Why do some people receive Holy Communion on the tongue?

What is the “proper” or “best” way to receive Holy Communion—in the hand or on the tongue? The Church currently leaves this decision to our individual consciences, but here are a few brief observations in this regard.

For the first few centuries of the Church, receiving Communion in the hand was a common practice. But as time passed it became the practice to receive Communion directly on the tongue in order to assure that the Host was received reverently. This was the law of the Church for almost 14 centuries, and is still the general norm today.

However, in 1969 Pope Paul VI allowed an exception: individual bishops can give permission to their people to receive Communion in the hand if it does not lead to any loss of reverence. While most bishops permit Communion in the hand, some, seeing a loss of reverence, are withdrawing that permission and requiring their people to receive only on the tongue. And if you ever watch a Papal Mass you see that folks who receive Communion from Pope Francis must receive on the tongue.

The Reasons Behind How to Receive Holy Communion
There are many reasons for not receiving on the hand. For example, consider the risk of having particles of the Host—each of which are also truly the Body of Christ—remain on your hand after you receive. Also, it is a fact of human nature that the more you handle an object, no matter how precious it is, the more likely it is that you will take it for granted and forget its value—and this is often the case with the Body of Christ. In this same line, the Host is no ordinary food, and receiving on the tongue—rather than handling it as we do most food—is a dramatic reminder of this.

Saint Thomas Aquinas refers to the practice of receiving Holy Communion only on the tongue. He affirms that touching the Body of the Lord is proper only to the ordained priest. Therefore, for various reasons, among which the Angelic Doctor cites respect for the Sacrament, he writes: “. . . out of reverence towards 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” (Summa Theologiae, III, 82, 3).

However, it is your choice, and there’s nothing illicit or wrong about receiving in the hand. 

How To Receive Holy Communion in the Hand
If you do take Communion in the hand, ask yourself: do I do it in a way that expresses and protects my belief in the Real Presence? For example, do I follow the ancient custom for reverent reception of Communion in the hand?

That is: Receive by placing your left hand on top of your right hand as if you were creating a throne to receive your God, keeping your eyes on Christ; and then, stepping to the side, carefully take the Host in your right hand and place It in your mouth, being careful to consume any crumbs remaining on your hands. Please remember, the Host must be “consumed at once, so that no one goes away with the Eucharistic species in his hand.”

Kneeling for Holy Communion
The Western Church has established kneeling as one of the signs of devotion appropriate to communicants. A celebrated saying of Saint Augustine, cited by Pope Benedict XVI in n. 66 of his Encyclical Sacramentum Caritatis, (“Sacrament of Love”), teaches: “No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 98, 9). Kneeling indicates and promotes the adoration necessary before receiving the Eucharistic Christ.

Saint Pope John Paul II, in his last Encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia (“The Church comes from the Eucharist”), wrote in n. 61: “By giving the Eucharist the prominence it deserves, and by being careful not to diminish any of its dimensions or demands, we show that we are truly conscious of the greatness of this gift. We are urged to do so by an uninterrupted tradition, which from the first centuries on has found the Christian community ever vigilant in guarding this ‘treasure.’ Inspired by love, the Church is anxious to hand on to future generations of Christians, without loss, her faith and teaching with regard to the mystery of the Eucharist. There can be no danger of excess in our care for this mystery, for ‘in this sacrament is recapitulated the whole mystery of our salvation.’”

(Sources: reverantcatholicmass.com and vatican.va/news_services/liturgy/details/ns_lit_doc_20091117_comunione_en.html)
Read more in the “Why Do We Do That?” series from Deacon Mike Fritz.