Pars Prima: A Historical Windshield Wiper

Well, folks, here we are at the beginning. Have you ever been in the car when it was just pouring down rain and you need the windshield wipers going or else you won’t be able to see ahead of you? Well, that’s the goal of this first post: a little history of Holy Communion in the hand. Then we’ll go into what the Church ACTUALLY has to say on the issue. Future posts will go into the problem with this manner of reception.

Contrary to popular belief, a lot of common occurrences at any given Mass in the United States were never a part of Vatican II. A lot of people think, “Oh, thanks to Vatican II we have girl altar servers and can put Communion in our own mouths, and now the priest doesn’t have his back toward us, and now we can be a big happy family holding hands at the Our Father and now we can give Communion to people and now…! It’s all so great! Thank God the Church got in touch with the times!!!! Oh, don’t you just love it?????” Vatican II never called for any of the things just listed. Actually, if you want an accurate picture of how all the modern stuff makes me feel…

If you want to know what the Council said with regards to changes in the Mass, you should read the document Sacrosanctum Concilium. Thankfully for you, I’ll write the appropriate parts here. Specifically, let’s take a look at Chapter I, section III, Reform of the Sacred Liturgy. Three statements stick out especially: 1) Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See and, as laws may determine, on the bishop; 2) in virtue of power conceded by the law, the regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs also to competent territorial bodies of bishops legitimately established; 3) Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority (emphasis mine).

And then, similarly, we find this statement in no. 22 of “General Norms”: Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing. As far as possible, notable differences between the rites used in adjacent regions must be carefully avoided.

Yet again, under “Norms Drawn From the Hierarchic and Communal Nature of the Liturgy”, we see the following: “In liturgical celebrations each person, minister or layman, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to his office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy” (emphasis mine).

And still, again, in “Norms Based on the Didactic and Pastoral Nature of the Liturgy”, we find these three things: 1) Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. 2) But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants, according to the regulations on this matter to be laid down separately in subsequent chapters [notice it didn’t say, “the whole of the Mass”] 3) These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority mentioned in Art. 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be used; their decrees are to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See. And, whenever it seems to be called for, this authority is to consult with bishops of neighboring regions which have the same language.

OK, well, why am I quoting all this stuff? To show you that innovations and whatnot were not meant to occur.

You may be saying, “Wait a minute…if Vatican II never said to do this stuff…why is it so common? Wouldn’t they have put a stop to it if it were so at odds with what they wanted?”

You must realize something: a lot of the “allowances” like Communion in the hand and altar girls all started out as liturgical abuses started by liberal priests who took the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” (I didn’t know there was one…) and tried to Protestantize and spice up the Mass (for example, this one priest my mother knew allowed girl altar servers before the Vatican ever did). These ideas spread and sooner or later most people, not having read the documents of Vatican II, took them to be the norm and thought that they were a result of the Council itself. And because the ideas became so widespread and would be hard to stamp out, the Vatican gave concession. These things weren’t part of Vatican II. And as a side note–that’s why I hate when people condemn Vatican II. It didn’t DO anything! Get mad at the liberal priests who hijacked it instead.

Anyway, Communion in the hand was first given an official mention by the Church itself in 1969, when the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship replied to an appeal by bishops (particularly from the United States) requesting the implementation of this practice. The Congregation’s letter response had this to say:

” The Pope grants that throughout the territory of your conference, each bishop may, according to his prudent judgment and conscience, authorize in his diocese the introduction of the new rite for giving communion. The condition is the complete avoidance of any cause for the faithful to be shocked and any danger of irreverence toward the Eucharist. The following norms must therefore be respected.
1. The new manner of giving communion must not be imposed in a way that would exclude the traditional practice. It is a matter of particular seriousness that in places where the new practice is lawfully permitted every one of the faithful have the option of receiving communion on the tongue and even when other persons are receiving communion in the hand.
2. The rite of communion in the hand must not be put into practice indiscriminately. Since the question involves human attitudes, this mode of communion is bound up with the perceptiveness and preparation of the one receiving. It is advisable, therefore, that the rite be introduced gradually and in the beginning within small, better prepared groups and in favorable settings. Above all it is necessary to have the introduction of the rite preceded by an effective catechesis, so that the people will clearly understand the meaning of receiving in the hand and will practice it with the reverence owed to the sacrament. This catechesis must succeed in excluding any suggestion that in the mind of the Church there is a lessening of faith in the eucharistic presence and in excluding as well any danger or hint of danger of profaning the Eucharist.
3. The option offered to the faithful of receiving the Eucharistic bread in their hand and putting it into their own mouth must not turn out to be the occasion for regarding it as ordinary bread or as just another religious article. (…) Their attitude of reverence must measure up to what they are doing.

[Just for the record, if you read norm #4, you’ll notice it says that perhaps the communicant may take the Host from the ciborium for himself. Well, according to EWTN, Rome later forbade this practice]

5. Whatever procedure is adopted, care must be taken not to allow particles of the Eucharistic bread to fall or be scattered.

There are more norms as well, which you can read here:

Either way, as you can see, the Church desires that much care be given when receiving the Holy Eucharist this way, since, substantially contained in every particle of that Host is God Himself, and the Church makes it clear that if a communicant desires to receive the traditional way, he must be accommodated (yes, there have been many cases of priests refusing Communion to kneeling or by-tongue receivers, which they can’t do).

Oh, man….the problem is there’s SO MUCH I could quote to you regarding this practice that no one gives any attention to. Let us think, though, for a moment: the pope is the Visible Head of the Church and he is all for reverence at Mass. If you read his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, you’ll see he makes it clear, for example, that ad orientem is the favorable position of the priest at Mass. And also, if you’ve seen any of his Masses on television, you’d notice that he only gives Communion on the tongue, with the communicant kneeling. Hey, perhaps he’s trying to set an example…

God bless you, and may His mother pray for you during May, and if you don’t mind, follow this blog via email,



3 thoughts on “Pars Prima: A Historical Windshield Wiper”

  1. Great post — enjoyed it. And I really like your writing style. :)
    I think what it comes down to is that proper reverence is an absolute necessity. If a person feels they can show that proper reverence by receiving in the hand…well, good for them. But so many people do not.


    1. Exactly. So many people don’t. In fact, I find it surprising that the way the Church words the allowance makes it sound as though it’s the super-reverent who would be ideal for receiving in the hand, yet it tends to be those same people who are uncomfortable doing so. Then, conversely, it’s precisely the people who should receive on the tongue that end up receiving in the hand.


      1. Hm…it IS interesting — I didn’t think of that before, but that is definitely a good point! However, I don’t really know if there’s anything we can do to change people’s minds.


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