OST PARISHES are celebrating the Solemnity of Corpus Christi today, although the traditional day for the feast was this past Thursday. On this day, we focus on the central object of our worship at Mass, the Real Presence of the Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Because it is such a wondrous gift, the Church safeguards the Eucharist very carefully. The bishop is charged with the sacred obligation of being the custodian of the Blessed Sacrament in his diocese. The pastor, likewise, bears this responsibility in his parish.
One of the ways the church has conveyed the importance & centrality of the Blessed Sacrament throughout the ages, and the pastor’s obligation to be its custodian, is by establishing the ordained clergy as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. This is true even today. Priests and deacons are the ordinary ministers of the precious Body and Blood of Christ. In the sacred liturgy, the priest stands in persona Christi; thus, Christ, in the person of the priest, offers Himself to the faithful who receive. This symbolism is far from empty.
There is a role for the instituted acolyte, as well, whose chief mission is to serve at the altar and help the priest in bringing Holy Communion to the sick and homebound. This ministry originated in the minor orders traditionally conferred upon men progressing toward priestly ordination. Even an instituted acolyte, however, is not considered an ordinary minister of Holy Communion.
It is only by exception, and in cases of true necessity, that the Church permits what are called extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. These are lay men or women who are specifically commissioned in order to assist with administering Holy Communion at Mass and bringing it to the sick.
The use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, of course, has proliferated in many places beyond what could be considered an exception or a true necessity.
Sometimes, in parish life, things get mixed up and perhaps there are more extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at a particular Mass than are actually needed. This could be because of a mistake in scheduling or because an extra priest unexpectedly emerges from the sacristy to help. What should be done in such a case?
On several occasions, I have seen priests or deacons in this situation hand ciboria to the extraordinary ministers and then either sit down or busy themselves at the altar, instead of distributing Holy Communion themselves. This should never be done, though, as it constitutes a serious liturgical abuse.
We who are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion must understand this as a duty that is not ours to surrender (except in legitimate cases of illness, feebleness, etc). On this understanding, it becomes clear that, in the situation I have described, the appropriate thing to do is to discreetly make known to one or more of the extraordinary ministers that their assistance is not needed at this Mass. Those who are extraordinary ministers, if they are properly trained, will accept this as perfectly reasonable.
This understanding is expressed beautifully in the introduction to the Order for the Commissioning of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion:
It is, first of all, the office of the priest and deacon to minister Holy Communion to the faithful who ask to receive it. It is most fitting, therefore, that they give a suitable part of their time to this ministry of their order, depending on the needs of the faithful.
It is the office of an acolyte who has been properly instituted to give Communion as an extraordinary minister when the priest and deacon are absent or impede by sickness, old age, or pastoral ministry or when the number of the faithful at the holy table is so great that the Mass or other service may be unreasonably protracted.
Persons authorized to distribute Holy Communion in special circumstances should be commissioned by the local Ordinary or his delegate.
(Book of Blessings, paragraphs 1871-1873)
That these paragraphs are given to introduce the ceremony by which extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are commissioned is significant, because it guards against the popular misunderstanding that utilizing extraordinary ministers widely is fundamentally desirable. The most desirable situation is one in which there are sufficient ordinary ministers to bring Holy Communion to the faithful. Whatever personal spiritual growth may come to extraordinary ministers through their service is good (and I acknowledge that such growth is not uncommon), but these good effects do not change the fact that this service by members of the laity is meant to be exceptional.
As the Book of Blessings encourages, priests and deacons should give “a suitable part of their time” to the administration of Holy Communion to the faithful at Mass and at home. It is, after all, a “ministry of their order.” This speaks to the importance of assisting with Communion at all the Sunday Masses and of faithfully visiting “Communion calls” in our parishes.
On this great feast, allow me to conclude with a prayer. This brief prayer is added by local custom in my area to the end of the Divine Praises whenever Benediction is given:
“May the Heart of Jesus, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, be praised, adored, and loved with grateful affection at every moment in all the tabernacles of the world, even until the end of time. Amen.”