Roma locuta est, causa finita est: the end of a Concourse debate

by Jeff Ziegler

It is a tribute to the timeliness of the University Concourse that one of the disputes carried on in its pages has been resolved by a new document of the Apostolic See. Last year, a cordial discussion arose concerning the proper role of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. If I recall correctly, no one questioned the liceity of the use of extraordinary ministers in situations in which there are markedly greater numbers of the faithful than is habitual at a given parish Mass (e.g., a Confirmation or First Communion Mass). But is it licit or desirable, writers in these pages asked, for extraordinary ministers to distribute Holy Communion habitually at Sunday (or even daily) Mass?

Writers of manifest good will answered this question differently. One side believed that the word “extraordinary” implies that the use of extraordinary ministers should not be habitual. The other side turned to the Instruction Immensae Caritatis (On Facilitating Reception of Communion in Certain Circumstances), issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments on January 29, 1973, which authorized the use of extraordinary ministers “whenever the number of faithful wishing to receive Communion is so great that the celebration of Mass or the giving of Communion outside Mass would take too long” (I,c). Opponents replied that the phrases “so great” and “too long” were often being interpreted too broadly. Proponents added that the advantages of distributing Holy Communion under both species are so great as to merit the use of extraordinary ministers at every Mass.

I was unconvinced by the proponents’ last point. Ordained ministers can distribute Holy Communion under both species by intinction, as is done at weekday Masses at Saint Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington; and besides, the Instruction Sacramentali Communione (On the Extension of the Faculty to Distribute Holy Communion under Both Kinds), which was issued by the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship on June 29, 1970, authorized the reception of Holy Communion under both species at weekday Masses over two years before extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist were contemplated. Still, I sided with the proponents of the habitual use of extraordinary ministers because I believed that local pastors of souls, as the ones closest to the situation, are best suited to make prudential judgments about how to interpret the phrases “so great” and “too long.”

I was wrong.

On August 15, 1997, the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests (hereinafter Instruction) was issued jointly by the Congregation for the Clergy, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts. Two days earlier, it had been approved in forma specifica by the Supreme Pontiff. It was published in English in the November 19, 1997 edition of L’Osservatore Romano; it is also printed (with at least one typographical error) in the November 27, 1997 issue of Origins and is available (with several errors) on the web at

According to the Instruction, which draws upon Sacred Scripture (especially 1 Corinthians 12) and the rich doctrinal patrimony of the Second Vatican Council, “The scope of this present document is simply to provide a clear, authoritative response to the many pressing requests which have come to our Dicasteries from Bishops, priests and laity seeking clarification in the light of specific cases of new forms of ‘pastoral activity’ of the non-ordained on both parochial and diocesan levels” (Foreword). “The object of this document is to outline specific directives to ensure the effective collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in such [extraordinary] circumstances while safeguarding the integrity of the pastoral ministry of priests… The correct application of these same directives, in the context of a living hierarchical communion, is advantageous to the lay faithful who are called to develop the rich potentiality of their specific identity and the ever greater willingness to live it so as to fulfill one’s proper mission” (Conclusion; emphasis in original).

That is the crux of the document: clergy and laity have distinct vocations and missions. Each vocation has its own particular beauty. By virtue of apostolic succession, the clergy are called to teach, govern, and sanctify the People of God; by virtue of baptism, the laity are called to imbue the secular order with the spirit of the Gospel. At times, because of a grave shortage of clergy, it might be necessary for the laity to assume roles normally reserved to the clergy; but such situations, according to the document, should be extraordinary and temporary. To act otherwise is to demean the inherently glorious vocation of the laity; it is as if the rose were to say to the daisy, “You are beautiful only insofar as you look like me,” or as if the head were to say to the hand, “You are not an active member of the body, unless you perform the same tasks that I do.”

The Instruction deals with many issues, from the proper meaning of the word “ministry,” to the apostolate to the sick (Practical Provisions, Article 9: “Since they are not priests, in no instance may the non-ordained perform anointings either with the Oil of the Sick or any other oil”), to collaborative structures like diocesan pastoral councils. The document warns, “Though being born in very difficult and emergency situations and even initiated by those who sought to be genuinely helpful in the pastoral moment, certain practices have often been developed which have had very serious negative consequences and have caused the correct understanding of true ecclesial communion to be damaged. These practices tend to predominate in certain areas of the world and even within these, a great deal of variation can be found” (Foreword).

