Table Manners: distributing & receiving Holy Communion

As many have suggested, the revised English translation of the Roman Missal is about more than a change in words. Pope Benedict himself confirmed this when he addressed the bishops of England and Wales at Oscott College during his state visit last year:

I encourage you now to seize the opportunity that the new translation offers for in-depth catechesis on the Eucharist and renewed devotion in the manner of its celebration.

His logic is clear: the more we understand about the changes in the translation of the Mass, and indeed the more we understand about the Eucharistic Sacrifice and its celebration, the more able we are to renew and further enrich our celebration of the Mass, the greatest mission of the Church on earth. Some of us, both priests and laity, have been working away to the best of our ability to promote this catechesis the Pope has encouraged. In the course of that catechesis it is no surprise then that questions arise as to the manner of our celebration of the Mass. Last Saturday I gave a day workshop on the Missal to a group of about 25 people who came for the day from several counties. Several of them asked what the changes might entail for the role of Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.

This question proved to be very timely. On 21 September, the Diocese of Phoenix (USA) announced that it intended to implement new norms for receiving and distributing Holy Communion “in keeping with new universal Church standards for the distribution of Communion”. The announcement makes reference to the experimental privileges granted in 1975 to the Church in the UK, USA and Oceania, allowing for distribution of Holy Communion under both forms, that is the Host and the Chalice. These privileges expired in 2005 and have not been renewed. The US bishops’ new norms of June 2011, in line with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal – 2002 (GIRM), restrict the reception of the chalice even though it has become a de facto norm in many parts of the Church in America.

So far, finding an online version of the new norms of June 2011 per se has proved impossible. The US bishops’ website has a page on the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds. In its section on when Holy Communion may be distributed under both kinds it states:

23. The revised Missale Romanum, third typical edition, significantly expands those opportunities when Holy Communion may be offered under both kinds. In addition to those instances specified by individual ritual books, the General Instruction states that Communion under both kinds may be permitted as follows:
(a) for priests who are not able to celebrate or concelebrate
(b) for the deacon and others who perform some role at Mass
(c) for community members at their conventual Mass or what in some places is known as the “community” Mass, for seminarians, [and] for all who are on retreat or are participating in a spiritual or pastoral gathering

24. The General Instruction then indicates that

“the diocesan Bishop may lay down norms for the distribution of Communion under both kinds for his own diocese, which must be observed. . . . The diocesan Bishop also has the faculty to allow Communion under both kinds, whenever it seems appropriate to the priest to whom charge of a given community has been entrusted as [its] own pastor, provided that the faithful have been well instructed and there is no danger of the profanation of the Sacrament or that the rite would be difficult to carry out on account of the number of participants or for some other reason.

In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary ministers might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice.”

So the US bishops are saying that, experimental privileges having now expired, they are implementing the norms contained in GIRM, and thus acting in concert with the rest of the universal Church. GIRM limits the reception of the chalice (GIRM #283) to the three instances listed above and to those listed in the “ritual books”. Since those instances are not listed it might be helpful to note them here. The ritual books state that both forms of Holy Communion may be offered at:

  1. the Chrism Mass and the Mass of Corpus Christi
  2. to a Catholic couple at their nuptial Mass
  3. to first communicants and their Catholic family members at the First Communion Mass
  4. to confirmation candidates and their sponsors at the Confirmation Mass
A parish priest may also, but does not have to, offer both species of Holy Communion on the parish’s patronal feast day and on the anniversary of the parish church’s dedication, and on other major solemnities as long as the conditions are met, namely that

1) The faithful have been well instructed (especially on the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist), and
2) There is no danger of the profanation of the Sacrament or that the rite would be difficult to carry out on account of the number of participants, or for some other reason.

Given that we are looking specifically at the United States, though the US bishops base themselves squarely on GIRM, two universally-relevant issues can be discerned, namely (1) the reverent reception of Holy Communion, and (2) the role of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.

Probably most churches are not logistically suited to distributing Holy Communion under both species to large numbers of people. Usually we find a bottleneck forming around the ministers of the chalice given that the Host is received more quickly than the chalice. Then there usually follows awkward shuffling as communicants try to find somewhere to stand so as not to block the return to their pews of those not wishing to receive the chalice. It is hard to be recollected and reverent in such a situation.

