Question: At your Masses, why doesn't anyone receive Holy Communion from the chalice? (P.L., GA)
Answer: The priest who celebrates Mass (as opposed to one who simply attends and receives Holy Communion) always receives under both "forms" or "species" - bread and wine - in order to complete the Holy Sacrifice which is effected by the separate consecration and consumption of the two.1 The body and blood of Christ are present under either form (one cannot have the living body of Christ without the blood, and vice versa) but the dual Consecration and Communion, a symbolic separation of the two forms, is an essential part of the Sacrifice.
Apart from the priest-celebrant of the Mass, it is possible for others to receive the whole and entire body and blood of Christ under either or both forms; the Host, the Chalice, or the two. Undoubtedly, the earliest practice of the Church was to give Holy Communion under both forms, even to those who were not celebrants of the Mass. Some Catholic Eastern Rites continue this practice to this very day.2 But, from the very first, there were situations when both forms could not be practically administered. The single form of bread was generally used when Communion was taken to the sick, or reserved in the chapel of a hermitage in the wilderness. In many places infants, unable to take solids, were given Communion under the form of wine alone. And the custom developed of a Communion service -- the Liturgy or Mass of the Presanctified -- in which Hosts consecrated at an earlier Mass were received by the priest and/or people at various times during Lent.
With the development of Eucharistic piety and theology during the middle ages, Catholics became conscious of the fact that the Real Presence of Our Lord endures even in scattered fragments of the Host and in drops spilled from the Chalice. This lead to placing the Communion Host on the tongue of lay communicants, restricting the Chalice to the ministers of the Mass, and the development of practices to reverently deal with the possibility of scattered fragments and drops. Most of these practices developed gradually. Communion in the hand, for example, gave way to the practice of receiving It in veiled hands before reception on the tongue was instituted. Likewise, the Church experimented with the practice of receiving from the Chalice through a metallic straw (fistula), and later with dipping the Host into the Chalice, before finally restricting distribution to the Host alone. For some time, the deacon and subdeacon received from the chalice as well as the priest. By the thirteenth century Communion of the laity under one form , placed on the tongue, was nearly universal in the West.3
A few other factors helped to determine the Roman Church's Communion practices. Communion on the tongue reduced the possibility that a Host might be taken away for unholy or superstitious practices like the "Black Mass" of the Satanists, or the production of supposed medicines. At least in retrospect, we know that drinking from a common chalice could spread disease for the appearances of alcohol are only a few percent of the whole.. Many young people raised in countries where wine drinking is not common find the species of wine unpleasant to taste.
The Protestant Reformation brought a demand that the Host and Chalice both be handed to the communicant. (In modern Protestant practice, this sometimes means bread and wine in a small vial for each recipient.) Classical Protestantism denies the reality of the priesthood and the sacrificial nature of the Mass, so there is no distinction between the celebrant and the congregation; it views the presence of Christ as merely symbolic and perceives that something is missing if one "symbol" or the other is missing.
While the Church could legitimately revert to the older practices, much as it might substitute the vernacular language for Latin, it is not prudent do so when there is a danger that the change might give credence to the Protestant understanding of Holy Communion, the Sacrifice of the Mass, or the Priesthood. Nor is it prudent to ignore the centuries of practical experience that have shaped Her disciplines over the centuries.
1. Missale Romanum, "De defectibus," 33, 34.
2. Cf. The Parish Bulletin, "Q&A: Greek Catholics," September 1998, p. 4-5.
3. See Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (Longmans, Green & co., 1912; Albany: Preserving Christian Publications, 1997), pp. 376-381 for a more complete description.