In an arena where, arguably, the most important thing he could do is to encourage charity and an irenic spirit toward various forms of eucharistic piety, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has once again demonstrated that what he really does best is sow division.
He did it concerning washing women’s feet on Holy Thursday (delaying more than a year in fulfilling Pope Francis’s request). He did it by urging that altars be turned around so that Mass would be celebrated with the priest’s back to the people (for which he was reprimanded). He did it by minimizing and misinterpreting the pope’s initiative on liturgical translation (prompting a public correction from the pope). Now, he is sowing division concerning how Communion is received.
In a preface to a new book, the cardinal rages about offenses against the Eucharist. He fulminates over Satanism and black Masses, and then—astonishingly—links these phenomena with receiving Communion in the hand. He evaluates this liturgical practice as pure evil, a tool in the hand of Satan, promoting unbelief. Those who take Communion in the hand are on the side of Lucifer in the great cosmic struggle of good against evil, Sarah claims. They are opposed to Michael and all the angels. If you think I am exaggerating, see for yourself. Here are his own words:
[W]e 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. 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.... Why do we insist on communicating standing in the hand? Why this attitude of lack of submission to the signs of God?
Stop and think about this for a minute. Sarah is pointing to a liturgical practice that arose in apostolic times and endured for centuries, was revived after Vatican II, was approved by popes and bishops, and is now widely practiced by the Catholic faithful around the world—and calling it diabolical.
Thus, in a single sweeping statement, Sarah manages to slander Christians of the first millennium who took Communion in the hand regularly for at least nine hundred years, and today’s faithful who do the same. These are not some off-the-cuff remarks, or a homiletic flight. They are his written words, published in a book, and presumably they represent his considered opinion. Sarah, the highest liturgical authority in the Vatican aside from the pope, has just suggested that most Catholics are in league with the devil.
How does one even begin to evaluate this?
First of all, sad to say, Sarah’s comments reveal either an appalling ignorance of or an indifference to liturgical history. Does he not know that this practice (standing and receiving in the hand) comes from the apostolic church? Does its venerable antiquity not commend the practice to him as holy, even though he prefers the more recent historical practice of receiving Communion kneeling and on the tongue?
After all, he is not just inveighing against thoughtlessness or sloppy parish practices today (which may well need improvement). By implication, he is disparaging the faith of many centuries of Christians. Consider the fathers of the church, who wrote extensively about the mystery of the Eucharist. Were Ambrose and Augustine and Chrysostom lacking in reverence or eucharistic faith? Or go back further, to apostolic times. Were the Apostles lacking in reverence for the Eucharist? There were people in the early church who held to their faith under persecution, and even gave their lives rather than profane or give up the Eucharist. Were they in league with the devil?
All these people received Communion in the hand. It seems to me not only absurd but grievously wrong to assume that someone who receives Communion on the tongue is a better Christian than they were, or understands reverence toward the eucharistic mystery better than they did.
I happened recently to come across a text by Philoxenus of Mabbug (ca. 440–523) that illustrates the depth of reverence brought to this ancient practice. It is a prayer to be said in a low voice, toward the host, when receiving Communion in the hand. Here is a bit of it: “I carry you, living God, who is incarnate in the bread, and I embrace you with my palms, Lord of the world whom no world has contained. You have circumscribed yourself in a fiery coal [an allusion to Isaiah 6:6-7] within a fleshly palm—you Lord, who with your palm measured out the dust of the earth. . .” It goes on and on, a brilliant mystagogy, expressing the utmost reverence. This is a West Syrian text, but the Latin fathers were likewise able to express a lively and powerful eucharistic faith. Sarah is wrong in thinking that Communion in the hand is some kind of demonic plot. It’s a holy and venerable practice.