A Privilege of the Ordained

Published on the Web with Permission of the Author

11. Extraordinary Ministers
of Holy Communion


The introduction of Communion in the hand was invariably followed by the introduction of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Unlike the practice of Communion in the hand, which was accepted within the Church for some centuries, the use of extraordinary ministers during the Mass has no historical precedent. Not a shred of evidence can be brought forward to prove that Holy Communion has ever been distributed during the liturgy by anyone but a bishop, priest, or deacon. There is some evidence of such cases outside the liturgy in the early centuries (see page 5b). By the thirteenth century, it was already an established tradition that only what had been consecrated specifically for the purpose should ever come into contact with the Blessed Sacrament until It has been placed upon the tongue of the communicant. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225- 1274) wrote:

The dispensing of Christ's Body belongs to the priest for three reasons. First, because he consecrates in the person of Christ. But as Christ consecrated His Body at the Supper, so also He gave It to others to be partaken of by them.
 Accordingly, as the consecration of Christ's Body belongs to the priest, so likewise does the dispensing belong to him. Secondly, because the priest is the appointed intermediary between God and the people, hence as it belongs to him to offer the people's gifts to God, so it belongs to him to deliver the consecrated gifts to the people. Thirdly, because out of reverence towards this Sacrament, nothing touches It but what is consecrated, and likewise the priest's hands for touching this Sacrament. Hence, it is not lawful for anyone else to touch It, except from necessity, for instance, if It were to fall upon the ground, or else in some other case of urgency.

The document authorizing the introduction of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist is an Instruction of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, issued on 29 January 1973, and entitled Immensae caritatis. It authorizes the use of extraordinary ministers in "cases of genuine necessity." These are listed as whenever:

(a) there is no priest, deacon, or acolyte; (b) these are prevented from administering Holy Communion because of another pastoral ministry or because of ill health or advanced age;
(c) the number of the faithful requesting Holy Communion is such that the celebration of Mass or the distribution of the Eucharist outside Mass would be unduly prolonged.

The Instruction stipulates that:

Since these faculties are granted only for the spiritual good of the faithful and for cases of genuine necessity, priests are to remember that they are not thereby excused from the task of distributing the Eucharist to the faithful who legitimately request it, and especially from taking and giving it to the sick.

It is hard to envisage circumstances justifying the use of extraordinary ministers existing outside mission lands. It is possible to envisage circumstances arising there when it becomes physically impossible for a priest responsible for a vast area to give Holy Communion to all the sick and dying who request it. Clearly, the good of souls must take the first priority, and if the alternative were between someone dying without receiving the Sacrament, or receiving It from a layman, the latter alternative would be preferable, always presuming that it was physically impossible for a priest to get to him. Obviously, in such circumstances it would be desirable for the communicant to have access to the Sacrament of Penance, but, once again, where this is physically impossible an act of perfect contrition would suffice even for mortal sin. However, there is no comparison whatsoever between such truly extraordinary circumstances and the all too common practice in so many countries today of commissioning the laity by the hundreds in individual dioceses to undertake a task which, as Pope John Paul II has noted, should normally be "a privilege of the ordained one." It is not uncommon for priests to sit in their presidential chairs, conduct hymn singing, or even act as ushers to marshal the faithful into lines while élite members of the parish distribute Holy Communion for them, perhaps cutting down the time of Mass by five minutes or even less. The fact that a person is selected to be an extraordinary minister can certainly pander to the self-esteem of those who are eager to obtain offices which set them apart from (and above) their fellows. This phenomenon soon became apparent when the laity were permitted to read the Epistle or take part in Offertory Processions. Priests who have declined to introduce such practices are frequently the subject of complaints to bishops by laymen who are eager for the status which these offices will bestow upon them.
Catholics who have seen extraordinary ministers introduced into their own parishes will have noted that the correct term "extraordinary" is rarely used. This is the official term used in Immensae caritatis and the new Code of Canon Law. The terms "lay" or "special" ministers are preferred as this serves to camouflage the fact that the use of such ministers should constitute an extraordinary event, one which should rarely if ever be seen outside the mission lands. It is hard to imagine any pastor in, say, the U.S.A. who has so many pressing engagements that he has no time to take Holy Communion to the sick. If the burden of administrative work has become so great, surely, this is an area where he could get lay help. The present situation in which priests are engaged in activities which laymen could undertake, while laymen undertake their work of taking Holy Communion to the sick, is positively bizarre, a fitting epitomization of the ethos of the Western Church today. [Emphasis in bold added by the Web Master.] As for the celebration of Mass being unduly prolonged, where a parish has a large congregation there is usually a curate to help out. Even where no curate is available, and the distribution of Holy Communion would be prolonged, I cannot imagine it being unduly prolonged. The priest could urge the people to use the time to make a fitting preparation and thanksgiving for the privilege of receiving their Savior. Could any time spent in such thanksgiving be unduly prolonged? It would rarely extend beyond ten to fifteen minutes. When it is considered how much time the average Catholic will spend watching T.V. each day, can a thanksgiving of even fifteen minutes be considered as unduly prolonged?

The Vatican directive was, unfortunately, far too loosely worded. The phrase "unduly prolonged" could mean five or fifty minutes, depending upon who was interpreting it. Immensae caritatis thus opened the door to the proliferation of extraordinary ministers which has been described here. Linked with the introduction of Communion under both kinds at Sunday Masses, this outbreak of extraordinary ministers has reached epidemic proportions, an epidemic made possible, if not strictly authorized, by Immensae caritatis. Very few bishops today pay the least heed to the admonition of Pope John Paul II in his letter Dominicae cenae, 24 February 1980, that; "To touch the sacred species and to distribute them with their own hands is a privilege of the ordained." On the contrary, some bishops, or the liturgical bureaucrats who manipulate them, show such enthusiasm for Communion under both kinds principally for the excuse it gives them to increase the epidemic of extraordinary ministers to plague proportions. In 1987, in a letter the text of which concludes this appendix, the Holy See did attempt to restrict the spread of this plague, but with little effect.

