When the Priest Should Receive Communion

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When the Priest Should Receive Communion

ROME, 3 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)

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

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 242-243:

"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, No. 13)."

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 Redemptionis Sacramentum, 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 himself."

It is hard to be clearer than that.

* * *

Follow-up: When the Priest Should Receive Communion [12-15-2009]
A question on file is related to our Dec. 3 response regarding a priest's receiving Communion after the faithful. Our correspondent wrote:
"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 faithful."
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 sacrament.
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 faithful.
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.

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