Protecting the Real Presence

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by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  July 10, 2020   

Priest forgoes Communion in the hand

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BIRMINGHAM, England (ChurchMilitant.com) - A U.K. priest is not dispensing Holy Communion to his parishioners owing to archdiocesan guidelines that he believes foster irreverence.

The archdiocese of Birmingham, England is engaging in "fraternal dialogue" with Fr. John Saward, pastor of Ss. Gregory and Augustine in nearby Oxford, owing to Saward's refusal on Sunday to distribute Holy Communion in accord with the archdiocese's COVID-19 guidelines that, among other things, ban Communion on the tongue.

Saward told parishioners, "But though at last today you can assist at Holy Mass, you will need to wait a little longer before receiving Holy Communion. The health and safety regulations for public Masses, make it difficult to receive Our Lord with reverence."

Birmingham resumed public Mass on July 4 but did so with current pandemic-related restrictions that bar distribution of Holy Communion on the tongue and forbid parishioners from kneeling to receive.

The restrictions stipulate, "Communion must be given silently in the hand only, with the communicant standing and avoiding any physical contact."


The archdiocese further requires communicants to keep a seemingly awkward distance from the priest when coming up to receive and putting their hands in such a way that dropping the Host could be a concern.

"When they approach the priest, they should do so with arms at 'full stretch' so that there is a good distance between the priest and the communicant. Their hands, palms upwards, one of top of the other, should be extended as flatly as possible," stated the guidelines.

'Be Patient and Persevere'

Noting in his homily on Sunday that Christ's Real Presence in Holy Communion brings "the rest and peace" that He alone can give, Saward observed"The current regulations surround the distribution of Communion with restrictions that will scandalize some and make others feel discomfort — the opposite of peace and rest."

The former Anglican minister concluded, "So as your priest, I'm asking you to be patient a little longer and to persevere in prayer, in faith, hope and love, of the Lord Jesus, who is meek and lowly of heart."

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SS Gregrogy and Augustine

Birmingham told The Tablet it was not "aware of any complaints made by individuals" upset by Saward's actions but said it was in "fraternal dialogue at present with his Superiors."

Doubling down on its guidelines, the archdiocese emphasized, "Those guidelines are to be followed by all clergy in the archdiocese of Birmingham at the celebration of public Mass, without exception, until further notice."

What Are the Rules?

Canonically disciplining Saward may prove difficult, however, for several reasons. A primary reason is that the Vatican's Congregation for the Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament (CDW) gives priests the prerogative to choose to not dispense Holy Communion whenever they believe the Host is in danger of profanation.

In paragraph 92 of its 2004 universally binding instruction on the liturgy titled Redemptionis Sacramentum, the CDW declares, "If there is a risk of profanation, then Holy Communion should not be given in the hand to the faithful."

Who must violate their conscience? Who sins?

In the same paragraph, the CDW also affirms that communicants always have the right to receive on the tongue noting that, "each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice."

The preceding paragraph also verifies that communicants can always choose to kneel to receive Holy Communion.

"Therefore, it is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ's faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing," reads paragraph 91.

Unenforceable Bans

Many canon lawyers and prelates have noted that bishops neither have the canonical power to ban Communion on the tongue, nor the power to similarly force communicants to stand when receiving the Blessed Sacrament. But the CDW itself has clarified that bishops can't demand Communion in the hand even when trying to avoid the transmission of germs.

In 2009, a lay Catholic in Britain facing restriction on receiving Communion on the tongue owing to the swine flu scare wrote to the CDW, which responded

This dicastery observes that its Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (March 25, 2004) clearly stipulates that "each of the faithful always has the right to receive Holy Communion of the tongue" (n. 92) nor is it licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ's faithful who are not impeded by law from receiving the Holy Eucharist.

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Cdl. Robert Sarah

The current head of the CDW, Cdl. Robert Sarah, however, is condemning "profane" methods of administering Holy Communion during any pandemic. The Vatican's head liturgist is correcting church leaders throughout the world, who are misdirecting parishioners to receive "Communion in the hand only," supposedly to avoid passing on contagion.

Saward is concerned that the archdiocesan restrictions "will scandalize some." A U.S. priest, Fr. Jeffrey Robideau agrees. He told Church Militant that bishops and clerics should not be forcing parishioners to violate their well-formed conscience regarding the reception of Holy Communion.

"Most striking is the bishop who says that they will have to receive in the hand even if it violates their conscience," Fr. Robideau said. "Church teaching is that one must follow their informed conscience."

"If the communicant believes that they must receive on the tongue and the priest believes he must place it in the hand, who wins?" he asked. "Who must violate their conscience? Who sins?"

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