On the Feast of Corpus Christi 2008, a number of Catholic commentators took note that those who approached Pope Benedict XVI to receive Holy Communion knelt and received the Host on the tongue. In fact, a kneeler had been set up at the point of distribution to make it clear that the faithful were to receive Communion kneeling.
This posture, of course, is the traditional one for receiving Communion in the Western Church, which is why Catholic churches historically had altar rails at which the faithful would kneel for the reception of the Host. But since the promulgation of the Novus Ordo, the new Mass of Pope Paul VI, it has become increasingly common to receive Communion standing and, in the United States in particular, on the hand.
Some suggested that the Holy Father distributed Communion in the traditional manner only because it was the Feast of Corpus Christi--of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ--and that he was making a point about the sacredness of the Eucharist. A new interview with the master of ceremonies for papal Masses, however, makes it clear that he was indeed making a point, but that this was not a one-time thing. In L'Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of Vatican City, Monsignor Guido Marini was asked whether the "practice [is] destined to become habitual in papal ceremonies."
I really think so. . . . The method adopted by Benedict XVI tends to underscore the force of the norm valid for the whole Church. In addition, one could perhaps also note a preference for using this method of distribution which, without taking anything from the other, better sheds light on the truth of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, it helps the the devotion of the faithful, introduces them more easily to a sense of mystery. Aspects which, in our time, speaking pastorally, it is urgent to highlight and recover.
For those who have followed Pope Benedict's pontificate, this should not come as a surprise. The traditional posture for receiving Communion is preserved in the the Traditional Latin Mass, which the Holy Father, in July 2007 (in Summorum Pontificum), restored as one of the two approved forms of the Mass. And the Eucharist plays a central role in Pope Benedict's thought, including in his first encyclical, Deus caritas est (God Is Love), where he writes:
The Eucharist draws us into Jesus' act of self-oblation. More than just statically receiving the incarnate Logos, we enter into the very dynamic of his self-giving. The imagery of marriage between God and Israel is now realized in a way previously inconceivable: it had meant standing in God's presence, but now it becomes union with God through sharing in Jesus' self-gift, sharing in his body and blood. The sacramental "mysticism", grounded in God's condescension towards us, operates at a radically different level and lifts us to far greater heights than anything that any human mystical elevation could ever accomplish.
When we think of the Eucharist in those terms, Pope Benedict's desire to revive the older method of receiving Communion is not surprising at all. We owe all that we are to God; when given the opportunity to achieve union with Him in the Eucharist, kneeling in gratitude seems the least we can do.
Where does this leave Communion in the hand? As Monsignor Marini points out,
it is necessary not to forget that the distribution of Communion in the hand remains, even now, from the juridical standpoint, an indult from the universal law, conceded by the Holy See to those bishops conferences which requested it.
In other words, it is an exception to the norm, and Pope Benedict is making it clear what the norm has been and still is: Communion on the tongue while kneeling.