Bishop Schneider on Communion in the hand

On 14 February 2015, Feast of Saint Valentine (and of Sts. Cyril & Methodius), I had the privilege of attending a conference in Washington DC hosted by the wonderful Paulus Institute and Juventutem DC. Our esteemed speaker was Athanasius Schneider, auxiliary bishop of Maria Santissima in Astana, Kazakhstan, a man well known in both traditional and not-so-traditional Catholic circles as one of the greatest champions of our Eucharistic Lord. Bishop Schneider truly is, in the words of the Traditional rite, the antistes et agonista which the Church demands.

A Kyrgyz national of German extraction, he was born and baptized as Anton Schneider in a place and time where the Church was persecuted openly. As a child, he received all his sacraments in secret; Blessed Oleska Zaryckji, later martyred by the Soviets, administered first Communion to young Anton in a clandestine Mass. In 1973, his family fled the Soviet Union and settled in West Germany. He later moved to Austria and entered the Canons Regular of the Holy Cross, taking the religious name Athanasius– a choice we now to be exceedingly appropriate. Ordained in 1990, he was then able to return to Kyrgyzstan in a public role after the dissolution of the USSR. After Schneider earned a doctorate in Patrology in 1997 from the Augustinianum (Rome’s premier university for Patristic Theology), he became professor of Patristics at Kazakhstan’s Karaganda seminary in 1999 and auxiliary bishop of Maria Santissima in Astana in 2006, receiving episcopal consecration from Angelo Cardinal Sodano, Dean of the Sacred College.

He is perhaps best known for his little book Dominus Est, a brief but beautiful meditation on the supreme and sublime sanctity of the Holy Eucharist. All Catholics should read this book. He has since been featured in many Catholic media outlets, including frequent appearances on EWTN. A stalwart defender of sacred liturgy and of traditional doctrine, he celebrates the Traditional Mass regularly, and I’m excited to attend his Pontifical Mass in Washington tomorrow (15 February).

The title of Bishop Schneider’s conference was “Some aspects of the renewal of the Church and its Liturgy”. In his speech, His Excellency expounded on the need for greater reverence in the liturgy. Ever the Patristic scholar, he quoted heavily from St. John Chrysostom, citing that Doctor’s works at length, not only creating a picture of liturgy as it was in Chrysostom’s time, but depicting strong indications of where modern celebrations of the Roman Rite must go in order to restore the theocentric, Christocentric attitude that is proper to true divine worship. At the end of the speech, the bishop enumerated ten suggestions that parishes can adopt in order to recover the due liturgical sacrality which, unfortunately, is missing in so many parishes today. I will not list them all, but a few of them include the usual things requested by Traditional Catholics, including the restoration of Latin in the liturgy and recovery of the traditional means of receiving Communion– that is, kneeling and on the tongue.

Unfortunately, since I was too enthralled and riveted by the presentation, I did not take notes, and thus I cannot present an accurate summary of all the wonderful points that Bishop Schneider made. I will limit myself to narrating and paraphrasing some of what came out of the Question & Answer session immediately following the speech, especially as it relates to Communion in the hand. I hope that the Paulus Institute (or another person at the conference more diligent than me) might be able to post a video or a transcript of the conference for the edification of everyone who could not attend.

[UPDATE 17 MARCH 2015: at OnePeterFive, Steve Skojec has posted an audio recording of His Excellency’s conference]

One person asked the bishop, “How would you respond to the claim that Jesus did not give the Last Supper directly in the tongue, or that he gave the first Eucharist into the hands of the Apostles?” It is a criticism raised often by partisans of Communion in the hand. His Excellency began his response with a personal anecdote that drove his point home quite well. Again, I paraphrase Bishop Schneider’s answer.

He began by recalling his time as a missionary in Brazil. A simple indigenous woman, poor and illiterate but devoutly Catholic, complained to then-Fr. Schneider about her pastor, who forced all his parishioners to receive the Eucharist in the hand (against the law of the Church, might I add). Humbly, the woman approached the pastor and raised her objection. The pastor responded (incorrectly) that the Church now imposed Communion in the hand for everybody. The woman noted that, in her indigenous culture, when a visitor came into one’s home, as a sign of respect, the host had to wash his or her hands in the sight of the guest before formally greeting the visitor. In Mass, she handled her money for the offertory and shook hands with other parishioners at the Sign of Peace; and now she was being forced to receive the Eucharist– the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, whole and entire, of our Lord and God Jesus Christ– into those very same hands. The woman’s well-formed sense of piety could not but feel offended. Her own culture demanded great reverence and respect for a simple guest in her home, and now her own parish priest told her that she could not render the same reverence to the eternally-begotten second Person of the Trinity!

