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Communion in the Hand in the Early Church

Dear Tradition in Action,

Do you have any good articles on the topic of communion in the hand?

I heard from a priest that in the Early Church, priests would place communion in the hand of men who would then bow their heads to consume the Eucharist on their hands in a reverent manner. Women, however, could only do this only with a cloth on their hands.

I also heard that the Church eventually did away with this practice when it was learned that Christ was substantially present in every particle of the Eucharist. Is the existence of communion in the hand in the early Church correct or is this a modern myth? If this was true it would seem that it is not wrong for unconsecrated hands to touch the Eucharist since the Church cannot have a longstanding defective liturgical discipline.

What is the correct understanding of communion in the hand based on tradition? Is there even more to this question than dropping fragments of Our Lord? I found this article which also claims communion in the hand was common in the early Church and promoted among the early church fathers here. Is this article correct?

    In Our Lady of Good Success,


Dr. Byrne responds:

Dear M.R.,

Many liturgists today try to justify Communion in the hand by claiming that it was an ancient and universal practice legitimately restored after Vatican II. To claim is one thing, but to give satisfactory proof is another.

From the historical point of view, we can say that there is some evidence that the practice existed in the early centuries in some areas of the Church. But we do not know the full record of how often this happened. It would be a dangerous assumption to think that we have enough evidence to form a comprehensive opinion of the method by which Holy Communion was received by the faithful in the early Church of the East and the West. Several factors militate against this – the time scale (eight centuries), the vastness of the geographical area (the Middle East, the subcontinent of India evangelized by St. Thomas the Apostle, North Africa and Europe) and, most crucially, the paucity of reliable data.

Let us beware of over-confident scholars who preen themselves on their knowledge drawn from research in this area and draw conclusions that are not warranted by the data. In spite of the multiplication of “cases” of Communion in the hand they claim to have found, they have left us with only meagre pickings to work on. What knowledge they have given us is fragmentary and lacking in the all-important context that is needed to make an in-depth analysis of the relevant situations surrounding the reception of Holy Communion in early Christianity.

First, we will examine the context, then the evidence.

The context is Arianism, a heresy that denied the Divinity of Christ. It arose in the 4th century, and was only suppressed in the 6th and 7th centuries, as the martyrdom of St. Hermenegild (585) testifies. It was the perfect breeding ground for the spread of Communion in the hand.

Although the majority of the world’s Bishops had succumbed to the heresy, we have no knowledge of how many people used this method of reception. It is important to keep this background in mind when we come to examine the efforts of the good Bishops who tried to maintain attitudes of greater reverence among the faithful when receiving the Sacrament. It was a constant battle. After all, customs are often difficult to eradicate once they have taken root.

The evidence for early Communion in the hand is anything but straightforward. Some citations are of doubtful authenticity, and others often pose an interpretative problem for the experts.

St Cyrill of Jerusalem

St. Cyril of Jerusalem - a dubious text of uncertain authenticity taken out of historical context

For example, the most popular quote in favor of the practice is one attributed to St. Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-386) who is alleged to have instructed the newly baptized to “make a throne” of their hands so that Communion could be placed on it. The authenticity of this passage has been contested by scholars for several reasons.
  • It has been shown that the relevant quote could have been added by someone other than St. Cyril, perhaps by his successor, Bishop John, who was influenced by Arianism, as we know from the correspondence of St. Epiphanius, St. Jerome and St. Augustine.

  • Besides, the same passage contains a Communion rite in which lay people are told to handle the Eucharist by touching the Host to their eyes and smearing the Precious Blood on their foreheads and sensory organs.

  • And they are also told not to deprive themselves of Communion even if they are “defiled by sins” (which, being undifferentiated, must include both venial and mortal), in contradiction of St. Paul’s injunction (1 Corinthians 11:29); whereas all the other Fathers of the Church insisted that communicants be free from serious sins and quarrels with their fellow Christians.

