Lay ministers of the Eucharist are supposed to be ‘extraordinary’

by Noelle Hiester

The scenario is the same in almost every parish: it is communion time and the extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, commonly called eucharistic ministers,1 are on hand to assist the priest in the distribution of Communion. Because the scene is so common, sensitivity to it has been blunted. I do not mean to imply that lay men and women may never distribute Holy Communion. However, I wish to caution against a too facile acceptance of and a too common use of a practice Church writings indicate should be strictly limited, lest we fail in obedience as well as in right reverence for the holy sacrament.

At Franciscan University, where hundreds of people receive Communion daily, dozens of lay men and women are commissioned as Extraordinary Ministers, and they are active at virtually every Mass. Clearly on our campus the constant use of extraordinary ministers has not had the disastrous effect of reduced respect for the Eucharist found in many places where it is a frequent practice, but it nevertheless does cause scandal, because of its apparent conflict with the teachings of the Church. And those who are not scandalized (because they do not know the Church directives in this area) are misled into thinking that there is nothing abnormal in lay people regularly distributing Holy Communion. This is not right.

Priests are the ordinary ministers of Communion. Pope John Paul II urges priests not to allow lay people to do their work for them. Ineastimabile Donum, prepared by the Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship and approved by the Holy Father, states that it is a “reprehensible attitude”2 where priests leave their primary tasks to the laity. That he considers distribution of Holy Communion among these primary duties of priests is clear from a letter to he wrote to Bishops:

“But 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.”3

Lay eucharistic ministers have become such a familiar sight in our churches that we have ceased to be aware of their proper place. Again, Inaestimabile Donum states: “The faithful, whether religious or lay, who are authorized as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist can distribute Communion only when there is no priest, deacon or acolyte, when the priest is impeded by illness or advanced age, or when the number of the faithful going to Communion is so large as to make the celebration of the Mass excessively long.”4

It is this last condition, allowing for the length of the Mass, which is usually invoked as justification for the use of “eucharistic ministers.” And here is where the debate lies. How long is too long? Our modern American society puts a high priority on speed and convenience. Fast food chains, MAC machines and parcel delivery services all instance the increasing demand for faster service, so that we do not have to wait a second longer than necessary. Yet, how many people will gladly go to a Mass to hear Fr. Michael speak, though the homily may last close to an hour? Who would think of getting out of line at the cafeteria? The line may be long, but we put up with it because we want to eat. The point is that there are some things which we value enough to sacrifice our time. And, in most cases, waiting in line for Communion does not require much time—only a minute or two.

Frequently, especially on weekdays, the time saved by the presence of an extraordinary minister can be measured in seconds. If Communion lasts eight minutes rather than five minutes will it make all that much difference? Can we really call that excessive in length? Of course the definition of “excessive” will vary in particular cases, which is why the Church does not herself specify a length of time. However, we must be careful not to allow our cultural tendency to value what is expedient above what is right to govern our interpretation of the Church’s instructions.

The presence of extraordinary ministers under conditions that do not meet those set forth by the Church is clearly a form of disobedience to the Church. If we disobey the Church, how can we hope to give due respect to the Most Holy Sacrament of the Eucharist, which is at her heart? Whether it comes from ignorance or deliberate disregard, disobedience to the Church is disobedience to Christ, and therefore a weakening of the relationship with Christ.

Reception of the Eucharist is, among other things, a symbol of our unity with the Church. Protestants and members of other sects are not allowed to receive the body and blood of our Lord in Communion precisely because they do not accept all the teachings of the Church. While the everyday use of extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist is not to be compared to the great dissension of heretics past and present, it does represent that little disobedience which opens the way for greater things. It allows a slight separation which in time can become a great chasm.

Noelle Hiester is an alumna of the class of ‘95, and a student in the University’s MBA program.

  1. The term “eucharistic minister” is misleading. Priests are the ordinary ministers of the Eucharist and therefore are Eucharistic ministers, in a fuller sense than any lay person can be. The term also gives no indication of the true nature of the ministry performed, in addition to never being used in any of the Church documents on the subject. Indeed, the term Eucharistic Minister is used in the Catechism to refer to priests. ↑
  2. Inaestimabile Donum, Instruction Concerning worship of the Eucharistic Mystery, 1980, 8 ↑
  3. ‘On the Mystery and Worship of the Eucharist,’ John Paul II, 1980, 28 ↑
  4. Inaestimabile Donum, 8 ↑