Fr Armand de Malleray, FSSP writes for Rorate Caeli – From Lent to summer 2020, for fear of a virus, guidelines forbade the faithful to receive Our Lord in the Sacred Host (or from the Chalice). Being deprived of sacramental Communion, people got used to spiritual communion instead. In spiritual Communion, those in state of grace commune from a distance with Our Lord in the Sacred Host, without consuming the Host or even touching it. But it is a third type of Eucharistic Communion that we would like to examine here. We call it digital Communion.
What is digital Communion? Is it about receiving Holy Communion online, as some people wished could be the case with sacramental absolution of sins? No, digital Communion has nothing to do with the Internet (even though its appearance in the Catholic Church coincided with that of the first personal computer some fifty years ago). Digital Communion is a modern invention; it never existed in Christian antiquity. It is when one takes the Sacred Host with one’s fingers and puts it into one’s own mouth. We call it digital because digital is the adjective derived from the word digitus, a finger in Latin, which gave our English word digit (whence also the IT meaning of the same word digit: “any of the numerals from 0 to 9, especially when forming part of a number, following the practice of counting on the fingers”
No fingers ever involved
Why a new expression, then? Digital Communion, you may think, merely describes Communion on the hand. If this were the case, there would be nothing new to add, since you were told that Communion on the hand had always existed. Communion on the hand, you learnt, was used by early Christians.
So we assumed, like you did, until we read the short but enlightening study by a bishop from Asia. This little book is called Dominus Est: It is the Lord (2008, Newman House Press), by Bishop Athanasius Schneider, the Secretary of the Bishops’ Conference in Kazakhstan. Holding a doctorate in Patristics from Rome, the author studied intensively the Fathers of the Church who tell us how things were done in early Christian centuries. In short, Bishop Schneider proves that never did our Christian forefathers take the Sacred Host with their fingers to put it into their mouth. For a few centuries, in some regions, the Sacred Host was laid by the priest into the right hand of the communicant (her hand veiled if a woman). The right hand was deemed nobler than the left one. At Holy Communion the communicant would bow his head low towards his right palm and would receive the Sacred Host directly with his lips and tongue, without using his fingers at all. In his latest book Christus Vincit: Christ’s Triumph over the Darkness of the Age (Angelico Press, 2019), Bishop Athanasius Schneider describes palm-to-mouth Communion as follows: “[T]he practice had a different form in ancient times than it does today: the Holy Eucharist was received on the palm of the right hand and the faithful were not allowed to touch the Holy Host with their fingers, but they had to bow down their head to the palm of the hand and take the Sacrament directly with their mouth, thus, in a position of a profound bow and not standing upright.”
Why this? The reason is that using one’s fingers to seize something denotes authority and power over the thing. And this seemed disrespectful toward the Sacred Host who is God Himself. Only the priest celebrant at Mass consumes the Sacred Host from his own fingers, because he has just consecrated the Sacred Species. The celebrant is the only one acting in the Person of Christ as consecrator of the Holy Eucharist. This enables him to act later on as distributor of the same sacrament, by virtue of his identity as “sacerdos”, literally, “the one who gives the sacred”; and in direct fulfilment of Christ’s mandate to his apostles in the multiplication of the loaves prefiguring Holy Communion: “give you them to eat” (Mt 14:16). Traditionally, priests attending Holy Mass wouldn’t receive Holy Communion from their own fingers, but on their tongue from the priest celebrant. This is still the case for newly ordained priests who receive Holy Communion on the tongue from the bishop at their Mass of ordination in the traditional form.
Thus, rather than digital Communion, our Christian forefathers in antiquity chose a gesture that to them best expressed reverence and the gratuitous gift from God communicating Himself truly to us under the externals of a little piece of bread. These early Christians knew very well that the presence of God in the Host is not imaginary or merely symbolic; but on the contrary, that it is true, real and substantial. They knew that from Consecration by the priest onwards, no bread whatsoever is left on the altar, but only the mere externals of bread. Similarly, they knew that from Consecration by the priest onwards, no wine whatsoever is left in the chalice, but only the mere externals of wine. Furthermore, time and again the Fathers of the Church drew attention to the fact that even small fragments of a Sacred Host are the Lord. Each fragment is God, literally. Using directly one’s lips and tongue to consume the Sacred Host lying on one’s palm was thus also more secure than using one’s digits, since small fragments adhering to the palm would then be consumed as well rather than be lost on fingertips. Out of reverence for the Lord, the Fathers of the Church also insisted strongly on the washing of hands necessary before such Communion in the palm.
