The placing of the host in the hand of a baptized person is not in itself an evil, since it was a fairly common practice in the early days of the Church. However, as St. Paul points out, “All things are lawful to me, but all things are not expedient” (1 Cor 6:12).
It is not because something is in itself possible, intellectually conceivable, nor because it was carried out in the past, in circumstances substantially different from those which we now know, that it has now become opportune or desirable.
There are objective, well-founded, and still valid reasons which explain why, for more than a millennium, the Church has definitely opted for a certain way of distributing communion: the Holy Eucharist no longer being touched except by the consecrated hands of the minister.
Ensuring Respect for the Blessed Sacrament
The first motivation that can be attributed to the establishment of this form of distribution of communion is of a practical nature, namely to ensure respect for the Blessed Sacrament.
The texts of the Fathers, of the councils, and of the ecclesiastical writers at the time when communion could still be given in the hand insist very strongly on the need to take care of the smallest particle (like gold nuggets, according to a common analogy), to avoid all involuntary sacrileges (through a misguided devotion) and even more so, voluntary sacrileges.
If, as the faith of the Church teaches, taking up the words of St. Thomas Aquinas in Lauda Sion, “Christ is entirely under each fragment as under the entire host,” it is necessary to take as much care as much as humanly possible to see that no particle, no fragment is lost, and does not fall to the ground, is not trampled underfoot.
However, the presentation of the host to the hand of each faithful, with all the associated manipulations, obviously increases the risk of the involuntary loss of fragments of the host. Especially since the faithful are not necessarily adroit, do not necessarily have clean hands, and are not always sufficiently trained to handle the Blessed Sacrament with respect and attention.
To minimize as much as possible these risks in practice, the Church ended up opting for a rite that eliminates the very source of the difficulties, by abolishing the handling of the holy species by the faithful. Henceforth, the Holy Eucharist passes directly from the hand of the sacred minister to the mouth of the communicant. Respect for the smallest parcel is placed under the immediate responsibility of the sacred minister, who is trained and mandated for it.
Obviously, the gradual establishment, in the East, of the practice of communion by intinction (the host being soaked in the precious Blood) made this evolution strictly obligatory, the risk of loss of a fragment by discharge having become extremely important.
The second danger pointed out by ancient texts is sacrilege, either involuntary through the effect of misguided devotion, or voluntary.
There is, in fact, not a imaginary risk that the communicant will take away the holy species for unregulated use, from personal veneration in his house, to use as an amulet, to sacrilegious and satanic desecration. The texts of the time abound in insistent warnings on this point, proof that, unfortunately, such practices were numerous. Especially after the end of the persecutions, when Christians, some of whom were only imperfect converts from pagan rites, had grown in number.
This risk of sacrilege is still relevant today, more so than ever, considering the multicultural society in which we live. The declaration of Fr. José Marie de Antonio, responsible for the pastoral care of migrants in the Hautes-Pyrénées, is tangible proof of this (Liberation, August 15, 2009, p. 13): “[Unbaptized Tamils] take communion [at Lourdes]. I once saw a man put the host in his pocket. He said to me: “I am a Hindu, but I am taking it to bring it to Paris to my mother who is very sick, because it is divine food.”
To avoid these objective risks, the ecclesiastical authorities at that time increased their requests for precaution. For example, the councils recalled the obligation for the faithful immediately to consume the host before the priest, who must effectively control this consumption.
But even that was not enough to reduce the risk of desecration to a tolerable level. So, following the normal course of events, the Church worked toward a procedure which, in practice, reduces to a minimum the possibilities of the Eucharist being used for a purpose that does not respect its holy reality. By placing the host directly in the mouth of the communicant, it becomes, if not impossible, at least extremely difficult for the latter to retrieve it and use it in any way other than for communion itself.
And so, the first reason for the evolution of the rite of communion is practical. This motif has some importance, of course, but it is neither the only one, nor perhaps the most essential. If we focused exclusively on the practical considerations concerning communion, “innovative” solutions, derived from modern business techniques (for distribution) and security procedures (to prevent profanation), could easily be found.
Nevertheless, the rite of distribution of communion, apart from its practical aspect (which evidently exists: it is necessary, in practice, that communicants receive the Holy Eucharist), possesses another, much more important aspect: it is a matter of expressing the reality of the Holy Eucharist through certain gestures, attitudes or words, of showing (and, in certain respects, forming) the interior sentiments of those who approach communion.
