Rita Ferrone wants Robert Cardinal Sarah fired. Immediately. Pope Francis can’t afford to leave this man in his post as prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments any longer. Why? Because, Ferrone says, Sarah “does not speak for the mainstream of the church.”
Ferrone calls for the cardinal’s head in a column for Commonweal (Mar. 23). And she doesn’t hold back. She accuses the Church’s top-most authority on matters liturgical of “either appalling ignorance of or an indifference to liturgical history.” She says he is guilty of “promoting distrust and resistance to the mainstream liturgical reform” of Vatican II. Sarah’s crime? He hasn’t shown sufficient enthusiasm for the modern practice of receiving Communion in the hand.
Ferrone’s dander was raised by a preface Sarah wrote to a new book by Fr. Federico Bortoli, an Italian priest, titled La Distribuzione della Comunione sulla Mano: Profili Storici, Giuridici e Pastorali (The Distribution of Communion in the Hand: A Historical, Juridical, and Pastoral Overview). Specifically, she takes exception to this passage:
[W]e can understand how the most insidious diabolical attack consists in trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist, sowing errors and favoring an unsuitable manner of receiving it. Truly the war between Michael and his Angels on one side, and Lucifer on the other, continues in the heart of the faithful: Satan’s target is the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated host…. Why do we insist on communicating, standing, in the hand? Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?Ferrone interprets Cardinal Sarah as claiming that those who take Communion in the hand while standing “are on the side of Lucifer in the great cosmic struggle of good against evil.” What chutzpah! And she rightly identifies this type of “extreme rhetoric” as one of the standard contentions of radical traditionalists of the SSPX variety.
Ferrone points out that most Catholics don’t “insist” on receiving Communion in this manner; doing so isn’t some sort of conscious act of rebellion against tradition. They’re doing what they’ve grown accustomed to doing, and what nearly everybody else in the Church is doing too and have done for the better part of their lives. You know, “when in Rome….”
Besides, the Church officially permits Communion in the hand. It “arose in apostolic times and endured for centuries,” Ferrone says. Sarah might prefer the “more recent historical practice” of receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling, but the “venerable antiquity” of receiving in the hand while standing should “commend the practice to him as holy.” But no. Instead, Sarah “manages to slander Christians of the first millennium,” as well as those of the third.
Shame, shame, shame on Cardinal Sarah!
Whoa, hold on a minute. Before we join Commonweal’s kick-him-out chorus, let’s dig a little deeper.
By most accounts, Communion in the hand was indeed practiced in the early Church, though how common it was is a matter of debate. Some argue that it was an exception, used primarily to bring Communion to those who couldn’t attend Mass, or as viaticum in the event of immediate and unexpected persecution.
To demonstrate the antiquity and appropriateness of receiving Communion in the hand, Ferrone cites a sixth-century prayer: “I carry you, living God, who is incarnate in the bread, and I embrace you with my palms….” This prayer was penned by none other than Philoxenus of Mabbug. Now, we know what you’re thinking: Who the heck is Philoxenus of Mabbug? He was a bishop of the early Monophysite Church (d. ca. 523) — a legitimate historical source, yes, but not one you’d likely label “mainstream.” It’s a curious citation too (and not just as a historical oddity): It appears to bolster the notion that early Christians received in the hand in order to bring the Host to others. Why else the need to “carry” the Lord somewhere if the communicant intended to consume the Host on the spot? Did early Christians really walk around carrying consecrated Hosts? This would qualify as a liturgical abuse today, perhaps even a profanation. And it could be part of the reason why receiving in the hand eventually faded out the first time around.
Receiving the Host on the tongue while kneeling also has its own long and venerable tradition. It wasn’t something aristocratic popes of the Middle Ages invented out of thin air and imposed on the Catholic peasantry to keep them in subjugation. It is a practice that developed over time as the Church’s understanding of Eucharistic theology became deeper and richer.
