that those who challenge the supreme authority will inexorably travel if they die in willful separation from the Church of the Living God.

The Current Allowance:

Pope Paul VI made an allowance for the restoration of the ancient tradition of communion in the hand. Now whether that was a prudent choice can indeed be debatable. However, any way you look at it, as this was a practice recognized as acceptable to saints of the Church, one who condemns the current practice as 'vulgar' (as some 'traditionalists' do) must condemn past Saints and Councils as 'vulgar' who recognized it as an acceptable practice. In 1969 in Memoriale Domini, Pope Paul VI did not grant an absolute acceptance of the policy of accepting communion on the hand, but did start a process where it would be possible for the bishops to make a request for a change to the policy of restoring the tradition of communion in the hand. In the Instruction, after not allowing a general acceptance, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, with the approval of Pope Paul VI, wrote:

Where a contrary usage, that of placing holy communion on the hand, prevails, the Holy See—wishing to help them fulfill their task, often difficult as it is nowadays—lays on those conferences the task of weighing carefully whatever special circumstances may exist there, taking care to avoid any risk of lack of respect or of false opinions with regard to the Blessed Eucharist, and to avoid any other ill effects that may follow.
In such cases, episcopal conferences should examine matters carefully and should make whatever decisions, by a secret vote and with a two-thirds majority, are needed to regulate matters. Their decisions should be sent to Rome to receive the necessary confirmation, accompanied with a detailed account of the reasons which led them to take those decisions. The Holy See will examine each case carefully, taking into account the links between the different local churches and between each of them and the Universal Church, in order to promote the common good and the edification of all, and that mutual good example may increase faith and piety. [8]
Pope Paul VI then wrote that whenever permission was to be given, the tradition of receiving it on the tongue must remain an option and thus retained for those who choose to receive it that way, and he gave guidance to prevent abuse. Thus, in 1973 the conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States made a request for this option. Pope Paul VI then did give approval to this request in 1977. The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued in 1977 the following in response to the request for permission for communion in the hand:
In reply to the request of your conference of bishops regarding permission to give communion by placing the host on the hand of the faithful, I wish to communicate the following. Pope Paul Vl calls attention to the purpose of the Instruction Memoriale Domini of 29 May 1969, on retaining the traditional practice in use. At the same time he has taken into account the reasons given to support your request and the outcome of the vote taken on this matter. The Pope grants that throughout the territory of your conference, each bishop may, according to his prudent judgment and conscience, authorize in his diocese the introduction of the new rite for giving communion. The condition is the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist. [9]
Then the Sacred Congregation for Divine worship gave norms on the matter, among other things insisting that this change be done in a respectful manner and that while allowing it as an option, the option of receiving on the tongue must be retained. The "Summary of Decrees" on confirmation of the decisions of conferences of bishops in "Notitiae" lists the granting of this faculty to the United States (among other English speaking countries granted this faculty at other times). Then, Pope Paul VI confirmed this instruction with his authority effective that date, June 17, 1977. What is noted along with this permission of receiving Our Lord in our hand is the following:
a. Proper catechesis must be provided to assure the proper and reverent reception of Communion without any suggestion of wavering on the part of the Church in its faith in the Eucharistic presence.
b. The practice must remain the option of the communicant. The priest or minister of Communion does not make the decision as to the manner of reception of Communion. It is the communicant’s personal choice. [10]
Thus, it is clear that Catholics have the option of receiving communion in the hand. Some "traditionalists" have taken some of Pope John Paul II’s instructions on reception of the Eucharist and have tried to say that he actually disallows communion in the hand. Actually, nowhere has Pope John Paul II ever rescinded Memoriale Domini, nor the permission for those in the United States that we have seen. In addition, the option of communion on the tongue has also been retained. Anybody who wants to receive communion on the tongue (like we do and many, many people who choose to do so) still can do so.

Here is a quotation from Pope John Paul in Inaestimabile Donum, section 9 that some "traditionalists" have used to actually say that there is no such permission for communion in the hand. I will italicize the part that some "traditionalists" have argued that this supposedly forbade a lay person from touching the Eucharist with his hand. However, one must read the quote in full to understand the context, and note section 10 which I bold which shows that this particular interpretation is impossible. I also note the following sections which give a further context.

