Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
ROME, 31 October 2017 (ZENIT)
Q: I serve in a large parish in pastoral care for the sick, to journey with the elderly, sick and terminally ill. In this ministry, we perform a pastoral function including sharing of the word, praying, listening and being present with the sick, and we administer Communion. We were recently informed that for us to continue to administer Communion during our visits, we must serve at distributing Communion during Mass. I understand that, ideally, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should perform the pastoral function during their visits, but taking on both roles can be very taxing and there are few who feel able to sustain this. I refer to the article “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest,” where it is stated that “A non-ordained member of the faithful, in cases of true necessity, may be deputed by the diocesan bishop, using the appropriate form of blessing for these situations, to act as an extraordinary minister to distribute Holy Communion outside of liturgical celebrations ad actum vel ad tempus or for a more stable period.” Is it correct to understand from this note, that the lay faithful may be deputed to act in the capacity of an extraordinary minister to administer Holy Communion outside of Mass, that is, specifically deputed for distributing Communion outside of Mass only, and not during Mass? — E.T., Singapore
A: Effectively, this number and other norms would allow for an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to be appointed above all for attention to the sick and some other situations. The expression “outside of liturgical celebrations” is not the best expression, as distribution of Communion is usually within the context of a liturgical celebration albeit not always of a Eucharistic celebration.
Indeed, it is possible to envision some pastoral situations where this is their only function. For example, there could be a parish where the number of people attending Mass makes their use unnecessary, whereas a large number of house-bound and elderly make it very difficult for the priest to reach all.
I do not know the reason why the parish has established this norm, and I am unaware of any rule that would require it. I am sure that the priest has some good pastoral reason, perhaps to show that the extraordinary ministers are fully part of the parish community.
I would not see it as excessively burdensome if the extraordinary ministers are only required to serve at the Sunday Mass that they attend anyway.
I think that with good will on all sides this situation could be resolved so that the generous offering that the extraordinary ministers make of their time can be fully appreciated.
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Follow-up: Parameters for Extraordinary Ministers [14 November 2017]
With regard to our October 31 piece on extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, a reader from Idaho commended: “It is my understanding that EMHC can function only when two conditions are met simultaneously: 1) a shortage of available priests and deacons, and 2) an unusually large number of communicants. I understand condition No. 1 to mean that ALL priests/deacons in a parish are to assist with Communion even when they are not concelebrating/assisting at Mass. Only then can the non-ordained administer the Eucharist. That would also apply to bringing Communion to the sick/homebound. Is my understanding correct?”
The law, in this case, is the following from the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:
“[157.] If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.
“[158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when 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.”
I would respond that while these are the conditions in general terms, it is up to the pastor to make the judgment calls.
I would also be loath to second-guess the reasons why a priest who is present in the parish might not assist at giving Communion. The law does not strictly oblige him to distribute Communion if not a celebrant, and he may have very valid reasons for not doing so.
Even at the Vatican, seminarians are sometimes called upon to act as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion even though there are hundreds of priest concelebrants. The logistics make it simply impossible for the priests to consume both species and distribute Communion in a reasonable time.
Also, the law refers both to the number of communicants and the time required to distribute Communion. It is not just a case of an unusual influx of worshippers. A priest might require help even at regular Mass if the time required to distribute Communion would unduly extend the Mass. Again, what constitutes an undue delay is a pastoral call. A parish with only one morning Mass could easily handle an extra five minutes. A parish with multiple Masses and with a need to calculate the use of its parking space might need to set precise time limits to the duration of Mass.
Therefore, while not encouraging an unnecessary use of extraordinary ministers, I think we can presume in the good faith and common sense of most priests to make proper decisions.