I have a question about Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion coming up on the altar before receiving Communion. “Legal” or not?
Not legal to come forward before the priest has received Holy Communion. Here’s what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) no. 162 points out:
“These ministers should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.”
And this precision of the GIRM simply develops what was stated by the Holy See in 1997: “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.”
But perhaps the more interesting question is why is this the case? The use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion is intended to be just that: extraordinary. However, this practice has become so common in our country, that everyone considers it ordinary, which may in fact lead to a diminishing of our high regard for the Holy Eucharist, not because the priest is holier, but because he has been consecrated for this task, literally set aside for this task. For that reason, he dresses in an entirely different and ceremonial way for the celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
It seems to me that the most compelling reason to use extraordinary ministers is for the sake of efficiency and reducing the time spent in the distribution of Holy Communion so that the Mass “doesn’t drag on for more than an hour.” Personally, I think it is fine for the Mass to “drag on” since Our Lord’s Passion on the Cross “dragged on” for three hours. Moreover, if we are interested in squeezing the Mass into 60 minutes on Sunday, it would be better to compress the hymns and Responsorial Psalm, than to compress the sacred moment of Holy Communion.
When the extraordinary ministers stand around the altar before the priest has received communion, it tends to lead to confusion of roles, and also tends to “clericalize” the lay people, leading them to think that their greatest contribution to the Church is to be seen as serving in the sanctuary, whereas most of the time they are called to be serving as Christians in the middle of the world, as faithful husbands and wives, loyal and honest colleagues, generous and available fathers and mothers.
Indeed the service that the extraordinary ministers provide by bringing our Eucharistic Lord to the sick and shut-ins is necessary, irreplaceable, and deeply Christian. But it’s also wise for us to heed the constant reminders of the Holy See about the extraordinary ministers, beginning with the unprecedented document “On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the sacred ministry of the priest.” I categorize this document from August 15, 1997 as “unprecedented” because it was signed by the prefects and presidents of eight dicasteries of the Roman Curia. In all my years, I never saw anything like it.
In that document the Holy See insisted that extraordinary ministers should not be used at Mass unless there really is a large number of Catholics.
Rev. Francis J. Hoffman, JCD (Fr. Rocky) is Executive Director of Relevant Radio. Ordained as a priest for Opus Dei in 1992 by Blessed John Paul II, he holds a doctorate in Canon Law from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, an MBA from the University of Notre Dame, and a BA in History from Northwestern University. His Question and Answer column appears in several Catholic newspapers and magazines across the country.