We are here, as with the whole liturgy, in the world of “symbolism” more than in that of purely practical action. The symbolic register expresses, through body positions or verbal expressions, the inner feelings of the soul, without there necessarily being, in parallel, an immediate practical utility for this gesture. When the veteran lays a wreath at the war memorial on November 11, when the mayor reads the names of those who “died on the battlefield,” it is of no practical use to those deceased. It is actually a symbolic expression of the homage of the living to those who fell for the homeland.
It is mainly in the light of symbolism that the rite adopted by the Church should be examined, when she gives Communion in the mouth and no longer in the hand. This is the true liturgical criterion. And it is necessary to judge this rite according to the most fundamental elements of the Christian faith, not according to foreign, profane considerations, which can undoubtedly have their interest in other fields, but which do not have to be manifested here.
Express the Real Presence and Reverence Due to the Sacrament
In the rite of communion, the first point to be symbolically expressed is the real presence of Christ under the veil of the host, and consequently the reverence due to this most holy sacrament.
This presence in the host of the most sacred of mysteries, the presence of God Himself, of Our Lord Jesus Christ in person, is particularly well expressed symbolically when only the sacred ministers, who have been consecrated especially by the rite of ordination, touch the holy species with their hands. This is a remarkably effective symbolic rite for expressing the difference between ordinary bread (which everyone is used to touching in everyday life) and Eucharist bread, the sacred bread, which consecrated ministers alone may touch. Everyone spontaneously understands the meaning of this rite, including the child who cannot yet read.
This is, without a doubt, the main motive for the change in practice made by the Church more than a millennium ago: to express more vividly and more clearly the faith of the Church in the real presence of Christ.
The Fathers, who saw around them the ancient rite of distribution in the hand, place great emphasis in their texts on the respect, the faith, the devotion, the veneration, and the adoration which are due to this precious Body of Christ. These recommendations come back as a leitmotif, which tends to show that the old rite probably did not have all the symbolic effectiveness required to express by itself this central dogma of the faith. And, finally, the Church opted for a rite that more clearly signifies this point, reserving only to the consecrated hands of the sacred ministers, symbolically, the handling of the holy species.
The second point to be expressed symbolically is the “received” and not “owed” character of the sacrament. Here, a text from Cardinal Ratzinger can help us better understand: “Being received is the essential form of the sacrament, in that no one can give it to himself. Man cannot baptize himself, cannot confer priestly ordination on himself, cannot absolve himself of his sins. This meeting structure is due to the fact that perfect contrition cannot, by its nature, remain interior, but requires the form of encounter that is the sacrament [of penance] ”(Josef Ratzinger, The Church, Ecumenism and Politics, Fayard, 1987, cited according to the German edition in AA. VV., Veneration and administration of the Eucharist, CIEL, 1997, p. 72).
Undoubtedly, this “received” character is not totally absent from the rite of communion in the hand, insofar as the communicant does not serve himself, but receives the host from the sacred minister, which he then put into his mouth.
But, obviously, this “received” character is symbolically expressed in a much stronger way when the sacrament is given to the faithful “as newborn babes,” to use the expression of the first epistle of St. Peter (1 Pt. 2:2) which constitutes the introit of Quasimodo Sunday where the liturgy, precisely, speaks about communion to the newly baptized.
This way of proceeding has, moreover, the advantage of expressing, always in the symbolic register, and this in the clearest way, the difference (essential and not only of degree) between the common or baptismal priesthood, which receives the sacrament, and the ministerial priesthood, which gives it.
The baptismal character, which makes of all those who possess it “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2:9), is in fact, as Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us, a capacity to receive the other sacraments, and mainly the holy Eucharist, end and consummation of all the sacraments (cf. Summa of Theology, III, 63, 2 and 6), while the priestly character is a capacity to give, to confer the sacraments.
The Choice of the Undivided Church
These are some of the main reasons which prompted the Church to abandon, over a millennium ago, the practice of communion given in the hand of the faithful, for the exclusive benefit of communion given directly in the mouth of the baptized faithful by the sacred minister.
And when we say the Church, we must understand it in all its components. Despite the variety of rites used in the various Churches of apostolic origin currently in existence, we see that today, during communion during the liturgical celebration, no lay faithful ever touches the Holy Eucharist with his hands, but that he always consumes it directly from the hands of the sacred minister. There is a massive and indisputable fact here which should make us think.
Especially as a good part of these churches of apostolic origin have retained, unlike the Latin Church, communion under both species, or even using risen bread. It is thus that these Churches, without exception, have unanimously discerned a more opportune and more suitable manner of giving the Holy Eucharist to the communicant directly “in the mouth” (in various forms), both practically and symbolically.