This is not even to begin to consider the actual way in which Extraordinary Ministers (EMHC) distribute Holy Communion and the way in which individuals receive it. Last Saturday we discussed such deplorable actions as the EMHC using the name of the communicant when distributing Holy Communion. This is expressly forbidden for two very good reasons. The first is that using names reduces the act of receiving Holy Communion to a special moment between two individual people, when it is in fact a special moment between the communicant and the Lord. The second is that, given that the EMHC will not know the name of every communicant in the vast majority of cases, the use of names for those who are known to the EMHC acts to exclude, at least psychologically, those who are not known, such as visitors. This is precisely what must be avoided at Holy Communion: any arbitrary distinction between the special and the ordinary, the local and the outsider, whether it is intended or not. All are equal before the Sacrament of Unity.

Which brings us to the role of the EMHC, the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. As commonplace as it has become to see several EMHCs at many a Sunday Mass, such a development is problematic. As noted by the US bishops above, an excessive use of EMHCs tends to blur the distinction between priest/deacon and the people. The priest and deacon (if there is one) are the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. That is, they are the normal and usual ministers of Holy Communion in the normal run of parish life. EMHCs are by their very title, extraordinary. They assist in the extraordinary situations envisaged by GIRM. The use of EHMCs every Sunday renders them effectively the ordinary ministers along with the ordained. It used to be that only those whose hands were consecrated for the purpose could touch the Sacred Host. Since the Church envisaged that the modern large parish would, on occasion, have need to distribute Holy Communion under both kinds on special days, an exception was made to allow properly trained and commissioned people to distribute Holy Communion along with the clergy. As so often happens, the exception has become the norm in many places.

This is not to disparage individual EMHCs. Most of them are edifying Catholics. They perform invaluable assistance outside the Mass by bringing Holy Communion to the sick and housebound. In a parish with only one priest (or for some parishes now, no priest) they do meet an extraordinary need which is of great consolation to so many faithful. This extra-liturgical function of the EMHC needs to be more acknowledged and promoted.

There are other issues of concern. One lady at the workshop last Saturday raised the case of a young female EMHC at her parish who was clothed (or unclothed!) in way unsuitable for Mass itself, let alone the distribution of Holy Communion. I suspect this young lady has no real idea of her role and how to perform it properly. It certainly weakens the sacred impact of receiving Holy Communion, providing at the very least a distraction, and for many I suspect a moment of temptation. Then there is also the issue of those places, most often in the USA, where EHMCs don little capes or tippets, or even albs, to advert to the role they are about to perform. While this may promote the EMHC’s preparation and sense of recollection, it has the unnecessary side effect of almost clericalising the laity. No special clothing is needed for the EMHC, only reverent secular clothing. There is, however, much to be said for some rite of washing the hands of EMHCs as a preparation for their duty.

Another live issue is whether the EMHC can give a blessing. Certainly at the abbey we have a number of those who cannot or wish not to receive Holy Communion, and when they come up they are blessed by the priest or deacon (there being sufficient we have no need for EHMCs). So when such a person comes to a lay EMHC, the temptation is strong for the extraordinary minister to offer a blessing as does the ordained minister. Such situations are so common that in the Diocese of Madison (USA) the issue of lay EMHCs giving blessings was addressed. Needless to say, it is forbidden. The offering of a sacramental blessing is reserved to the ordained minister. EMHCs are not quasi-clergy. That said, the EMHC is allowed to make a prayer for blessing, though the gestures used by ordained ministers are not to be used. As the Madison article makes clear, one does not need to come forward to receive Holy Communion or a blessing to be participating in the Mass.

Some points for Reflection

Given that the revised translation of the Roman Missal is not just a matter of the words we speak, but also the way we celebrate our Masses and our understanding of that celebration, we might give special consideration to the manner in which we receive and, indeed, distribute Holy Communion.

