Did the Church Fathers Practice Communion in the Hand? (Not Exactly)

The recent post entitled “Five Tips for Receiving the Communion on the Tongue” received a over 9,000 visits in it’s first day up and many more after that. I never imagined that this single topic would generate so much interest on the internet.

Within the comments to the post, it was noted that there is evidence for “Holy Communion in the hand” in the writings of the early Church. Whenever I hear this argument, it bothers me because it does not provide the context for this situation in the early Church. It is true that Holy Communion in the hand did in fact happen. However, when we read the Patristic passages in context we discover the reason for why Holy Communion in the hand was tolerated. It was only allowed during times of Church persecution.

Let it be noted at the outset that St Leo the Great and St Gregory the Great are early witnesses to Communion on the Tongue as the normative. However, Saint Basil admits that Communion on the hand did happen. Saint Basil explicitly explains that Communion in the Hand was only allowed under certain circumstances {my notes are in red – like Fr Z does}:

“If {“if” denotes a conditional clause} one feels he should in times of persecution, in the absence of a priest or deacon, receive Communion by his own hand, there should be no need to point out that this certainly shows no grave immoderation {that’s pretty serious}; for long custom allows this in such cases {notices how he writes “in such cases” – that’s the key}. In fact, all solitaries in the desert, where there is no priest, reserving Communion in their dwellings, receive It from their own hands.”

So then, Saint Basil says that Communion in the hand is allowed:

1) under times of persecution where no priest is present
2) for hermits and ascetics in the wilderness who do not have priests

He says that that Communion in the hand under any other circumstance is “grave immoderation.” Thus, the laity were allowed to hold and touch the Holy Eucharist with their hands in exceptional cases. This practice, says St Basil was not, however, the norm.

Let us now turn to the most controversial quote regarding Holy Communion in the hand. It comes from one of the five mystagogical (i.e. post-Easter) lectures ascribed to Saint Cyril of Jerusalem in about the year AD 350. We currently have 18 undoubted lectures from Saint Cyril given to his catechumens in preparation for Holy Baptism at Easter. Now then, there are an additional five mystagogical lectures allegedly given by Cyril to this same group of people – now his audience has been baptized, confirmed, and has received the Holy Eucharist. So the manuscripts preserving Saint Cyril’s catechesis go like this:

18 Lectures for Catechumens preparing to become Christians
Easter initiation of this Catechumens
5 Follow-Up Lectures for these Newly Baptized Christians

Now the five follow-up lectures are highly debated and may not be authentic. In other words, they may have may been added by someone other than Saint Cyril. In fact, there exist manuscripts that do not attribute these five lectures to Saint Cyril. Hence, it is not entirely responsible to quote these last five lectures as a valid authority. The five later lectures are questionable.

Anyway, here’s the classic “Communion in the Hand” passage from the fifth follow-up mystagogical lecture attributed to Saint Cyril:

“When thou goest to receive communion go not with thy wrists extended, nor with thy fingers separated, but placing thy left hand as a throne for thy right, which is to receive so great a King, and in the hollow of the palm receive the body of Christ, saying, Amen.” (Catechesis mystagogica V, xxi-xxii, Migne Patrologia Graeca 33)

This is the passage on which the Patristic argument for Communion in the Hand stands or falls. Whereas there is this ONE alleged quote from St Cyril (the one just above from the disputed Catechesis mystagogica), there are many undoubted quotes by other Fathers that affirm Communion on the tongue (both “great” Popes Saint Leo the Great and Saint Gregory the Great) explicitly witness to Communion on the tongue. So why take the dubious quote when there are others to go by?

I want to add one more argument against the alleged Saint Cyril of Jerusalem passage listed above. The “make your hand a throne” passage goes on to say that the faithful should touch the Holy Body of Christ to their eyes before consuming it. Then it also says that the faithful should touch their lips still moist with the precious Blood of Christ and touch the Blood to their eyes.

Even if this passage is authentic (and I don’t think that it is), then Communion in the Hand should also include touching both the Holy Body and the Holy Blood to our eyes. Yet who wants to argue for this custom?!

I think that every Catholic would find this abhorrent. It is an aberration from holy tradition.

So then, it seems that the early Church administered Holy Communion on the tongue with the exception of the absence of a priest in times of persecution. If a priest were absent, then the faithful might not need to receive on the tongue.

Let me just add that I am by no means a Patristic expert and I’m very open to being corrected. I’m even more interested in any passages in the Church Fathers that support Communion in the hand as normative. So far, I’ve not encountered any such passages. The only evidence given is the quote quote from Saint Cyril about making your hand into a throne – and from what has been argued above, that argument is not convincing.

ad Jesum per Mariam,
Taylor Marshall

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  • Cuthbertus

    It seems to me that the earliest Christians must, by the very nature of the initial form of the Mass, have held the Holy Body. After all they were passing round a small loaf and each taking a piece off it. No matter what had become standard practice in the liturgy of a few centuries later we must remember we are also partaking in a shared meal, and for the very earliest Christians the idea that the sacred Body and Blood would not be passed to each person in turn for them to then consume would detract from their practice of the sacrament, and from its nature.

    • Raguel

      Well it has always been the tradition of the church for the people to receive communion from a priest or deacon. What you are describing sounds far more protestant than anything rooted in actual historical fact.

      Scripture even points to the fact that Jesus fed his disciples as we can see in the Gospel of John (13:26-30)

      “Jesus answered, ‘It is he to whom I shall give this Morsel when I have
      dipped It.’ So when He had dipped the Morsel, He gave It to Judas… So,
      after receiving the Morsel, he [Judas] immediately went out…”

      Now, it would fall in line with Jewish customs of the host feeding his guests. Jesus placing a soggy wet piece of bread on his hand would be rather messy would not not agree? We know communion on the hand happend on occasion, but it was by no means a common thing. Communion on the tongue has always been a tradition of the church from the very beggining.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    The practice you describe in the first half of your OP sound to me like self-communion, not communion in the hand.