Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion

A recent experience finally pushed me over the edge. Has anyone really read, pencil in hand, Redemptionis Sacramentum, the 2004 Instruction of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments? The wanton proliferation of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion in circumstances that do not meet the criteria established by the Holy See is a pastoral problem with grave theological implications. Liturgical practice has a direct bearing on one’s understanding of the faith. A few observations based on the text of the Instruction:

[154.] As has already been recalled, “the only minister who can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained Priest”. Hence the name “minister of the Eucharist” belongs properly to the Priest alone. Moreover, also by reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon, to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass.

[156.] This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not “special minister of Holy Communion” nor “extraordinary minister of the Eucharist” nor “special minister of the Eucharist”, by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.

Words are important. A slack vocabulary leads to a slack theology. I still hear the term “Eucharistic Minister” used by clergy and laity as in, “Nellie is a Eucharistic Minister”, or even worse, in the sacristy before Mass, “Good Morning, Father. I am Nellie, your Eucharistic Minister.” The use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion is not a means of fostering fuller participation in the Sacred Liturgy. It is not a way of honoring the generous and faithful parishioner. It is not a way of making Mr. X. or Mrs Y. feel needed and useful. The Sacred Liturgy is hierarchically, not sentimentally, ordered.

[157.] If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.

Example of an abuse: At a funeral Mass concelebrated by two priests an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is allowed to distribute the Body of Christ because she is a family member and it is a way of allowing her to participate. Liturgical praxis is not determined by sentimental considerations, even in sensitive and trying circumstances.

Another example: Mrs. N., deputed to bring Holy Communion to a few shut–ins in St. X. Parish keeps a pyx containing the Blessed Sacrament in the bottom of her purse from one week to the next, “just in case.” Her pastor, who has been apprised of this, does nothing, saying, “She means well. She is a good person.”

And yet another: In a certain palliative care facility the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle in the “Interfaith Chapel.” Non-Catholic members of the “Spiritual Care” department take the Blessed Sacrament — which they refer to as Communion wafers — from the tabernacle to give Holy Communion to patients.

[158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.

A brief prolongation is not at all a sufficient reason. It has become common to see Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion functioning at weekday Masses with between 50 and 100 people communicating. Why?
The Eastern Catholic Churches do not admit of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The distribution of Holy Communion simply takes the time it takes. It is deemed time well spent.

A related question: One sees altar servers vested appropriately in alb and cincture or in cassock and surplice while Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion distribute the adorable Body of Christ in street clothes. What is wrong with this picture?

[160.] Let the diocesan Bishop give renewed consideration to the practice in recent years regarding this matter, and if circumstances call for it, let him correct it or define it more precisely. Where such extraordinary ministers are appointed in a widespread manner out of true necessity, the diocesan Bishop should issue special norms by which he determines the manner in which this function is to be carried out in accordance with the law, bearing in mind the tradition of the Church.

Have any diocesan Bishops obeyed this injunction? Has the practice been corrected or defined more precisely? What exactly is true necessity? Have special norms been issued which determine the manner in which this function is to be carried out in accordance with the law, bearing in mind the tradition of the Church?