St James Cathedral - Seattle, WA

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Right Way to Receive Holy Communion

Perhaps this might seem rudimentary for some, but I can tell you it's something we need to talk about.  I don't think it matters where you live, the problem is there- some Catholics simply don't know the right way to receive the Eucharist.

To be clear, the Church desires that everyone to receive Holy Communion.  (Wait, don't call me a heretic yet.) However, the Church wants everyone to receive Holy Communion the right way.  (See, I'm not a heretic.) Receiving the Eucharist is a big deal.  It's such a big deal, that there's all sorts of rules about it and we don't just let anybody do it.  Things like nuclear power plants, space shuttle launches, and British royalty are other examples of big deal things with a lot of particular rules.  (Yes, that was quite random, but you get my point.)

Before talking about how to receive Holy Communion properly, let's talk about being properly disposed first.  If you're not properly prepared, then you shouldn't receive Communion.  This means being free from mortal sin and having followed the communion fast (in addition to being a practicing Catholic).

Being free from mortal sin is self-explanatory: don't commit grave sin.  If you happen to, then refrain from receiving Communion until you've been able to make Reconciliation (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1415).  An extra reminder of this is needed in the United States where the tendency is for everyone to automatically get up and go to Communion.  It's rare for someone to stay behind in the pew- they might even get funny looks if they do.  In many other parts of the world, not everyone goes to Communion and it's more common to see people remaining at their seat.  Is it because there are more sinners in other countries?  I doubt it; I think they are just being more mindful about being properly disposed.

Following the communion fast is also something that needs emphasis.  For Latin rite Catholics, this means refraining from food and beverage for one hour before receiving the Eucharist (Canon 919).  Some people say this means they can eat up to 30 minutes before Mass starts since the Communion rite is typically 30-45 minutes into the liturgy.  Personally, I prefer to refrain 1 hour from the start of the Mass.  It's weird to walk into a Church on a full stomach.  Besides, what if a daily Mass takes only 25 minutes, then eating 30 minutes prior doesn't work! 

So now let's talk about how to receive Holy Communion.  Having served as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion in different parts of the United States, I should say that for the most part Catholics do this well.  However, there have been times where I've done a jaw drop or double take because someone didn't receive Communion properly (and I suspect they were regular attending Catholics).

With the decree Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the United States of America, the USCCB permits the reception of Holy Communion in the hand.  The decree refers to St Cyril of Jerusalem who wrote:
"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."  (Paragraph 41)
Unfortunately, the contrary does happen.  As a Eucharistic Minister, it's gut wrenching when the sacred host is snatched out of my hand, or if the communicant casually shuffles the sacred host from the palm to the finger tip of the same hand like a poker chip before they shoot it into their mouth.  On the other end of the spectrum, I'm also not a fan of waving the host in a large cross-like fashion before consuming it.  That might seem pious, but the best thing to do is to just place the sacred host in your mouth- you don't get more grace by doing anything else.

Removing the chewing gum from your mouth before receiving is also advisable!  (Why would you want anything in your mouth besides the Eucharist?)

It's necessary to point out that while receiving Holy Communion in the hand is permitted by decree in the United States (and many English speaking countries), it isn't the norm in the rest of the world.  So for Americans traveling internationally, never assume that you can receive in the hand where ever you go. Follow the norms of the local place. If you don't know them, then play it safe and receive on the tongue. If you're not used to it, it's actually quite reverent.

Lastly about receiving in the hand, parents should make sure their kids are receiving Communion correctly. It's hard for the minister when you have an 8 year old holding his/her hands down at their waist. (The minister can't see the hands when they are that low and then has to bend down.) Whether you're a child or an adult, the communicant's hands should be held up and out, closer to the ciborium or patent so that the sacred host doesn't have to travel far.  This way, there is less risk of the Body & Blood of our Lord falling to the ground.

There's much more that could be said, but I'll conclude by talking about the appropriate response to the prompt, "The Body of Christ" or "The Blood of Christ."  It isn't silence.  It isn't "We are," or  "Yes it is," or even "Thank you Jesus."  The best response is "Amen."  I know- it's simple, yet profound.  It's also what the Church asks us to do.

