Posture as Liturgical Art: The Canonical Digits

Photo: OC-Travel
This photo was taken at Rome's San Salvatore in Onda during Low Mass celebrated by a wonderful priest from Austria. The image is important because it captures the celebrant maintaining "canonical digits."  In other words, he is holding his index fingers and thumbs together after the consecration of the bread.

This tradition, in my opinion, is one of the strongest selling points for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.  It is a welcome posture to help preserve particles of the host from falling on the ground. And why is any of this important?  Lest any recognizable particle that might have adhered to the fingers fall on the ground (or outside the starched corporal) to avoid risking profanation of the Eucharistic species. This noble gesture is done out of reverence (i.e. love) for the Sacred Species to prevent possible loss of particles of the Blessed Eucharist.  Remember: recognizable particles remain whole and entire Jesus Christ, under the appearance of bread and wine,  in virtue of the words of consecration and by natural concomitance (wherever His body is, there also is His blood, soul and divinity).

I remember well in my early youth gazing upon images of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite in an old hand missal that belonged to my father in the 1950's.  I immediately recognized this immemorial tradition as one of the most monumental and important rubrics in the history of the liturgy, East or West. This was further confirmed when as a boy I began serving the Latin Mass for my pastor and mentor, Mons. R.J. Schuler, Ph.D at the Church of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota.  As I accompanied him while he distributed Holy Communion along the altar rail, I became immediately aware of the host particles as I watched them appear on the Communion paten I held in my hand. So many particles dropped that periodically I recall he would stop at the end of a row to empty the particles into the ciborium before we returned to cover a new row of kneeling faithful.

For me, no explanation was necessary.  I could see with my own eyes and was immediately convinced of the value of the canonical digits as well as Communion on the tongue with a paten under the chin.

I am eternally indebted to Monsignor Schuler for maintaining these traditions at our parish -- at a great personal expense -- during a very turbulent time from the 1960s.  The rites teach us much.  In some ways, the liturgy is primarily a teacher (it informs us).

Unfortunately, the rubrics of the modern Roman rite make no mention of this venerable practice.  Nevertheless, it is worth maintaining and it is making a comeback among younger clergy in both forms of the Roman rite.

In Exposition of Christian Doctrine by a seminary professor, the book asks in question 53: "Is Jesus Christ contained whole and entire under each particle of the species of bread and wine, when these species have been divided?"  It responds: "At the Last Supper, there was only one consecration of the bread, and there was only one consecration of the wine.  Nevertheless, the Apostles, to whom Our Lord distributed the consecrated bread and wine, received their divine Master whole and entire.  Therefore, Jesus Christ must be present, whole and entire, under each particle of the species." 

This response is based upon the Council of Trent: "If anyone deny that Jesus Christ is contained whole and entire under each species in the adorable sacrament of the Eucharist, and also under each particle of these species, after they are divided, let him be anathema" (Sess. xiii. can. 3).  As St. Bonaventure observes, just as the human soul is whole and entire in each part of the body and yet is contained in the body but once, so Christ, although whole and entire in each particle of the species, is nevertheless contained but once in a single host.

The story of St. Isaac Jogues, the first priest to visit Manhattan, comes to mind.  A Jesuit missionary in North America, he was captured by the Mohawks who severed his thumb and finger nails and gnawed the ends of his fingers off, rendering him unable to celebrate Mass properly. Church law required the Blessed Sacrament be touched with the thumb and forefinger.  Unable to celebrate Mass, he returned to France where Pope Urban VIII gave him a dispensation to celebrate with mutilated hands.  He then returned to convert his captors and was martyred.

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.