Blessings for Non-Communicants

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Blessings for Non-Communicants

ROME, 10 MAY 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: At many Masses these days, non-communicating participants approach the altar at Communion time and receive a blessing when they cannot communicate. However, some priests do not do this, saying it is not "in the rubrics." Is it all right for priests to do this? — M.T., New South Wales, Australia

A: As far as I have been able to ascertain, this practice arose over the last two decades or so, above all in English-speaking countries, such as Australia and the United States, where Catholics form a significant minority amid a basically Christian population.

Because of this, it is relatively common to have non-Catholics present at Mass, for example, Protestant spouses of Catholics, catechumens, and other visitors. This is especially true of weddings and funerals when the number of non-Catholics is even larger.

Another common situation, which apparently gave rise to this practice, is the increase in non-Catholic students at Catholic schools and colleges. At times, about half the student body is unable to participate in Communion.

Situations such as these probably inspired the practice of inviting those unable to receive Communion to approach the altar to receive a blessing so as not to feel excluded.

Certainly this blessing is not in the rubrics and there is no obligation to make such an invitation. However, neither is there any prohibition and the practice seems to have been tacitly accepted by many bishops who are aware of this nascent custom and have even participated in giving such blessings.

As far as I know, no bishop has issued specific directives on this issue, nor has the Holy See intervened although it is certainly aware of its existence.

The decision as to whether to adopt such a practice depends on the concrete pastoral circumstances involved. As in all similar initiatives, due reflection is required regarding the custom's pastoral utility and as to any possible consequences that it may provoke in the short or long term, for example, changing the way people perceive the act of receiving Communion. ZE05051027

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Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants [05-24-2005]

Regarding our comments on blessings for non-communicants (see May 10), a reader asked if my opinion contradicted the following observations made by Archbishop Chaput of Denver, Colorado, in an article from 2003:

"As members of the community move forward to receive holy Communion during Mass, parents will often bring their small children along. Over the years, it has become a custom in many parishes for these children to receive a blessing. I don't really know where this practice began, but it's worth some reflection.

"Usually the children in line will look up expectantly at the person distributing holy Communion. The minister then responds by doing one of several things: He or she may pat the child's head, or touch the head in a sign of blessing, or mark the child's forehead with a sign of the cross. As warm and well intentioned as the gesture may be, in the context of the liturgy, the Communion procession really isn't the time for a blessing of children or adults who are unable to receive Communion.

"There are times in the liturgical year when the laity assist in specific acts of blessing, such as the blessing of throats or the distribution of ashes. These are clearly indicated in the Book of Blessings. But extraordinary ministers of holy Communion do not ordinarily have a commission to bless in the name of the Church, as priests and deacons do. At this point in the liturgy, they have a very specific function: to collaborate with the clergy in the distribution of holy Communion.

"As we'll explore in a later column, the blessing of the assembly properly occurs at the end of the Mass. As the body of Christ, the assembly is blessed together before we depart to live the fruits of the liturgy.

"What would be appropriate for children to do who accompany their parents in the Communion procession, and adults who do not receive Communion?

"The Communion procession is an opportunity for parents to begin to teach their children about the great gift of the Eucharist. First of all, children could learn to give reverence to the Lord hidden under the forms of bread and wine. Children can already learn from their parents, and others receiving holy Communion, to give honor to the Lord by bowing reverently.

"Parents and catechists should start teaching the mystery of the Eucharist at an early age. Children will soon begin to desire to receive holy Communion. This earnest desire to receive our Lord sacramentally is traditionally called a 'spiritual communion.' Regrettably, we don't talk about spiritual communion as we once did. But Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori and many other great saints strongly encouraged spiritual communion as a practice.

"Both children and adults can make a spiritual communion. They may come forward with their arms crossed and bow before the Eucharist. Then the priest, deacon or extraordinary minister could say to them kindly, 'Receive the Lord Jesus in your heart.' This is not a blessing, but an invitation to worship, so no gestures are made.

"This spiritual communion would more authentically carry out the spirit of the liturgy. Being faithful to the truths of the sacramental celebration allows all of us, young and old, to enter more deeply into worship."

Does it contradict my previous article? All I can say, in typical Irish fashion is, well, yes and no.

The previous question did not refer to my personal opinion regarding the appropriateness of these blessings, but to whether they were permitted or not. The essence of my answer to that question was that the issue was not clear from a legal point of view and, barring an authoritative statement from the Holy See, it depended on the local authorities to judge the opportunity of accepting or rejecting this practice.

