Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
Discussion about the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist often leads to questions about how to receive Holy Communion.
When I became a Catholic years ago, I was lost as to why I was told by my deacon to bow before receiving, but happened upon others who genuflected or stayed on both knees to receive. The current rules do allow for personal judgment — but before we cover the hard-and-fast rules, we should quickly cover some key articles.
Holy Communion Under Both Kinds
The sacrament of the Eucharist is received in one of two forms, kinds or “species” — bread and wine. Customarily, lay Catholics in the West have received under the form of the bread alone, but many parishes now also offer Communion under the form of wine as well. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (281) explains:
Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it takes place under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clearer expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the connection between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Kingdom of the Father.
Considerate of differing pastoral reasons, both species are not always presented to the faithful.
The next point is critical. When we receive the bread, the minister will utter “the Body of Christ,” and for the wine, he will say “the Blood of Christ.” But the fact is, both species contain the Real Presence of Jesus Christ, whole and entire — body, blood, soul, and divinity. No matter which form we receive, or how small the particle or drop, we receive the entirety of the Blessed Sacrament.
All Catholics should contemplate how they receive Holy Communion. When receiving either species, a sign of reference is given. The General Introduction to the Roman Missal (160) explains:
When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.
In addition, the decision whether to receive standing or kneeling is left up to the communicant (GIRM 160):
The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling.
The Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff explains:
The most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was, with all probability, to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand. The history of the liturgy, however, makes clear that rather early on a process took place to change this practice.
From the time of the Fathers of the Church, a tendency was born and consolidated whereby distribution of Holy Communion in the hand became more and more restricted in favor of distributing Holy Communion on the tongue. The motivation for this practice is two-fold: first, to avoid, as much as possible, the dropping of Eucharistic particles; second, to increase among the faithful devotion to the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains further:
“Out of reverence towards this Sacrament [the Holy Eucharist], nothing touches it, but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this Sacrament (Summa Theologica, Part III:82:3).
Giving the Eucharist the Prominence It Deserves
No matter the case, the mode of reception — under one kind or both, standing or kneeling — is currently left to the discretion of the communicant, mindful of a few strict guidelines. If I may offer readers and new Catholics any advice, I recommend a thoughtful reflection on the Real Presence and equating that with our disposition and behavior when receiving the Blessed Sacrament, taking to heart the words of Pope St. John Paul II:
By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this treasure. Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith, and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation (Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 61).