St. Albert the Great on Reception of Communion under Both Species

Yes, I’m still working on St. Albert the Great’s 36 Sermons on the Sacrosanct Sacrament of the Eucharist, which was once commonly attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure. Quotes from it were commonly used in books used by priests for Mass preparation.

Right now I’m in the section on the Precious Blood, which is very interesting. From the early Middle Ages until the last twenty years or so, it was the tradition in the West for the people not to receive Communion under the species of wine (except as part of a nuptial Mass, Last Rites, and so on); only the priest received under both species. This had some practical advantages, because parishes outside of wine-growing areas needed only a tiny supply of wine and a tiny chalice. But beyond that, we don’t hear much about the reasoning; and frankly, a lot of people who were in favor of the change were already covering up that stuff when my mom was a kid.

St. Albert is not unaware that things used to be different, so he has to argue about what is “more fitting.” He sees priests and bishops as being much like the sacrificial vessels and equipment used in the Temple. They are not consecrated to one use — that of the Lord. But they should also be adorned with the beauty of virtues, faith, and a strict way of life, just as the Temple vessels were adorned with good materials, jewels, and fine workmanship. In that way, they can act as a fitting receptacle for the Lord’s Blood.

He also sees the reception of the two species by different groups as being similar to Moses’ act of covenant in Exodus, where part of the sacrificial blood was thrown on the altar and part on the people. His quotes call back to the old sacrificial regulations, where the people eat the sacrifices’ flesh. So we hear a lot about receiving both species as a fuller sign; but St. Albert sees the practice of some receiving only under one species as also a fuller sign.

St. Albert also talks frankly about the practical worries of someone serving mostly in wine-producing areas. Since the people did not usually receive Communion frequently, and since most people didn’t have access to Confession every week before Mass, everybody tended to go to Communion during the great Church feasts — particularly at Easter, but also on Christmas, Pentecost, local saints’ days, etc. Anybody could go up to receive Communion when he or she felt ready. It would have been seen as wrong and overly nosy to try to control people’s spiritual lives by making them go up row by row, or line up rigidly. Churches didn’t have pews back then, either. And so we get this:

For when the Christian people come together to receive the Sacrament at solemnities, they press up against each other, because of the crowd around the altar. so that the Lord’s Body can barely be picked up [by the priest] without fear of being dropped. And so how much more could the chalice of the Lord’s Blood not be received without risk of a spill?

I think this clears up why altar rails got popular….

Finally, a more oft-mentioned reason for reception under one species was to fight a heresy that for some reason was prevalent and recurrent in Europe: that each of the two species of Communion only contained part of Christ, not all of Him. St. Albert says that unformed people find it hard to believe in the full Presence of Christ under the species of bread, if they commonly receive the species of wine also.

One would like to say that this was prejudiced of him; but if you spend much time online talking to badly educated Catholics from Europe or the Americas, you often run into people making this mistake. It was also a foundational belief of several Protestant sects that emerged in early modern times. So yeah, you might disagree with his prescription but he wasn’t wrong about the disease.

So you can see there is some very interesting stuff.

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