9. Eucharistic Communion. Communion is a gift of the Lord, given to the faithful through the minister appointed for this purpose. It is not permitted that the faithful should themselves pick up the consecrated bread and the sacred chalice, still less that they should hand them from one to another.
10. The faithful, whether religious or lay, who are authorized as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist can distribute Communion only when there is no priest, deacon or acolyte, when the priest is impeded by illness or advanced age, or when the number of the faithful going to Communion is so large as to make the celebration of Mass excessively long.[20] Accordingly, a reprehensible attitude is shown by those priests who, though present at the celebration, refrain from distributing Communion and leave this task to the laity.
11. The Church has always required from the faithful respect and reverence for the Eucharist at the moment of receiving it. With regard to the manner of going to Communion, the faithful can receive it either kneeling or standing, in accordance with the norms laid down by the episcopal conference: "When the faithful communicate kneeling, no other sign of reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament is required, since kneeling is itself a sign of adoration. When they receive Communion standing, it is strongly recommended that, coming up in procession, they should make a sign of reverence before receiving the Sacrament. This should be done at the right time and place, so that the order of people going to and from Communion is not disrupted." [11]
In fact section 9 does say that the lay person is not to touch the consecrated host. Some "traditionalists" have argued that this means that one is supposedly disobeying the Holy Father when a non-ordained person does touch it. However, the important point to note is ‘At which point are we talking about?’ He is not speaking of a lay person never touching the consecrated host. Otherwise, the Pope would have rescinded the permission to grant communion in the hand. Why would the Pope mean that the lay people can never touch it, if in the very next sentence he says that there can be extraordinary ministers who can touch it? It is obvious. It is because what he is talking about in section 9, is that they can not pick up the chalice from the altar. It does not say that they can not receive the chalice. It means that a Lay Minister can not go pick up the chalice from the altar. Only the priest is allowed to touch the Eucharist at the altar to give the cup or chalice to the Extraordinary Minister.

Then the Lay Ministers are given the responsibility as Extraordinary Ministers to distribute. How do they distribute except holding the Body and Blood in their hand? Now yes, in too many places there has been a laxity in enforcing the fact that Extraordinary Ministers are extraordinary, and are not to be the ordinary distributors of the Eucharist. In too many places Extraordinary Ministers are used when they are not necessary. However, in my (Matt’s) Church for example, the Priest does not use Extraordinary Ministers at all, and the priests that we have, come out during Mass to distribute communion.

Some "Traditionalists" will selectively quote Pope John Paul II, in Dominicae Cenae, 11, to say that only the ordained can distribute the Eucharist with their own hands (and thus contradict the instructions just cited in Inaestimabile Donum and Pope Paul's permission granted in 1977). I will italicize the part that "traditionalists" sometimes cite, but also give the rest of the citation to again give a fuller context.

To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist. It is obvious that the Church can grant this faculty to those who are neither priests nor deacons, as is the case with acolytes in the exercise of their ministry, especially if they are destined for future ordination, or with other lay people who are chosen for this to meet a just need, but always after an adequate preparation.
Some have even used the italicized citation to say that "universal liturgical law" forbids communion in the hand." Yes the Pope says that it is a privilege of the ordained to touch the host. Yes, this is a privilege where only the Priest holds up the bread and wine and it becomes the Body and Blood of Our Lord through the power of Our Lord. Nevertheless the encyclical did not end at the selected part that "traditionalists" wanted to cite. Included above is the full paragraph. In the very next sentence, it says that it is obvious that this faculty of the Church can be granted to lay people!!!! Thus, any person who selectively cites one sentence disregards this obvious fact.

In fact, in the very same section, of the same encyclical, Pope John Paul II does deplore that there have been some abuses. He insists that those who want to receive on the tongue be allowed to do so. However, he does write just a few sentences before in the same section we have just read:

In some countries the practice of receiving Communion in the hand has been introduced. This practice has been requested by individual episcopal conferences and has received approval from the Apostolic See. However, cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior but also to the pastors of the church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist. It also happens, on occasion, that the free choice of those who prefer to continue the practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is not taken into account in those places where the distribution of Communion in the hand has been authorized. It is therefore difficult in the context of this present letter not to mention the sad phenomena previously referred to. This is in no way meant to refer to those who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion, in those countries where this practice has been authorized.[12]
How in the world can it be "universal liturgical law forbidding communion in the hand", as some "traditionalists" argue, when the Holy Father writes that in those countries where it has been authorized, it can be done with profound reverence and devotion? This argument that the Holy Father is allowing "universal liturgical law" to be broken is ridiculous as in the very same encyclical he accepts the practice as long as it is done in a reverential fashion. Any "Traditionalist" who tries to cite the Holy Father against a lay person being able to touch the Eucharist with their hand, totally ignores the fact that he says one indeed can receive the Lord on their hand with reverence and devotion. Thus, it has been granted to not only Extraordinary Ministers to touch the host, who then can distribute the host, but also the people who can receive it in either fashion of on the tongue or in the hand.


