What is the best way to receive Communion?

After Vatican II, standing in the aisle to receive holy Communion became widespread and customary

Q. I’ve seen some traffic on the Internet again about the best way to receive Communion: whether it’s OK to kneel if no one else in the Communion line is; if it’s OK for your parish priest to put back in a Communion rail; whether you should receive in the hand when you’re holding a child. I don’t know if it’s best to receive Communion in a certain way, or if it’s best to follow what everyone else in the parish is doing. Can you give your thoughts on this?

communion.jpgA. Your comments are timely in view of the coming solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi) on Sunday, June 7, when we honor Jesus Christ as the host and food of his eucharistic banquet.

The way in which Catholics receive Jesus Christ in holy Communion has changed since the Second Vatican Council, but one thing should be changeless: our reverence and care in receiving the Lord Jesus in this holy sacrament.

Certainly throughout history and in Western culture, kneeling and genuflecting have expressed reverence and humility before a great personage. But today, in our contemporary American culture, standing is a more general and customary posture of respect and honor.

After Vatican II, standing in the aisle to receive holy Communion became widespread and customary. Such a practice was later confirmed by the U.S. bishops, who determined that Communion should be received standing, and that a bow of the head is the act of reverence to be made by those receiving Communion in this way. I wrote about this “gesture of reverence” in a Feb. 12, 2009, Visitor column.

Standing is the norm

The present General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains that “the norm established for the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling” (no. 160). So while kneeling is allowed, this would not warrant restoring or adding a Communion rail, for this would seem to unnecessarily fence off the sanctuary from the rest of the church and to put a barrier between the celebrant and the rest of the assembly.

Regarding standing and bowing the head, the U.S. bishops have reminded us that “these norms may require some adjustment on the part of those who have been used to other practices, however the significance of unity in posture and gesture as a symbol of our unity as members of the one body of Christ should be the governing factor in our own actions” (“The Reception of Holy Communion at Mass”).

Standing to receive holy Communion is a “resurrection” posture: it is how we Easter people symbolically express our sharing in the life of the risen Christ, who stood triumphant over sin and death and who strengthens us to do the same as we share his body and blood.
Genuflecting (in place of bowing the head) or kneeling to receive the body of Christ might seem to express the reverence that pre-Vatican II Catholics learned and practiced, but it does not accord with the directives of the U.S. bishops. Also, it can be hazardous to those following behind in the Communion procession.

Perhaps such considerations have led our bishops to request unity in standing as we receive the Lord Jesus in holy Communion, so that our bodies can express what we believe in our hearts: The risen Lord gives himself to us as the pledge of our risen life with him and in him.

Such is the truth that we visibly and bodily express as we walk before or behind the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament on the solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: We stand with our eucharistic Lord as he moves with us through our time and space, just as truly, although in a different way, as he walked the roads of this earth.

Communicants’ choice

The U.S. bishops have also reminded us that “we are to approach the altar for Holy Communion with reverence, love, and awe as part of the Eucharistic procession of the faithful” (“Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper”).

Each communicant can choose to receive the consecrated host in the hand or on the tongue, as well as to receive from the cup or not. I have observed some parents with little ones in their arms or in tow receive Communion on the tongue, but parents can make their own decisions about this. After receiving Communion we return to our places in church. “A sacred silence may now be observed for some time, or a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may be sung” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 164).

Kneeling, sitting or standing may mark this time, but kneeling may make it difficult to sing our best during Communion (choirs do not kneel while singing). In some parishes, the members of the assembly wait to sit until the priest does, even though the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may still be ministering the body and blood of Christ to some communicants. Then, the extraordinary ministers place the remaining hosts in the tabernacle.

In other parishes, the extraordinary ministers wait at the altar while the priest places the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle. Kneeling during this time has been seen as a sign of respect for Christ present in the Eucharist until it is placed in the tabernacle. Then, when the priest sits, the people sit as well for a time of quiet reflection.

Yet, in some places, the members of the assembly remain standing until all the communicants have received holy Communion. Such a posture reflects their reverence for the body and blood of Christ being shared among all, and also for the living members of the body of Christ that the assembly is. This might take a long time in some places, so some worshippers might choose to kneel or sit during this time.

There are probably local variations on such practices throughout our diocese. But no matter what practice a parish adopts, expressing reverence for the body and blood of Christ and deepening the union of the worshipers with Christ should be at the heart of it.