No objective observer could deny that there has been a widespread decline in reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament since the Second Vatican Council. In Dominicae cenae Pope John Paul II deplored the fact that:

Cases of a deplorable lack of respect towards the Eucharistic species have been reported, cases which are imputable not only to the individuals guilty of such behavior, but also to the pastors of the Church who have not been vigilant enough regarding the attitude of the faithful towards the Eucharist.

The Holy Father concluded this letter with his famous apology to the faithful for the scandal and disturbance to which they had been subjected concerning the veneration due to the Blessed Sacrament: "And I pray the Lord Jesus that in the future we may avoid in our manner of dealing with this sacred mystery anything which could weaken or disorient in any way the sense of reverence and love that exists in our faithful people."

The sense of reverence and love of the faithful people for the Blessed Sacrament must inevitably be weakened in any diocese where the bishop, either from conviction or from weakness, has permitted the use of extraordinary ministers where extraordinary circumstances do not exist, and it is certain that such circumstances do not exist in ninety-nine per cent of the parishes where such ministers are employed. What should be extraordinary has become the norm, and what should be the norm has become extraordinary. Such is the state of Catholicism in the Roman Rite today. [Ibid.]

We are witnessing not simply a diminution in respect for the Blessed Sacrament, where such respect exists at all, but a diminution in respect for, and awareness of, the sacred character of the priesthood, where such respect and such awareness exist at all. Very few young Catholics today think of their priest primarily as another Christ, an alter Christus, a man who differs not simply in degree but in essence from the rest of the faithful, a man whose primary function is to enter the sanctuary and perform sacred rites which he alone can undertake. In Dominicae cenae, Pope John Paul II reminded Catholics that:

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. Through this fact, that is, as ministers of the Holy Eucharist, they have a primary responsibility for the sacred species, because it is a total responsibility. They offer the bread and wine, they consecrate it, and then distribute the sacred species to the participants in the assembly who wish to receive them. ... 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!


In September 1987 the Holy See sent letters to the presidents of a number of Episcopal Conferences on the subject of extraordinary ministers, urging them to curb the abuse of making what should be extraordinary the norm. The full text of the copy sent to Archbishop May, President of the NCCB, is included here.

It hardly needs stating the document was totally ineffective, but it does at least provide evidence that the Holy See is aware of the extent of the abuses concerning extraordinary ministers ("numerous indications of such abuses" had been received), even if it could do nothing to curb them.

A copy of the full text of the Apostolic Pro-Nuncio's letter to Cardinal May follows:

21 September, 1987
Most Reverend John L. May President, NCCB
1312 Massachusetts Avenue,
N. W. Washington, D.C. 20005

Dear Archbishop May:

The Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation of Sacraments, in a circular letter to all Papal Representatives, has issued the following clarification with regard to extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist.

To be sure, the faculty granted to the laity enabling them to distribute Holy Communion as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist (Canons 230, 3; 910, 2) represents without a doubt one of the more suitable forms of lay participation in the Church's liturgical action. On the one hand, this privilege has provided a real help to both the celebrant and to the congregation on occasions when there exists a large number of people receiving Holy Communion. On the other hand, however, in certain instances, significant abuses of this privilege have taken place. Such abuses have led to situations where the extraordinary character of this ministry has been lost. At times, it also appears as though the designation of extraordinary ministers becomes a kind of reward to repay those who have worked for the Church.

Cardinal Mayer notes that the abuses he speaks of happen if:
---the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist ordinarily distribute Holy Communion together with the celebrant, both when the number of communicants would not require their assistance, and when there are other concelebrants present or other ordinary ministers available, though not celebrating;
---the extraordinary ministers distribute Holy Communion to themselves and to the faithful while the celebrant and concelebrants, if there are any, remain inactive.

After receiving numerous indications of such abuses, the Congregation decided to seek an authentic interpretation of the appropriate Canons from the Pontifical Commission for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law. The following doubt was formulated:

"Utrum minister extraordinarius Sacrae Communionis, ad norman cann. 910, par. 2 et 23°, par. 3 deputatus suum munus suppletorium exercere possit etiam cum praesentes sint in ecclesia, etsi ad celebrationem eucharisticam non participantes, ministri ordinarii qui non sint quoque modo impediti." [1]

The Pontifical Commission took up the question in its Plenary Session of February 20, 1987 and responded: NEGATIVE.

This authentic interpretation was approved by the Holy Father on June 15, 1987 who then directed the Congregation for Sacraments to communicate the decision to the Episcopal Conferences.

The reply of the Pontifical Commission clearly indicates that when ordinary ministers (Bishop, Priest, Deacon) are present at the Eucharist, whether they are celebrating or not, and are in sufficient number and are not prevented from doing so by other ministries, the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are not allowed to distribute Communion either to themselves or to the faithful.

Finally, Cardinal Mayer asks that you please convey these directives to the members of the Episcopal Conference.
With sentiments of esteem and every good wish, I am
Sincerely yours in Christ, Pio Laghi
Apostolic Pro-Nuncio

1. "Whether an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, appointed under canons 910, para 2 and 230, par 3, can carry out his auxiliary duty even when there are also present in the church, even if not participating in the celebration of the Eucharist, ordinary ministers who are not in some way prevented (from distributing Holy Communion).