Letter issued on 19 Sep 2016 by the Senate of Priests of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council. Of particular concern, after these fifty years, are the changes made to the liturgy in the late 1960s and 1970s.

And the most fundamental of these changes relate to the manner of reception of Holy Communion at Mass, whereby the vast majority of today’s communicants receive Communion in the hand while standing.

Today, the practice of receiving of Holy Communion at Mass in the hand is extremely widespread. Like other changes that followed the Council, many Catholics incorrectly associated this manner of reception with the “reforms” of Vatican II.

Historical Background

In truth, the Council gave no permission to allow the Faithful to receive the Blessed Sacrament by hand, nor was it made part of the rubrics for the Novus Ordo missal of 1969.

The movement to permit this manner of reception grew in force after the close of the Council. The idea was based on a kind of going back to the tradition that associated reception in the hand with the practice of the early Church.

It was also part of the effort to promote the understanding of the Mass as a community meal over the conception of the Mass as primarily a Holy Sacrifice.

For his part, Pope Paul VI perceived significant dangers in allowing for the practice. Responding to the pleas of a minority of progressive European bishops to permit in-hand reception, in May 1969, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship declared that “the Holy Father has decided not to change the existing way [via the tongue] of administering holy communion to the faithful.” (See Memoriale Domini at para. 11.)

The Holy See apprehended the gravity of permitting a change in the solemn manner of the reception of the Blessed Sacrament. It recognized that the proposed change “carries certain dangers with it which may arise from the new manner of administering holy communion: the danger of a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adulterating the true doctrine.” (See Id. para. 10.) By a two-to-one margin, the bishops worldwide voted in support of the position of the Holy Father.

Nonetheless, the pope undercut his own declaration by allowing the various bishops’ conferences the right to permit Communion in the hand in their respective territories via a secret, two-thirds majority vote of the bodies. (See Id. at para. 11-12.)

Laws governing the Liturgy

It is important to note that liturgical laws i.e., laws pertaining to the celebration of the Mass and other liturgical actions—are for the most part not even addressed by the Code of Canon Law (See canon # 2).

Church laws governing ceremonial, ritual aspects of Catholic sacramental life are therefore usually found in official documents other than the code itself.

The issue of kneeling to receive Holy Communion is a good example of this. The code provides instruction as to who is permitted to receive Holy Communion, and when one may do so (cc. 912-923  Article 2: Participation in the Blessed Eucharist), but the actual manner in which communicants are to receive the sacrament is not even mentioned.

Instead, the Church’s official answer to this question is contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which contains all the norms pertinent to the celebration of Mass, including the distribution of Holy Communion.

The most recent edition of the GIRM, with some permitted local adaptations, (which came from the 2003 edition) was approved for use here in 2011 by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with the authority of the Pope. Its contents constitute the Church’s approved, official liturgical norms, which are not open to interpretation or variation.

Within Chapter IV of the GIRM, “The Different Forms of Celebrating Mass,” is a subsection entitled “Mass With The People,” which contains detailed instructions on the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful. This subsection notes,

“The Priest takes the paten or ciborium and approaches the communicants, who usually come up in procession. It is not permitted for the faithful to take the consecrated  Bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and still less, to hand them on from one to another among themselves. The faithful communicate either kneeling or standing, as has been determined by the norms of the Conference of Bishops.  However, when they communicate standing, it is recommended that before receiving the Sacrament they make an appropriate sign of reverence, to be determined in the same norms”.  (GIRM 160).

This statement in itself should be clear enough, and has sufficient legal weight, to refute directly any notion that a Catholic may be refused Holy Communion if he wishes to receive kneeling.

Based on the 2003 edition, the Vatican subsequently reiterated this in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum  (On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist). It was published in 2004 by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, with the approval of Pope John Paul II.

Like all Instructions, this document is not actually a law in itself; but it does reaffirm in an official way the Church’s current teaching on this very question, when it states, “…It is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing” (Redemptionis Sacramentum   90 and 91). This is, of course, a consistent restatement of the provisions found in the GIRM.

RS[90.]The faithful should receive Communion kneeling or standing, as the Conference of Bishops will have determined”, with its acts having received the recognitio of the Apostolic See. “However, if they receive Communion standing, it is recommended that they give due reverence before the reception of the Sacrament, as set forth in the same norms”.

RS[91.] In distributing Holy Communion it is to be remembered that “sacred ministers may not deny the sacraments to those who seek them in a reasonable manner, are rightly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them”. Hence any baptized Catholic who is not prevented by law must be admitted to Holy Communion. Therefore, it is not licit to deny Holy Communion to any of Christ’s faithful solely on the grounds, for example, that the person wishes to receive the Eucharist kneeling or standing.

On the 5th of July 2016, Cardinal Robert Sarah, the highest authority in Liturgy under Pope Francis, speaking at a liturgical conference in London, encouraged all Catholics to receive Holy Communion kneeling. (Click here for further reading)

Understanding and Applying the Laws

At the same time, however, it is important to keep in mind that in situations which are out of the ordinary, prudence may dictate that it is better for a communicant not to kneel. For example, persons who are elderly or infirm, or may have physical difficulty in kneeling and then promptly standing up again.

A priest might discourage people from kneeling in such cases, but it is necessary to realize that the primary concern here is to maintain an orderly, commotion-free distribution of the sacrament, and not necessarily to forbid per se the reception of Holy Communion on one’s knees. In other words, this right is not absolute!

But the norm is intended to apply to the average situation, not to extraordinary ones. There is no legal justification for denying the Eucharist to a communicant simply because he kneels—even if standing is the norm for receiving the sacrament in the diocese. Doing so would go against the provisions of the GIRM, and as a result it would also constitute a violation of the person’s right to receive the sacrament under the aforementioned canon 843.1.

Sacred ministers cannot deny the sacraments to those who opportunely ask for them, are properly disposed, and are not prohibited by law from receiving them.”

It is with this in mind that the priests are reminded to instruct their commissioned extra ordinary communion ministers not to deny the laity from receiving Holy Communion if they wish to receive it either kneeling or on the tongue.