Here's some neat Catholic cocktail party talk:

Want to know why the first meal of the day is called breakfast?  For hundreds of years, the communion fast started at midnight before receiving Holy Communion.  So people would get up early, go to church, and then break their fast with eating afterward.  This was also one of the reasons why Mass would be said so early in the morning.  Many people still remember this.

In 1953, Pope Pius XII reduced the communion fast to refraining 3 hours for food, 1 hour for beverage, primarily for when Mass was going to be celebrated in the evenings (which was a new thing back then).  Pope Paul VI reduced the fast on November 21, 1964 to what we observe today.


  1. Chalk it up to the growing sense of entitlement and the decline of formality. Some people wear things to church I wouldn't wear outside my house. No big deal, I guess; it's just God Almighty.

    1. I love this comment. It's a matter of showing proper respect. I tell my son, "If you can't dress up for God, who can you dress up for?"

    2. The Pharisees were great at this.

  2. I'm petrified of receiving on the tongue. I just always feel like I'm going to mess up. I recognize it's more reverent, but I just have serious anxiety about it. Also I've been making a conscious effort now to not get communion if I meet any of the criteria above and I've never felt like anyone was noticing me - I tend to notice more the other people that stay behind! It's usually more than you might think!!

  3. "Removing the chewing gum from your mouth before receiving is also advisable!" Last I checked, most interpreted gum chewing as a violation of the Communion fast (as well an totally inappropriate).

  4. I like receiving on the tongue. I'm a convert and I was only taught to receive in the hand, but I don't like to have tiny little pieces left in my hand afterwards, and it often happens. Receiving on the tongue is faster, and I think, less likely to have that effect. I actually like it when they use a paten too, but not all parishes do.

    1. Fr. House,
      Even sugarless gum usually contains mannitol and other aldehydes of sugar for flavor and scent. It's probably a violation of the Communion fast, yes.

  5. I was received into the church only a couple of years ago, and there was too little emphasis IMO on the importance of the Eucharist. It's the reason for the sacrifice of the Mass and our only way to salvation. I'm also with anonymous in that I prefer to receive on the tongue, but the (very much post conciliar) nun who was my catechist insisted that in the hand was the correct way, and that priests didn't like to give on the tongue. I don't feel worthy to touch my Lord, if that doesn't sound a little too pious? It just doesn't seem right, somehow and with the greatest respect to you and other Eucharistic ministers, I'd prefer to only receive from an ordained priest. Then again, I'm quite conservative in my liturgical preferences!

    I agree completely that it has become automatic, and I doubt that many people really consider carefully whether they should receive or not. I never get tired of the feeling of awe that Jesus is actually there in the tabernacle when I go into a church, and feel quite strange if I'm in a non Catholic church where there's no communion and no tabernacle. I wonder what the point of the Protestant movement is, when they have effectively (and sometimes literally) removed the most important part of worship. It's very special to me, as you can probably tell!

    Yvette (from the Benedictine FB group)

  6. OH my goodness, I have never heard the story behind the word breakfast! Ha! Thanks for the beautiful post. I stopped over from the Catholic blogger ticker. Hope you have enjoyed this beautiful feast day!

  7. Reading this now as I explore Catholic blogs during our Year of Faith.

    I would enjoy a similar critique of proper Communion etiquette for those with Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance. I would like for information on this matter to become more widespread for those with and without Celiac Disease for better understanding and consideration.

  8. Great article!

    It might be worth noting that, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the norm is communion on the tongue...with communion in the hand where this is allowed:

    "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." - GIRM, 161

  9. I think God cares more about the ethics of where your clothing came from than the vanity of how one looks.
    I come from outside the catholic tradition, and I love that it has an 'awe' or reverence in how you practice some aspects of faith but 'correctness' of communion and which hand in a western society to take it with etc etc seems all slightly pompous and nothing to do with God but human influences.
    To be fearful of snickers of ritual by your own brothers and sisters. I am laughing quiet tears.

