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Why Communion on the Tongue? Part I of II

September 20, 2016 by  
Filed under Christopher Carstens, Eucharist, Sacraments

Why Communion on the Tongue?
Part I of II

Editor’s Note: Today we are pleased to introduce to you Christopher Carstens, Editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, and a wonderful addition to the cadre of authors on our site.  Please welcome him warmly and make him feel at home.


Christopher Carstens

The “Sacrament of Unity,” the Eucharist, demonstrates great diversity. In its celebration, ritual families from Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, Armenia, and Rome make their own unique cultural contributions. Indeed, the “mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1201).

Within these traditions, the faithful may receive Holy Communion in a variety of ways. In the Latin Church alone, legitimate options include the communicant’s posture of standing or kneeling. In addition, the minister may distribute the Blood of Christ directly from the chalice, by intinction (dipping the host in the Precious Blood), or—even if not customary for most Roman Catholics—“by means of a tube or a spoon” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] 245). The consecrated host can also be received in multiple ways, “either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant” (GIRM 160).

Communion in the hand, while relatively new to today’s Latin Church, is acknowledged as an “ancient usage” by the Holy See (see the 1969 Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship’s Memoriale Domini, “Instruction on the Manner of Distributing Holy Communion”). The U.S. bishops, in their Vatican-approved norms on the distribution and reception of Holy Communion, invoke the oft-cited remarks of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d.368): “When you approach, take care not to do so with your hand stretched out and your fingers open or apart, but rather place your left hand as a throne beneath your right, as befits one who is about to receive the King. Then receive him, taking care that nothing is lost” (see “Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America” 41).

laultimacomuniondesanjosedecalasanz for post on communion on the tongueDespite the “ancient usage,” however, and even within the boundaries of the current discipline, the Church has made clear that Communion on the tongue is the preferred practice. (Consider especially the entire 1969 text of Memoriale Domini, as well as Pope John Paul II’s 1980 Apostolic Letter Dominicae Cenae 11). The Church’s preference for Communion on the tongue is nearly always justified by notions of reverence, devotion, humility, respect, adoration, and decorum. And while Pope John Paul II acknowledges those “who, receiving the Lord Jesus in the hand, do so with profound reverence and devotion” (Dominicae Cenae 11), permission for Communion in the hand is accompanied by warnings of potential disrespect, profanation, weakening of Eucharistic faith, and indifference.

But more needs to be said about these connections between the manner of reception and potential reverence or abuse. Potential for abuse is often not sufficient reason to forego a valid option. Instead, a positive theology for reception of Communion on the tongue is more helpful. Why, for instance, might Communion on the tongue help one’s Eucharistic faith, increase devotion, and better express one’s love to Jesus in the Sacrament? Conversely, why does receiving Communion in the hand risk profanation, weakened belief, or signify a possible lack of Eucharistic faith? Indeed, I have received Communion in the hand many times and should like to think I am among those mentioned by St. John Paul II who receive “with alphonselegroscommunion2reverence and devotion.” Similarly, reception on the tongue does not necessarily guarantee fidelity and a grace-filled spiritual life. Still: how can I more clearly understand the Church’s preference for Communion on the tongue and, more importantly, how can I benefit spiritually from this preferred practice?

Whether receiving Communion on the tongue, in the hand, or each way from time to time, every communicant should reflect upon how the outward manner of reception expresses and fosters his or her Eucharistic faith. In the next post, I’ll offer three reflections on Eucharistic Communion and why the Church sees Communion on the tongue as the more suitable manner to receive Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In the meantime, how would you relate the beauty, reality, and truth of the Eucharistic mystery to your own manner of reception?


Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, and editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.

Editor’s Note: In part II, Christopher Carstens will offer three considerations for receiving the Eucharist on the tongue.


Art: La última comunión de san José de Calasanz [The Last Communion of Saint Joseph Calasanz], Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, 1819, PD-US author’s life plus100 years or less; Communion, Alphonse Legros (1837-1911), undated, PD-US author’s life plus 70 years or less; both Wikimedia Commons.

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About Christopher Carstens

Christopher Carstens is Director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, instructor at Mundelein’s Liturgical Institute, and editor of the Adoremus Bulletin.

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  • E.M.

    I look forward to part II because this topic is so important! Welcome, Mr. Carstens to the contributing writers. May our Lord continue to bless you and your work.

  • Marilyn

    Amazing that this became a topic as it has been in my heart and mind these past few days. Thank you and welcome!

