Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
November 1, 2013
A Pastoral Letter on Receiving Holy Communion with Reverence
Many parishioners have come forward to say how happy they are at the beautiful renovations to the Chapel of Our Lady. I would like to thank the daily Massgoer who generously volunteered in May to pay for all of the renovations (I never even saw a bill) and to John Goyette, a native son of the parish, who did all of the beautiful carpentry to extend the sanctuary and build the communion rail. All of the work was completed on All Saints Day with the kneeling pads made by upholsterer Manny Medeiros from Acushnet.
One of the reasons why I was excited when the benefactor made the offer to pay for improvements to our sanctuary is to give us all an opportunity to receive the Lord with greater reverence, externally and internally. At St. Anthony’s in New Bedford, where the communion rail was never removed, I started to give Holy Communion at the communion rail at daily Masses, Holy Days, and lightly attended Masses where only the priest celebrant(s) distributed. I never received so many thanks in my priesthood, not merely from those who were a little older who remembered receiving Holy Communion at the rail when they were young children, but also many who had never received Holy Communion that way, but who told me that it is so much easier to receive prayerfully while kneeling at the Communion rail, waiting for the Lord to come to them down the rail, rather than receiving him walking up in a line. On Holy Days, when many people from other parishes would attend Mass, people would come up to me after Mass saying how moved they were to receive Jesus at the rail and how they wished they could do so more regularly at their own parishes. I hope that daily Massgoers and the 5 pm Sunday Massgoers will have a similar reaction.
Receiving Jesus with Adoration
The installation of the communion rail in the Chapel is an opportunity for us to talk about the reverence with which we receive Jesus in Holy Communion. Our goal as Catholics ought to be to receive Jesus with as much as love and reverence as we possibly can. In fact, the Church calls us to receive Jesus with adoration. As St. Augustine said in the fifth century, “No one eats Jesus’ flesh without first adoring Him; we would sin if we didn’t first adore him!” To receive Jesus well, we must receive Him with adoration, the type of adoration he received in the manger, the type of adoration that occurs in periods of Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction.
Pope Benedict used to describe what is involved in adoration in the Greek and Latin words from which we get the term adoration. The Greek word is proskinesis, which means humbly falling down before God, humbly going prostrate or to one’s knees. It’s a reminder to us that we are before the awesome reality of God himself. The Latin word is ad-oratio, which means a kiss or embrace. Despite the fact that we are humbly in front of the Creator of the Universe, that Creator bends down to us to embrace us with love. That’s what is meant to occur spiritually within us during Holy Communion: we recognize God’s incredible majesty (in our head, heart and body) and rejoice that He out of love not only embraces us but allows us to become one with Him through a mind-blowing Holy Communion.
Do we receive Jesus with this type of adoration and reverence? Do you think most Catholics do? After 14 years as a priest, and in talking about this quite a bit with priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, I think that the answer to the second question is no. Most Catholics simply don’t manifest any external signs that they think that they are receiving God when they come for Holy Communion. No matter how many times the Church has catechized that people at least should make a reverential bow before receiving Jesus, the majority still do not. No matter how many times priests or deacons have mentioned that if we’re going to be receiving Holy Communion on the hands, we should make a throne on which to receive the King of Kings, the vast majority don’t do it, but hold their hands unenthusiastically in the “All State Insurance” formation (side-by-side), or try to receive only with one hand, or with unclean hands, or with a sweatshirt or a cast over most of their hands.
The changes made by Pope Benedict
This is one of the reasons why Pope Benedict started to give Holy Communion at his papal Masses to people on the tongue as they were kneeling, to set an example of reverential reception of Holy Communion for priests and faithful across the world. He could have made such reception obligatory for all Catholics, but I think what he was hoping was that people would make the change themselves out of love for the Lord rather than because they were obliged to do so. I think he also feared that if he made it binding, the way the change would be conveyed through the media would not be to focus on how the Church was trying to help Catholics and the whole world grow in love and reverence for God but rather on the controversy of how certain priests or certain faithful were disobeying what the Holy Father had asked — which is the way the Church often gets covered — and that would have been clearly counterproductive to what he was hoping to achieve.
The reasons behind the changes
In talking about kneeling to receive Holy Communion, Pope Benedict said in a homily that truly adoring God helps us to reset our life toward God and sever our attachment to any false gods of our ego, work, family, sports teams, celebrities, etc. “We Christians kneel before the Blessed Sacrament because, therein, we know and believe to be the presence of the One True God. … Kneeling in adoration before the Eucharist is the most valid and radical remedy against the idolatries of yesterday and today.”
He also said that bending to adore the Lord teaches us how to bend down in love to wash others’ feet. “He who is able to kneel before the Eucharist, who receives the Lord’s body cannot fail to be attentive, in the ordinary course of the days, to situations unworthy of man, and is able to bend down personally to attend to need, is able to break his bread with the hungry, share water with the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned.”
