Blessings at Holy Communion

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Blessings at Holy Communion


Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In America, the custom of giving blessings to people who are unable to receive Communion is growing rapidly. In my parish, in Texas, it appears that the practice of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion tracing a cross onto the head of small children and visitors has become more important than the Eucharist itself. Many have commented to me that it is so "unwelcoming" not to do this. I have pointed out in liturgy meetings that neither the Rite of Blessings nor the Roman Missal envisions this practice. As a deacon I am greatly bothered by this trend, but my "parish administrator" is hesitant to change the habit of the previous pastor. In fact, at weddings and funerals this behavior is encouraged for non-Catholics by our presiding priests. I would greatly appreciate reading or hearing your opinion/suggestions on what appears to be an insert into the Eucharistic rite and perhaps a disservice to our ability to create a true desire and understanding for receiving Christ at Mass in holy Communion. — D.I., Texas

A: We have addressed this topic on a couple of occasions (May 10 and 24, 2005) in which we expressed misgivings regarding this practice. At the same time, we pointed out that the legal situation of the usage is murky with bishops making statements falling on both sides of the argument.

Recently, however, a document has appeared in several Internet sources which indicate that the Holy See is tending toward a negative view of the practice. The document is a letter (Protocol No. 930/08/L) dated Nov. 22, 2008, sent in response to a private query and signed by Father Anthony Ward, SM, undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

As a private reply the letter is not yet a norm with legal force and, as it makes clear, is not a definitive reply. However, it provides some valuable pointers on the legitimacy of this practice and the mind of the Holy See regarding it.

The letter said that "this matter is presently under the attentive study of the Congregation," so "for the present, this dicastery wishes to limit itself to the following observations":

"1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion.

"2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, § 2; Canon 1169, § 2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).

"3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands — which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here — by those distributing Holy Communion, in substitution for its reception, is to be explicitly discouraged.

"4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio n. 84, 'forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry'. To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good standing.

"5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church's discipline has already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin)."

Although the letter as such is not legally binding, some of its points, such as No. 2 on the prohibition of lay ministers giving liturgical blessings, are merely restatements of existing law and as such are already obligatory.

Nor did the letter deal with all possible circumstances, such as the case of small children mentioned by our reader. Because of this, some dioceses have taken a prudent wait-and-see attitude regarding these blessings. For example, the liturgy office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, while reiterating that "the Archdiocese has no policy prohibiting the use of blessings at the time of Holy Communion," prudently suggested to pastors that it "may be appropriate to avoid promoting the practice until a more definitive judgment regarding its value in the liturgical celebration can be obtained."

* * *

Follow-up: Blessings at Holy Communion [3-24-2009]

Several readers commented on the question of blessings at Communion (see March 24) after we presented a letter from the Holy See expressing a fairly negative assessment of this practice.

Our readers expressed opinions both in favor and against, often outlining situations that the practice would promote or hinder.

One reader, for example, commented on the value of Mass in itself: "I have read St. Leonard's [of Port Maurice, 1676-1751] 'The Hidden Treasure' and was deeply moved at his writing about the miracle and the power of the Mass. Everyone in this world should be invited to attend Holy Mass no matter what religion or in what state of grace they find themselves. Especially fallen away Catholics who might be divorced and remarried (but they really are not married in the eyes of the Catholic Church) or Catholics who are in the state of mortal sin due to addictions of one sort or another. They try to amend their lives but fall too often, and they must sit in their pews while 'everyone' else gets up into the procession line. This is an embarrassing situation to one who is guilty of mortal sin ... [but being unable to go to confession] would not dare to compound their sins by sins by the sacrilege of receiving the holy Eucharist.

"So, if they were allowed to join the procession to receive a blessing 'by the priest or deacon' they would not stand out as one who is in a state of mortal sin. For that is the only reason they would not receive, being that the fasting rule of one hour is almost impossible to break.

"I have come to the conclusion that many Catholics just stop going to Mass for this reason.

"Many people need a reason for not receiving the Eucharist on a Sunday morning and at least a three-hour fast would allow some excuse. The good Catholics would have a deeper respect for just what they are doing and the sacrifice of fasting is a good way to inspire respect."

I agree with our reader that even those who are unable to receive Communion should attend Mass; indeed, they retain the same obligation to do so as all Catholics.

However, I would point out that St. Leonard's work was written at a time when the practice of frequent and daily Communion was quite rare, even among vowed religious and pious Catholics. Therefore it cannot be supposed that the object of his work was particularly aimed at those unable to receive Communion.

Indeed, for those in such a situation the principal grace of the Mass would be that of conversion: that is, finding the strength to remove the obstacles to their being able to approach the altar and receive the bread of life. This is true both of those who are afflicted by sin as well as those, such as a non-Catholic attending Mass with a spouse, who cannot receive Communion for other reasons.

In some cases a blessing might help such people attend Mass by avoiding an embarrassing moment. But it could also have exactly the opposite effect by singling them out for a blessing when others receive Communion. Likewise, this situation is more often than not provoked by the bad habit in many parishes of insisting on an orderly pew-by-pew communion procession when a bit of confusion would be enough to help such people pass unnoticed.

In other cases, human frailty being what it is, the possibility of receiving a blessing in lieu of Communion might actually satisfy some people so that they never actually take the plunge of regularizing their situation before God and the Church.

All in all, anecdotal evidence could probably be presented for all sides, and the question should eventually be decided by Church authorities on the basis of solid theological arguments.

There are good arguments for restoring the three-hour fast, and our reader gives some of them. Some bishops proposed this a few years ago while others objected that it would make some successful pastoral initiatives, such as lunch-hour Masses in urban centers, almost impossible.

Another reader, a priest, asked, "What if a person coming for a blessing during Communion time is living in sin and a person who knows that person and sees that person thinks that the person is about to receive Communion? Since the communicant's back is to the people in the pews, could not this situation be a source of scandal?"

I would say that if the possibility of receiving a blessing is a known option, then a person who is unable to see whether or not someone has communicated should in all charity grant them the benefit of the doubt and not cede to the temptations of rash judgment.

Even if such a person believed that the other had received Communion, then, once more in charity, they should rejoice that the sinner has found a way to make his peace with God and is now able to approach the altar rail.

Except in cases of notorious public sins, the nature of which require some form of public reconciliation, we should respect the other's conscience and refrain from making judgments as to the state of their souls. It is true that pastoral practice usually advises some people who have been reconciled to attend Mass where they are unknown so as to avoid rash judgments. But even if this advice is not followed, then our tendency should always be toward charitable thoughts.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
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