  • Mary L

    So I have a question. If the pre-Vatican II method of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is favored, does that mean that it is also preferable NOT to receive communion under both species? Just curious.

    • Dan Burke

      Thanks for your question Mary. Was there a point you were getting at?

      • Mary L

        More of a connection than a point. It occurred to me that receiving Eucharist in the hand and from the cup were both changes that came after Vatican II. Just wondered if the same favor or preference applied also to receiving Christ (or not) from the cup. Maybe it’s something the author planned to address in part 2.

    • Tina Ruiz

      No. It is only the priest who decides what he wants to do, most often it is for practical reasons that the priest will just give the Eucharist. It is easier that is all.

  • LizEst

    marybernadette – Intincture of the Eucharist (dipping the Host in the blood) is found within some rites of the Catholic Church, but not in the Latin rite, which, I am assuming, you belong to. For us, it is strictly forbidden. As an example, the Maronite rite is one in which communion is given only by intinction.

    • marybernadette

      Thank you, lIz for the clarification. I am assuming if people do this in the ‘Latin Rite,’ it is a matter of ‘ignorance.’

      • LizEst

        That would probably be correct.

    • Joshua Horne

      That is not correct.

      “49. Holy Communion may be distributed by intinction in the following manner: “Each communicant, while holding a Communion-plate under the mouth, approaches the Priest who holds a vessel with the sacred particles, with a minister standing at his side and holding the chalice. The Priest takes a host, intincts it partly in the chalice and, showing it, says: ‘The Body and Blood of Christ.’ The communicant replies, ‘Amen,’ receives the Sacrament in the mouth from the Priest, and then withdraws.””

      • LizEst

        The USCCB is allowing for the fact that sometimes, in special circumstances, in the Roman rite, intinction is permitted. That’s why it is written that way. In general, it is not permitted.

        One of those possibilities for intinction is that the priest is a recovering alcoholic wherein the priest “may receive communion by intinction or…under bread alone…” Reception by intinction, for a priest, has to be approved by the local ordinary. Ipso facto, it is a special circumstance, within the Latin rite, for the faithful to receive in this manner. See the discussion on Canon 924 for this.

        • Joshua Horne

          Upon what are you basing your interpretation of why and how the norm I quoted was put in force? Please provide documentation for your assertion that “In general, it is not permitted.”

          I’m certainly not trying to be obstinate or argumentative, and if I’m wrong, I will happily accept correction.

          I’m not a canon lawyer by any stretch, but where in Canon 924 is intinction restricted?

          • LizEst

            As indicated, that is in the discussion. It is found in the “New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law” under that Canon. What the Church doesn’t want is folks receiving the Body in the hand, going over to the chalice, dipping the Body into the Blood, dripping the Blood on the floor, resulting in folks stepping on the Blood and profaning the Sacred Body and Blood of the Lord. There’s a great quote here (… “Unlike civil law in which [what] isn’t forbidden…is permitted, in liturgical law if it isn’t positively permitted [read this as specifically permitted or written out] it isn’t allowed.” Reception of the Precious Blood from the chalice is the preferred method of receiving the Precious Blood. When intinction is permitted, it is always as a way of receiving Jesus on the tongue.

        • MariaGo

          Thanks for this! Grateful to know they can receive an indult. The priests in my university do it for small Masses. I wasn’t sure what to do in those situations.

          • LizEst

            MariaGo – When it is done, it is for reception on the tongue only. As well, there must be someone (such as an altar server) holding the paten from where the Host is dipped all the way to when it is received. Otherwise, there is no way of knowing whether or not the Precious Blood has dripped on the floor, which allows it to be stepped on. If a paten is not being used, then, it’s best for this practice to cease.

          • MariaGo

            I am afraid they don’t do that. Thank you for letting me know! I will just stick to my practice of receiving the Host for now when Communion is given both ways.

          • LizEst

            Yikes! Good for you!

          • MariaGo

            Actually, what really happens might be worse. The priest gives the Host and then a minister brings the chalice. Then they allow the people do the instinction. And they recive Communion right away without a paten. When I realized people doing instinction wasn’t allowed I stuck to just receiving the Host.

            When I read your comment I was hoping an indult might mean its okay.

            I don’t know how to deal with this exactly. Sometimes I am the Mass server and I was asked to hold the chalice once.

