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How to Receive the Eucharist


Often in modern liturgy, the sense of reverence, of dignity, of awe, seems to have disappeared.


When you talk about what I'm going to talk about, people say, "Oh, my goodness, Father has me directly in mind, I know he's directing what he's saying at me."  People become self-conscious or even offended.  Recently I spoke to a congregation about the reception of Holy Communion.  I began by saying, "There are no flagrant violations or extreme problems here, but it's good always to remind ourselves of what happens when we receive the Eucharist and how we should receive it."  Then I continued in this vein:

We have the adage "Familiarity breeds contempt."  Not that we have contempt for the Eucharist, but we receive it so often that we can become slovenly.  Even priests can become slovenly in the way they say Mass.  As anyone who's been a superior of a community of priests knows, it's a delicate thing to approach the priest and say, "Father, look, you're saying Mass too fast; you're saying Mass too irreverently; you're doing this or that and you ought to correct it."  Several years ago a Jesuit published a book called How Not to Say Mass, and when we read it in refectory in the monastery one of the old monks said, "How strange that a Jesuit should write a book on how not to say Mass."  Well, here we go. 

If you were to ask me what two dispositions are absolutely necessary to approach the table of the Lord, I would say without hesitation that the first is faith — deep belief in our Lord who is truly present, body and soul, humanity and divinity who becomes present at the words of consecration and who comes into our lives, into our very beings, assimilates us into himself, through the reception of the Eucharist That is whom we are receiving.  We celebrate what Jesus enacted at the Last Supper and on Calvary.  We represent that act to the Father and bring its benefits upon ourselves. 

The Eucharist like all the great mysteries of our faith, is not something that one can explain rationally.  How can Jesus, how can God, be contained in what appears to be a small wafer of bread? But that's our strong belief, that Jesus is truly present on our altars.  Once we have received him in the Eucharist, he is present in our very persons, in our bodies.  We believe that by the reception of the Eucharist we become tabernacles, with our Lord contained within our very selves.  That is a marvelous mystery, and that's the first quality that we have to come with, that deep awareness, that deep faith, that deep belief.  That's what really makes Catholics Catholic.  Take away the Eucharist, and we're like everyone else.  There's no difference.  I think it was one of the French revolutionaries who said, "If I truly believed what the Church wants me to believe, that Christ truly becomes present on the altar at the moment of consecration, I would not walk to the communion rail — I would crawl on my belly.  That is how deep my faith and my humility would be." 

Now we certainly don't expect anyone to crawl, but there has to be that depth of faith.  Out of that faith there has to come a devotion.  You know each of us is baptized into the priesthood of Jesus, and one of the ways in which ordinary baptized Catholics exercise that priesthood is by receiving Holy Communion.  That is the exercise of a power we have from Christ.  It's an act of worship and so we do it.  We come with devotion, we come with humility.  We come — how should I put it? — with great reverence and respect.  I think that's what many people complain about in our modern liturgy, thc fact that the sense of reverence, of dignity, of awe, has disappeared.  But that's more in our disposition than in anything else. 

Now there are two ways in which Communion is received in the Latin Church: We receive either on the tongue or in the hand.  The priest holds up the Host and says, "The Body of Christ," and the communicant answers, "Amen" That is not an English word; it's an Aramaic word.  It really is pronounced "Ahmeen," and it means, "So be it" "I agree."  "I believe."  "It is the Body of Christ."  That's what the "Amen" means: "I honestly believe that when I receive, it is Christ, and so I say Amen." 

No one can dictate how one is to receive Holy Communion.  A priest can't say, "I'm only going to give the Eucharist on the tongue."  Nor can a priest demand that everyone who comes to Communion receive in the hand.  Who decides how one is to receive Holy Communion? The communicant and only the communicant.  It is the individual who decides how he is going to receive.  (The option applies only in countries whose national bishops' conferences have applied for and been granted permission to authorize Communion in the hand, of course.) Often I run into priests who say, "I'm only going to give it in the hand."  And I have to say, "Father, you cannot demand that"

If you are going to receive on the tongue, you should keep certain things in mind.  First, the head should be bent back slightly, and the head should be held erect, but kind of tilted back.  The tongue should come out over the bottom teeth, equal with the bottom lip, so that the priest has someplace to put the Host Sometimes people come up with their teeth clenched, and you wonder, "How am I going to get our Lord into that mouth?"