From palm to digital Communion
Thus, we Catholics need to be more precise nowadays when speaking of ‘Communion on the hand’. Referring merely to ‘Hand Communion’ is too vague. For, what is a hand? The hand consists of the palm and the five digits (the four fingers and the thumb). Communion from one’s digits never existed anywhere at any time in the Church. Communion from one’s palm to one’s mouth did exist in some places for a few centuries. Already in the first millennium, in many places Holy Communion directly into the mouth had become the norm. The Church had learnt from experience that it was safer for the Sacred Host, and also more reverent. The posture of adults being fed to their mouths shows very clearly that they are children before God. It is not childish, but childlike. Avoiding childishness, Christian adults should emulate childlikeness. The Lord Jesus warned us: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Receiving Holy Communion from another – namely the priest, standing for Christ – directly into our mouth teaches us that we must aspire to spiritual childhood to be made acceptable to God.
But if hand Communion has always meant in reality Communion from one’s palm, not from one’s digits, where does digital Communion come from? In other words, if hand Communion was ever only palm-to-mouth Communion, who started digits-to-mouth Communion?[i] Holy Church did not invent digital Communion. John Calvin did. A minor cleric in sixteenth-century France, poor John Calvin (1509–1564) lost his Catholic faith. He thought that the Sacred Host was just a piece of bread. (Notably though, Calvin denied adulterers such ritual bread.)[ii] Calvin assumed that the eyes of his soul were not capable of seeing further than the eyes of his body. Because our eyes of flesh see only bread at Holy Mass, poor John Calvin decided that the Sacred Host was not Jesus, but only a sign of the love of God feeding us spiritually. When he started his own Calvinist sect, Calvin was consistent. He granted communicants freedom to handle the bread and wine as they preferred, provided it was not kneeling and on the tongue: “In regard to the external form of the ordinance, whether or not believers are to take into their hands and divide among themselves, or each is to eat what is given to him: whether they are to return the cup to the deacon or hand it to their neighbour… is of no consequence”.[iii] In Calvinist Geneva, people got used to walking to the “table” and, standing, to take up the elements with their own hands. Calvin knew that receiving kneeling and on the tongue expressed the reality of the divine presence. To fit his lost Eucharistic faith, Calvin suppressed these traditional gestures of reverence. Claiming to return to the original mode of Communion in force in the early Church, that is, palm-to-mouth Communion, Calvin invented digital Communion instead. But by then, sadly, he had already left the Church.
Let us quote further Bishop Schneider’s book Christus Vincit: “[T]he faithful take and touch the Host directly with their fingers and then put the Host in the mouth: this gesture has never been known in the entire history of the Catholic Church but was invented by Calvin — not even by Martin Luther. The Lutherans have typically received the Eucharist kneeling and on the tongue, although of course they do not have the Real Presence because they do not have a valid priesthood. The Calvinists and other Protestant free churches, who do not believe at all in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, invented a rite which is void of almost all gestures of sacredness and of exterior adoration, i.e., receiving ‘Communion’ standing upright, and touching the bread ‘host’ with their fingers and putting it in their mouth in the way people treat ordinary bread.” To help us visualise the difference between palm-to-mouth Communion and digits-to-mouth Communion, let us remember St Isaac Jogues (1607–1646). He was a courageous Jesuit missionary in North America. The ferocious Iroquois Indians tortured him, cutting off most of his digits. If, God forbid, Fr Jogues had lost his Eucharistic faith like poor John Calvin did earlier, he would have been unable to seize the host in his digits after the Calvinist invention, because his digits were no more. For him there could have been no digital communion to the bread, only palm-to-mouth.