Pope Benedict gives CommunionThe Holy Father now distributes Holy Communion to communicants who are kneeling and receive on the tongue. As with his use of the altar crucifix (as liturgical east) he is intending, among other things, to set an example to all the Church. In receiving Christ’s Body and Blood, we are most definitely not receiving bread and wine. We receive Christ himself, our Lord and Creator. That truth should be reflected not only in our words but in our bodies, since we worship as full human persons, body and soul. One of the great marks of its authenticity is that the worship of the Catholic Church (as well as that of the Orthodox and Orientals) engages the whole human person: the intellect, the soul, the bodily senses. Christian life is centred on becoming a new creation in Christ, putting on Christ in our minds and in our bodies. The sacrifice of praise that every Christian is called to make is not one merely of mind and words, but also our bodies, which is, as St Paul says, our spiritual worship (cf Romans 12:1-2).

So our bodies should reflect the truth grasped by our minds, that Christ is present before us in the Sacrament. As our God, we adore him, we kneel before him. Dare we even handle such a Mystery unless we have to? I have heard some object to receiving on the tongue that it is infantile, reducing mature Christians to children. I am not sure that worshipping and reverencing God can be infantile, but even if it is, did not our Lord address his disciples as “little children” (eg John 13:33), and taught that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven we must become as little children (Matthew 18:3-4). Yet it is possible to receive on the hand reverently, though it is more difficult. Some, especially Anglican converts, make, as it were, a kind of cradle of their hands, and they press the Host laid therein to their mouths without fingering the Host. That offers due respect to the Host and is thoroughly edifying. So it would be no bad thing if all of us were to renew the way we receive our Lord in the Eucharist, and so renew our faith in that Mystery.

A convert from Lutheranism has made a proposal about the way we approach to receive Holy Communion. He finds the shop-queue approach unhelpful and indeed disruptive. Since a return to altar rails is not widely practical, he makes another suggestion as to how we might approach to receive, one that avoids the queue and the rush associated with it, and fosters recollection and reverence. It is worth the read. Very often converts to Catholicism have insights that would enrich all the Church.

As the American bishops have highlighted, especially the Bishop of Phoenix, the revised Missal has ramifications in other areas of our worship, and for those who perform liturgical roles. Music is one example; the role of the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is another. Now that the experimental privileges of frequent Communion under both kinds have expired, we are called not only to renew our understanding of the Sacrament (in particular that the whole Christ, Body and Blood, is contained in the Host), but to renew also our understanding of those ministries involved in it till now. Since the GIRM limits those occasions when Communion under both kinds can be offered to solemn and significant occasions, the liturgical role of EMHCs will now be much reduced. It will be sad if some protest this as in infringement of their rights, for there is no right to any ministry in the Church. All ministry is service, and thus a privilege, not a right. And with privilege comes responsibility. In the case of EHMCs, they are called to serve as and when the Church’s law and the parish priest’s need determine.

That said, a true and invaluable service EMHCs perform is to bring Holy Communion to the sick and the housebound. With so few priests, and so many Catholics, few priests could perform this service without sacrificing some other aspect of their ministry. EMHCs are almost indispensable here. Of course it is a less visible service, less noticed by the majority. But it is a service highly valued by those who are thereby enabled to receive the Lord’s Body, and so strengthened in their communion with both Christ and his Church. Here, one suspects, in this extra-liturgical role lies the future of the EMHC.

The new Missal is more than a renewal of words; it invites a renewal of the attitude with which we celebrate the sacred mysteries. With a renewed attitude we will find the changes in the Mass a source of blessing and consolation rather than confusion or consternation.

4 thoughts on “Table Manners: distributing & receiving Holy Communion

  1. I have been researching this subject for my own pastor, and found several instructions from the USCCB concerning the frequency of Communion Under both Kinds, but the only INDULT I have found is the one in 2002 that concerns purificatrion of vessels. Can anyone identify the indult in question, or is it “This Holy and Living Sacrifice”, a 1985 instruction, not an indult? This issue is confusing!


    1. Pax, Joyce! There were some developments on this front since I wrote. Two dioceses, Phoenix and Madison, that issued new norms on Communion under Both Kinds both later amended their original statements since the confusion you have elaborated was found to be real. There was no indult as such that expired in 2005. There was permission given to the US bishops on 13 October 1984 for Communion under Both Kinds on Sundays and Holy Days, without time limitation. The indult about purification was indeed the source of the confusion.

      The diocese and Bishop of Madison have reiterated certain points rather well. You can read what they say here and here. I hope that helps a little!


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