There are certain things that we priests talk about among ourselves (I'm telling the tricks of the trade now), comments we make about certain kinds of communicants.  We say, "That one was a snapping turtle," because he closes his mouth so quickly that the priest is afraid his fingers are going to be cut off by the teeth.  You look down sometimes and wonder, "Has blood been drawn?" Many a time, I've had the scar of the teeth on my knuckles.  There are also the plungers; they sort of leap forward.  Or you have the toe dancers, who come up on their toes, and you never know where they're going to light.  Others receive on the run; they don't stand squarely in front of you but they stand as if they can't wait to get away.  Come straight forward, face the priest, and don't be too far away, because its awfully difficult at times to reach. 

If you're going to receive in the hand, the best way is to put one hand down and put the other hand on top of it and make, as Tertullian used to say, a kind of throne for the Lord.  When the priest puts the Host on your hand, you say, "Amen."  Take a step or two to the side to make way for the next communicant, then receive our Lord.  Communion should not be received on the run, as you're walking back to your place; it should be consumed before you leave the area below the altar. 

I would like to remind people to indicate clearly how they wish to receive.  Sometimes communicants come up with their hands out and their mouths open, and the priest doesn't know which way to give the Host.  How does this person wish to receive? If you indicate clearly, it's easier.  If you're going to receive in the hand, be clear about where the Host should be placed so that it doesn't accidentally fall.  By the way, if it should fall on the floor, indicate it to the priest.  Sometimes the priest or extraordinary minister doesn't see it

That should be the overwhelming disposition with which we approach Holy Communion: "It is the Lord!"

If you're going to kneel for Communion — and it's all right to kneel — remember that, when you rise, you have people behind you.  Sometimes those who kneel to receive take a step or two back when they rise.  I've seen at times when an older person stands just behind the one who is rising.  A person who uses a cane to steady his walk may come close to being knocked over by someone rising up.  So remember to rise straight up, thinking about the person right behind you

Some people ask me at times, "Father, I see on television the Masses that come from Birmingham, from Mother Angelica, and I see the sisters genuflecting.  Should I genuflect before or after?" Only as a sign of piety; it's not necessary to genuflect, but it is necessary to make some gesture of reverence before receiving the Eucharist.  It may be kneeling, bowing, crossing oneself or some other act.  What is necessary is to receive with reverence and dignity.  I don't think there should be any genuflections after receiving Holy Eucharist.  I don't mean to sound facetious, but, at that moment, you don't want to genuflect to the tabernacle, because the Lord is within you; you are the tabernacle. 

Let me sum up by saying the two main dispositions that we need — faith and devotion.  Remember that scene, in the Fourth Gospel, that occurs after the Resurrection.  The disciples are out fishing, and the boats are coming toward the shore.  Peter, as usual, is completely immersed in what he is doing; he's got his outer clothes off so he can work more easily.  The beloved disciple sees someone standing on the shore and says to Peter, "It is the Lord."  Peter jumps into the water. 

That disposition of John, "It is the Lord" — that's what our faith demands.  It is the Lord that we are worshiping.  It is the Lord that we are receiving into ourselves.  It is the Lord who is giving us in the Eucharist a special way to participate in divine life.  It is the Lord who is sanctifying us.  That should be the overwhelming disposition with which we approach Holy Communion: "It is the Lord!"



Parcher, Rev. Adrian J. "How to Receive the Eucharist."  This Rock (January 1998): 23-24. 

This Rock, the magazine of Catholic apologetics and evangelization, became Catholic Answers Magazine. Go here to find out more.

The Author

The Rt. Rev. Adrian J. Parcher, O.S.B., is the retired abbot of St. Martin's Benedictine Abbey in Lacey, Washington. 

Copyright © 1998 This Rock
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