What is the proper use of the laity as Eucharistic ministers?

In answering this question, we will restrict our answer to the role of Eucharistic Ministers.  Here we must keep in mind two premises:  First, the most precious gift our Lord entrusted to His Church is the Most Holy Eucharist, the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  The Blessed Sacrament, as Vatican II stated, is the center and summit of our worship as Catholics.  Second, the pastor of the parish is to insure that the Most Holy Eucharist is truly the center of parish life and that the faithful are nourished through a devout celebration of all the sacraments, especially through frequent reception of the sacraments of the Most Holy Eucharist and Penance (Canon 528, #2).

Given this foundation, the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (now called the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship since 1975) issued on January 25, 1973 the Instruction on Facilitating Sacramental Eucharistic Communion in Particular Circumstances.  The instruction addressed the appointment of “Extraordinary Ministers” of the Eucharist.  (Note that the “Ordinary Ministers” of Holy Communion would be the Bishop, Priest, and Deacon (Code of Canon Law, #910.1).)  Extraordinary Ministers may be used to assist the Ordinary Ministers in the following circumstances:  (1) at Mass when the size of the congregation would “unduly” prolong the reception of Holy Communion (especially since the relaxation of the old “fasting laws”); (2) when the Ordinary Ministers would be prevented from distributing Holy Communion by ill health, advanced age, or other pastoral obligations; (3) when the number of sick or homebound in various places (hospitals, nursing homes, or private homes) requires assistance to provide for regular reception of Holy Communion.  Therefore, the Vatican allowed Bishops to appoint a “suitable person” for a specific occasion or a period of time to assist the Ordinary Ministers to distribute Holy Communion.

The appointment of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and the privilege of distributing Holy Communion is granted for the good of the faithful and for cases of genuine necessity.  These individuals should be properly instructed and should live an exemplary Christian life.  They must show great devotion to the Holy Eucharist and be an example of piety and reverence.  Except in rare occasions and for a particular circumstance, a lay person must first be appointed by the Bishop of the Diocese to act in this capacity.  The Instruction also cautions, “Let no one be chosen whose selection may cause scandal among the faithful.”  In a sense, Extraordinary Eucharistic Ministers ought to have an extraordinary love for the Holy Eucharist and for the Church, the Body of Christ.

Each diocese sets its own regulations for the appointment of Extraordinary Ministers.  Usually, a person must be mature and at least 21 years of age.  The candidate must attend a workshop offered by the Office of Sacred Liturgy or be trained locally in the parish.  Upon recommendation of the Pastor, the Bishop appoints Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist to a term, which may be renewed.  The appointment, however, extends only to service within a particular parish.

A recent instruction entitled Some Questions Regarding Collaboration of Nonordained Faithful in Priests’ Sacred Ministry issued on November 13, 1997 by eight Vatican offices warns against abusing this privilege so as to dilute the role of the ministerial, sacrificial priest.  The instruction addressed the role of the faithful in the ministry of the Word, including preaching; in liturgical celebrations, including the distribution of Holy Communion and the conducting of a Communion Service when a priest is absent; and in caring for the sick.  Frankly, the motivation for releasing this instruction was to counteract certain abuses that had arisen in these areas.  Moreover, the Church wanted to present again the distinction between the roles of the ministerial, sacrificial priesthood of the ordained clergy and the roles of the common priesthood shared by all of the baptized faithful.  We must keep in mind that extraordinary ministers are truly “extra ordinary” not “ordinary.”  Extraordinary ministers may only distribute Holy Communion in accord with the guidelines as noted here.  Moreover, certain practices are to be curtailed:  Extraordinary ministers cannot give Holy Communion to themselves or apart from the faithful as though they were concelebrants at a Mass, and they cannot be used when there are sufficient ordained Ordinary Ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion.

In my own priestly ministry, I have seen the value of having laity as Extraordinary Ministers, especially in visiting the sick, the homebound, and those in institutions.  Because of their assistance, the faithful can receive Holy Communion with greater regularity.  However, the service of Extraordinary Ministers does not excuse the priest from visiting these people, especially to provide the Sacrament of Penance and Anointing of the Sick.  Moreover, I have been edified by the devotion and love of several Extraordinary Ministers for the Most Blessed Sacrament.  I have known several Eucharistic Ministers who at first refused when asked to perform this service because they felt “unworthy”– a sign of humility.  And, I have seen many faithfully venture out in all kinds of inclement weather to visit those parishioners in their care.

On the other hand, I have seen abuses.  Several years ago, I officiated at the wedding of my cousin, the groom.  A priest, who was from a northern diocese and was also a friend of the bride’s family, concelebrated.  The priest thought it would be “meaningful” if the bride and groom gave each other Holy Communion.  I refused.  He said, “All the popular liturgical magazines suggest this.”  I said, “Too bad the Church doesn’t.”  He wanted to abuse the privilege, and reduce a sacred privilege to something trite.

I was once assigned to a smaller parish that had three active priests and a deacon.  There was no need for other assistance in distributing Holy Communion at Mass.  Eucharistic Ministers did visit the local hospital and nursing home.  After Mass, a lady from Massachusetts asked, “Why were there no lay people helping with Communion?”  After I answered, she said, “Vatican II gave us that right,” and walked away.  Vatican II did not give anyone that right.  As an ordained priest, I have no right to distribute Holy Communion, but a privilege extended by the Bishop.

Therefore, while the laity may act as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist and indeed provide valuable service to a parish, we must follow the norms of the Church.  The norms as stated are to insure that due reverence and protection are given to the Most Blessed Sacrament.