The admirable Archbishop Chaput has taken a characteristically lucid position on the issue, and, while his article is not a formal liturgical norm, it both clarifies the question for his archdiocese, and provides guidance to other pastors weighing the pros and cons of this still nascent custom.

However, the fact remains that many bishops have made approving comments regarding it and some have actually participated in such blessings. Thus the legal issue at the heart of the original question remains doubtful. Indeed, as one reader has helpfully informed me, the bishops' conference of England and Wales has published a fairly authoritative statement on this issue, to wit:

"Even though some in the assembly may not receive 'sacramental' Communion, all are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The Traditional idea of spiritual communion is an important one to remember and re-affirm. The invitation often given at Mass to those who may not receive sacramental communion — for example, children before their first communion and adults who are not Catholics — to receive a 'blessing' at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament of the Body and blood of Christ" (the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, "Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction," (Catholic Truth Society, April 2005, In number 212, pg 95)."

I would note that the bishops here interpret the blessing itself as a kind of spiritual communion and so the basic thrust of their thinking is the same as that of Archbishop Chaput.

As the gauntlet has been hurled, so to speak, regarding my personal view, I admit to sharing Archbishop Chaput's misgivings as to the appropriateness of some practical aspects of imparting these blessings.

For example, since lay extraordinary ministers of Communion are not authorized to give liturgical blessings, in situations where there are numerous non-communicants the practice could result in a seeming paradox in which they receive blessings from the ordinary ministers of Communion while the Catholic faithful receive the sacred host from extraordinary ministers. Perhaps a lay minister could pronounce a generic formula calling down God's blessing, but it is rather short shrift compared to Communion.

I am also rather queasy about touching people on the head, while simultaneously administrating the sacred host on the tongue of the next person in line.

My most serious hesitations, however, stem from a fear that, over time, the practice of giving blessings to non-communicants could create a new perception or mentality regarding Communion itself that makes it somehow equivalent to a blessing, thus weakening the special value that Communion should have for Catholics. This danger could be especially present in a school environment with a high proportion of non-Catholics who receive only a blessing. On the other hand, some priests have mentioned that it can lower the danger of sacrilegious communions in predominantly Catholic schools as children and adolescents find it easier to ask for a blessing than to stay (alone) in their pews.

Likewise, other priests have written to comment on the pastoral effectiveness of being able to offer Catholics in irregular situations an alternative to not approaching the Communion rail. One commented that one couple's receiving the blessing awoke a hunger for the Eucharist which spurred them to regularize their situation with the Church.

For the above situations I believe the archbishop's suggestion regarding formation in spiritual communion, or that of the British bishops in interpreting the invitation to receive a blessing as spiritual communion, are invaluable and may be even more pastorally effective than a simple blessing per se. It may be harder to apply, however, to non-Catholics.

This brings us to a related question of some members of the Legion of Mary in California who generously offer their services as extraordinary ministers of Communion in an assisted-living facility with a large proportion of non-Catholics.

They ask: "We also know that, as extraordinary ministers of Communion, we cannot bless anyone, but we do ask Jesus or God to bless them. What is the proper form of blessing that we can offer our Protestant brethren? We customarily offer this type of blessing in lieu of sharing Communion: 'May God Bless you and keep you close to him.'

"Is it proper for extraordinary ministers to lay on hands or to make the sign of the cross on the head, or over the head, of the person receiving the blessing? Is it proper to anoint the head of the person receiving the blessing with holy water?

"We want to act properly in the full spirit of the Holy Father's call for evangelization by the lay apostolates, without overstepping into ritual behavior that is the proper domain of the consecrated priesthood."

From what has been said above I would suggest that you avoid ritual gestures that might cause confusion, especially to the Catholics present. However, the formulas provided for the extraordinary ministers of Communion in the ritual for Communion outside of Mass could also be used in the presence of non-Catholics. They usually have a third person plural formula such as "May the Lord bless us, keep us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life."

If you wish to offer some spiritual activity to all present beyond the Communion service, then, with the permission of the parish priest, you could offer some acceptable common prayer once the Communion service has been finished — for example, praying an hour of the Divine Office, which is almost totally scriptural, would be one possibility.

While liturgical law restricts to ordained ministers the imparting of liturgical blessings, lay people are not forbidden from using similar gestures in non-liturgical settings. For example, in some counties parents commonly make the sign of the cross over and bless their children as they leave for school.

