The single-most important thing any of us can ever do on this earth is to take part in the Eucharistic sacrifice at Holy Mass. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope St. John Paul II put it succinctly:
“The Church draws her life from the Eucharist. This truth does not simply express a daily experience of faith, but recapitulates the heart of the mystery of the Church” (EE 1).
As Catholic Christians, we are encouraged to receive the Eucharist regularly, even daily if possible, through our full participation in the Mass. As the priest reminds us at each Mass:
“Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours will be acceptable to God, the almighty Father.”
Although we participate in every Mass by uniting our hearts with Christ the High Priest and his earthly minister (see Pius XII, Mediator Dei 104-105), we can also participate in other ways such as through being a lector or extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (EMHC). It is the latter of these two roles that we will take a look at here. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops tells us,
“When the size of the congregation or the incapacity of the bishop, priest, or deacon requires it … ‘the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, i.e., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may also depute suitable faithful for this single occasion.’”
Many have seen fruits borne from this allowance in their own spiritual lives, but at the same time there are certain pitfalls that need to be avoided when making use of EMHCs. Below are some pros and cons regarding the institution of EMHCs in the life of the Church, which will help us to keep in mind the reverence due to the most Blessed Sacrament of the altar.
Pro #1: Helping pastors due to infirmity or large crowds
While we’ve all seen the huge papal Masses on TV that have taken place at large places such as Yankee Stadium and the like, we sometimes see large crowds within our own parishes as well. This can be due to special occasions or simply because a parish is very large. Other times, a pastor may be unwell during Mass. EMHCs can assist the priest in the distribution of Holy Communion at necessary times such as these. The Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had this to say in 2004, approved by St. John Paul II:
“[T]he 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” (Redemptionis Sacramentum, 158).
This can be welcome relief to pastors, especially when the pastor has no help from deacons or other priests in residence, which is becoming more and more common in many parishes across the United States and Canada. Another consideration the document above brings up is when a priest is not even available. Some rural areas do not have the same luxury as other parishes to even have a full time pastor. When the congregation gathers on Sunday, such groups of Catholics can still receive our Lord Jesus in the Eucharist even if Mass is unable to be celebrated. The EMHC fills a much needed hole in these sets of specific circumstances, allowing the graces received through the Blessed Sacrament to flow through their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Pro #2: Encouraging lay persons to be active in the life of the parish
As Catholics, we are all called in one way or another to serve the Church. As members of the Body of Christ, we all have different functions, talents and gifts. With the parish church itself being a microcosm of the Body of Christ, we would do well to assist in some way with the building up of our brothers and sisters. As Scripture tells us, “Iron sharpens iron” (Proverbs 27:17). We are called to be at service to our brothers and sisters, being good stewards of our abilities and our time. One of many ways in which we can do this is through helping the congregation as an EMHC. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way:
“The laity can also feel called, or be in fact called, to cooperate with their pastors in the service of the ecclesial community, for the sake of its growth and life. This can be done through the exercise of different kinds of ministries according to the grace and charisms which the Lord has been pleased to bestow on them” (CCC 910).
Sometimes we get into a rhythm where all we do on a parish level is come in on Sunday, do our duty for the week, and then refrain from darkening the doorstep of the parish again until next Sunday. Now, of course, many of us have work or schooling commitments. But is there time that we can sacrifice to our parishes? Taking on the legitimate functions that an EMHC possesses would contribute to taking a more active place within the parish. Even through something as simple as training, we may find ourselves in the company of parishioners we never would’ve met otherwise. If the parish is a community, then we would do well to actively try to engage in its life. Being an EMHC is far from the only way we can do this, but it is certainly one way to facilitate this service for the sake of the ecclesial community.
Pro #3: Fostering a deeper love for the Eucharist for the EMHC
Still fresh in the minds of many Catholics is the sobering findings from the Pew Research study on belief in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. The study found that only about one third of the United States population accepts the Church’s teaching on what the Eucharist truly is. With the training that is involved for an EMHC, one could certainly come to a deeper appreciation of the Sacrament, or perhaps even be moved by love of the Eucharist to become an EMHC in the first place. For instance, the Diocese of Phoenix requires those hoping to become and EMHC to have a proper grasp on the doctrines of transubstantiation and concomitance, as well as understanding deeply the sacrificial nature of the Mass itself.
Such training sessions can have a profound effect on the faith of someone who is looking to do more for the parish community, especially for younger people. In most dioceses, the minimum age for being an EMHC is sixteen. This extra catechesis can help in making the EMHC realize just how important of an office he holds in distributing the Blessed Sacrament.
In an age where even many Catholics in the pews don’t believe in the Real Presence, we certainly need a revitalization of devout fervor for our Eucharistic Lord. Wherever that fervor might come from is most welcome, and when we find ourselves in the position to actually assist in bringing Christ to others in a most tangible way, we shouldn’t be surprised to see an increased devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The world needs witnesses on fire for our Lord Jesus, and being visible in such a role may help our own love for the Eucharist grow, which will have an effect on others that we meet throughout our daily lives. As the late Cardinal Francis George once said:
“The true Jesus has risen from the dead. Free from all limitations, he acts now through the sacraments of the Church. This is the connection between evangelization and Eucharist. We preach a Eucharistic Christ.”
Con #1: The Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary (and Excessive)
One potential drawback of the EMHC is that it’s possible for the role to be overused and even abused. That is, the EMHC can go from being an extra-ordinary to an ordinary fixture, becoming the norm in many parishes. Fr. Peter M. J. Stravinskas made the following observations on the proper use of the EMHC:
“Over a three-year period, I preached in more than one hundred parishes at weekend Masses; only seven did not use extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist—and none, to the best of my knowledge, fulfilled the requirements of Immensae caritatis [Pope St. Paul VI’s decree permitting EMHCs]. Some places have literally dozens of people so deputed (I know of one parish that has 225 extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist).”
