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Father Nicholas Nelson: The history of Communion in the hand

A little-known papal document written in 1969 is titled “Memoriale Domini: Instruction on the Manner of Receiving Holy Communion.” In this document, Pope St. Paul VI reaffirms the one and a half millennia practice of receiving Communion directly on the tongue yet opens up the possibility of receiving a dispensation for receiving Holy Communion in the hand.

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

What brought about the necessity of St. Pope Paul VI writing this document? In the years following the Second Vatican Council, Holy Communion began to be distributed to people in their hands. This was mainly done in the countries of France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany and it was done without the permission of the church. Until then, Holy Communion could only be received directly on the tongue. The Vatican and the Holy Father intervened a number of times, telling the cardinals and bishops and priests to stop it, but they continued to disobey.

In the late ’60s, seeing that it was continuing despite his objections, Pope St. Paul wrote all the bishops of the world, asking them what they thought of Holy Communion being received in the hand and if it should be allowed. Overwhelmingly, the bishops responded that no, it shouldn’t be allowed, and that the faithful would not be in favor of the change.

Based off this survey, Pope St. Paul VI on May 29, 1969 wrote Memoriale Domini. In that instruction, he published the results of the survey of the bishops and decided that the traditional manner of receiving Holy Communion would remain, that of the priest placing the host directly on the tongue of the communicant.

He said, “A change in a matter of such importance, which rests on a very ancient and venerable tradition, besides touching upon discipline can also include dangers. These may be feared from a new manner of administering Holy Communion: they are 1) a lessening of reverence toward the noble Sacrament of the altar, 2) its profanation, or 3) the adulteration of correct doctrine.”

He goes on to say, “From the responses received it is thus clear that by far the greater number of bishops feel that the present discipline should not be changed at all, indeed that if it were changed, this would be offensive to the sensibilities and spiritual appreciation of these bishops and of most of the faithful.”

But then, there was a big “but.” For those places where Holy Communion was already being given to people in their hand, it was possible for those places to apply for an “indult,” a special dispensation, from the Vatican that would allow their people to receive in the hand.

For a country to apply for the indult, the following was necessary: 1) Communion in the hand had to already be presently in that country; 2) the bishops of that country had to have two-thirds majority vote in favor of Communion in the hand; 3) Communion in the hand should not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional manner; 4) the way of introducing this must be done tactfully; 5) Communion in the hand should not cause the person to think it is just ordinary bread; 6) one must be careful to not allow profanation or any fragment to fall.

The fateful meeting for the United States took place from May 3-5, 1977, in Chicago. Bishop Romeo Blanchette tried to stop the conference from pursuing Communion in the hand immediately. He made a motion that they take vote as to whether it was the prevailing custom already. Remember, that was the first condition. If it wasn’t prevailing already, then it was a dead issue. Cardinal Joseph Bernadine, the conference chairman, explained that this motion could be overruled, which would prevent the bishops from voting on whether or not it was prevalent. The bishops overruled Bishop Blanchette and therefore passed over even considering the first necessary condition for Communion in the hand.

After a heated debate, the bishops voted, and Cardinal Bernadine admitted that they didn’t get the two-thirds vote. However, he decided they should poll the absent bishops and received the two-thirds majority necessary. These bishops were not at the meeting, not part of the discussion, and they didn’t have the opportunity to vote secretly. Their votes should not have counted.

Nevertheless, they sent their request to Rome, and on June 17, 1977, the United States received the dispensation.

What do I want you to take away from this history of Communion in the hand? First, you are allowed to receive Holy Communion in the hand. You aren’t doing anything wrong if you do. But secondly, I want you to realize that Communion in the hand started as an abuse, with no prior approval. Realize that the “ordinary” way to receive Holy Communion is still on the tongue. It is only by a special dispensation that a person is allowed to receive in the hand. In fact, bishops have the right to reject that dispensation and require people to receive on the tongue. There are currently some bishops who have done that.

Also, we must ask: Have St. Pope Paul’s fears come true, that of “loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine”? Just consider the Pew Study from 2019 in which only a third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence.

Finally, consider receiving Holy Communion in the ordinary way!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].