Questions about Eucharistic Ministers

Q1: In my parish, when there is a priest distributing Communion in one line, and a Eucharistic Minister in another line, I’ve seen people deliberately switch lines so that they can receive from the priest.  Is there something wrong with receiving Holy Communion from a Eucharistic Minister? What do they know that I don’t? –Amanda

Q2: Why do priests allow improperly dressed women to function as Eucharistic Ministers? At my parish there’s a woman who frequently wears really short skirts who regularly distributes Communion. At my brother’s parish, though, their Eucharistic Ministers all wear white robes. Is this a requirement that my own parish isn’t following? It sure would solve the short-skirt problem! –Cyril

A: Before delving into these excellent but specific questions, it would perhaps be best to clarify some of the broader theological and canonical concepts pertaining to the distribution of Holy Communion. They might, in fact, be surprising news to Catholics in many parts of the United States, because what may seem to be accepted norms are in some cases actually abusive practices.

First of all, the term “Eucharistic Minister” is not found in the Code of Canon Law. The correct term is “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion,” which tells us all right away that such persons are not intended to be the routine ministers of this sacrament.

Canon 910.1 states that the ordinary minister of Holy Communion is a bishop, priest, or deacon. In other words, as a rule, a cleric is supposed to distribute Communion. The exception to this rule is contained in canon 910.2, which notes that the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is either an acolyte, or another member of the faithful deputed in accord with canon 230.3. This last part is anything but clear, so let’s unpack it and see what the Church has in mind.

We are all familiar with the concept of altar servers—usually school-age boys—who assist the priest at Mass. Ordinarily they sign up to perform this service, and are trained in a few practice sessions before they begin their “job.” Technically these altar boys (and nowadays altar girls as well) are termed acolytes.  When these acolytes get too busy with their school activities, or grow up and go off to college, they frequently cease to be altar servers and that’s the end of it. They may very well have served Mass for years, but generally, their role was never viewed as something permanent and life-long.

Similarly, we have all seen laymen and women act as lectors during Mass. These are usually adults who have volunteered to read the readings, psalms, and other parts of the Mass on a more or less regular basis. At many parishes, these volunteers take turns, rotating during the course of a week or month so everyone has a chance to read. If someone gets ill, or moves away, he simply notifies the parish that he is unable to continue the role of lector, and his service ends.

But when the code describes acolytes and lectors, this is not the arrangement that it first foresees. Canon 230.1 describes a scenario that is definitely not commonly seen, at least here in the U.S.: laymen can be given the stable ministry of lector and of acolyte, through the prescribed liturgical rite. In other words, it is possible for men—not women, in this case!—to be installed in these ministries on a permanent, “official” basis, with a specific ceremony.

In actuality, it is safe to say that in our own country, this almost never happens. But this doesn’t mean that we American Catholics are violating the law. The situation we normally encounter is addressed in the other paragraphs of canon 230.

Canon 230.2 notes that laypeople—both men and women, in this case—can be temporarily assigned the role of lector at liturgical events. This is, in fact, what we ordinarily experience in our own parishes. The word “temporarily” here simply means that it is not meant necessarily to be a life-long commitment. If the parish no longer needs the help of a particular lector, or if the lector cannot continue in his position, then he simply ceases to be a lector.

Canon 230.3 is similar and pertains directly to the question of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. It states that when necessary, lay men and women can assume the roles of the officially installed lectors and acolytes mentioned in 230.1, if such persons are not available. These “temporary” lay ministers can, among other things, distribute Holy Communion.