Permitted by the Church
Fifty years ago the Catholic Church borrowed this novel rite of digital Communion from the founder of Calvinism. We say this with respect, acknowledging it is nothing personal: we all know fellow Catholics who strive for holiness while abiding by this new rite of Communion, in obedience to their pastors’ preferences, or because they assume that early Christians did so. Our purpose then is not to pass judgment but to state an historical fact. We should not fear examining it, especially as it pertains to the most sacred reality in the world, that is, the salvific presence of Christ in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.
Adopting the Calvinist gesture of Communion was not at all a unanimous decision within the Catholic Church. On the contrary, when Paul Pope VI asked all the bishops in the world if they wished digital Communion to be introduced, 567 said yes, but 1233 said no. Thus, two and a half more voted against digital Communion. One wonders how many among those who supported the proposal knew that it was not the rite of antiquity. Had they known, would they have approved it? This consultation was completed by March 1969 as reported in the Instruction Memoriale Domini, which logically concluded against the innovation: “Therefore, taking into account the remarks and the advice of those whom ‘the Holy Spirit has placed to rule over’ the Churches, in view of the gravity of the matter and the force of the arguments put forward, the Holy Father [Pope Paul VI] has decided not to change the existing way of administering holy communion to the faithful.”
Paradoxically, an annexe to the same document allowed digital Communion where it had been started without permission: “With regard to the manner of administering the sacrament, one may follow the traditional method, which emphasized the ministerial function of the priest or deacon, in having them place the host in the hand of the communicant. One may also adopt a simpler method, allowing the communicant himself to take the host from the ciborium.” (Memoriale Domini, Annexe 4.) Bishops availing themselves of this tolerance were to report on the experiment six months later, by the end of the year 1969. Please note that what is described as “the traditional method” is in actual fact digital Communion, that is, the communicant seizing the Sacred Host with his own fingers: it seems inaccurate to call this method “traditional” if one follows Bishop Schneider’s account showing how digital Communion was invented outside the Church in the sixteenth century. Since then, as we know well, digital Communion was allowed in the New Rite of the Mass. Of course, Holy Mother Church has the authority to regulate the Eucharistic rites: this point is not questioned. But the fruits of such a change and the way it was introduced call for examination.
Even so, digital Communion is not the norm but a mere permission. The norm is still to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, also in the New Mass. In the traditional Mass, there is only one way, and that is on the tongue. As to the minister of Holy Communion during Holy Mass, Bishop Schneider teaches that it always and ever had to be a priest. Not even a deacon was allowed to give the Sacred Host during Holy Mass. Deacons could help with distributing the Sacred Blood when Holy Communion was given under both kinds. But only the priest, not the deacon, could put the Sacred Host on the tongue of the communicants. Of course, no lay minister was ever allowed to distribute Holy Communion at Mass. Outside of Holy Mass, in times of persecution for instance, when all priests were dead or imprisoned, the laity were allowed to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and to bring it to the people. A witness to this heroic tradition is St Tarcisius who was put to death rather than give away the Blessed Sacrament he was carrying in secret. Pope St Damasus I rightly praised the young martyr: “When an insane gang pressed saintly Tarsicius, who was carrying the sacraments of Christ, to display them to the profane, he preferred to be killed and give up his life rather than betray to rabid dogs the heavenly body”.
Let us recapitulate: never did communicants seize the sacred host with their fingers to put it in their own mouth. Only the priest celebrant at Mass would do so, then acting in the Person of Christ. Using one’s fingers denotes power and authority over God. This was felt unbefitting for the communicant and unsafe for the brittle sacrament.
At the Last Supper
Let us now ask ourselves how Holy Communion was administered the very first time, namely, by Our Lord to his apostles at the Last Supper in Jerusalem. Numerous ancient mosaics and parchment illuminations depict Our Lord administering the Sacred Host directly into the mouths of his apostles. This was the assumed mode of the very First Holy Communion ever, even though in this case the communicants were clerics and even bishops, just ordained by the divine Founder of the Church. Let us see whether the New Testament concurs with this pictorial tradition.
