One of the measures for the return to public Masses the weekend of Pentecost is the prohibition to receive Communion in the tongue. There are very few things as deeply seated as the way we practice our faith – from what we do before and after receiving Communion, to where we sit at Mass, just to give you a couple of examples.

In my case, I have always received Communion in the hand. As a child, I was taught that in receiving Communion in the hand, I was making a throne for Jesus. In my 17 years as a priest, I have always been assigned to parishes where, in my estimation, 95 percent of the people would receive in the hand. Thus, when Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki informed us that Communion would only be distributed in the hand, I did not even think about it twice. That in dealing with a pandemic, for health reasons, the archbishop would decide to prohibit Communion on the tongue to minimize the risks of spreading the novel coronavirus made absolute sense to me.

The same way that I have always received in the hand, I understand that individuals who have always received on the tongue may have difficulties adapting to this temporary decision. Even before we stopped public Masses, some of my parishioners who receive normally on the tongue had no problem receiving in the hand. As some told me, it became a non-issue once they learned that receiving on the tongue would be an increased risk to them but to me and to those receiving Communion after them.

Still, there will be people who have always received on the tongue who cannot even consider receiving in the hand. They are not making any ideological statement – this is the way they have always done it, and they cannot see themselves doing it any other way. There is one more group of individuals that not only are not able or willing to receive in the hand—and I understand that as a human being and as a priest—but also they would argue that the archbishop does not have the authority to prohibit people from receiving Communion on the tongue. While I disagree, it is a legitimate question that can be examined canonically. The legal question is, does the archbishop have the authority to decide how people receive Communion? Especially important it is to take into account that this is a temporary decision taken in view of very particular circumstances.

I believe that the archbishop did not only exercise his rights, but much more importantly, he also fulfilled his obligation toward the faithful under his care. First, we identify that the decision the archbishop made after much deliberation and consultation comes from the obligations of his role as the moderator of the spiritual and liturgical life of his flock. The archbishop is “regarded as the high priest of his flock, and from whom the life in Christ of the faithful under his care derives and depends, must promote, regulate, and be vigilant over the liturgical life in his diocese.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 387 quoting the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, 41)

Then it becomes a matter of regulation of “rights” in the Church—which, according to canon 223, is one of the archbishop’s responsibilities.

The archbishop is responsible for maintaining the common good, and for assuring the rights of individuals, especially our own duties toward others. The right to receive Communion on the tongue or in the hand is a well-established one. (GIRM, 161; Redemptoris sacramentum, 92) However, the rights of individuals in most legal systems— including the Church’s— do not stand unfettered (they are not absolute). An individual‘s right always stands in check with the rights of the rest of the community — especially when the exercise of one’s right could jeopardize another person’s supreme right to life and health. When there is a conflict of rights or when the exercise of a right by some threatens the good of the community, it is the responsibility of the bishop to modify routines to prevent harm to the faithful. There is a hierarchy of rights, and, obviously, the right to not be harmed, an expression of the right to life, is superior to the right of a particular liturgical practice.