To kneel to receive the Lord is not only counter cultural but essential to a rediscovery of how to relate to God. Pope Benedict wrote in a book on the liturgy, “It may well be that kneeling is alien to modern culture—insofar as it is a culture, for this culture has turned away from the faith and no longer knows the One before whom kneeling is the right, indeed the intrinsically necessary gesture. The man who learns to believe learns also to kneel, and a faith or a liturgy no longer familiar with kneeling would be sick at the core. Where it has been lost, kneeling must be rediscovered.”
In an interview in 2010, when he was asked about why he started having everyone receive Holy Communion on the tongue while kneeling, Pope Benedict said, “The idea behind my current practice of having people kneel to receive Communion on the tongue was to send a signal and to underscore the Real Presence with an exclamation point. One very important reason is that there is a great danger of superficiality. … Where people think that everyone is just automatically supposed to receive Communion — everyone else is going up, so I will, too — I wanted to send a clear signal. I wanted it to be clear: Something quite special is going on here! He is here, the One before whom we fall on our knees! Pay attention! This is not just some social ritual in which we can take part if we want to.” It is rather the encounter with God. And so he sought to made the change to communicate to both communicants and non-communicants alike a sense of the sacred. In kneeling, we decrease so that God may increase.
Practical Changes for Masses in the Chapel
So in Masses in the Chapel of Our Lady, I would ask everyone to come up to the communion rail once the priest has consumed the Precious Blood and kneel down to receive. At daily Masses, the priest will lead the Communion Antiphon so that parishioners don’t have to wait to approach the communion rail. I’d encourage you to close your eyes and prepare for receiving the Lord by adoring him in your heart. If you’re receiving on the tongue, you can receive with your eyes closed if you want. If you’re receiving on your hands, you can open your eyes while the priest is giving the Lord to the person beside you. After you receive, please feel free to stay for 5-10 seconds in prayer. If no one is behind you, feel free to stay a little longer.
Answers to some questions
I’d like to anticipate a few questions that I know people will have while inviting anyone who has further questions please to come to see me and ask. I welcome your questions.
What if someone can’t kneel? If someone because of leg injuries or frailty cannot kneel, then that person should just stand behind the part of the communion rail where he would kneel if he could. In general if a person can’t kneel during the parts of the Mass, then it’s not expected he or she would kneel for Holy Communion.
Pope Benedict encouraged Catholics not only to receive Holy Communion kneeling but on the tongue. Should I therefore receive Holy Communion on the tongue? The ordinary, universal way Catholics are supposed to receive Holy Communion is on the tongue. In the United States an indult was given in 1977 to allow for Holy Communion on the hands, but this is the exception to the normal rule. So it is possible for a Catholic in the United States to receive both ways. But I think that the larger, more important question is how a person can receive the Lord with the most loving reverence. Can one receive more reverently on the tongue as a gesture of total receptivity to God? Or can one receive more reverently on the hands, adoring Jesus for a moment before placing Him oneself into one’s mouth? It’s possible that individual Catholics could come up with different answers. What concerns me most is that the person has prayed about receiving the Lord with maximal love and reverence and has determined to receive the Lord in that way. Pope Benedict obviously believes that it’s easier to receive the Lord with greater reverence on the tongue. The Church seems to do so as well, which is the reason why receive on the tongue is the norm. Personally, I agree. I almost always received the Lord on the tongue when I was a layman and still do on the few occasions when I receive Holy Communion from another minister, because I find it a humbler way to receive the King of Kings. But the option remains for Catholics in the United States to receive both ways. I’d just urge everyone to pray about this. Ask the Lord in prayer, “Lord Jesus, how would you like me to receive you?”
What about receiving Holy Communion in the main body of the Church on the Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning Masses? We will continue to distribute Holy Communion as we’ve been doing so up until now, in processions down the nave and the two side aisles. I would urge everyone, however, to give added attention to the reverence and love with which they receive Holy Communion, to pray about the most reverential way to receive Jesus, and to make sure that they make the external sign of reverence (a profound bow at the waist) while the person ahead of them in line is receiving. If there are parishioners who, after receiving Jesus in the chapel on their knees would wish to receive kneeling at those Masses, we can begin to explore a means to make it possible.
I’d like to finish by inviting you to pray with me. Let us pray for each other and all who come to worship God with us that all of us may become distinguished for the reverence with which we treat and receive the Lord. Let us pray also that the sense of the sacred will grow in the way we worship so that we may bring this sense of the sacred out to a world that needs to remember God and learn anew how to drop to its knees to adore Him with love.
Devotedly yours in Christ,
Fr. Roger J. Landry, Pastor
Solemnity of All Saints, 2013