How we handle objects says a lot about how we regard them. When looking at fine jewelry, for example, we are mindful to handle the gems carefully. When observing fine works of art, we don’t even touch them at all. When we hold a baby or hug a loved one, we do so gently and with care. The things we handle carefully are usually the things we hold in high esteem.
When it comes to the holy Eucharist, the living sacramental presence of Jesus Christ, this should be true all the more. Because we believe that Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist—body, blood soul and divinity—we reserve the Eucharist in a secure tabernacle, constructed of the finest materials available. We situate the tabernacle in a place of honor in the Church, usually in the center of the sanctuary, and we genuflect before it.
To reverence our Lord’s sacramental presence, we use chalices and patens for the celebration of the Eucharist, not ordinary dishes. We call these “sacred vessels.” Made of precious metal, they are set aside for sacred use only. Priests and deacons wear beautiful vestments during the celebration of the Eucharist and most of us, out of respect for our Lord, put on our “Sunday best” when we head to Mass.
When we receive our Lord in holy Communion, we should receive him in the way we encounter a loved one: with reverence, care, gentleness and humility. For in the holy Eucharist, the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, "Christ, God and man, makes himself wholly and entirely present” (1374).
Recently, Cardinal Antonio Canizares Llovera, prefect for the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, encouraged Catholics to consider receiving holy Communion on the tongue as a “sign of adoration that needs to be recovered.” When we do so, he said, we “know that we are before God himself and that he came to us and that we are undeserving.” To receive the Eucharist on our tongue, he said, is to signify our humility before the Lord and to recognize that it is God himself who feeds us.
For this reason, some Catholics choose to receive the Eucharist not in their hands, but directly on their tongues. Receiving the sacred host on our tongue ensures that we do not treat Christ’s presence as an ordinary piece of bread.
Reception of holy Communion on the tongue has been a tradition of the Church for more than 15 centuries. It began, largely, as an effort to affirm that the Eucharist was not a symbol or a ritual, but the living presence of Jesus Christ. In recent years I have observed that a growing number of young Catholics, particularly seminarians, choose now to receive holy Communion on the tongue.
To be sure, the Church permits Catholics to receive the Eucharist either on the tongue or in their hands, at the discretion of the one receiving holy Communion. Both modes of receiving holy Communion have their own value and their own beauty.
Some Catholics feel more comfortable receiving the Eucharist in their hands. For some, touching the Eucharist makes them feel more connected to Jesus Christ himself. It takes humility to accept the Lord, present and visible, in our own hands. Many of the Fathers of the early Church recognized that our hands could be a “throne” for receiving holy Communion—the Lord, the King of Kings. To make a throne for the Lord with our hands is to signify our total commitment to worship and to Christian service.
Catholics who receive in the hand should ensure, above all, that their hands are clean as they prepare to literally touch the presence of Christ. When they receive, St. John Damascene counseled that they should put their hands “in the form of a cross.” They should receive right away, not when they return to their seat. To pluck, grab or pull the Eucharist into their hands is a sign of great disrespect and could lead to accidentally dropping the sacred host. An even greater danger and sacrilege is the possibility of someone stealing a host for trivial or even evil purposes. Sadly, this actually happens.
As we prepare to receive the new English translation of the Roman Missal on the first Sunday of Advent, let us take this opportunity to reflect on the manner in which we receive our Lord in holy Communion. It is my hope and prayer that we not only use this historic moment in the liturgical life of the Church to celebrate a new English text of the Roman Missal, but that we also make this a time of true liturgical renewal in every aspect of our worship and communion with the Lord.
Some may choose to receive the Lord on the tongue while others choose to receive in the hand. All of us should receive with great reverence and respect. And to demonstrate reverence and respect, the Church asks us to offer a slight bow of the head immediately before receiving holy Communion. For to receive our Lord in holy Communion is, indeed, the most profound union we can have with God this side of eternity.
This column continues the Denver Catholic Register’s New Roman Missal series.
Bishop James D. Conley is apostolic administrator of the Denver Archdiocese. Father Daniel Cardo and Father Marcus Mallick, members of the archdiocese’s Implementation Committee for the New Roman Missal, contributed to this column.