  • But, curiously, the most convincing evidence against the authenticity of this passage has not hitherto been brought forward – the form of worship described by St. Cyril in his Catechetical Lectures. This is identical in all respects to the Divine Liturgy of St. James which, as we shall see below, incorporates a rite of Communion given directly on the tongue.
While we would do well to consider the rite of Pseudo-Cyril as an interpolation, or even a figment of the imagination, that does not mean that there was no evidence for Communion in the hand in the Patristic period.

St Basil the Great

St. Basil: Communion in the hand
only in case of persecution & for hermits

The testimony of St. Basil the Great (330-379) is more illuminating. He acknowledged that taking Communion “by one’s own hand” was customary during times of persecution and also for hermits in the desert, where no priest was present. He did not, therefore, consider it to be a “serious offence” in exceptional and unavoidable circumstances. We can draw the corollary that he would have considered it a grave fault to do so without necessity.

We must keep in mind that the persecution of Christians extended beyond the first three centuries, especially in the Eastern Church. There, the practice of Communion in the hand is acknowledged by early Patristic figures from St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom to St. John Damascene in the 8th century, in those areas where it occurred.

This does not necessarily mean, however, that they fully condoned it, still less that they were enthusiastic about it. The Fathers treated the hands of the laity as ritually “unclean” and prescribed strict protocol for the reception of Communion – the washing of hands for men and the veiling of the hand for women. It all comes across as the equivalent of a damage limitation exercise.

It is true that the Council of Trullo, held in Constantinople in 692, prescribed Communion in the hand (Canon 101). But this was only after a custom had developed among the laity, moved by a Catholic instinct, to adopt what they considered a more worthy form of reception, i.e., in small containers and vessels of gold, silver or other precious materials that they brought with them for the purpose. Not everyone, evidently, was happy with touching the Host with their hands.

While Canon 101 provides evidence for Communion in the hand, it tells us nothing about its frequency. With significant opposition to it from the laity, it cannot be described as common usage. Besides, we know that the Trullan Canons were not uniformly obeyed in the East.

Only a superficial reading of this evidence would lead one to think that Communion in the hand was the norm throughout the Christian world for the first 800 years or so of the Church’s existence. In handling the research data, proponents of this method exaggerate the importance of their findings. For example, they can only produce one single example in the whole of England (where someone happens to place Communion in the hand of a dying monk), yet this is included to bump up the geographical statistics.

Purple Codex of Rossano

The Purple Codex of Rossano

Then there is the phenomenon of “confirmation bias,” by which they “see” evidence where it either does not exist or is difficult to interpret. An example is the Purple Codex of Rossano, a Greek illuminated Gospel Book dated between the end of the 5th and the beginning of the 6th century. One of the illustrations, a depiction of the Last Supper, shows an Apostle about to receive Communion, while the others are lined up behind.

We note that the communicant is not standing upright with hands extended (as in modern times) to take Communion with his fingers; he is bowing low with bended knee and his hand(s) placed directly under his chin, while Our Lord presents the Host to his lips. The intention of this gesture, it seems, could be interpreted as being consistent with reception of Communion on the tongue, that is, in order to provide a kind of “safety net” lest any fragments fall to the ground. (Guarding the Host with scrupulous care to avoid profanation was, unlike modern times, a major preoccupation with early Christians).

Yet today’s doctrinaire progressivists insist on Communion in the hand as the only possible interpretation.

On the subject of reception of Holy Communion on the tongue in the early Church, no evidence has been found that any Pope at any time in the history of the Church ever personally introduced Communion in the hand before Paul VI. But there is good supporting evidence from Popes, Fathers of the Church and local Councils that the faithful received Communion on the tongue in some places. However, progressivists reject this evidence on the flimsiest, most arbitrary and even self-contradictory grounds.

Isaiah Prophet

An Angel touches Isaiah's mouth with a coal to purify his words & soul

One of the strongest pieces of evidence is contained in the early Christian Liturgy of St. James, which is the original local rite of Jerusalem, spoken of by St. Cyril. In it, one of the prayers said by the priest before distributing Communion uses the metaphor of the “burning coal” (Isaiah 6:6-7) which was taken by an Angel from the altar and was touched to the lips of Isaiah to purify his soul. He prays:

“The Lord will bless us, and make us worthy with the pure touchings of our fingers to take the live coal, and place it upon the mouths of the faithful for the purification and renewal of their souls and bodies, now and always”.

