For the past several months, I have occasionally turned to one of the Holy Father's recent books, Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times. This short book is billed as "a conversation with Peter Seewald," a well-known journalist who has, over the years, conducted a series of thoughtful interviews with the current Pope. The question-and-answer format of the book and the Holy Father's fascinating observations on a wide rage of topics all make for quick reading, but it is also ideal for a prolonged, leisurely period of ingestion. It is a gem that the reader can pick up and put down again over the course of many weeks and months.
One of the questions put to the Holy Father by Seewald deals with a directive issued by the Pope that Holy Communion is to be received on the tongue in Saint Peter's Basilica. The Holy Father's answer is insightful and worth a citation.
I am not opposed in principle to communion in the hand; I have both administered and received communion in this way myself. The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the real presence with an exclamation point. One very important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality precisely in the kinds of mass events we hold at Saint Peter's, both in the Basilica and in the Square. I have heard of people who, after receiving communion, stick the Host in their wallet to take home as a kind of souvenir. In this context, where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive communion-everyone else is going up, so I will, too-I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear: Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention! This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.
I thought these observations were noteworthy for several reasons.
As an aside, I am always somewhat surprised by the negative reaction some have to the growing movement, especially among younger Catholics, to receive on the tongue. I once was told by a priest friend how, during a high-profile mass, another priest concelebrating next to him voiced his displeasure that so many (if not all) of the seminarians were receiving on the tongue. Heaven forbid! I suppose that when someone who is attached to a vision of how things "should" be observes things slipping away, frustration and condescension are the natural result.
The problems that the Holy Father detected at Saint Peter's Basilica, with regard to unintentional (and sadly, intentional) abuses of the Blessed Sacrament, are not limited to the walls of Michelangelo's basilica or the colonnades of Bernini's piazza. The serious reality of sacrilege against the Eucharist exists everywhere.
It is one thing for Catholics who actually believe in the Real Presence to receive in the hand. The problem, as I see it, is when non-Catholics and Catholics who do not believe in the Real Presence (for whatever reason) approach communion. They observe believing Catholics receive in the hand, and, as a result, it becomes much easier for them to simply get in line and expect to receive, no questions asked. Obviously, receiving/taking in the hand is a more casual, routine way of doing day-to-day business. A static frame of mind accustomed to holding out the hand and taking is jolted a bit when asked to kneel and to receive on the tongue. "Something quite special is going on here!" No, this isn't just business as usual.
I noticed this just the other day at mass. Two young ladies, twenty-somethings, were seated a couple of pews in front of me. It was obvious that one was not in the know, in terms of knowing what to do during mass. Sit, stand, kneel? Glance about conspicuously to see what everyone else is doing to figure it out, right? Then came time for communion. Both ladies got in line, the non-Catholic was behind the Catholic and, as usual, many of the regulars at mass received in the hand, the non-Catholic observed this and so, when her time came, she simply put out her hand in a clumsy way and took the Host. Thankfully, the priest asked her pointedly, "Are you Catholic?" She was a bit stunned and offered an awkward smile. How dare anyone question her 'right' to receive! He commanded her to put the Host in her mouth, which I think she did. As she and her friend settled back in their pew, I could see the Catholic giving the still-shocked friend instructions on how to properly receive in the hand, perhaps for the next time. You know, one hand under the other, and so on. The point of this anecdote is that the non-Catholic, by observing the faithful receive in the hand, felt much more confident and comfortable to receive the Host in her own hand. It very well could have been the vigilance of the priest that prevented her from walking off with and pocketing the Blessed Sacrament. Many, if not all of these kinds of incidents, which surely happen regularly, would be completely avoided if, following the Holy Father's example, receiving on the tongue was more widely encouraged. Let's say that someone who should not receive, a non-believer, a Satanist, whatever, is determined to receive communion. If receiving on the tongue is the norm at a parish, it goes without saying that it is extremely difficult to remove a thin Host from a moist tongue. The probability of further abuse is greatly mitigated.
(One of the worst cases I heard took place at a local Catholic high school. A friend visiting the school for the day watched in utter shock as a girl carelessly dropped the Host, while another gum-chewing teen stopped the Host from rolling away by putting out her foot and stepping on the Blessed Sacrament! This disgrace would have been averted had the students been accustomed to receiving on the tongue.)
Back to the Holy Father's remarks. I think it is noteworthy that Pope Benedict XVI says, "I am not opposed in principle to communion in the hand..." and then goes on to limn the abuses and misconceptions that have germinated in the communion in the hand era. His decision for communion on the tongue at Saint Peter's Basilica was based on the reality of the problems that had become ubiquitous over the years, and his desire to reorient people's frame of mind as they approach the Blessed Sacrament. Since many of the problems discussed by the Holy Father are not limited to Rome, perhaps a similar approach should be embraced by the leadership of the Church in the United States.