St John’s Gospel does not describe the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist. Only Sts Matthew, Mark and Luke do so in their three Synoptic Gospels, and St Paul in his first Letter to the Corinthians. Out of eight descriptions then (four for the Host and another four for the Chalice), six do not mention the verb ‘take’ in the Greek original. Only two do so, St Matthew and St Mark, using the same Greek verb ‘labēte’ (imperative, second person plural) which can be translated as ‘take’ or as ‘receive’.[iv] This word occurs seven times in Holy Scripture, always in the New Testament. Significantly, the very same verb is translated as ‘take’ when the intention is sacrilegious; but it is translated as ‘receive’, when the intention is pious. Thus in St John’s Gospel on Good Friday: “When the chief priests, therefore, and the servants, had seen him, they cried out, saying: Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith to them: Take him you, and crucify him: for I find no cause in him” (Jn 19:6). But in the next chapter, after the Resurrection: “Peace be to you. As the Father hath sent me, I also send you. When he had said this, he breathed on them; and he said to them: Receive ye the Holy Ghost. Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven them; and whose sins you shall retain, they are retained” (Jn 20:22). No Evangelist, neither St Paul, mentions ‘taking’ for the chalice at the Last Supper. Thus, as we see, six times out of eight (equivalent to 75% of cases), there is no mention of taking Holy Communion, either from the Host or from the Chalice. In the two occasions when the Greek verb ‘labēte’ is used for the Sacred Host, it allows for opposite meanings: take if sacrilegious, or receive if pious.
This is not enough to rule out every possibility of the apostles having seized the Sacred Host with their own fingers to bring it to their mouths. But it makes a very strong case for the traditional assumption, namely, that the apostles received Holy Communion to their mouth from the Saviour Himself. There is no use deploring the absence of definitive certainty on this matter. Rather, this slight ambiguity should prompt us to examine our dispositions towards the Eucharistic Lord, as St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “whosoever shall eat this bread, or drink the chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself: and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of the chalice. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, not discerning the body of the Lord” (1Co 11:27-29). This observation invites us to ask ourselves what we mean to do when we come for Holy Communion. Do we take possession of what is ours by right? Or do we humbly beg for God’s gratuitous gift? Receiving directly to one’s mouth better fosters the correct disposition of heart but doesn’t dispense one from self-examination. After all, Judas received[v] directly to his mouth and from the Lord Himself according to St John, a direct witness: “[W]hen he had dipped the bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot. […] Having received [Greek ‘labōn’] the morsel, he went out immediately” (Jn 13:26; 30). Because the morsel of bread was soaked with wine, laying it in Judas’ hand would have been impractical; furthermore, it was a Jewish custom for the host to bring food directly to the mouth of his honoured guest. It is significant that it is the same verb, lambanō, which is used here as later for Holy Communion, in this case clearly indicating ‘receive’ rather than ‘take with the hands’. The fact that Our Lord fed ordinary bread and wine directly to the mouth of this apostle makes it even more likely that He administered his Eucharistic Body and Blood in the same manner to all apostles that same evening.
Hand Cmmunion has been justified over the last fifty years based on its alleged use in early Christian communities. This argument is insufficient for two reasons. First, a return to antiquity for the sake of it can be sheer regression since legitimate developments occur, both doctrinal and liturgical, along Church history. Second, and directly relevant to our topic, the hand Communion promoted in modern times is not the one of antiquity. The modern one is from fingers to mouth, whereas the early one was from palm to mouth. The early hand Communion meant to express reverence, whereas the modern one fosters familiarity. Furthermore, non-digital Communion concurs with the biblical narratives of the institution of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper. But digital Communion was invented sixteenth centuries later and outside the Church, specifically to deny the Real presence of the Lord under the Eucharistic species. The expression “hand Communion” is thus misleading without further qualifying. Hence our suggestion to distinguish, within hand Communion, between palm and digital Communions.
