On Holy Communion & the Coronavirus

The Catholic Church hasn’t been exempt from the coronavirus panic.

My parish and diocese and many others have said they’ll be taking precautions like not including the sign of peace at Mass, sanitizing the holy water fonts and refilling them regularly, not using the chalice and only have communion under one species, and encouraging the faithful to only receive communion in the hand, rather than on the tongue.

I’m on board with all of it… except for that last one. While I understand that this is a precaution, recommending we not receive communion on the tongue disturbed my conscience and distressed me enough that I had to write on it. So here we are.

On Receiving on the Tongue

Let’s first go over some general info about receiving Communion on the tongue. Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, in body, blood, soul, and divinity. We can receive in the 1) hand and standing, 2) on the tongue and standing, or 3) on the tongue and kneeling.

Though many people receive in the hand at the average Mass in the Ordinary Form, receiving in the hand is not the norm — “it is a special permission that does not exist in most parts of the world.” Receiving on the tongue is both more reverent and is traditionally how the Eucharist has been received by the faithful.

St. Thomas Aquinas has this to say about it in the Summa:

“. . . out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it except from necessity, for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency” (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3).

Not only that, but the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the faithful can be received on the tongue or in the hand — this is not something that is at the discretion of a Eucharistic minister, or bishop:

“The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. . . . The priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, Corpus Christi (the body of Christ). The communicant replies Amen and receives the sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand. (160–161)”

So receiving on the tongue is not some little-known devotion of the few; it is by nature more reverent and historically the way most Catholics received the Eucharist up until a few decades ago.

Why I Receive on the Tongue

I’ve written about my reasons for receiving on the tongue on my blog before, but they stand to be reiterated. I have been Catholic for 6 years and have never received any other way, and just recently began kneeling and it’s an incredibly special moment of intimacy with the Lord that I get to experience at every Mass.

One reason is that receiving on the tongue is simply more reverent. As St. Thomas says, out of reverence, only consecrated hands should handle the Eucharist. I personally feel entirely unworthy to touch the Eucharist with my hands — I say that not as something driven by self-deprecation but rather humility.

Another is that receiving on the tongue is safer for the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the body and blood of Christ… yet people with ill will can much more easily make off with a consecrated host and commit sacrilege (and they do) where it is commonplace to receive on the tongue.

I’ve witnessed someone receive the Eucharist in the hand, the host crumbled a bit, and the person literally had to pick crumbs out of his hand. How horrifying to think that this probably happens way more often than we realize and pieces fall to the floor to be trampled on.

Third, as a Protestant I took communion in my hands. Of course it was merely symbolic then, and now it’s the real presence of Christ. But I can’t bring myself to do the same action with the host, the true body of Christ as I did with a wafer as Presbyterian. I also can’t imagine receiving the Lord as I would regular food, by putting my hand to my mouth.

And lastly, actions we carry out with our bodies impact our faith in deep ways and reinforce what we believe. If I believe the Eucharist is the body of Christ, then of course my actions are going to reflect my belief in the magnitude of what the Eucharist is.

Receiving on the Hand is Not More Sanitary

No in my diocese has “forbidden” receiving on the tongue (which they cannot do). But I have heard this occur elsewhere, which is why I find it so unsettling.

Receiving on the tongue is not objectively more unsanitary that receiving in the hand. Many priests have said they’re more likely to touch someone’s hands when distributing communion in the hand than they are to touch someone’s mouth when distributing it on the tongue.

When this has happened to me, it’s been a Eucharistic minister (EMHC) distributing communion that’s touched my mouth in some way… which in that case is not a communion-on-the-tongue problem, but rather an EMHC problem.

Using this to Inspire Prayer for Catholics in China

Here’s how deeply I feel about this: I’d rather abstain from communion than receive in the hand. Receiving in the hand is not something I can just cavalierly “switch” to temporarily. My conscience literally would not permit it and I’d have more peace staying in the pew.

I do fear being denied communion. But if that does happen, or if Masses here are suspended for any length of time, it may be a good time for us to offer up our suffering for the underground Church in China, where Catholics have difficulty accessing the Eucharist and in general suffer horrendous government persecution with little advocacy in the Western world.


One thought on “On Holy Communion & the Coronavirus

  1. John says:

    Hi Sarah, Thank you for writing about Holy Communion and the Virus. As a faithful and practicing Catholic for the last fifty years I couldn’t agree more with your words when it comes to taking Holy Communion by the tongue. Jesus Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, in body, blood, soul, and divinity enough said. God Bless your writing keep up the good work.

    Liked by 1 person

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