News Archive

Monday 14 November 2011

Holy Communion

Here is the penultimate sermon in the series on the Mass, preached by Fr Jerome Bertram on Sunday 13th November:

"Do this in Remembrance of Me".

It is in Holy Communion that we are made one with Our Lord, and through Him, we are one with everyone else who is united to Him; thus we are united to those who have died, and brought into communion with those we lament. That it why we celebrate Mass and receive Communion for the dead.

Immediately before we receive Holy Communion we reap the most obvious benefit of the new translation: the brief exchange turns out to consist of direct quotations from Scripture: "Behold, the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the World", words in which St John the Baptist first pointed out Our Lord (John 1:29). We have been calling on the Lamb of God to have mercy on us, and grant us peace, and now He is here, we can see Him! Then we hear, "Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb", from near the end of St John's Apocalypse (19:9), for our Holy Communion is a "Pledge of future Glory" (St Thomas Aquinas, antiphon for Vespers of Corpus Christi). And we reply in the words of the Centurion in the Gospel, "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed." (Matth. 8:8) Yes, there is one word different: we pray for my soul to be healed. Holy Communion is a remedy for the soul, the heart, the mind – it is not primarily a remedy for the body, we have another Sacrament for that. We come to Holy Communion to be cleansed from sin, to be strengthened in virtue, to be united with each other into the One Body of Christ which is His Church.

But how should we receive Communion? Here we enter delicate ground, for there is nothing so divisive as the Sacrament which unites us. We must tread carefully, saying nothing more than the truth, and invoking charity and understanding as we try to avoid the peril on either side. The peril, that is, of breaching Charity.

When we approach the Altar rails, we come in procession up the centre of the church, to express our respect for the Altar and the Sacrifice, and we return by the side-aisles, so that those approaching and those returning do not obstruct each other. As we all know, there are two modes of receiving Holy Communion in the Western Church. Recently the Holy See renewed permission for Catholics in England to receive Communion in their hands, and standing, while reminding us that everyone is free to kneel along the altar-rail, and to receive on the tongue. As the Instruction prefaced to the new Altar Missal says, "individual members of the faithful may choose to receive communion while kneeling. However, when they communicate standing, it is recommended that the faithful bow in reverence before receiving the Sacrament." (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), §160, English /Scots version, CTS Altar Missal 2011, p. 69. In Australia the faithful must bow.) The Instruction continues to state that the Faithful communicate "either on the tongue, or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant." (GIRM, §161)

For nearly the whole history of the Latin Church, receiving on the tongue, and kneeling, has been the only authorised posture, with obvious exceptions such as those ill in bed. (Standing Communion has long been the tradition of the Greek Church, although the laity never receive in the hand, but open their mouths wide for the deacon to pour in the leavened Host soaked in the Precious Blood.) There is one single reference in the writings of the Church Fathers to the manner of receiving Communion in the hand, and it is worth quoting in full:

"Approaching therefore, come not with thy wrists extended, or thy fingers open; but make thy left hand as if a throne for thy right, which is on the eve of receiving the King. And having hollowed thy palm, receive the Body of CHRIST, saying after it, Amen. Then after thou hast with carefulness hallowed thine eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake thereof; giving heed lest thou lose any of it; for what thou losest, is a loss to thee, as if it were from one of thy own members. For tell me, if anyone gave thee gold dust, wouldest thou not with all precaution keep it fast, being on thy guard against losing any of it, and suffering loss? How much more cautiously then wilt thou observe that not a crumb falls from thee, of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?"

Thus far St Cyril of Jerusalem, writing in 347or 348 AD. (Catechetical Lectures, lect. xxiii, 21, from A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church[translated by J.H. Newman], Oxford 1838, p. 279.) It is obvious that St Cyril believed and taught that what we receive truly is the Body of the Lord, and must be welcomed with enormous respect: we can hardly do less, though his curious instruction on touching the Host to our eyes should, I think, be quietly forgotten. We receive the Host in both hands, we do not "take" it. In many cultures it is important always to use both hands when accepting a gift – and we should not forget that it is often considered offensive to receive something in the left hand. When visiting other countries we should be aware of that!