The priest responded again, “But Communion in the hand is the way it was done at the Last Supper! It’s in the Bible!” The humble woman, undeterred, continued and asked, “But where in the Gospels does it say that?” (Note: the Gospels say nothing of the sort!) The priest simply repeated that Jesus gave the first Eucharist into the hands of the Apostles. And, without missing a beat, the woman gave a short response that spoke volumes.

“Forgive me, Father, but I am not one of the Apostles!”

At that, the audience broke out in laughter and applause, for everybody at the conference– most certainly of traditional orientation– knew that the woman in the bishop’s story, though she was poor and unlearned, understood and appreciated and loved the Lord more than her pharasaical and ill-informed pastor. As Catholics, we know that, when the Lord commanded the Apostles to “do this in memory” of him, he constituted them true priests (this was unequivocally affirmed by the Council of Trent); now, the priests of today carry that same sacerdotal dignity handed down from the Apostles, and likewise, as the poor Brazilian woman certainly understood, only the specially-consecrated hands of priests should touch the Blessed Sacrament.

Another question from the audience went like this: “You cited so beautifully and amply from St. John Chrysostom about receiving Communion directly in the mouth; but what about St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s quote about ‘making a throne with one’s hands’ to receive the Eucharist?”

Recourse to Cyril of Jerusalem is another hallmark of supporters of Communion in the hand. The alleged citation from Cyril of Jerusalem’s Mystagogical Catecheses runs like this:

In approaching therefore, come not with your wrists extended, or your fingers spread; but make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King. And having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying over it, Amen. So then after having carefully hallowed your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake of it; giving heed lest you lose any portion thereof ; for whatever you lose, is evidently a loss to you as it were from one of your own members. For tell me, if any one gave you grains of gold, would you not hold them with all carefulness, being on your guard against losing any of them, and suffering loss? Will you not then much more carefully keep watch, that not a crumb fall from you of what is more precious than gold and precious stones?

Then after you have partaken of the Body of Christ, draw near also to the Cup of His Blood; not stretching forth your hands, but bending , and saying with an air of worship and reverence, “Amen” and, hallow yourself by partaking also of the Blood of Christ. And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touch it with your hands, and hallow your eyes and brow and the other organs of sense. Then wait for the prayer, and give thanks unto God, who has accounted you worthy of so great mysteries.

Hold fast these traditions undefiled and, keep yourselves free from offense. Sever not yourselves from the Communion; deprive not yourselves, despite the pollution of sins, of these Holy and Spiritual Mysteries.

I will first mention some things which the good bishop did not mention concerning these alleged texts from Cyril of Jerusalem– namely, that these texts are spurious. Recent textual and historical analysis reveals that these sections are very likely interpolations from Cyril’s successor, John, who succumbed to Arian influence. Some of the strange practices indicated here include wiping one’s eyes and brow with leftover particles and residue from the Eucharist– a practice absent in the testimony of all other Church Fathers. Furthermore, the last sentence cited above should raise pious eyebrows: Cyril apparently exhorts all to receive Communion “despite the pollution of sins”, in direct contradiction of the the Apostle Paul’s teaching on worthy reception of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:27-32), and at odds with the practice of other liturgies of the time.

Furthermore, Cyril’s alleged text is unique among the other Patristic testimonies. Bishop Schneider noted that other Church Fathers– Leo the Great, Gregory the Great, John Chrysostom, Basil, among many others– are largely univocal concerning the proper manner of receiving Communion, that is, directly in the mouth. Basil said that Communion in the hand is only allowed in times of dire persecution; the other Fathers are largely silent about the practice. It is therefore strange that proponents of Communion in the hand will rally to Cyril’s alleged texts while ignoring the testimony of so many other Fathers.

Scholarship casting doubt on these alleged Cyrillian texts is very, very recent; even illustrious theologians, such as Joseph Ratzinger, have cited this text in their works a few decades ago.

