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A parish in Illinois recently requested that Mass attendees refrain from receiving Holy Communion on their tongues and receive instead on their hands. The reason? It's allegedly flu season, and the leadership of the parish is supposedly worried that Communion on the tongue could spread illness.
Normally, Communion in the hand is a liturgical abuse, and it can't ever be forced onto the faithful who wish to receive on the tongue. But what about in such cases of apparent health risk or emergency? Do these concerns provide a sufficient reason to make an exception?
Not if you ask the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW). Here's its response to a question posed by a British Catholic in 2009 after his diocese restricted Communion on the tongue out of fear of the Swine flu.
The letter cites paragraph 92 of the CDW's instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum." That same paragraph goes on to permit Communion in the hand "in areas where the Bishops' Conference with the recognitio of the Apostolic See has given permission." However, it adds, "If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful."
Proponents of the traditional practice of Communion on the tongue often assert that there's always such a risk. They commonly point out that there's no protection against someone who wishes to sneak off with the Precious Body of Christ without consuming It. There's also a greater risk that the Host is dropped.
One risk that isn't as well known, though, is that any time the Eucharist is held in one's hands, fragments almost inevitably break off onto the skin. This presents a high risk of profanation, since, as the Council of Trent teaches, the Real Presence of Our Lord is in every particle of the Host.
If any one saith, that, after the consecration is completed, the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ are not in the admirable sacrament of the Eucharist, but (are there) only during the use, whilst it is being taken, and not either before or after; and that, in the Hosts, or consecrated particles, which are reserved or which remain after Communion, the true Body of the Lord remaineth not; let him be anathema (Session 13, canon 4).
One man has demonstrated the problem by testing the practice with unconsecrated hosts. The results showed that most times he took the bread into his hands, pieces of it remained — pieces that a typical communicant would usually brush off unknowingly.
Anyone who, knowing this, doesn't consider it a big deal presumably wouldn't take it to be a problem if the whole Host were dropped on the ground and forgotten — because there's no difference between that and a small fragment that falls to the floor.
To learn more about Communion in the hand, watch our Premium program "Sleight of Hand: Reception Deception."