*Fr George Adimike*
Emergencies are autonomous. They are a law unto selves and are their own rules, imposing their principles and forcing humans to respond according to possibilities. Not long ago, a health emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic, demanded that the Church review a number of her practices to prevent the worsening of a bad situation, and responsibly, the Church leaders responded by recommending Communion in the hand. Though some faithful protested and refused to follow the new discipline, it remained an appropriate decision at the time. Some of those faithful bought and sold conspiracy theories against the practice. Those theories — which were largely figments of the fertile imagination of their protagonists or mischievous projects of religious ideologues or innocent fanaticism of naïve faithful — spell ignorance of history. However, after the pandemic, some faithful remained stuck in the practice of reception of Communion in the hand, mainly from a disposition of convenience or sign of maturity and modernity or in imitation of local Churches from other parts of the world. Having reflected on and engaged in a close study of the practice, one tends to conclude that the reception of Communion in the hand is one of the nemeses of the faith in the Eucharist.
Even though the mode of reception of Communion does not belong essentially to the doctrine of the sacrament but to its discipline, it can be an asset or a liability to faith in the mystery of the Eucharist. Since the Eucharist is a feast of faith through which Christians offer God the right worship and radiate His glory, it ought to prepare them for the eternal banquet of heavenly glory. Being that the mode of its reception integrates faith and its expression, it can be faith-inspiring. Indeed, any adopted method for the reception of the Holy Communion speaks to the depth of faith and the devoutness of its expression in a given cultural milieu. Its consistency with the dignity of the mystery and its faith-building praxis protect its power of impact and transformation. Hence, to be more appropriate, the mode of reception has to respond to this question: Which mode of the reception accords greater reverence and dignity, minimizes the rate of abuse and enhances devotion and faith? With these criteria, the reception of Communion in the hand stands accused as one of the factors that atrophy the faith in the Eucharist.
Even with the best intentions, experience has shown that the practice weakens one’s faith in Christ’s real presence. Ordinarily, the doctrine of real presence is very difficult to believe. Over the centuries, the Church has offered her members theological, devotional, anecdotal and liturgical support. Even with miraculous testimonies and stories of heroic devotions, many still vacillate in relation to their faith in the Eucharist. Pious practices like kneeling, genuflections, on-the-tongue reception, adorations and sung liturgies are all geared towards lifting the faithful’s faith in the truth of the mystery. Though there are no available statistics about the actual belief in the real presence in our land, the general sentiment of faith suggests that Nigeria is in good stead. Part of the reasons is the socio-cultural milieu. According to Charles Taylor, Western societies are no longer enchanted, while Africa is largely enchanted. As such, Africans easily connect to symbolisms and therefore have the capacity for sacramental imagination. Given this, the symbolic gestures in the liturgy and general faith ecosystem feed the faith of the African person.
Copying from more materially developed regions of the world is in vogue. Unfortunately, we forget that many materially advanced nations are spiritually bankrupt. It is not for nothing that Pope Benedict XVI referred to Africa as the spiritual lung of the world. While local Churches can learn from each other, Africa has a lot to teach the Church, including faith and devotion to the Eucharist. From a recent Pew survey, 69% of the American Catholics do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (Transubstantiation). Granted that poor catechesis is complicit, the negative consequences of the diminished appreciation of the sacred and the mysterious occasioned by Communion in the hand following the post-Vatican Council II liturgical reform is also culpable. This mode of reception can gradually lead to emptying the sacrament of mystery and meaning, thereby increasing irreverence to the Eucharist.
Irrespective of the fact that the Divine-human relationship is characterised by simplicity, closeness and familiarity, Christian response to God’s overture does not have to lose sight of His dignity, sublimity and alterity. Notwithstanding the mystery of radical closeness, the Incarnation by which God inserted Himself to share our existence, God is still ‘distant’ in His majesty, power, and sovereignty. We understand Him within the mystery of paradoxes ― He is very distant and intimately close simultaneously. Despite the value of receiving the Holy Communion in the hand, it has possibly negative consequences for faith in the real presence.
The need to assert human autonomy and dignity often makes Christians consider the reception in the hand as a sign of spiritual maturity. Such a disposition is not only misleading, it also prevents one from attaining a true prayerful posture and childlike surrender before God. As beings wired to be controlled by habits, Christians are in great danger of the reception of the Holy Communion as a habit without proper disposition. In-the-hand reception could most likely promote this disposition of habitualism, thereby contributing to the weakening of faith in the real presence. And simplicity would easily turn to banality. It is arguably true that the reception of Communion in the hand presents a great possibility of abuse of the sacrament and a loss of faith in the mystery of the Eucharist.
It should not be forgotten that when religion is emptied of mystery, it loses meaning. From an anti-metaphysical standpoint, Yuval Noah Harari (Jewish scholar and the author of ‘Sapiens’ and ‘Homo Deus’) presents human existence as a mechanical project that can be manipulated at the whim of humans within the flow of history. While history is essential to the appreciation of truth, it is not the summation of truth. History does not make truth but reveals it because history is generally a depository of humans’ actions and omissions and an ensemble of the incarnation of their thoughts. Hence, historical realities do not present the perfect picture of the truth of human existence. History is to be matched with mystery, recognising that mystery stretches and transcends human thoughts. Therefore, history cannot be conclusive since mystery is inexhaustible. This mode of thought should be applied to the reception of the Communion. Let’s remember that history does not only progress. It can and does enter into decadence. Since the Eucharist is a mysterium tremendum et fascinans (an astonishingly overwhelming and awe-inspiring mystery that is at the same time fascinating and soothing), humans should approach it with humility, reverence and devotion.
Fr George Adimike