Extraordinary Ministers and Both Species of Communion

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Extraordinary Ministers and Both Species of Communion

ROME, 16 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I understand that the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion is to be just that, "extraordinary." I also understand that the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament under both species to all the faithful has been allowed by the U.S. bishops' conference, given its fuller sign value. Thus my question is this: Which trumps which? It is almost unheard of for a parish to distribute Communion under both species without recourse to extraordinary ministers. Is it preferable to avoid using extraordinary ministers and distribute under one species only? Or is it preferable to distribute under both species and have recourse to extraordinary ministers on an ordinary basis? — V.D., New York

A: I would say that the word "extraordinary" has several shades of meaning and this probably leads to some confusion.

From the liturgical point of view, an extraordinary minister is one who performs a liturgical act in virtue of a special delegation and not as an ordinary minister. Thus, in the case of Holy Communion, the ordinary ministers are the bishop, priest and deacon. That is, it is a normal part of their ministry to distribute Communion.

Anyone else who distributes Communion does so as an extraordinary minister. That is, it is not a normal part of their liturgical functions, but they have received this mission in virtue of a delegation. The instituted acolyte receives this delegation ex officio, so to speak, in virtue of his institution. He may also purify the sacred vessels in the absence of the deacon as well as expose and reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a simple manner for a period of adoration.

All other ministers act in virtue of a habitual delegation from the local bishop, usually acting through the pastor, or an immediate ad hoc delegation from the priest celebrant to respond to difficult circumstances.

Therefore, the status of extraordinary minister is not dependent on the ministry's frequency but rather pertains to the nature of the ministry itself. Even if one were to assist in administrating Communion every day for several years, one never becomes an ordinary minister in the canonical or liturgical sense.

Another case of the concept of extraordinary minister is the role of a priest with respect to the sacrament of confirmation in the Latin rite. Canon law Nos. 882-888 state that the bishop is the ordinary minister of confirmation, but the law foresees the possibility of priests administering this sacrament under certain conditions.

For most other sacraments, especially penance, Eucharist, holy orders and anointing of the sick, there is no possibility of extraordinary ministers.

However, the current use of the word extraordinary is not unknown in liturgical norms. For example, the 2004 instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" says: "It is the Priest celebrant's responsibility to minister Communion, perhaps assisted by other Priests or Deacons; and he should not resume the Mass until after the Communion of the faithful is concluded. Only when there is a necessity may extraordinary ministers assist the Priest celebrant in accordance with the norm of law" (No. 88).

This same document refers to the practice of Communion under both species:

"[100.] So that the fullness of the sign may be made more clearly evident to the faithful in the course of the Eucharistic banquet, lay members of Christ’s faithful, too, are admitted to Communion under both kinds, in the cases set forth in the liturgical books, preceded and continually accompanied by proper catechesis regarding the dogmatic principles on this matter laid down by the Ecumenical Council of Trent.

"[101.] In order for Holy Communion under both kinds to be administered to the lay members of Christ's faithful, due consideration should be given to the circumstances, as judged first of all by the diocesan Bishop. It is to be completely excluded where even a small danger exists of the sacred species being profaned …."

Thus, while Communion under both species is praised there might be circumstances where prudence recommends forgoing it because of the practical difficulties entailed. Hence "Redemptionis Sacramentum" continues in No. 102:

"The chalice should not be ministered to lay members of Christ's faithful where there is such a large number of communicants that it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that 'more than a reasonable quantity of the Blood of Christ remain to be consumed at the end of the celebration.' The same is true wherever access to the chalice would be difficult to arrange, or where such a large amount of wine would be required that its certain provenance and quality could only be known with difficulty, or wherever there is not an adequate number of sacred ministers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion with proper formation, or where a notable part of the people continues to prefer not to approach the chalice for various reasons, so that the sign of unity would in some sense be negated."

From this text we can adduce that, in principle at least, Church norms recognize the possibility of using well-formed extraordinary ministers to assist in distributing Communion under both species. Therefore, rather than one norm trumping the other, it is a question of evaluating all the pertinent circumstances before deciding what to do. The mere fact of having to use extraordinary ministers does not appear to be a sufficient reason not to proceed with Communion under both species, provided that the ministers are duly qualified.

While Communion under both species is graced with indubitable spiritual advantages, it is not an absolute value and, as the norms suggest, it should be omitted if there is any danger of profanation or due to serious practical difficulties.

Nobody is deprived of any grace by not receiving from the chalice, as Christ is received whole and entire under either species.

* * *

Follow-up: Extraordinary Ministers and Both Species of Communion [1-6-2009]

In the wake of our comments on Communion under both species (see Dec. 16), a Drogheda, Ireland, reader asked for a clarification on the role of the instituted acolyte with respect to purification. After summarizing the relevant documents, he asked: "Am I right in thinking that if acolyte, deacon and priest are present, then the deacon should purify; if priest and deacon are present, then the deacon should purify; and if priest and acolyte are present, then the acolyte should purify?"

In a nutshell, yes! This is the proper procedure in the cases described.

Other readers had asked specific questions about the distribution of Communion under both species. A Calgary, Alberta, reader asked: "Is it appropriate to have Communion under both species at weekday Masses and Sunday Masses in Ordinary Time, or should this be reserved for feast days and other celebrations? If there is more than one Mass on a Sunday, can just one of the Masses be in both species or should all Masses be the same?"

There is no universal answer to this question. The decision as to when to offer Communion under both species now falls primarily on the local ordinary who, in some cases, may delegate the decision to the local pastor.

Distributing the Precious Blood in parishes on weekdays is rare, but the bishop could permit this practice if circumstances warrant it. It is quite common in seminaries and religious houses and during spiritual retreats.

Similarly there could be good practical reasons why a parish would offer the Precious Blood at only some Masses on a Sunday, for example, if one particular Mass was so packed that there was real danger of spillage or of overly extending the time of communion. In such cases the reasons should be explained to the faithful so that they may choose at what Mass to assist.

Finally, a Colorado reader asked: "If the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ are present in both the consecrated bread and wine, does not one receive Communion twice if one receives under both species? If not, why?"

The answer is no! The reason is a tad more complex. Receiving Communion should always be related to participation at Mass and the context of completing the holy sacrifice, and not be seen exclusively from the point of view of the doctrine of the real presence. This is one reason why the priest celebrant must, with rare exceptions, communicate under both kinds at every Mass.

Even if one occasionally may receive Communion outside of Mass, it is always related in some way to the sacrifice in which this host was consecrated.

In this light, for the faithful, receiving Communion at Mass is the high point and completion of each person's personal participation in the holy sacrifice. From the point of view of the sign this completion is fuller when Communion is received under both species but are, so to speak, two moments of a single act of communion.

Nor is there any difference, from the point of view of communion, in receiving the Precious Blood directly from the chalice or by intinction of the sacred hosts.

At the same time, while Communion under both species is a fuller sign of participation at Mass, the fact that Christ is fully present in both species means that reception under just one species is sufficient for holy Communion.

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