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  • Nicholas Sheehy LC

3 Steps to know what the Church teaches about any given topic



“Father, what do you think about communion on the hand”? The question can come up. What happens when we get conflicting answers?


The other day, some friends of mine were asking questions about the faith. Harry told a story as an introduction to a burning question. “The other day, I was watching a video. A priest in Columbia was speaking from the altar about how the only way to receive Communion is kneeling, on the tongue”. Anything else is a sacrilege, and he refused to give the Communion to anyone who was not kneeling. “What do you think”?


I explained that the Church has a few different ways to receive Communion, so it cannot be as bad as was being presented in the video. Then, another, more pressing question arrived. How do we know what the Church teaches? For here, this Columbian priest taught something opposed to what I was telling them. As my friends, and people who have known me for a long time, they were inclined to believe me. (Phew)! But how could they know who was telling the truth, from the point of view of the Catholic Church?


Unfortunately, it is all too familiar that two priests will say two entirely different things on the same topic. Not every priest has the same desire to adhere to the Magisterium’s teaching. (Magisterium, though it sounds cold and mysterious, refers to the teaching body of the Church) Even when I explain faith and morals, I like to look it up to back up what I am saying and see if I need to communicate some nuance I missed in my off-the-cuff answer.


Here is my accustomed mode of operations.


Check a reputable source

Modern search engines have made it remarkably easy to find something out about the faith reasonably quickly and painlessly. Nevertheless, not all information is created equal. Thus, it is good to have some reliable Catholic writers who tend to orient well about Catholic doctrine. One site that I like is www.patheos.com. A cursory search of the words “communion on the hand” on a well-known search engine brought back several articles for review.

In Spanish, I have had a good experience with the website www.aciprensa.com. The articles are well-written and easy to follow. They explain a wide range of topics of faith and faith practices, so they often come in handy.

They all dealt with the theme of Communion on the hand as opposed to on the tongue or even on the tongue while kneeling. The website has a good reputation, and the fact that it did not rule out Communion on the hand or even frown upon it led me to believe that I was definitely on the right track.


I read a couple of articles and try to take note of any sources in official Church documents.


Check the authoritative sources

The next step can be a little more challenging for those not versed in Catholic theology, for they might not always be able to recognize when a source is authentic. The official Vatican website is www.vatican.va, so it is often a helpful point of reference.


With the question of Communion on the hand, I was able to find two different documents that were quite helpful. The first was the text that the Pope read at a General Audience in 2018. “According to ecclesiastical norms, the faithful normally approach the Eucharist in a processional manner, as we have said, and receive Communion standing with devotion, or on their knees as established by the Episcopal Conference, receiving the Sacrament either on the tongue or in the hand, if allowed, as preferred (cf. GIRM 160-161)” (Pope Francis, General Audience, 21 March 2018). In the audience, the Pope mentions both forms of receiving the Eucharist that most of us have seen: either kneeling or standing, on the tongue directly or on the outstretched hands so that the communicant places it in his own mouth.


The Pope establishes that receiving Communion on the hand can be done with proper devotion. What we should not miss, however, is that he reminds us that the Bishops’ Conference is the correct place to decide this for the local church.


Within the quote from the Pope, there is a reference to the GIRM. “GIRM” is an acronym representing the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the authorized “how-to” handbook of the Latin Rite Catholic Mass. There might be some slight variations according to the language of the translation. For example, in the English version online, the determination of the United Conference of Catholic Bishops is given. The ordinary posture for receiving Communion is standing. In Spanish, however, both options of standing or kneeling are mentioned while re-affirming that it is the role of the Bishops’ Conference to determine local practice.


Come up with a personal summary

Things can get a little sticky on the way. It is essential to be building up your vocabulary and recognize some key documents. If you are often curious about liturgical documents, “GIRM” should become a familiar sight for you, and you might even want to delve into it and read the whole thing for yourself.


This type of research clears up many doubts quickly. Being able to use search engines, ignorance of the Church’s teaching is a choice. Catholics would be ill-advised to make such a choice. Instead, they should use it as an opportunity to learn something about the faith and sharper their own mental acuity.


Getting back to the Columbian priest, unless his Bishops’ Conference has determined that Communion should be received on the tongue while kneeling, his condemnation of receiving Communion on the hand seems to be exaggerated. We would be well-served to focus on the value of Eucharistic devotion while receiving Communion.

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