As this liturgy is still used in some Eastern Catholic as well as Schismatic rites where Communion on the tongue is the norm, it shows an uninterrupted tradition since early Christian times.

Pope St. Eutychianus (275-283) forbade lay people to take Holy Communion to the sick:

Nullus præsumat tradere communionem laico vel femminæ ad deferendum infirmo (Let no one dare to consign Communion to any layman or woman to take to a sick person).

Critics contend that this does not prove anything about the practice of giving Communion in the hand or on the tongue. But they ignore the implied reasoning behind the prohibition – that Communion handled by a lay person was not something to be positively approved. Administering the Sacrament to others is thus seen as the prerogative of the ordained priest – a point later made by the Council of Trent which described it as an Apostolic Tradition.

St Leo the Great

St. Leo the Great in the 5th century: Communion should be received in the mouth

Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461), in his comments on the Sixth Chapter of the Gospel of John, mentioned the tradition of Communion received in the mouth:

Hoc enim ore sumitur quod fide creditur, et frustra ab illis AMEN respondetur, a quibus contra id quod accipitur, disputatur. (For that is received in the mouth which is believed in faith; and those who dispute what they receive answer AMEN in vain. (Sermon 91.3)

Objections have been raised that this quote does not prove a custom of Communion on the tongue, on the grounds that it refers simply to “taking by mouth” (ore sumitur) which, of course, can be accomplished by the agency of one’s own hand. But we must consider the correct translation in context. As sumitur in Latin means “is received” in the sense of accepted from a giver, and ore indicates the method of reception – by or in the mouth – we can infer from the quote that Communion was not taken in the hand.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) is mentioned by his biographer, John the Deacon, in connection with the practice of Communion on the tongue. John recorded that when Pope Gregory was about to place the Host in the mouth of a woman, he had to withdraw his hand “ab ore ejus” (from her mouth) because she suddenly started to laugh. Instead of accepting this account as read, critics reject it as apocryphal, not because they have any personal knowledge in the matter, but on the opinion of Fr. Joseph Jungmann who, however, offered no solid grounds for his argument. So the valuable piece of evidence is dismissed out of hand.

St. Gregory related in Dialogues 3 the curing of a mute and crippled man when Pope St. Agapitus (535-536) placed the Host in his mouth. Cynics follow the opinion of the liturgical scholar, Fr F. X. Funk, who said that Communion could not have been given to him in the hand, because he was too weak to hold it. But St. Gregory had mentioned nothing about a malfunctioning arm. He described the man as “lame” and stated: “Agapitus … restored him to the use of his legs: and after he had put our Lord’s Body into his mouth, that tongue, which long time before had not spoken, was loosed.”

The Council of Saragossa (380) threatened with excommunication any who dared to continue receiving Holy Communion in the hand

The Synod of Cordoba in 839 condemned the sect of so-called Casiani because of their refusal to receive Holy Communion directly into their mouths.

The Synod of Rouen (uncertain date) confirmed the norm in force regarding the administration of Communion on the tongue, threatening sacred ministers with suspension from their office if they distributed Communion to the laity on the hand. It decreed:

“Do not put the Eucharist in the hands of any layman or laywoman, but only in their mouths.”

But progressivists, illogically, dismiss this evidence because the date of the Synod has been contested by historians.

In conclusion, we can say that both methods were practised in the early Church until Communion on the tongue “won out” over its reception in the hand in the 9th century, to become the settled, obligatory and universal norm for over a thousand years.

One final point must be made for clarity. The modern method of receiving Communion in the hand, whereby standing communicants grasp (or grab) the Host in their fingers and pop it quickly into their mouths, sometimes with a perfunctory nod of the head, has no resemblance to the ancient method. It is not, therefore, a “restoration,” but an innovation derived from the practices used by the 16th-century Protestant reformers to signal their disbelief in the Real Presence.
Posted on May 18, 2023

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