A few weeks ago a friend had asked about the Church’s law on the proper posture for receiving holy communion. Should we receive on the tongue or in the hand? Kneeling or standing? Over the years, I have heard various answers with slight differences, so I decided to look into it myself. As with my previous articles on the rite of exorcism, I hope to dispel some of the myths and clarify the issue. My intention here is not to give a complete historical overview of the various practices, nor even to treat the theological reasoning behind them. Rather, I hope to simply and clearly explain the ius vigens, that is, the law presently in force regarding the posture for receiving holy communion.
In the Hand or on the Tongue?
Though many may tell you that the Second Vatican Council “did away” with communion on the tongue, the truth of the matter is that the council fathers did not address such concrete subjects. Rather, the many liturgical questions following the Second Vatican Council were handled by the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments and the Sacred Congregation of Rites, groups which were later merged to create what we now call the Congregation for Divine Worship. The question of receiving in the hand or on the tongue was first treated in an instruction entitled Memoriale Domini, published in 1969, just four years after the conclusion of Vatican II. In this instruction, the congregation stated that the Holy Father has decided not to change the universal practice of receiving on the tongue for three reasons: it had “many centuries of tradition behind it”, it avoided the possibility of profanation, and it expressed a proper “respect, decorum, and dignity” for the Eucharist. However, the document noted that if the discipline of receiving in the hand prevailed by popular practice, then an individual conference of bishops could request an exception from Rome to allow communion in the hand provided that the traditional usage of receiving on the tongue was not excluded.
Following this instruction, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did indeed request permission that communion in the hand be allowed in their territory. For this reason, the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the official instruction manual for the Mass, states that in the U.S. the communicant “may choose whether to receive in the hand or on the tongue.” Two years later, the Congregation for Divine Worship published another instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, which states that one “always has the right to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, at his choice” and that if anyone wishes to receive in the hand where this permission has been granted, he is allowed. From these documents, it is quite clear, therefore, that each individual may receive on the tongue, or in territories where communion in the hand is allowed, he may receive in the hand.
However, it must be noted that the permission which allows communion to be given in the hand does not create an absolute right for the communicant. The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, mentioned above, notes that if there is a risk of profanation of the Eucharistic species, communion should not be given in the hand, but only on the tongue.
Kneeling or Standing?
The question of whether one should kneel or stand when receiving communion is a slightly more complicated one. As with the case above, the Second Vatican Council did not address this specific question, but it was left to be worked out in the period after the council. In 1967, the Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated an instruction entitled Eucharisticum mysterium, which stated that “the faithful may receive communion either kneeling or standing.” It went on to say, however, that one or the other posture was to be chosen by the conference of bishops to be the norm for their territory. The USCCB decided that the norm for the dioceses in the United States would be standing, which is reflected in article 160 of the GIRM as adopted for this country. The GIRM, though, immediately adds two qualifications. First, it states that communicants “should not be denied Holy Communion because they kneel.” Secondly, it notes that “such instances should be addressed pastorally, by providing the faithful with proper catechesis on the reasons for this norm.” Unfortunately the reason for this norm is not contained in article 160 itself, as one might expect, but occurs earlier in article 42 regarding the importance of a uniform posture during the sacred liturgy. Article 42 states that a common posture is to be observed throughout the whole of Mass – not just during communion – since a uniform posture signifies the unity of the Christian community.
From these statements in the GIRM, a number of important questions arise. Does article 42 of the GIRM imply that there can be no variance whatsoever in the posture of the faithful at Mass? Can a pastor of a parish, after having provided the aforementioned catechesis, refuse communion to those who still wish to kneel? Are those who choose to kneel being “disobedient” to the norm created by the USCCB? These questions are not merely theoretical or abstract ones, but are real questions that were addressed to the Congregation for Divine Worship in the years following the publication of the GIRM. Thankfully, the congregation made their replies known, publishing them in their official journal Notitiae and thus allowing us greater insight into the proper application of these norms.
Can there be no variance in the posture of the faithful?
This question came to the Congregation for Divine Worship from Cardinal George of Chicago in 2003, who asked whether the GIRM forbid one from kneeling in personal prayer after receiving the Eucharist even though the rest of the community sat or stood. The congregation replied that article 42 of the GIRM meant to “ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture” while not seeking to “regulate posture rigidly”. Though the question itself does not directly pertain, this response gives us some insight regarding how article 42 is to be applied throughout the other parts of the Mass, including at communion.
Can a pastor refuse communion to those who kneel?
This question came to the congregation in 2002 from a parishioner whose pastor had instituted a policy of refusing communion to those who presented themselves kneeling. The congregation responded forcefully, stating that they consider “any refusal of Holy Communion to a member of the faithful on the basis of his or her kneeling posture to be a grave violation of one of the most basic rights of the Christian faithful”. Furthermore, they issued a warning to priests who “should understand that the congregation will regard future complaints of this nature with great seriousness.”
Are those who kneel for communion disobedient?
Following the promulgation of the GIRM, many held that those who chose to kneel when receiving were being disobedient to the norm created by the USCCB. This very question came to the congregation in 2003, who indicated that they had received “more than a few letters regarding this matter.” The congregation was unequivocal in stating that “the faithful should not be imposed upon nor accused of disobedience and of acting illicitly when they kneel to receive communion.” This response corrected the misinterpretation found in a July 2002 newsletter from the USCCB’s own liturgy committee, which stated that “kneeling is not a licit posture.” It is now quite clear that kneeling to receive communion is a licit posture and not one of disobedience, as some had previously thought.
From everything that has been said above, we can conclude the following. First, the faithful always have the right to receive communion on the tongue, according to the centuries-old tradition. However, those in the United States are also permitted receive in the hand, provided that no danger of profanation exists. Secondly, the norm in the United States is to receive standing, but those who wish to receive kneeling may freely do so. Any refusal of the Most Holy Eucharist to those who kneel is a grave violation, and no one may impose upon them nor accuse them of disobedience. Therefore, no pastor, no youth minister, and certainly no employer may prohibit or deter any member of the faithful from receiving on his knees if he so chooses. This is the current law of the Church, to which we, as Catholics, are all bound by conscience.
Allow What the Church Allows
A general principle to follow is this: teach what the Church teaches, condemn what the Church condemns, but allow what the Church allows. Unfortunately, this last point can sometimes be the most difficult, especially in liturgical matters. Because our worship of God is both communal and personal, each one of us has our own unique liturgical preferences. Whatever one’s personal preference may be, we must be careful to allow what the Church allows, while nonetheless always striving for greater holiness, devotion, and reverence in worship. Or else, we risk usurping the seat of Peter and imposing our own preferences on the whole of the Church. The difficult task of allowing what the Church allows requires both humility and obedience, two virtues perfectly modeled in the Person of Christ, Whom we receive in the Most Holy Eucharist.
~published on 18 May 2011 in the Madison Catholic Herald