Among these practices are several improper uses of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion; one of these improper uses is “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass.” I reproduce Article 8 (The Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion) in toto, lest anyone accuse me of quoting out of context. Italics are in the original document; I have put the germane passages in boldface type.

The non-ordained faithful already collaborate with the sacred ministers in diverse pastoral situations since ‘This wonderful gift of the Eucharist, which is the greatest gift of all, demands that such an important mystery should be increasingly better known and its saving power more fully shared.’

Such liturgical service is a response to the objective needs of the faithful especially those of the sick and to those liturgical assemblies in which there are particularly large numbers of the faithful who wish to receive Holy Communion.

* 1. The canonical discipline concerning extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion must be correctly applied so as to avoid generating confusion. The same discipline establishes that the ordinary minister of Holy Communion is the Bishop, the priest and the deacon. Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are those instituted as acolytes and the faithful so deputed in accordance with Canon 230, § 3.

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. In exceptional cases or in unforeseen circumstances, the priest presiding at the liturgy may authorize such ad actum.

* 2. Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at Eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present or when those ordained ministers present at a liturgical celebration are truly unable to distribute Holy Communion. They may also exercise this function at Eucharistic celebrations where there are particularly large numbers of the faithful and which would be excessively prolonged because of an insufficient number of ordained ministers to distribute Holy Communion.

This function is supplementary and extraordinary and must be exercised in accordance with the norm of law. It is thus useful for the diocesan Bishop to issue particular norms concerning extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion which, in complete harmony with the universal law of the Church, should regulate the exercise of this function in his diocese. Such norms should provide, amongst other things, for matters such as the instruction in Eucharistic doctrine of those chosen to be extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the meaning of the service they provide, the rubrics to be observed, the reverence to be shown for such an august Sacrament and instruction concerning the discipline on admission to Holy Communion.

To avoid creating confusion, certain practices are to be avoided and eliminated where such have emerged in particular Churches:

- extraordinary ministers receiving Holy Communion apart from the other faithful as though concelebrants.

- association with the renewal of promises made by priests at the Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, as well as other categories of faithful who renew religious vows or receive a mandate as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion;

- the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass, thus arbitrarily extending the concept of “a great number of the faithful.”

The Instruction could not possibly be more clear: “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass” is “to be avoided and eliminated” because to use extraordinary ministers habitually (i.e., every week or every day) is to extend arbitrarily the concept of “a great number of the faithful.” The plain meaning of Article 8, then, is that “particularly large numbers of the faithful” are markedly greater numbers than are habitual, and that “excessively prolonged” is a length of time markedly longer than is habitual.

To emphasize its authority, the document closes with these words: “All particular laws, customs and faculties conceded by the Holy See ad experimentum or other ecclesiastical authorities which are contrary to the foregoing norms are hereby revoked” (Conclusion).

At this point, I paraphrase a comment made by the Archbishop of Vienna in a lecture here last year: ecclesiastical documents are windows to the truth, not bricks with which to clobber others. Opponents of the practice should expect that a reasonably short period of time will elapse before this document becomes known, studied, accepted, and implemented by the pastors of the Church in the United States. I, for my part, do not presume to tell the competent ecclesiastical authority of any diocese, parish, quasi-parish, or chapel how to implement the provisions of this document. Both proponents and opponents would do well to imitate the sincere love for Christ that has led many laity to become extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

According to the Instruction, the laity can express this ardent love by participating in the new evangelization. In participating in this day-to-day apostolate, rather than in unnecessarily assuming roles proper to clerics, the laity find their own distinct glory. “This enterprise opens vast horizons, some of which have yet to be explored, for the lay faithful. The faithful can be active in this particular moment of history in areas of culture, in the arts and theatre, scientific research, labour, means of communication, politics, and the economy, etc. They are also called to a greater creativity in seeking out ever more effective means whereby these environments can find the fullness of their meaning in Christ” (Foreword). “In these areas [evangelization and sanctification], the lay faithful of both sexes have innumerable opportunities to be actively involved. This is possible through bearing consistent witness in their personal, family and social lives by proclaiming and sharing the Gospel of Christ in every situation in which they find themselves, and by their involvement with the task of explaining, defending and correctly applying Christian principles to the problems of today’s world” (Ibid.).

Is it licit for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, duly deputed by the Ordinary, to distribute Holy Communion habitually at Sunday (or even daily) Mass? No. Rome has spoken; the case is closed.

Jeff Ziegler, a graduate of Princeton University, works in the University’s Development Office.