Communion in hand or tongue?

Q. My sister claims that receiving holy Communion in the hand is disrespecting the Eucharist. I told her that it must be OK because the first sacrament of the Eucharist was received in the hand (at the Last Supper). So I was wondering when the practice of receiving on the tongue started. (City and state withheld)

A. It is safe to assume that at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, "Take and eat; this is my body," the apostles received that first Eucharist in their hands. And that practice continued during the early centuries of the Church.

At the Council of Constantinople in 692, Christians were instructed that "if anyone wishes to be a participator of the immaculate body ... and to offer himself for the communion, let him draw near, arranging his hand in the form of a cross." That practice was the norm throughout the early Middle Ages.

But by the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the "Summa Theologiae": "Out of reverence toward this sacrament, nothing touches it but what is consecrated; hence the corporal and 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."

In 1969, the Church document "Memoriale Domini" outlined Pope Paul VI's decision to maintain the practice of receiving the Eucharist on the tongue: "Communion (on the tongue) must be retained ... not merely because it has many centuries of tradition behind it, but especially because it expresses the faithful's reverence for the Eucharist."

But in 1977 permission for administering Communion in the hand was granted by the Holy See to the United States, and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal now reads: "The communicant ... receives the sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed and if the communicant so chooses, in the hand" (No. 161). The option belongs to the individual. Both can be done with reverence, and neither way is more noble.

Q. Our son and his wife-to-be are not practicing Catholics. They have a little girl, now 20 months old, who needs to be baptized. How do we as parents approach the subject -- without turning them against the faith completely or against us? (Regina, Saskatchewan)

A. Let me say first that I admire very much your love for Catholicism and your desire to pass on the benefits of the Catholic faith to your granddaughter. My goal is the same as yours: to bring her parents back to regular practice of the faith so they can offer strong religious support to their child.

The wording of your question, though, may be significant. You say that your granddaughter "needs to be baptized." Is it possible that you think that is her only chance for heaven? I raise the question because there are some people who believe that.

So let me clarify that first. In 2007, the Vatican's International Theological Commission, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, said that the concept of limbo reflected "an unduly restrictive view of salvation" and that the mercy of God offers good reason to hope that babies who die without being baptized can go to heaven.

Now, on to your question. Canon 868 of the Church's Code of Canon Law states that "for an infant to be baptized licitly ... there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion."

Right now, as you describe the situation, that sounds doubtful. If you see an opportunity in a quiet way to speak to your son about the religious path he might be considering for their daughter, then do it.

But be careful not to force it. To strong-arm your son about his religious responsibility could have a negative effect, including jeopardizing your relationship with him for a long time.

Do you think it might be better for now simply to pray for them, that they will reach the choice of baptism on their own? And remember that God cares about the baby's salvation even more than you do.

- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service