More importantly, Bishop Schneider mentioned that, even if we concede that  Communion in the hand were allowed in the Patristic era, that still does not account for the growth in faith within the Church which led to an almost-exclusive prevalence of receiving Communion in the mouth. His Excellency stated it in this manner: with Communion in the hand, there is always the risk that some particles of the Host might fall (as the world saw at the 2015 Papal Mass fiasco at Manila) or, even worse, be taken away by the ignorant or malicious. On the other hand, Communion in the mouth reduces such risk to almost zero. And so the bishop posed the question: why do we not choose the more sure and secure method to distribute Communion, a method that will greatly reduce the possibility of desecration? Why do we continue to risk sacrilege against the Eucharist?

Furthermore, Bishop Schneider pointed out that the modern manner of receiving Communion in the hand is not the same as the manner of receiving Communion in the hand as it was in the Patristic era! When, in those rare moments, Communion in the hand occurred, the faithful would indeed receive in the “throne” of their palm the Sacred Bread. Then, bowing their heads toward their hands, they would consume it directly from the palm, without touching the bread with their fingers. In this practice, as cited in the psudo-Cyril passage above, the left hand was under the right (“make your left hand a throne for your right”) as the communicant lowered his head to directly eat the host. This is different from the modern practice, in which the left hand sits above the right; and with the host having been placed on the left hand, the modern communicant moves his right hand from under the left, picks up the host with the right hand, and feeds himself with the fingers. This modern practice has no traditional roots at all, as Bishop Schneider underscored– it was instead first devised by the Calvinists in the 16th Century, who adopted the practice precisely as a repudiation of the Catholic Eucharistic doctrine, and against the Catholic practice of receiving the Eucharist kneeling and in the mouth!

I will end by mentioning an insightful linguistic point made by Bishop Schneider in reference to Communion in the hand. In the English language, we are accustomed to hearing the words of consecration/institution in the form: “take this, all of you, and eat/drink”. Because of this, many Anglophone Catholics interpret this as a command to actively take the Eucharist, thus justifying Communion in the Hand. Referring to the original Greek text of the Gospel, His Excellency explained why this is not so.

Simply put, the English translation of the word “take” is wrong. The Greek verb λαμβάνω (lambano) does not have the connotation of active taking as in English; the verb really signifies a passive taking, or more accurately, to receive. Matthew 26:26 says, Λάβετε (labete) φάγετε, τοῦτό ἐστιν τὸ σῶμά μου (“receive and eat, for this is my body”). By contrast, the idea of actively taking (as opposed to passive taking, or receiving) is denoted by the verb αἴρω (airo): in John 1:29 we find  Ἴδε ὁ ἀμνὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ὁ αἴρων τὴν ἁμαρτίαν τοῦ κόσμου (“Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world”).

This distinction between λαμβάνω (passive) and αἴρω (active) is preserved in Jerome’s translation of the Bible as well as in the Latin liturgy (which predates Jerome). In Matthew’s Last Supper, we find accipite et comedite: hoc est corpus meum; in the Mass, we recognize accipite et maducate ex hoc omnes: hoc est enim corpus meum. In the Gospel of John, we find the Latin ecce agnus Dei qui tollit peccatum mundi while in Mass we hear ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. The verb accipere denotes passive recption, while tollere indicates active taking. Other instances of the verb tollere is found in the dream of Augustine, who encounters the vision of a boy who exhorts, tolle et lege! (“take and read!”); also, in the Preface for Requiem Masses, which inspires the title of this blog, we find vita mutatur non tollitur (“life is changed, not taken away”). Thus, receiving the Eucharist is exactly that– receiving it passively, for we are fed the bread of heaven. We do not take it for ourselves.

In this way, we recognize that, even if the quotation from Cyril of Jerusalem were authentic (and I believe that it is not), the method of receiving Communion described therein is nothing like the active taking of the Eucharist which sadly has become so common in our age. Bishop Schneider has no doubt (and neither do I) of the grave and objective damage caused to the Body of Christ since Communion in the hand was permitted. I encourage every Catholic to read Dominus Est and in doing so rediscover the true attitude of humble adoration which we owe to to Blessed Sacrament, and I thank Bishop Schneider for his constant and stalwart defense of the Church, her doctrine, and her Lord.

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