The ability to receive holy Communion under both species (consecrated bread and consecrated wine) may seem like a recent development within our lifetime. However, it is really the restoration of the practice of the church during the first 11 centuries when, in both the East and West, the Eucharist was ordinarily received under both species. St. Paul warns about “eating the bread or drinking the chalice of the Lord unworthily” (1 Cor 11:28). Numerous writers describe the celebration of the Eucharist as the eating and drinking of the body and blood of the Lord.
During that same period, it was the custom for some to receive Communion under one form. Infants and young children were often given the Eucharist in the form of the consecrated wine. The Eucharist was reserved under the form of consecrated bread for Communion to the sick, and the faithful brought the consecrated bread home for those who could not be present or for private Communion. Tertullian and St. Cyprian describe this custom during the time of persecution. Even after the fourth century, St. Basil and St. Jerome describe the continuation of the practice in Alexandria, Egypt, and Rome.
New Roman Missal: A series by Sr. Ann Rehrauer
In the West, the practice of receiving from the chalice stopped around the 12th century. Among the reasons for this change were the less frequent reception of Communion by the faithful and attacks by groups who challenged or denied the full presence of Christ under only one form (the Utraquists). Even at this time, the priest always received Communion under both species during the Mass he celebrated and deacons were sometimes permitted to receive as well.
Despite the variety of liturgical practice through the centuries, the church has always taught that Christ is truly, equally and completely present in one species (either), and that those who receive under one species do not receive less of Christ, nor less grace.
However, in 1963, the bishops of the Second Vatican Council chose to restore the option for the faithful to receive from the chalice. The reason is explained in the “Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America” (approved by the USCCB in June 2001 and confirmed by the Holy See in 2002):
“The council’s decision to restore holy Communion under both kinds at the bishop’s discretion took expression in the first edition of the Missale Romanum and enjoys an even more generous application in the third typical edition of the Missale Romanum:
‘Holy Communion has a more complete form as a sign when it is received under both kinds. For in this manner of reception a fuller sign of the eucharistic banquet shines forth. Moreover there is a clearer expression of that will by which the new and everlasting covenant is ratified in the blood of the Lord and of the relationship of the eucharistic banquet to the eschatological banquet in the Father’s kingdom. (GIRM 281).'”( Norms 20).
An earlier Instruction, Sacramentali Communione (1970), also noted that the fullness of the sacred sign would be “more striking to the faithful … ensuring richer results in devotion and spiritual profit.”
Signs are important to us as human beings, and help us understand and experience the realities they signify. The fuller experience of eating and drinking can lead us to a better understanding of the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist.
At the same time, fall and winter in our area bring threats of flu and other respiratory ailments, and people are sometimes hesitant to receive from the chalice. While the church encourages our participation in the full sign of eating and drinking, the choice to receive from the chalice always belongs to the communicant. No one is forced to receive under both species, and when illness is prevalent, some parishes choose not to offer the option of receiving from the chalice.
Whether we receive the Eucharist under the form of consecrated bread only or whether we also drink from the chalice, what is most important is that we receive with attention, devotion and reverence, recognizing and appreciating the presence of Christ.
Sr. Rehrauer is the diocesan director of Evangelization, Living Justice and Worship.