ROME, 3 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina
Q: My parish uses something called the "servant model" of
distributing Holy Communion. This is when the priest and
Eucharistic ministers receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord
last, after the people have received. They say this is more how
Christ celebrated the Last Supper, and it is only what a polite
and welcoming host would do when inviting guests to his
house. They also point out that Vatican II only "warmly and
fondly" (SC #55) recommends the practice of the priest receiving
first; and while Redemptionis Sacramentum
mentions it as
an abuse, it does not list it as a grave abuse that needs to be
corrected immediately. I am thinking that this "servant model"
is not perfect because of the sacrificial nature of the Mass. Is
the reception of Communion by the priest different in purpose
and/or nature from the reception of Communion by the people? —
M.B., Columbia, Maryland
A: First, let me say that the only true "servant model" is that
in which the ministers serve the faithful by providing them with
the Church's liturgy as the Church establishes it. Adding or
subtracting from that, and calling it true service, is mere
hollow invention. I am sure that some ministers are probably
acting in good faith, but it is an unfortunate act and unlikely
to produce good fruit.
The text of Sacrosanctum Concilium
, No. 55, says: "That
more perfect form of participation in the Mass whereby the
faithful, after the priest's communion, receive the Lord's body
from the same sacrifice, is strongly commended."
This text has nothing to do with recommending the reception of
Communion after the priest. This is simply a fact that is
presumed. The point made in the conciliar document is
recommending that the faithful receive the Communion consecrated
in the same Mass and not simply receive from the hosts reserved
in the tabernacle. Using this text to defend the aforementioned
abuse is at the least equivocation and more likely is weak
It is a strange defense indeed for a Catholic parish to
knowingly accept an illicit practice because it is not listed as
a grave abuse. There should be no deliberate abuses whatsoever
in any Catholic parish deserving of the name.
If the issue were not already clear, the Holy See has recently
taken steps to clarify it even further. In an official "Responsa
ad Dubia Proposta" (Response to a doubt) the Congregation for
Divine Worship and the Sacraments answered the following
question. We offer here an approximate translation of the
official Latin original published in Notitiae 45 (2009) pages
"Whether it is licit for the celebrating priest to take
Communion only after the Holy Eucharist has been administered to
the faithful or distribute Holy Eucharist and communicate at the
same time as the faithful?
"Response: Negative to both"
After the official reply, there is a brief explanation of the
reasoning behind it. Summing up, these arguments are:
All existing and traditional rites of the Church foresee that
the bishop or priest first receive Communion. After the
celebrant receives Communion, the various ministers receive
according to their hierarchical order and then the faithful.
The priest receives first, not because of a human protocol but
in virtue of the dignity and nature of his ministry. He acts in
the person of Christ, for the purpose of the integrity of the
sacrament and for presiding the people gathered together: "Thus
when priests join in the act of Christ the Priest, they offer
themselves entirely to God, and when they are nourished with the
body of Christ they profoundly share in the love of him who
gives himself as food to the faithful ( Presbyterorum Ordinis,
Both the present missal and the extraordinary form foresee the
priest as receiving Communion first, even though with some
variations in formulas and order of the rites.
Finally, the document repeats the precise norm of
No. 97: "A Priest must communicate
at the altar at the moment laid down by the Missal each time he
celebrates Holy Mass, and the concelebrants must communicate
before they proceed with the distribution of Holy Communion. The
Priest celebrant or a concelebrant is never to wait until the
people's Communion is concluded before receiving Communion
It is hard to be clearer than that.
* * *
Follow-up: When the Priest Should Receive Communion
A question on file is related to our Dec. 3 response regarding a
priest's receiving Communion after the faithful. Our
"Should the priest(s) at Mass as a matter of principle receive a
portion of the consecrated species larger than the rest of the
faithful receive? Many places use hosts for the assembly that
are around 2-3 cm (a little over an inch) in diameter, while the
main host that is fractioned is around 7 cm (just under 3
inches). I sometimes see presiding priests fraction the large
host in half, break a sliver into the chalice, then consume both
halves himself instead of distributing some of the large host to
the faithful. This seems to me to counter liturgical texts (RS
49) and hints of clericalism.
"Similarly, with the prohibition of pouring consecrated Precious
Blood from a larger vessel into smaller chalices, the symbolism
of 'one chalice' is weakened. Consequently, when several
chalices are used, RS 105 indicates one should be larger than
the others 'for sign value,' which I interpret to mean a way of
emphasizing the one chalice. But some priests use a larger
special chalice and reserve it for priests' communion —
often a more elaborate one, perhaps of personal value to the
priest. They fill it with a lesser amount of wine (enough for
ministers' Communion) and use smaller, more pedestrian chalices
for the faithful. This too seems overly clerical, and I prefer
that the faithful receive from the same chalice as the priests.
While I understand that some chalices are special to priests and
may be unsuitable for handling by many people, I think it better
to reserve those chalices for celebrations of the Eucharist at
which the faithful would not be receiving under both species.
"In short, I see no liturgical or practical reason why priests
should as a matter of principle (occasional exceptions always
being made) receive more of the consecrated host, or drink more
of the Precious Blood, from a special chalice off-limits to the
With all due respect to our reader, I believe he is reading too
much into this common practice whose origins are practical or
for greater dignity of the celebration. It would appear that
clericalism is in the eye of the beholder.
I think there is a much simpler explanation to this practice
that eschews any ideological interpretation whatsoever.
Historically speaking, the practice of the use of the large host
is united to the custom, originating in the Middle Ages, of
elevating the host so that people could see it. We are dealing
with an epoch in which people rarely received Communion, so that
the priest was often the only communicant.
On major feasts when there were more communicants, the faithful
would receive from the tabernacle after Mass. Thus the use of
small round hosts became common as a means of reserving the
It is true that the present liturgy does recommend that at least
some of the faithful receive from the priest's host. But for
practical purposes this usually requires an even larger host
that can be broken up into some 12 pieces. In recent years these
have become increasingly common.
Considering the historical origin of the custom, and the fact
that the whole Christ is received with any size host, I see no
point in seeing meanings that were never intended.
Something similar can be said about the use of a finer chalice
for the principal celebrant. Almost any priest would see it as a
means of honoring Our Lord's sacrifice by offering him the best
we have. Since this is the chalice that is to be elevated, it is
also a means of making this reality more visible to the
I think very few priests or faithful would interpret this
gesture as a means of exalting the priest.
Finally, I think we should be wary of applying political terms
such as "clericalism" to liturgical practices. By its very
nature the Church and the liturgy is structured hierarchically.
It is not clericalism but perfectly natural and correct for the
liturgy to reflect the reality of the priest's sacred
ministerial role in the Church through his vesture, his position
in the assembly, and other similar elements.