The Instruction concludes, "As soon as the communicant receives the Host, he or she consumes the whole of it." (GIRM, §161) We do not wander away clutching the Body of Christ, but receive Him eagerly into ourselves, under the roof of our mouth.

Many prefer the ancient tradition of receiving the Host directly into the mouth, as Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta did: "Her adoring attitude, gestures such as genuflections – even on both knees in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and that well into old age – her postures such as kneeling and joining hands, her preference for receiving Holy Communion on the tongue all bespoke her faith in the Eucharist." (Mother Teresa, Come be my Light, New York 2007, p. 213) We should open our mouth, and bring the tongue forward onto the lower lip (not sticking right out!) and allow the Priest or Deacon to place the Host gently on the tongue. The earliest unmistakeable allusion to receiving Communion on the tongue is in the Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity, an African document dated 203 AD, a good bit earlier than St Cyril, showing that practice varied in different regions. (Passio Sanctarum Martyrum Perpetuae et Felicitatis, §4, in A. Gallandus, Cong. Orat., Bibliotheca Veterum Patrum, Venice 1766, Vol. II, p. 175.) It has certainly been the universal custom in the Latin Church for well over a thousand years, possibly longer, and is still, of course, the norm at the Old Mass (the "Extraordinary Form"). When the Bishops after Vatican II considered changing the custom, they voted overwhelmingly against it (597 in favour of Communion in the hand, 1,233 against it). The Pope afterwards decided to permit it – this is called "collegiality". (Austin Flannery, Vatican Council II, the Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Leominster 1981, p. 151) In some countries it is not permitted: common courtesy demands that we should observe the local practice and not try to impose our own preference. But in the same way common courtesy demands that we should not be aggressive in demanding the right to kneel and receive on the tongue in a church where everyone else is standing and receiving on the hand: it is never a good thing to be "singular" or to draw attention to ourselves!

The other choice we have to make is whether to receive Communion also from the Chalice. This again is something new in the Western Church: from the very beginning we know that Christians often received in one Kind only (Luke 24:30, Acts. 2:46, 20:7). From the beginning they knew that Our Lord is received whole and entire, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, whether we receive only the Host, or (in case of sickness) only the Precious Blood. It is only the sign that is more complete when we receive in both Kinds, and only for that reason that it is recommended in the new Instruction. ("Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it takes place under both kinds." GIRM §281, p. 91.) You should approach in procession, make the gesture of reverence required, and take the Chalice firmly in both hands to drink a little before handing it back to the Deacon or Priest.

For those who find difficulty in swallowing gluten, it is perfectly correct to receive from the Chalice only (although we do have low-gluten Hosts if you ask us before Mass) – you receive the entire Lord, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity from the Chalice as from the Host. Conversely, if you have a cold or any other infectious condition, or if you have reason to believe your immune system is weakened, it is prudent and charitable not to approach the Chalice until you are cured.

Our belief that both bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, entire and undivided, is termed the Doctrine of Concomitance: if we truly believe in the Blessed Sacrament, then we know that to receive in either kind is sufficient. In fact the Instruction in the new edition of the Missal urges us priests to "take care to ensure that the faithful who participate in the rite or are present at it, are made aware of the Catholic teaching on the form of Holy Communion ... that Christ, whole and entire, and the true Sacrament, is received even under only one kind ... that the Church ... has the power to lay down or alter whatever provisions, apart from the substance of the Sacraments, that she judges to be more readily conducive to reverence for the Sacraments and the good of the recipients, in view of changing conditions, times, and places." (GIRM 282, p. 91) The Church has the power and the duty to make sure that there is no misunderstanding, or lack of respect for Our Lord in the Sacrament. Practices have changed, and may change again, but we may not consider our own present practice to be better, more correct, or more spiritual than the practices followed in the time of St Francis or St Thérèse of Lisieux. Charity, as always, is the supreme law.