Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Vatican’s most senior liturgy official who has in the past been reprimanded by Pope Francis for his views on liturgy, is raising eyebrows again after expressing his opposition to the widely accepted practice of receiving Communion in the hand.
In an introduction to a new book about Communion practices, the cardinal writes, “We can understand how the most insidious diabolical attack consists in trying to extinguish faith in the Eucharist, sowing errors and favoring an unsuitable manner of receiving it,” according to a translation published by PrayTellBlog. “Truly the war between Michael and his Angels on one side, and Lucifer on the other, continues in the heart of the faithful: Satan’s target is the Sacrifice of the Mass and the Real Presence of Jesus in the consecrated host.”
Cardinal Sarah questions why Catholics stand—rather than kneel—and receive Communion in the hand and asks, “Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?”
Cardinal Sarah questions why Catholics stand—rather than kneel—and receive Communion in the hand.
The Vatican allows the faithful to receive Communion in the hand in nations around the world and the practice has become nearly universal in many countries, including in the United States.
Timothy Johnston, a former diocesan liturgy director who now writes for the Chicago-based Liturgy Training Publications, told America that “to equate standing and receiving in the hand to Satan is irresponsible and continues to polarize the Christian community.”
“However one chooses to receive holy Communion, it must be done with great reverence. Such reverence is something which we can all agree to seek more fully, no matter our posture,” he said, adding that the cardinal’s words “deny a valid practice inherited from the early church.”
“In a world riven by so many divisions, it is not helpful for Cardinal Sarah to divide Catholics even further.”
John F. Baldovin, S.J., a professor of historical and liturgical theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, said in an email to America that Cardinal Sarah’s remarks “betray a fundamental disagreement with a theology and piety of the Eucharist that understand the act of Communion as an act of a loving Savior who wishes to make us a part of his body—both in receiving the sacrament itself and in becoming more a part of his body which is the church.”
“Catholics are perfectly free to receive Communion on the tongue,” Father Baldovin said. “In a world riven by so many divisions, it is not helpful for Cardinal Sarah to divide Catholics even further.”
According to the Vatican’s own website, the “most ancient practice of distributing Holy Communion was, with all probability, to give Communion to the faithful in the palm of the hand.”
Many commentators have pointed to words written in the early fifth century by St. Cyril of Jerusalem that say when receiving Communion, the faithful should “make your left hand a throne for the right, as for that which is to receive a King.”
But over the centuries, liturgical practice evolved to distributing Communion to the faithful on the tongue. Following the Second Vatican Council, receiving Communion in the hand became the norm in many places.
Cardinal Sarah, who was appointed prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship by Pope Francis in 2014, has also advocated for ad orientem worship, the practice of having the priest face the same way as the congregation during parts of the Mass, which means his back is to the worshippers. Last year, he seemed to disagree with a directive issued by Francis meant to give local bishops more control over Mass translations. In both instances, the Vatican took the unusual step of publicly rebuking the 72-year-old curial official.
The Guinea-born cardinal has won fans in some circles for his arguments in favor of contemplative spirituality and full-throated defense of traditional moral values.