Of recent times, Catholics have witnessed some unusual practices in the Church. One of the most curious is the growing tendency in some parishes and hospital and convent chapels to encourage self-administering of Holy Communion under both species: the communicant is given, or takes, the Sacred Host from the ciborium, dips it into the chalice and then communicates.
Such a practice is in outright defiance of the Church's tradition and laws. There is no authority nor historical precedent for this.
So why is it happening?
I believe that there are a number of factors contributing to this aberration, not least of which is fear of possible infection by allowing communicants to receive from the chalice. Such a fear, in these difficult times, may be legitimate. However, the Church offers Catholics choices in their manner of reception of Holy Communion.
The faithful are free to receive communion on the tongue or in the hand; they are free to drink from the chalice where this is feasible or to abstain if they prefer. They are free to kneel or stand, to genuflect or make some other suitable form of reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.
No one ought to be subject to fear or pressure from others so long as due reverence and care is paid to the Blessed Sacrament. The mind of the Church is very clear in these matters and there are many options. There is no legitimate option for self-administered Communion.
If there is a fear of transmission of infectious diseases by communicants drinking from the chalice, then surely intinction [the minister dips the host in the consecrated wine and places it on the communicant's tongue] is the preferable method of giving communion under both kinds - but it is the priest or Extraordinary Minister who intincts the host into the chalice. This was clarified in 1986 by the Guidelines for the Distribution of Communion Under Both Kinds, approved by the Australian Episcopal Liturgical Commission: "If Communion is distributed by intinction it is always the minister who dips the Eucharistic Bread into the chalice" (4.6).
In some cases self-administered Communion by intinction is operating for first communicants. Effectively these children have been offered no option but to follow the practice laid down by those instructing them. Such a practice weakens the positive catechesis that Communion is not ordinary food but Christ himself, body, blood, soul and divinity "truly received whole and entire in each of the species" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1377), lest anyone should think that a failure to drink the Precious Blood lessens the grace received.
Nowhere is any permission given for the faithful to "help themselves" to Communion. There are practical reasons for this. If Communion is self-administered there is a grave risk of profanation. The more people handling the sacred species the greater the danger of loss of particles of the host or spillage from the chalice. It is the role of the priest and those lawfully appointed to administer Communion. They are trained to be careful.
At a time when Eucharistic reverence is on the decline, self-administered Communion is hardly a prudent way of encouraging a sense of awe and devotion among the faithful.
A loss of the sense of the sacred in the manner of reception of Communion results in an undermining of the position of the priest and a failure to see his close relationship with Christ. We have traditionally referred to the priest as being the alter Christus - another Christ - and as operating in persona Christi - in the person of Christ.
At Holy Mass this intimate relationship between Christ and the priest is at its most intense, especially when he pronounces those words of Consecration which bring the divine presence onto the altar so as to offer Christ in sacrifice to God the Father in the re-presentation of Calvary. So too, at Communion, the priest is another Christ when he gives Christ's Body and Blood to the faithful as occurred at the Last Supper.
The Gospel account of the Last Supper does not tell us that the disciples took "the Body and Blood of Christ" but that he "gave himself to them." At Mass we do not "take" Communion. Christ "gives" himself to us. We "receive" him from the hands of the priest who takes Christ's place, or from the duly appointed minister for Communion.
One only has to speak to Catholics who have found abandoned hosts or witnessed the chalice being spilt of its precious contents to understand the real heartbreak and grief suffered by Christ's Mystical Body when the traditions and laws of the Church are defied and the Blessed Sacrament treated with irreverence, disregard and nonchalance.
So where does this all leave the faithful? They are called primarily to be aware of Church teaching in these matters, to obey, to inform others and, with great courage and tact, to request their pastors to observe and enforce Church law regarding the reception of Holy Communion. They can offer their own prayers and reverence before the Blessed Sacrament in reparation for sacrileges which occur when the Blessed Sacrament is profaned.
Time spent regularly in prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament at Mass and outside Mass can only increase our Eucharistic sensitivity, reverence for the divine presence and respect for all Eucharistic matters - sacred vessels, altar linen, the tabernacle - and our attention to our manner and disposition when receiving Holy Communion. The fruits of this are an increase in supernatural life in the soul and a corresponding growth in the health of the whole Church.
Christine McCarthy is a Sydney Catholic writer, mother and former concert pianist. She has also founded the Society for Eucharistic Adoration, promting perpetual adoration in Sydney parishes.