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Someone once asked me, “Why do we need ministers of Communion? Why not just pass the eucharistic bread and wine and let people take it themselves?” There are several answers. For one thing, a large Sunday assembly gathered in a parish church needs order in the assembly and reverence for the mystery being celebrated, and that calls for the use of ministers. I once visited a parish where, for practical reasons, part of the assembly passed the plate of hosts from one to another without any verbal interaction. For me, it was a totally impersonal experience; I had no sense of being part of the corporate body of Christ.

But the primary reason for having eucharistic ministers within an assembly is a theological one, delineated especially well by St. Paul and St. Augustine [see box]. The Eucharist is a gift to be given and received. The ritual interaction between the giver and receiver is an expression of the communion that lies at the heart of the church’s identity. Although this is the fundamental reason, it does not appear to be the primary value in the official rubrics concerning holy Communion. These directives make it clear that while everyone in the assembly who is not a priest must receive Communion, the presiding priest himself takes the eucharistic bread and cup at the altar, receiving from no one. Thus, the official rubrics seem to support the hierarchical ordering of the assembly, with its associated distinction between ordained priests and the rest of the baptized.

Some Historical Background

We do not know who distributed the eucharistic bread and wine when first-century Christian communities gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Several documents from the second, third and fourth centuries refer to the bread and wine as being distributed by bishops, presbyters and deacons, but it also seems to have been part of ordinary practice for lay members of the assembly to take some of the eucharistic bread home with them. While this would be given to those who were sick or dying, lay people would also sometimes self-communicate on weekdays. Though legislation forbidding lay persons to act as ministers of Communion began appearing during the seventh century, the practice of the laity bringing the Eucharist to the sick continued in some places for centuries. Related legislation appeared as early as the ninth century that restricted lay people from baking the bread for the Eucharist, receiving it in their hands and having access to the cup.

For centuries, the church’s liturgical practice evinced no memory of a time when all the baptized were allowed to serve as ministers of Communion. This began to change, however, in the years following the Second Vatican Council. During the 1960’s and early 1970’s, bishops from the United States and other countries received permission from Rome to permit laypeople to administer Communion in certain situations when there was a scarcity of ordained ministers.

The practice of allowing lay ministers of Communion to serve at the parish eucharistic assembly, and of having special ministers bring Communion to parishioners who were unable to attend Sunday Mass, spread rapidly in the United States. Around this time, I was working in a large urban parish that had many elderly people who were unable to attend Sunday Mass. Many parishioners volunteered to become ministers of Communion and, after a time of preparation, began to bring Communion from the Sunday eucharistic celebration to homebound parishioners. As a result of this ministry, countless numbers of the sick and elderly were ritually reconnected to the Sunday worship.

The Ritual Enactment of Communion

In every celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Prayer, the rite of peace and the breaking of the eucharistic bread all lead to the ritual climax of Communion, the assembly’s sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The way this ritual is enacted can either support or detract from a vision of ecclesial communion. The movement and arrangement of persons within the space, the sequence of actions and the words, both spoken and sung, all shape this vision. Since assemblies and church buildings are quite diverse, it is important that people in local assemblies reflect on their present practice and carefully choreograph the flow of the ritual.

I remember the Sunday worship of one congregation at which the altar stood in the center of the assembly. At Communion time, eucharistic ministers took up their stations on each of the four sides of the altar. This arrangement allowed us to have the experience of truly being an assembly gathered around the table of the Lord. But I also participated in a Sunday Mass in a parish where just the opposite occurred. In this church, half of the ministers of Communion were stationed at the entrance of the building, so that half the congregation had to move away from the altar in order to receive Communion. After this experience, I made sure to sit in the front half of the church—so I would never have to turn my back on the altar again. Care should also be taken that there be sufficient ministers of the cup (and that they do not stand too close to the ministers of the eucharistic bread). This will ensure that the Communion procession will move in a dignified and reverent manner.