It is worth noting that another equivocal appeal to Eucharistic traditions occurred in the same period about priestly concelebration, according to liturgical scholar Dom Alcuin Read OSB. In 1963 Sacrosancum Concilium stated that “concelebration… has remained in use to this day in the Church both in the east and in the west” (Chapter 2: 57-1). But Alcuin Read remarked that, based on historical evidence, the type of concelebration which has always been in use in the Church is not the sacramental one but the ceremonial one. When priests and bishops were concelebrating, roughly up to Vatican II, what was meant and what was happening was not transubstantiating together. There was only one minister transubstantiating, normally the bishop, while all others were associated in his action ceremonially, including at the Chrism Mass (cf Preface to The Holy Eucharist—The World’s Salvation by Fr Joseph de Sainte-Marie, Gracewing, 2015). Sacramental concelebration wasn’t unknown, but it was rare. And yet, over the past sixty years, most Catholics have assumed that systematic sacramental concelebration had always been the norm. The two clerics just mentioned offered a timely clarification to priests as consecrators of the Holy Eucharist. It seems no less opportune to do the same, this time for the laity’s benefit, as regards the distribution of the same sacrament.
Finally, digital Communion was introduced only fifty years ago as a concession to disobedience, while Communion on the tongue remains the norm. For over a thousand years, receiving kneeling and on the tongue has been the approved custom in the Latin Church. This mode of Communion is undoubtedly more reverent and safer than the palm-to-mouth Communion of antiquity, let alone digital Communion. When digital communicants in good faith realise this, they are likely to choose receiving Holy Communion on the tongue, which better expresses and protects the Eucharistic presence. Admittedly, digits are the best-fitted limbs in the human body for probing and seizing. Our Lord made use of his digits to cure the deaf-mute (Mk 7:33-35), and of St Thomas’ digits to cure him from his unbelief (Jn 20:26-27). In both cases, digits allowed close physical contact between the Saviour and a sinner. This confirms that our digits are not per se unworthy of divine touch. But in Holy Communion, we abandon ourselves with humility and faith to the Saviour who enters our body under the guise of food, so as to feed our souls genuinely with his grace. Since the use of digits denotes power, non-digital Communion better expresses abandonment to and confidence in the Eucharistic Lord.
In the Temple of Jerusalem the old man Simeon prefigured the Eucharistic attitude when he received the Lord Jesus corporally. In supernatural faith he confessed that the Baby Jesus brought in by his parents was God. St Luke describes how Simeon “received the child in his arms” (Lk 2:28). The Greek verb chosen by St Luke is déxomai – which means ‘to receive in a welcoming way’. This verb is used of people welcoming God’s offers and salvation. Finally, Our Blessed Lady is our surest guide in finding the best bodily posture and disposition of soul to receive Her Son, as she did at her Annunciation; and later on in Ephesus when receiving Him in Holy Communion from St John, his priest.
[i] For the sake of concision, one could term palm-to-mouth Communion ‘palmoral’ (combining ‘palm’ and ‘oral’), as distinct from ‘digital’ Communion (digits-to-mouth). But neologisms are to be used sparsely.
[ii] “I excommunicate all idolaters, blasphemers and despisers of God, all heretics and those who create private sects in order to break the unity of the Church, all perjurers, all who rebel against father or mother or superior, all who promote sedition or mutiny; brutal and disorderly persons, adulterers, lewd and lustful men, thieves, ravishers, greedy and grasping people, drunkards, gluttons, and all those who lead a scandalous and dissolute life. I warn them to abstain from this Holy Table, lest they defile and contaminate the holy food which our Lord Jesus Christ gives to none except they belong to His household of faith.” Cf Exhortation for the Eucharist.
[iii] Institution of the Christian Religion, Chapter 17, No43.
[iv] No knowledge of the Greek language is required to discover the fascinating explanations of the various meanings of the verb ‘to take’ (‘lambanō’) in the New Testament, as helpfully detailed on the website https://biblehub.com/greek/2983.htm.
[v] The morsel dipped in wine was not Holy Communion but belonged to the ritual Passover meal. Scholars affirm that there is room for debate as to whether Judas received Holy Communion afterwards.