We have seen "Traditionalists" often misread history and misunderstand current practices. Some "Traditionalists" are more ignorant than others. Some real traditionalists will admit that yes, communion in the hand was a common occurrence traditionally and will also admit that liturgical law does allow the practice of receiving Our Lord by communion in the hand, but they just don’t like it being practiced the way that it is. This piece is not really aimed at those who make such admissions. However, in a too prevalent fashion some so-called "traditionalists" refuse to see the forest from the trees and ignore both history and real liturgical law. History shows that the practice of receiving communion in the hand was common. In both pre and even post-Nicene history people were allowed to carry it into their homes. There is no record of any Saint who forbade that or even hinted that it was an abuse to do such. We have records of Saints and Councils after the time of persecutions reporting on this without at the same time having any critiques of Our Lord being carried about in the hand by lay people who distribute Our Lord. Thus, in some sense there is more rigorousness now in the handling of Our Lord in the host now, than in the times of ancient Christian history. Where were the self-styled "Traditionalists" then? We have Saints and Councils permitting this, as we have seen. Those who call practice of receiving communion in the hand ‘vulgar’ call these Saints and Councils "vulgar"

Do we think that this practice is great in the way that it is practiced now? Not necessarily so, in light of some sense of the loss of the Sacred in our day. But the Church has undoubtedly granted this permission. Jesus said to both Peter and later of the apostles this: Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mt. 16:18, 18:18). We have seen that Pope Paul VI granted this permission and Pope John Paul II has given further instructions which allows it. Liturgical law does allow this practice despite what some say. It is in not in our authority to forbid that which is permitted. Now of course both popes who have given this allowance have emphasized that this is to be done in a reverential fashion, and the practice of receiving on the tongue is and still must be an option for all who partake. We ourselves receive on the tongue. However, it is Pharisaical, and untraditional, to lambaste others who receive communion in the hand just because they receive Our Lord in that fashion. Any abuse that happens, we likewise condemn with the Holy Father. Nevertheless, it is a traditional practice, and one is permitted to do so, according to the explicit instructions of the Holy Father. In the United States it remains the option of the Communicant, per the instructions of the Holy Father, not the option of self-styled "Traditionalists" who tell us otherwise.


[1] Catholic Encyclopedia: From the article "The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist" (c. 1913)

[2] St. Basil the Great: Letter 93 (Cæsaria, concerning Communion) in its entirety (c. 378 AD)

[3] Quintsext Synod of Trullo: "Canon 101" (692 AD)

[4] St. Cyril of Jerusalem: "Fifth Mystagogical Catechesis", 21: PG 33. col 1125 (c. 350 AD) as cited by the Quintsext Synod of Trullo Canon 101 (c. 692 AD)

[5] St. John Damascus: "De Fide Orthodoxa" Book IV, ch. XIII (circa 730 AD)

[6] Catholic Encyclopedia: From the article "Communion Patens" (c. 1913)

[7] The Last Words of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

[8] Memoriale Domini Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, May 29, 1969. There are more norms on the issue that can be read at:

[9] Sacred Congregation For Divine Worship, Letter "En reponse a la demande," to presidents of those conferences of bishops petitioning the indult for communion in the hand, 29 May 1969: AAS 61 (1969) 546-547; Not 5 (1969) 351-353. Further guidelines are given. The instruction and guidelines are available at:

[10] James Akin, Mass Confusion, p. 154, 155, instruction from the Vatican Sacred Congregation For Divine Worship, - U.S. Bishops, "Appendix to the General Instruction for the Dioceses of the United States." Citation taken from The Sacramentary (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1985), p. 240.

[11] Inaestimabile Donum, 9-11, Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Instruction Concerning Worship Of The Eucharistic Mystery 11 April 3, 1980, approved by Pope John Paul II, April 17, 1980, available at

[12] Pope John Paul II,Dominicae Cenae, On The Mystery And Worship Of The Eucharist, available at

©2001, "The Red Herring of Communion in the Hand", written by I. Shawn McElhinney and ‘Matt1618’. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the authors.

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