When and why did the Catholic Church begin the practice of receiving the host in the hand during Holy Communion?
This ancient custom was revived in the Western Church in the early 1970s. In fact, in the first centuries of Christianity, receiving the body of Jesus in the hand was the norm, not the exception. To my knowledge, no one has ever painted a picture of the Last Supper that shows Jesus placing consecrated bread on the tongues of his disciples.
Receiving the host in one’s hand has been an option in the United States since the bishops authorized this in May 1977 and the Holy See confirmed it.
The oldest reference to the Eucharist in the New Testament occurs in chapters 11 and 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, which has no reference to receiving Holy Communion on the tongue.
The Eastern Churches have long followed the custom of intinction, using a spoon to dip the consecrated bread into the Precious Blood and then dropping them onto the communicant’s tongue.
In the fourth century, St. Cyril of Jerusalem instructed those preparing for Baptism that, when they received Holy Communion, they should place one hand on top of the other (palms up) in order to make a throne to “receive the King.”
In time, some Christians felt that receiving Holy Communion on the tongue showed greater reverence. By 900 A.D., that practice had become universal in the West. Around the same time, only the ministers at the altar received from the chalice. That, too, was gradually restored as an option in most countries after 1965.
Following the Jewish practice of using unleavened bread for Passover (Exodus 12:1-20), Christians in the West eventually used only unleavened bread. Christians in the East continued their practice of using leavened bread.
According to The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “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 Previous Blood” (#160). That sign is usually a simple bow.
Who Is St. John of Avila?
During Pope Benedict XVI’s August 2011 visit to Madrid for World Youth Day, he told seminarians gathered at that city’s Almudena Cathedral that he would declare St. John of Avila the 34th Doctor of the Church. Who is this saint and what did he do to deserve such an honor?
After that announcement, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi described St. John of Avila (1500-1569) as “a great master of priestly spirituality” and an important influence on Spanish saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.
The pope told the seminarians that he was responding to the request of the Spanish bishops and added: “In making this announcement here, I would hope that the word and example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination.
“I invite everyone to look to St. John of Avila and I commend to his intercession the bishops of Spain and those of the whole world, as well as all priests and seminarians. As they persevere in the same faith which he taught, may they model their hearts on that of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd, to whom be glory and honor forever. Amen.”
Doctors of the Church are saints who have had a lasting influence on Catholic theology and practice through their preaching and writings. The last three saints so recognized are Catherine of Siena (1970), Teresa of Avila (1970) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1997).
According to the New Catholic Encyclopedia, John of Avila originally studied law at the University of Salamanca and was sole heir to a family fortune. After ordination he distributed his money to the poor and intended to become a missionary in Mexico. The archbishop of Seville persuaded him to be a missionary in Andalusia.
Accused of heresy, John was cleared by the Inquisition in 1533. He encouraged diocesan priests to teach in colleges that he founded. John helped the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) to spread in Spain. His mystical writings have been translated into other languages. John was beatified in 1894 and canonized in 1970. As this issue goes to press, the ceremony for this recognition has not yet been scheduled.
‘Order of Melchizedek’
I recently attended the ordination of a Catholic priest. One of the prayers spoke of him as being ordained “according to the order of Melchizedek.” Who was this person and why is he mentioned in the ordination ceremony?
Melchizedek was the king of Salem, and after Abram’s victory over four pagan kings allied against him (Genesis 14:1-16), Melchizedek offered a sacrifice of bread and wine and blessed Abram with these words: “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand” (14:17-20).
The only other Old Testament reference to Melchizedek occurs in Psalm 110: “The LORD has sworn and will not waver: ‘Like Melchizedek you are a priest forever.’” (v. 4).
Israelite and later Jewish priests were descended from Aaron, the brother of Moses. The reference here and in the ordination prayer to “the order of Melchizedek” refers to a priesthood that is not inherited from one’s father.
In chapters five through seven of the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews, the unknown author makes eight references to Melchizedek as a priest and as a model for Christian priests (5:6, 5:10, 6:20, 7:1, 7:10, 7:11, 7:15 and 7:17). The Letter to the Hebrews may have been written for Jewish priests who had become followers of Jesus and who wanted to better understand the difference between Jewish priests and Christian priests.
In their introduction to the Letter to the Hebrews, the editors of the New American Bible write: “The author presents to the readers for their reflection the everlasting priesthood of Christ (7, 1-28), a priesthood that fulfills the promise of the Old Testament (8, 1-13). It also provides the meaning God ultimately intended in the sacrifices of the Old Testament (9, 1-28): these pointed to the unique sacrifice of Christ, which alone obtains forgiveness of sins (10, 1-18). The trial of faith experienced by the readers should resolve itself through their consideration of Christ’s ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and his perpetual intercession there on their behalf (7, 25; 8, 1-13). They should also be strengthened by the assurance of his foreordained parousia, and by the fruits of faith that they have already enjoyed (10, 19-39).”
Disposing of Religious Articles
After my sister died last year, my niece cleaned up the apartment and gave me several religious statues and pictures. Is it a sin if I donate these things to someone else? Although I already have enough religious articles, I feel guilty about giving these away.
I am sorry for your loss and your worries about these religious articles. It would be no sin to give them away or to have someone bury them for you. Is your regret connected to the fact that these things belonged to your sister? I feel pretty certain that your sister would not want you to feel guilty about disposing of these articles reverently.