          • LizEst

            Does your parish have patens? Then, you could bring a paten with you when you are asked to hold the chalice. An indult is a special permission. If they have an indult, then it would mean it is permitted, that it is OK. But, you see the danger here.

          • MariaGo

            When they give Communion this way it’s not at a regular Mass. It’s normally a small private Mass in a chapel, at home or in a function room. So whatever is in the Mass kit is what we have Communion. I soemtimes serve because I am the only one who knows how. But I don’t always know if I am going to serve till the event itself.

            If it’s in a chapel there should be a paten in the sacristy. But elsewhere am not so sure…Not sure if I can bring one every time we attend an event with a private Mass.

            Normally the celebrant is a school chaplain or family friend priest. Not a parish Mass.

  • Catherine Sylvest Schaff

    Receiving communion whether by tongue or by hand is an outward sign of inner devotion and a soul in a state of grace. What is in our hearts and mind at the time of communion is a result of spiritual preparation and humility. If we do not approach communion with clear conscience and forgiveness toward each other then we receive unworthily. We can not judge each other’s hearts at time of receiving. Only God can do that. We are supposed to examine ourselves before receiving, not others. (1 Cor.). It would be prudent for us all to receive with as a clean a heart as possible with no condemnation in our hearts upon another. For no one is 100% worthy. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I am sure there are times that we all have received in unworthiness no matter the mode.

  • Connie Rossini

    Chris, great to see you at SpiritualDirection! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and love of the liturgy with us.

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  • John

    Welcome, Chris – looking forward to learning more on this topic! God bless.

  • Larry Bud

    It is simply not true that “the pre-Vatican II method of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue is favored”, in the regions where communion in the hand is allowed. Both options are perfectly legitimate, completely reverent, and it’s wrong to deceive people into worrying about the matter.

  • LizEst

    Accepted by one parish (or one priest or community of the faithful) does not mean approved by the local ordinary. Having said that, perhaps your parish has received an indult for the practice. Does someone hold the paten underneath your hand and underneath the person as you dip and as they receive?

  • LizEst

    That’s true. And, if they are teaching that, then probably the diocese has extended the indult to all parishes, or to particular parishes.

    Do they teach that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMOHC) must have someone hold the paten underneath their hand and and follow it, placing it underneath the person receiving as the EMOHC dips and as the person receives? That’s required. If not, there is danger of profanation there, which is why it is not commonly done. It is still an exceptional circumstance, not the usual manner of reception as it is in many Eastern Rite Churches.

    • Timothy Redinger

      I have not seen that practice done for years.

      We also have to remember that we are human and far from perfect or without fault – up to and including clergy. We must constantly work towards ensuring our practices are of the highest respect for the the source and summit of our lives.

      • LizEst

        It’s being done by parishes which want to prevent accidental profanation. Indeed, we are human. Using the paten very much helps this.

        • marybernadette

          So important to know this. A number of years ago, I was attending Mass which was celebrated in a ‘room’ prior to the ‘prayer group’ meeting. One of the members ‘ Extraordinary minister’ was giving the ‘Precious Blood’ to the people. Later on , I met this person in the washroom trying to remove
          a ‘stain’ from their clothes I responded trying to help her until I realized it was the Holy Blood of Christ. When I mentioned this , the reaction was ‘ not to bother me with it.’
          I am not trying to Judge, it’seems just to show the seriousness of what can happen.

  • Christopher Carstens

    Thanks, all, for welcoming me to Spiritual Direction. I look forward to the discussions and to learning from your posts.

  • Cathy L.

    Thinking about what kind of person is fed in such a manner? A small child, a person who is ill, and one who is beloved. Receiving Holy Communion on the tongue has been a great help in recognizing who I am before the Lord and His great Love and generosity towards me.

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  • Karen

    Personally I’d like to see reception of the Host only. We end up with 13 “extraordinary” ministers on the altar and to me it is a circus. We could easily get by w 2 extraordinary ministers if our second priest came in to distribute Communion. Because it would only be the host and the priest would not have to clean 8 chalices, it would still be the same amount of time in the mass. I only accept host on tounge when receiving from priest. If i have to receive from a “minister” I receive in hand. Maybe wine at Christmas and Easter or other Holy Days of obligation. Ive been to a Latin Mass where you kneel at the rail and only receive host on the tounge. I felt it very reverent.

    • LizEst

      Karen – That is not “wine” you receive, it is the Precious Blood of Christ, which contains the whole Christ: Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. We can all make a contribution to reverence by referring to it as such.

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