There have been recent reports in the media (and only God knows why they report this) of an official in the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship expressing his views about communion in the hand. The comments are found in the preface to a book published by a bishop. In Rome, the “how and where” of a one’s statements makes all the difference. Comments in a preface to a book are about “floating” an idea to garner reaction.
The comments reported were that communion in the hand was perhaps something to be reconsidered and was never really intended by Vatican II. The report claims that this official stated that Pope Paul VI was basically “forced” to accept communion in the hand. This is the same pope who wrote Humanae Vitae? Paul VI may not have had the larger-than-life personality of Blessed John XXIII nor the the stamina of John Paul the Great, but I would not say that he would ever have been “forced” to do anything. Communion in the hand has been accepted and it was expanded to include many countries. I have personally seen the popes give communion in the hand to the faithful.
In our parish we not only encourage communion in the hand, but we discourage communion on the tongue. After our fight with SARS several years ago, we in Toronto became keenly aware of how much contact with saliva is made by this practice.
But the issue at hand (no pun intended) is much more profound than a sanitary one. Why this concern with communion in the hand? Is there widespread abuse? Not that I have seen. 99.9% of our parishioners receive communion with reverence. There are exceptions and these are addressed by on-going catechesis. The challenges do come when people of other faiths approach the altar for communion and obviously don’t know what the are doing. One has to find gentle and pastoral ways to encourage them to participate in other ways. But, this is not the real issue, is it?
I think the real issue in some people’s mind is a separation of what some see as the “sacred” and the “secular”. A priest’s hands (and most of the time those who hold this belief don’t even bother thinking of deacons), a priest’s hands are sacred and only he should touch the host. Oh, ok, I get it. A lay person’s hands are not sacred enough, but their tongue is? Come on!
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in priesthood. I have great respect for my ordination. There’s something quite humbling about having your palms anointed with Sacred Chrism. It’s something I will never forget. A priest is anointed in a very special way for his ministry in our Church. But what does that mean? Is it only for holding consecrated hosts? Presiding at the Eucharist and holding the bread as it becomes the real presence of Christ is a huge privilege… something for which I will never be worthy; but for which I was chosen by the Church. These consecrated hands are also for holding the hand of a woman on her last breath, for baptising a baby, or for embracing a sinner. The hands of a priest, my hands, have a sacred and unique role in the Church… as an extension of me, and my call in the Church.
The hands of a layperson, perhaps not consecrated in the same way and nor for the same purpose, are no less holy. The hands of a woman who gets up in the morning to change her baby’s diaper, who then goes to work and uses her hands to remove the cataracts from a man’s eyes and then returns home again to bathe the aching body of her elderly father; those hands are holy! The hands of husband and father who spends his days cleaning the classrooms, halls and bathrooms of a school to support his family and in the evening comes home to make love to his wife and then on weekends uses those same hands to help build a home for the homeless; those hands are holy! The student who extends a hand to a new classmate, or reaches out to stop a bully; those hands are holy! The senior who gently rolls her hands over her beads as she prays for her family or uses her hands to pack food at the foodbank; those hands are holy!
I believe that the Lord would have no problem being welcomed into those sacred hands as he gives himself in Communion. Yes, it is true, those same hands can also be used for hateful purposes, not in keeping with the true character of the Christian. But then again, and perhaps more so, the tongue can be a sharp and hateful weapon too. In fact, there is no part of us that is always and truly worthy of Communion.
It’s a gift!