    We partake in communion, who defined all these rituals?
    "you don't get more grace by doing anything else."

    Apologies if I have misread or understood this post and commented inappropriately.

    1. Thanks for your comment, anonymous.

      I agree that God cares more about a person's heart and their intention, than the mechanics of how they receive Holy Communion.

      I also agree that to be caught up more in the mechanics, and less in the actual reception of the Body & Blood of the Lord, completely misses the point and I have no doubt that doing so really disappoints our Lord.

      That being said, there are appropriate ways to do things and inappropriate ways to do things. The Holy Eucharist is so sacred that the appropriate way to receive it is very particular. Many of the things in the world that are sacred or unique will have very particular things about them.

      Who defined all these rituals? Well the Church has. The Church has been defining these rituals since its inception 2,000 years ago. Almost all religions have some sort of ritual. The ones that don't just haven't been around long enough.

    2. A matter of respect, and reverence, why come to church in a bikini, you can but why? S ome people dont have nice clothes, o.k, but at least clean yoyrself up, a matter of respect and maturity

  10. This is a great article. I teach religious education to 3rd graders and we practice receiving Holy Communion with Necco wafers. It's funny because sometimes their parents aren't very good examples for them. In any case, although it may seem somewhat nitpicky, the proper reverence when receiving the Lord seems appropriate in any case. It is the Lord we are receiving after all! God bless and keep up the writing!

  11. Please add me to your followers,

    I am a technical writer and looked at this post to find a way to explain to non-Catholics what it means to be "properly disposed." I like what I see.
    God bless you and your family.

  12. I'm confused, you reference (Paragraph 41) "place your left hand as a throne beneath your right," However, the picture shown is opposite?

    1. Good observation. Allow me to clarify.

      I referred to St Cyril's quote the same way the USCCB did, in order to show that reception of Holy Communion in the hand is actually nothing new (which is commonly perceived) and was done in the days of the early Church. It was not meant for instruction. The picture was not intended to reflect the quote.

      Regarding which hand should be placed beneath the other, the USCCB has published the following as a guide on their website and on instructional materials:
      "If one is right handed the left hand should rest upon the right. The host will then be laid in the palm of the left hand and then taken by the right hand to the mouth. If one is left-handed this is reversed."

    2. Thank you for clarifying Sir!

  13. Having lived and visited abroad, watch the locals before assuming only the US church receives on the hand. Had a priest also invite people to take the host from the ciborium and instinct in the challis.. Definitely wrong. And this was not on US soil. I opted to bow reverently, and have a spiritual communion. However if the priest is the teacher the congregation does not know different. He was visiting out Zambian parish.

  14. I think we should go back to the 3 hour fast and the Church should legislate this. It's not too much to ask surely, especially in these days of widespread obesity and when modern conveniences make it easy for everyone to prepare meals quickly at any time.

    And an added advantage is that it will help those people who are not in the state of grace (have an unconfessed mortal sin) but feel embarrassed about being one of the very few people not going up to receive Communion. If the 3 hour fast was the rule, people would just assume that you've not fasted (in the unlikely event that anyone even notices or thinks about why you're not receiving).

    The one hour "fast" is a joke. Basically all it means is that you can't grab a burger whilst you're actually on the way to Mass. Our Moslem friends manage to fast 12 hours every day for a month every year. Our Hindu friends and those of other religions also have days when they fast ALL DAY. Surely 3 hours wouldn't be too hard for us.

  15. I received Communion this morning for the first time in 40+ years and totally messed up. I feel about one inch tall, very distressed about it. The Monsignor actually asked if I was Catholic before passing the Host to me (I took it with two fingers). Next time, I'll try receiving the Host in my palm, as this seems to be the most accepted protocol. The Host was laid on the tongue of the recipient 40 years ago.

    1. While I'm sorry about the embarrassment/distress you felt, I'm so thrilled that you have returned to the Eucharist. Please don't let temptation stop you from being with our Lord in this special way!


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