Both Hands at Elevation of Host

And More on Sacraments and Intentions

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ROME, SEPT. 30, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: At the consecration of the bread at Mass, is the priest required to hold the host up with two hands? In our church, the priest raises the host with only one hand in a rather casual manner. This makes me almost cry, as I cannot help but think that this gives a message of irreverence to the church community. I would appreciate your thoughts on this. -- K.S., Frankfurt, Germany

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not give a detailed description of this rite. Nor do the liturgical norms and rubrics surrounding the consecration in the missal explicitly determine that the priest takes the host in both hands. These rubrics are the following:

"1. In the formulas [of the consecration] that follow, the words of the Lord should be pronounced clearly and distinctly, as the nature of these words requires.

"2. The Priest takes the bread and, holding it slightly raised above the altar, continues:

"3 He bows slightly [and says “Take this” etc.]

"4. He shows the consecrated host to the people, places it again on the paten, and genuflects in adoration.

"5. After this, the Priest continues: [“In the same way” etc.]

"6. He takes the chalice and, holding it slightly raised above the altar, continues:

"7. He bows slightly [saying “Take this” etc.]

"8. The Priest shows the chalice to the people, places it on the corporal, and genuflects in adoration."

If we were to limit ourselves to a minimalist interpretation of the rubrics, we would have to say that there is no strict legal requirement to hold the host in both hands.

However, the liturgical norms of the ordinary rite, even though they no longer describe each gesture in detail, tend to presume continuity in long-standing practice. Thus there is every reason to assume that when saying simply that the priest “takes the bread,” the legislator presumes that he will do so with both hands as is obligatory in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

This is certainly the most natural practice and it is followed by the overwhelming majority of priests worldwide. Holding the host and chalice in both hands allows for greater pause, reverence and composure in carrying out this rite. As our reader points out, holding up the host with one hand can evoke an impression of nonchalance on the part of the priest with respect to the Eucharist.

On the other hand this practice is perfectly justified when a priest is physically impeded, as was the case of Pope John Paul II who held up the host with one hand when he could no longer control both members. In such a case any lack of aesthetics is more than compensated for by the priest’s devotion to his ministry edifying and nurturing the faithful.

Finally, it is important to remember that we are above all before a consecration narrative of the saving events and not before a historical narrative mime or drama. It is therefore liturgically incorrect for the priest to add dramatic gestures that are not described in the rubrics and have no basis in traditional Church practice.

Some practices that crept into the liturgy, such as that of breaking the host while narrating Our Lord’s action of breaking the bread, have been explicitly forbidden in the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum."

Others, while not specifically mentioned, fall under the same logic that motivated that prohibition. For example, some priests have fallen into the habit of making a gesture of offering toward the faithful with the host and chalice while saying “Take this, all of you.” The addition of such a dramatic gesture is unjustified from the point of view of the rubrics and tends to be quite distracting.

Above all, however, this action tends to dislocate the fourfold action of the Last Supper that the Church has placed at various moments of the Eucharistic celebration. These four moments are succinctly described by (now Bishop) Peter J. Elliott in his "Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite," (footnote 59):

"(1) The preparation of gifts (he took), (2) the Eucharistic Prayer (He blessed or gave thanks), and then (3) the fraction (he broke), and finally (4) the communion (He gave)."

For this reason I believe that we can affirm that the Roman rite's characteristic sobriety and lack of dramatic flair is well-grounded in both theology and pastoral good sense.

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Follow-up: Pedophiles and Ordination

After our Sept. 17 column on the validity of the sacrament of holy orders with respect to correct intention, a reader suggested a broader approach. He wrote:

"One of your last question-answer e-mails dealt with the intention of a sacrament as it affects the efficacy of the sacrament. I have a sidebar to that question as it relates to giving Communion to infants and children who might not be at a 'mature' understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist.

"You stated: 'When the Church speaks of correct intention with respect to sacramental validity, the requirement is fairly minimal. It basically means that the person administrating the sacrament and the one receiving the sacrament want to administer and receive the sacrament as the Church understands it.

"'It does not require a full theological knowledge of the sacrament, nor is it necessary to desire all of its specific effects. Thus it is theoretically possible for a non-Christian to validly baptize a person by simply intending to give what Christians give when they perform this rite.

"'This fairly simple concept makes it hard to invalidate a sacrament from the standpoint of intention. To do so requires that at the moment of the celebration the person administrating the sacrament or the person receiving it mentally oppose and deny what externally they appear to accept.'

"My question is: Why doesn't this relate to infants and children concerning Communion? There seems to be an inconsistency in the practice of paedo-baptism and in the non-practice of paedo-Communion. I know that it was practiced in the West until the Council of Trent at which time it was formally changed. I also realize that the East (including Eastern Catholics as well as Eastern Orthodox) still practice paedo-Communion. Please explain. Also, in your opinion, will this practice in the West change?"

A complete answer to this question would require a full-blown treatise, but I believe that rather than inconsistency we could speak of different theological emphases that have their origin in diverse pastoral practices.

First of all, I would say that the reason for the Western practice of delaying Communion until the age of reason is basically a pastoral decision.

I do not believe that it is possible to make any sound theological objections to the Eastern practice of administering all three sacraments of initiation to infants, and it is perfectly coherent from the perspective of Eastern sacramental theology. Indeed it would be inconsistent for an Eastern Church to attempt to adopt the Western practice as initiation is intimately tied to the Eastern concept of Church and what it means to be a Christian.

The present Latin practice developed over many centuries and is therefore deeply embedded in the mindset of pastors and faithful alike as well as being encoded in law. Thus, while I believe that there is no theoretical reason why the Latin Church could not adopt the Eastern practice, the probability of this occurring is slight.

Such a change would require deep adjustments in some basic pastoral, spiritual and social presumptions, many of which have proved to be of great value in bringing souls closer to God over the centuries.

Among the reasons why the practice of infant Communion disappeared from the Western Church was the different approach to the sacrament of confirmation. In the West, the desire to maintain the bishop as ordinary minister of this sacrament led to its separation from baptism.

For many centuries first Communion was still generally administered after confirmation, resulting in a further delay in this sacrament. Until the time of Pope Pius X most children received first Communion around age 12. After the saintly Pope lowered the age of reception to around 7, more children began to receive Communion before confirmation.

Another reason was the overall drop in the practice of receiving Communion itself. The number of regular communicants started to drop around the fourth century and did not start to pick up again until the 17th. It is hard to think of administering Communion to infants when their parents received only once a year.

A practical reason was the disappearance in the West of Communion under both species, making it well nigh impossible to administer the Eucharist to infants incapable of taking solid food. Communion under both species was never dropped from Eastern Christianity and it is administered to newborns under the species of wine.

These are just some of a complex web of causes that have led to the present practice. Reasons such as the need to ensure sufficient knowledge of the mystery one is to receive are sound, reasonable and valid in the context of the lived experience of the Latin Church. But they are practical and pastoral rather than doctrinal arguments.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.