A Portuguese cardinal has discouraged communion on the tongue, recalling that “Christ said, ‘Take and eat’, not ‘Open your mouth'”.

– The hands, a dignified throne for the consecrated Host

Cardinal António Marto, the Bishop of Leiria-Fátima, gave the advice in a May 29 interview with the Portuguese Jesuits in which he also reminded Catholics that communion in the hand was the way the early Church prescribed that believers should receive the Body of Christ.

Not only that, but “there’s so much dirtiness sometimes in mouths” and besides, the hands make a particularly worthy throne for the consecrated Host, Cardinal Marto said, explaining that he often feels “moved” when giving communion to rough and calloused hands.

“They are hands of work, of sacrifice, of self-giving to the family, to others… Sometimes the hands of saints”, the cardinal highlighted.

Marto was responding to a petition last week signed by 500 Catholics, between lay people and priests, calling on the Portuguese Bishops and the Vatican to lift the COVID-19 restrictions on receiving communion on the tongue, arguing that the ban “is a serious attack on the norms of the Catholic Church and, consequently, on the reverence due to the most holy sacrament”.

The cardinal said that although those 500 Catholics don’t represent a “very significant” reality in the Church, they nonetheless “have a right to their opinion”, even if some traditionalist believers sometimes take it too far and “question the bishops’ own faith”.

– The suspension of public Masses, “an evangelical act of love for neighbour”

The words of Christ, the practice of the early Church and the dignity of receiving in the hands apart, Marto stressed that he accepts different points of view on the proper way to communicate, and that in his mind it is equally dignified to receive both in the hand and on the tongue.

Having said that though, the Leiria-Fátima bishop – who is also the vice-president of the Portuguese Episcopal Conference – called for humility and understanding on the part of those Catholics who normally receive on the tongue with respect to hygiene best practice in the time of the coronavirus pandemic.

Explaining that times of trial are by no means new in the experience of the faith, but go back at least to the biblical exile of the People of God, Marto rejected the idea that freedom of religion was also quarantined during the COVID-19 lockdowns, and recalled that Pope Francis himself placed the moral imperative to save lives above all other considerations.

For the cardinal, the suspension of public celebrations of Mass during the worst weeks of the pandemic – though it caught the Portuguese Church off-guard at first – ultimately testified to “an evangelical act of love for neighbour”.

Even though it was the right thing to do, temporarily suspending Masses with the physical presence of the faithful still provoked criticisms on the part of some Catholics, Cardinal Marto also recognised, which reproaches he said he did understand and affirmed that he too missed celebrating the Sacrament in community.

That being said, the cardinal appealed again for believers to be “rational” and “responsible” and rejected the charge that the Portuguese authorities had imposed anything on the Church during the weeks of confinement.

– “The Eucharist cannot extinguish the other dimensions of faith”

As for the lessons the Church can take from COVID-19, Cardinal Marto celebrated, first of all, that the difficult experience of the pandemic has led many believers to a greater personalisation of the faith and to the rediscovery of the Word of God particularly through the recital of the rosary at home.

“The family proved to be the great human and faith support” during the difficult experience of the coronavirus, Marto said.

On a communal level, the cardinal affirmed that the Church must pay particular attention to accompanying people through their grief over the loss of a loved one, especially since COVID-19 cruelly robbed many family members and friends of a chance to say goodbye to a victim of the disease in an in-person funeral.

Not only that, but going forward post-COVID-19 the Church must find a better balance between the Sacrament of the Eucharist and the Bible such that there is not such a great “suffering for the rites” and a “lack of appetite for the Word of God” as has been experienced these days, Marto warned.

“The Eucharist cannot extinguish the other dimensions of faith”, the cardinal concluded.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.