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Father Nicholas Nelson: Who should distribute Holy Communion?

This month we will celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ. It is important that we truly appreciate the sacredness of such a gift. It is truly Jesus’ living presence, present before us! We use sacred vessels for Mass because of the sacredness of the Blessed Sacrament. And we even have sacred ministers whose role is to handle the sacred species. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

In Dominicae coenae (1980), Pope St. John Paul II wrote this beautiful reflection: “One must not forget the primary office of priests, who have been consecrated by their ordination to represent Christ the Priest. For this reason their hands, like their words and their will, have become the direct instruments of Christ …. How eloquent therefore, even if not of ancient custom, is the rite of the anointing of the hands in our Latin ordination, as though precisely for these hands a special grace and power of the Holy Spirit is necessary! To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained, one which indicates an active participation in the ministry of the Eucharist.” 

St. Thomas Aquinas puts it more directly: “Because out of reverence towards this sacrament, nothing touches it but what is consecrated, hence the corporal and the chalice are consecrated, and likewise the priest’s hands, for touching this sacrament” (Summa Theologica, III, Q. 82, Art. 13). 

We also know that oftentimes there are others besides sacred ministers who distribute Holy Communion. This is allowed by the church. But what does the church say about such ministers? 

In the church’s language there are “ordinary” ministers and there are “extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion. Ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are bishops, priests, and deacons. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) are men and women deputized to distribute Holy Communion in “extraordinary” circumstances. We may hear of “eucharistic ministers,” but that terminology isn’t present anywhere in the church’s documents. 

Redemptionis Sacramentum (2004), a church document on “certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist,” says this: “Only out of true necessity is there to be recourse to the assistance of extraordinary ministers in the celebration of the liturgy. Such recourse is not intended for the sake of a fuller participation of the laity but rather, by its very nature, is supplementary and provisional. Furthermore, when recourse is had out of necessity to the functions of extraordinary ministers, special urgent prayers of intercession should be multiplied that the Lord may soon send a priest for the service of the community and raise up an abundance of vocations to sacred orders” (151). 

And: “Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when 1) the priest and deacon are lacking, 2) when the priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when 3) the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason for EMHCs” (158). 

Some questions we must consider: Does only having the priest distribute Holy Communion “unduly prolong” the distribution, or is it just a “brief prolongation”? Have we acquired too much of a consumerist disposition that affects even the way we approach the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass such that we see a brief prolongation as an inconvenience? 

The church foresees that excessive use of EMHCs may obscure the distinction and sacred role of priests and deacons. And when it comes weighing the benefit of the laity receiving from the chalice and use of EMHCs, the church seems to say it would be better to not distribute from the chalice or to use intinction. Intinction is when the priest dips a host into the Precious Blood and then places it on the tongue of the communicant. In the document “Norms for the distribution and reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds,” issued by the bishops of the United States, it says “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. This might in some circumstances constitute a reason for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice” (par 24). It’s important that we always remember that Jesus is fully present even in the smallest visible particle. When a person receives the host, they receive all of Jesus. A person isn’t being shortchanged if they only receive the host. 

In summary, I am grateful to those men and women who serve and have served the church as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. However, I think the church as a whole in the past decades has used extraordinary ministers excessively, and in a way the church doesn’t envision. “Extraordinary” ministers of Holy Communion have become rather “ordinary.” Rather than being only used in extraordinary circumstances, they are quite common. If the distribution of Holy Communion takes a few extra minutes, that is okay. There is no better time to pray than immediately before we receive Jesus or immediately after we receive him! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].