We could easily counter Ferrone’s citation of Philoxenus with a name that would be more widely recognized by modern Catholics (since such things seem to matter to Ferrone): St. Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who wrote in his Summa Theologiae, “Out of reverence toward this sacrament, 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. Hence it is not lawful for anyone else to touch it, except from necessity — for instance, if it were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.”
This teaching held sway for some 700 years, until the aftermath of Vatican II. In fact, the Council documents (including Sacrosanctum Concilium, the dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy) are silent about the reception of Communion. This is likely because the Council fathers saw no need to alter the then-predominant practice, endorsed by the Angelic Doctor. The issue only arose during the tumultuous implementation of the Council’s rather vague precepts, when a controversy erupted about the proper method of reception, primarily due to some Western European bishops’ penchant for unlawful experimentation. In response, the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) issued Memoriale Domini. In this 1969 instruction, the CDW stated that “the custom” of the minister “placing a particle of the consecrated bread on the tongue” of the communicant “must be retained.” The CDW had conducted a survey in which the majority of the world’s bishops agreed with the retention of the traditional method. Therefore, Bl. Pope Paul VI decided not to institute or authorize any change.
Nevertheless, the CDW allowed Communion in the hand as an indult — in other words, as an exception — but only in those parts of the world where it already existed. That small opening was enough to encourage bishops in the First World to abandon a custom that had developed over centuries and impose a new one that hadn’t been used in over a millennium, if at all. You know what they say, “Give ’em an inch….” Thus, Communion in the hand is not a legitimate Vatican II reform but an aberration.
Of course, the dubious origin of the modern method doesn’t mean that the majority of the world’s Catholics are in league with the Devil when they receive Communion in the hand, as they have been doing now for nearly a half century. But, it turns out, this isn’t what Cardinal Sarah was trying to say after all. Look back and you’ll notice an ellipsis in Ferrone’s quote. Those three little dots leave out a lot — 800 words, to be exact. In those 800 words, Sarah develops an argument using a line of reasoning similar to the one his forebears in the CDW used when issuing Memoriale Domini: The practice of receiving in the hand involves the very real risk of “a loss of reverence for the august sacrament of the altar, of profanation, of adultering the true doctrine.” History has proven the CDW’s concern to be well founded: Polling data over the past few decades have consistently shown a dramatic, protracted decline of belief among modern Catholics in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is a terrible yet undeniable fact, one that has arisen concurrently with Communion in the hand becoming the common practice. Coincidence?
You would think that if Cardinal Sarah truly believes that those who receive Communion in the hand are “on the side of Lucifer,” he would insist that the practice be outlawed forthwith. But no. Sarah does not call for an end to this manner of reception. All he says in his preface is that he hopes the Church will “reflect” on this “important question,” and that there will be “a rediscovery and promotion of the beauty and pastoral value” of receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling. He calls this traditional method “a further act of adoration and love that each of us can offer to Jesus Christ. I am very pleased to see so many young people who choose to receive our Lord so reverently on their knees and on their tongues. May Fr. Bortoli’s work foster a general rethinking on the way Holy Communion is distributed.”
Does this sound like a “pernicious viewpoint to endorse,” as Ferrone puts it, or a “cruel and unnecessary affront to the person in the pew”? If Ferrone has her way, there will be no reflection on this matter whatsoever, no hint that there might be another, possibly better, way to do things, much less a thorough explanation as to why. And Catholics in the pew will be left to wallow in ignorance and increasing unbelief.
Cardinal Sarah hasn’t suggested that we all fall to our knees and stick out our tongues the next time we present ourselves at the foot of the altar. Far from it. Yet Ferrone still demands that Francis sack him because, having had the temerity to question the overall efficacy of Communion in the hand, she says, “Sarah has failed the most basic test of service…. It’s clear that his time is up.”
It makes you wonder who the real liturgical extremist is.
The foregoing article, "Off with His Head!" was originally published in the July-August 2018 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.