Extraordinary ministers go way back

Friday, October 14, 2016 - Updated: 7:00 am

QUESTION: My question is about all these laypeople distributing holy Communion. It is such a common practice in most places today and yet no one has addressed the central issue of the whole thing — why are they allowed to perform this function when only the hands of the priest are anointed? I never receive holy Communion from anyone but a priest.

ANSWER: While you are correct that extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are almost commonplace in this country, I do not agree that the central issue here is the anointed hands of the priest.

In fact, the anointing of the priest’s hands has nothing to do with his ability to distribute the Eucharist. This is seen clearly in the prayer that accompanies the anointing which speaks of "offering sacrifice to God" (and not distributing the Eucharist). Evidence for a lack of connection is also given in the fact that the deacon is considered an "ordinary" minister of the Eucharist and yet there is no anointing of his hands in the ordination ceremony.

Additional information related to this question comes from historical sources where evidence is found that the Eucharist was distributed by those not ordained as priests or deacons. Not only is this found in times of persecution where the Eucharist was taken to those imprisoned, but in some local churches a custom existed (at least before the fourth century) where the laity took the Eucharist home with them following the Sunday celebration so they could receive it throughout the week when a daily Eucharist was not celebrated.

The central issue is our traditional Catholic desire to receive the Eucharist. This desire is based upon our understanding of the words of Jesus found in John’s Gospel: "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (John 6:53).

That desire certainly includes those confined to their homes because of illness or other issues. It also includes those who desire to receive the Eucharist under both forms of bread and wine. Having said that, logic focuses our discussion on the fact that priests and deacons need assistance to make that a reality.

Is there historical precedence for such assistance? There is. While it has traditionally been held that priestly ordination is required for one to consecrate the bread and wine at the Eucharist, ordination was not required to distribute it. Church documents as well as canon law clearly support this policy.

Obviously, great care must be exercised in the selection, preparation and functioning of these special ministers of the Eucharist. Especially because of the public nature of their role, they must be chosen on the basis of their understanding and dedication to the church and her sacramental life. Their role and function is a ministry of service and not a right.

The use of special ministers of the Eucharist has become such an important means to extend that great gift to the entire community and to enhance the celebration of the community’s worship. With the correct focus, the question of Eucharistic ministers is not "Why would we permit such a thing?" but "Why would we not?"

Father Bober is pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Adams and Cranberry townships.

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