The Church is very clear that EMHCs are to be a rarity, and only utilized in truly necessary situations. The ordinary ministers of Holy Communion (bishops, priests, and deacons) are by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders ministers in the truest sense. The instruction from the Congregation of Divine Worship explains:
“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 … 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” (RS 157).
In fact, responding to a question on this issue, St. John Paul II approved the clarification that EMHCs cannot exercise their ministry even if a non-celebrating priest or deacon is sitting in the congregation during Mass. If the celebrating priest needs help distributing the Eucharist, the EMHC is not allowed to assist as long as an ordinary minister of Holy Communion is on hand and physically able to do so.
Later on in Christifideles laici, St. John Paul II speaks more on the subject:
“It is also necessary that Pastors guard against a facile yet abusive recourse to a presumed ‘situation of emergency’ or to ‘supply by necessity’, where objectively this does not exist or where alternative possibilities could exist through better pastoral planning” (CL 23).
All of this puts in perspective just how rare the EMHC is to be, and we should follow suit accordingly when planning such exercises of ministry.
Con #2: The Loss of a Sense of the Sacred
As we saw above, a great need has arisen in which we must catechize our brothers and sisters on the Real Presence of the Eucharist. While engaging in ministries (like that of the EMHC) may have a positive effect on one’s attitude to the Eucharist, it is also possible that a sense of “desacralization” of the Eucharistic sacrifice may occur. Returning to Fr. Stravinskas, he points out:
“By permitting nearly anyone at all to distribute the Eucharist, we are communicating a message at the symbolic level that this action is really not all that special. What is anyone’s responsibility is no one’s responsibility … This approach, though most always innocent, nonetheless culminates in a desacralization of the Church, the Eucharist, and the priesthood.”
A sometimes casual nature to the Holy Sacrifice can be communicated with the excessive use of EMHCs in parish life. Not to mention, EMHCs do not perform the ablutions, which is the ritual purification of the sacred vessels after Holy Communion is distributed. This shows us how the Mass is different from any other human banquet that we take part in. As EMHCs we must never give the impression that what we are doing is casual, be that through our demeanor or dress. The Canons Regular of St. John Cantius explain the significance (particularly, but not exclusively, in the Extraordinary Form) of the ablutions, detailing how what takes place during the Eucharist truly is something special:
“The Church has great reverence for the Body and Blood of Christ, and so she is concerned that no particles of that heavenly food be lost or unintentionally profaned …
“Therefore, after the distribution of Holy Communion, whereas the priest-celebrant purifies his fingers with wine and again with wine and water, priests and deacons who distribute Holy Communion during the course of the Mass, as well as outside of Mass, will employ the Ablution Cup to purify their fingers of the sacred particles of the Host.”
EMHCs do not take part in this ritual, as they are not allowed to purify the vessels. Because of this, one might overlook how truly special it is to hold the Eucharist, but the diligent EMHC will communicate the reverence we all must have for the Eucharist in their personal conduct during distribution.
Con #3: A Blurring of Lines Between Priestly Ministry and the Role of the Laity
As we touched on above, sometimes the excessive use of EMHCs can lead to misunderstandings between the priest’s role as ordinary minister of Holy Communion and the EMHCs role. This might be seen when an EMHC attempts to give a blessing to someone in the Communion queue who is not receiving, or when an able-bodied priest himself refrains from distributing the Blessed Sacrament. Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect for the Congregation of Divine Worship, spoke on this at a recent liturgical conference:
“We must remember that we are not the authors of the liturgy, we are its humble ministers, subject to its discipline and laws. We are also responsible to form those who assist us in liturgical ministries… Sometimes I have seen priests step aside to allow extraordinary ministers distribute Holy Communion: this is wrong, it is a denial of the priestly ministry as well as a clericalisation of the laity. When this happens it is a sign that formation has gone very wrong, and that it needs to be corrected. (see Matthew 14:18-21).”
Priests not only act in the person of Christ during Mass, but is also an alter Christus, meaning “another Christ”. As Pope Benedict XVI puts it:
“As an alter Christus, the priest is profoundly united to the Word of the Father who, in becoming incarnate took the form of a servant, he became a servant (Phil 2: 5-11)… Because he belongs to Christ, the priest is radically at the service of all people: he is the minister of their salvation, their happiness and their authentic liberation … ”
We might sometimes forget this distinction when we encounter EMHCs so frequently in parish life, so it’s always good to remind ourselves of this role the priest has in relation to that of the EMHCs. This reality is not lost on St. John Paul II either:
“[The priest’s] hands, like their words and their will, have become the direct instruments of Christ … How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary!” (Dominicae cenae 11)
This is why the Church so heavily stresses that priests be the ordinary minister of Holy Communion; the congregation then receives from the hands that were specifically anointed for this purpose. Needs will of course arise for EMHCs, but we must safeguard against any “clericalisation” of such lay persons.
In summary, there are several good and legitimate reasons that foresee the need for EMHCs, and it can be spiritually profitable for those taking place in the ministry. However, we must temper this with the clear prescriptions of the Church that such ministers truly be utilized only in those situations that are actually extraordinary. The Church, being the Body of Christ himself, takes the Blessed Sacrament very seriously, and at the same time desires to ensure that all the faithful always have the opportunity to receive this most beautiful gift fruitfully and reverently.
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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
Featured image from picryl