While on the subject of blessings, a deacon requested if "the deacon may use the same formula as the presbyter and perform the same action of making the sign of the cross over the person(s) to be blessed?"

The short answer is yes. The deacon may impart most of the same blessings as a priest and uses the same liturgical gestures. If a priest is present however, he should defer to him.

Finally, a lay woman from Canada asks: "At the opening of the Mass and its closing we are blessed by the priest. I have traditionally blessed myself following reception of the Eucharistic species. However, I recently read that this is inappropriate in that it interferes with the unifying theme of the initial and closing blessings by the priest. What is the meaning of blessing oneself after reception of Eucharist? And, what is considered appropriate at this time in our Church's history?"

Strictly speaking, the priest does not bless us at the beginning of Mass; rather, we all make the sign of the cross together as a sign of faith. The only proper blessing is that at the end of Mass which is a concluding blessing before the faithful are sent forth to continue their Christian mission in the world.

Your custom of crossing yourself (also sometimes called blessing oneself) after receiving Communion is simply an act of private devotion and an expression of faith in what one has received. It does no harm whatsoever to the symbolism of the Mass and probably does you a lot of spiritual good. ZE05052423

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Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants, Continued [06-07-2005]

The theme of blessings for non-communicants (see May 10 and 24) has struck a chord, albeit a sometimes dissonant one, in many readers. For this reason I will revisit the theme once more.

(Before embarking, however, I would like to thank the kind reader who made me realize that I pertain to the ranks of the grammatically challenged by confusing the first and third person plural in my previous follow-up.)

One reader proposed that accepting the possibility of this blessing of non-communicants went against the principle that "liturgical documents are prohibitive of all that they do not prescribe."

While in no means in favor of liturgical inventiveness, I do not believe this to be a valid principle in interpreting liturgical law.

Liturgical norms have several levels ranging from the Divine decree (such as the essential elements of the sacraments) to precepts descriptive of prevalent customs, the latter constituting the vast majority of liturgical norms.

The different levels do not lessen their value as true laws, which require obedience. But they are usually content to set out a general scheme with no desire to rigidly set every gesture to the exclusion of all others.

For example, in a recent controversy regarding some bishop's forbidding the faithful to kneel after Communion until everybody had received, the Holy See stated: "The ... prescription of the 'Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani,' no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit would no longer be free."

The same could be said about other acts of private fervor such as making a sign of the cross after receiving Communion.

Since much liturgical law is grounded in custom, canonists generally admit that, according to canons 23-28, some ecclesial communities have the capacity to introduce customs that either interpret the law, or fill a vacuum or silence regarding the law.

Many, but not all, liturgical canonists deny that a community may establish a custom contrary to the law. They also discuss the relative capacity of the diocese or the bishops' conference to introduce customs in liturgical matters.

Even admitting the ability of these entities to introduce customs, since Church law already has official mechanisms for adapting the liturgy to local needs, these should be respected so as to avoid any cause of doubt or unnecessary conflict.

Historically, the use of customs that either interpret the law or establish practices to adapt to situations or conditions not expressly covered by the law, are frequent.

Even in the far more minutely regulated liturgy before the Second Vatican Council there where many particular customs that responded to concrete pastoral needs. For example, in the Baltic country of Latvia, the Catholic minority — hemmed in on one side by a branch of Lutheranism that conserved many Catholic trappings and on the other by the Russian Orthodox — developed a strong tradition of congregational singing not foreseen in the rubrics and quite different from the liturgical practice of neighboring Lithuania, where Catholics constituted the majority.

On the other hand, several other readers did express a fear that the introduction of the blessing for those not receiving Communion breached the general liturgical norm that "Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority" ("Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 22).

Here we are on different terrain. Even if we were to accept that the blessing offered to non-communicants could be established as a legitimate custom that responds to new pastoral demands, not foreseen in the law itself, it is clear that it is not incumbent on the individual priest to introduce a novel rite into the Communion procession.

Finally, even if we were to accept the (still hypothetical) legitimacy of this custom, I would be personally hesitant to generalize its use beyond those areas where it has proved a useful pastoral solution to specific problems for relatively small groups.

I also see no pastoral advantage in using it for children before their first Communion. A child who observes parents and siblings approaching the altar should have a greater sense of hope and desire to be able to participate just as they do.

As we mentioned before, a blessing in this case could even weaken the awareness of the greatness and uniqueness of holy Communion. It can also cause pastoral problems insofar as it is an easy custom to introduce but, once in, very difficult to renege upon, due to parental sensitivity. ZE05060729

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