It may sound like the Pope made the Code of Canon Law unnecessarily complicated on this issue. But in fact canon 230 reflects the historical reality of clergy in the Church. For centuries, the roles of acolyte and lector were considered “minor orders,” and a seminarian received these orders during the course of his education and spiritual formation directed ultimately toward becoming a priest (priesthood being a “major order”). These minor orders were abolished by Pope Paul VI, who in doing so acknowledged that they no longer held the practical importance that they had in the first centuries of the early Church. The fact that canon 230.1 provides for an official installation, reserved to men only, in these roles today is a vestige of the minor orders traditionally conferred on Catholic seminarians. In both “Can Women be Ordained Priests?” and “Could the Pope Change the Law to Allow Women Priests?” we saw that the priesthood cannot be conferred on women. This logically applies to the other orders leading up to priestly ordination as well.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with Extraordinary Ministers? In a nutshell, Holy Communion is supposed to be distributed to the faithful by a cleric, as we saw above. Laymen and laywomen can lawfully be permitted to assist in its distribution, but only in circumstances which are not the norm.

A small list of some situations deemed to be outside the norm was provided way back in 1973, by the then-Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (later renamed the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments). In a document entitled Immensae Caritatis, the Congregation noted that laypeople could assist in the distribution of the Eucharist when no cleric or installed acolyte was available; when a cleric or acolyte was available but was unable to assist, due to illness or extreme old age; or when there were so many people wishing to receive the Eucharist that the Mass would take too long without additional assistance in distributing it. In contrast, however, one frequently encounters here in the U.S. parishes where one or more laypeople assist in distributing Holy Communion at every Mass, even daily Masses attended by a relative handful of people! Unless the celebrating priest is truly unable to distribute the Eucharist himself—perhaps he is unwell and can’t remain on his feet, for instance—this definitely does not constitute a situation in which lay ministers should be used.

In 1988, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, which alone has the authority to provide authentic interpretations of the canons of the code on behalf of the Pope, issued a short clarification on this subject which explains the Church’s intentions even further. A question had been submitted to the Council about Masses at which perhaps a cleric was physically present, but was not properly vested and/or prepared to distribute Holy Communion. Maybe a permanent deacon, for example, happens to be attending a Mass with his family, or a seminarian who has been ordained a deacon is back home at his parish for vacation. Or another priest may simply be sitting in the pews, quietly following the Mass with the rest of the congregation. If the celebrating priest needs extra help in distributing the Eucharist to large crowds wishing to receive it, can the priest ask a layperson to act as an Extraordinary Minister, or must this cleric get up and assist the priest?

The answer to this very practical question was clear and simple. An Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist may not assist the priest to distribute Holy Communion at any Mass at which an available cleric happens to be present. In other words, a layperson may never distribute Holy Communion if an able-bodied cleric is available. The priest or deacon who is present at the Mass must be asked to assist in distributing the Eucharist. Ignorance aside, to fail to do this is technically to violate the law. This should give us all an idea of how truly extraordinary the use of an Extraordinary Minister is meant to be!

If the use of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist is employed abusively at one’s parish, the responsibility rests ultimately with the pastor, and not with the faithful who wish to receive Holy Communion. Christ is truly present in every consecrated Host, no matter who gives that Host to us. If a person wishes to receive the Eucharist from a cleric rather than from a lay minister, and a cleric is right there distributing it—well, it is difficult to argue with that person’s preference! At the same time, it would also be difficult to argue the contrary—namely, that there is something sinful about receiving Communion from a layperson.

As for Cyril’s question about the proper dress for Eucharistic Ministers, there is absolutely nothing in the code mandating what such laypeople should wear, although obviously prudence would seem to dictate that immodest dress is inappropriate!  It may be that a particular diocese, or an individual parish, has mandated that all Eucharistic Ministers must wear some sort of robes while assisting the priest to distribute Holy Communion. But the much larger issue still remains, which is whether those laypeople should be distributing the Eucharist in the first place. Absent a truly extraordinary situation, the Church does not permit that laypeople should be assisting in this ministry at every Mass, on a regular basis.

By now it should be clear that as usual, the Code of Canon Law is in complete synch with Catholic theology. The reverence that is due to Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament dictates that it should not be handled casually by the unordained.

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