Official instructions regarding extraordinary ministers of Communion in the United States have varied since the practice was first allowed. In 1973 they were told to enter the sanctuary and stand near the altar during the breaking of the bread. In 1985, a directory setting out practices for communion under both kinds allowed extraordinary ministers to assist the presiding bishop or priest in breaking the bread and pouring the wine into the chalices if priests, deacons and acolytes were not available. But the current Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America (2002) restrict the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine to the ordained. Extraordinary ministers are now to approach the altar as the priest receives Communion, then receive Communion from the priest and accept from him the sacred vessels for distributing Communion to the faithful.

It is unfortunate that this directive is being interpreted in a narrow way in some local assemblies. Since the altar stands within the sanctuary space, there is no reason that lay ministers of Communion cannot enter the sanctuary area before the priest’s Communion (as many have been accustomed to do).

In deciding where to place the ministers, consideration should also be given to the arrangement of people within the space, so that the body of Christ appears as an organic unity. In one parish I saw a contradictory image created when the ministers of Communion stood across the entrance of the sanctuary with their backs to the rest of the congregation as the presiding priest received Communion. They formed a human wall blocking the assembly’s view of the altar. Instead of feeling included in what was taking place at the altar, I felt excluded.

An instruction that has remained consistent tells ministers of Communion what to say when they offer the eucharistic bread and wine. When offering the bread (or cup), the minister is to say “The body [or blood] of Christ” and the recipient is to say “Amen.” At times I have encountered eucharistic ministers who do not follow this instruction, instead saying “This is the body of Christ.” Such a statement reduces the multiple levels of meaning in the prescribed phrase. As St. Augustine taught, saying “Amen” to this declaration allows one to express belief in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, to affirm one’s identity as a member of the body of Christ and to commit oneself to live as a member of that body.

Acting as the Body of Christ

Liturgy is ecclesial action, and the church is disclosed and shaped in the liturgical ritual action of local assemblies. In those liturgies we see who we are and who we are called to be. The service of lay ministers of Communion within and outside of Mass can provide some illustrations of this. Thirty years ago, I worked in a parish where one new eucharistic minister brought Communion to an elderly woman and discovered that she had no one to do regular grocery shopping for her. Thus began a family ministry, in which the eucharistic minister as well as her husband and children took turns shopping and visiting this parishioner. They beautifully expressed and extended the koin-onia that bound them together in the body of Christ.

A former graduate student of mine researched the experience of lay ministers who brought Communion to patients in a local hospital. She told the story of a woman who had a rather dramatic personal experience as she was giving Communion to a patient. The lay minister confided that as she was saying, “The body of Christ,” she felt, for the first time, a strong sense of herself and others as actual members of that body. Clearly, the performance of this ritual action had altered her personal and ecclesial identity.

The fact that women serve within and beyond the assembly as ministers of Communion is one of the most positive outcomes of the practice of allowing the laity to participate in this ministry. I remember how moving it was to have my own sister serve as a minister of the cup during the Mass in which we celebrated the 25th anniversary of my final profession of vows as a religious, something that would have been unheard of 30 years earlier, at my first profession.

In addition to inviting women into a ministry associated with the altar, the practice of having laypersons serve as ministers has allowed us to manifest the diversity of bodies that make up the corporate body of Christ. The parish in which I now regularly worship is made up of people from a great variety of countries and cultural backgrounds. Each Sunday, some of this diversity is evident in those lay persons who serve the assembly as ministers of Communion. It is an impressive illustration of the diversity, the catholicity, that is a characteristic of the body of Christ.

Within the Body of Christ

Ritual action often provides a context for the negotiation of relationships within a social body, and liturgy is no exception. In the years since Vatican II, liturgy has provided a significant arena for the church’s negotiation of its renewed self-understanding as a corporate body enlivened by the Spirit of Christ. Is it “ordinary” or “extraordinary” for baptized members of this body to serve as ministers of Communion? On the one hand, the ritual norms have consistently identified the role of lay ministers of Communion as extraordinary, and the recent restrictions placed on their activities at the altar reinforce the distinction between the ministry of the ordained and that of the laity. On the other hand, the ritual practice of the church in the United States for the past 30 years suggests that the service of lay ministers is quite ordinary. At issue, and subject to further negotiation, of course, is the role of the baptized within the corporate body of Christ.

Augustine and Paul on the Great Mystery

Early in the fifth century, St. Augustine, bishop of Hippo, delivered a sermon in which he instructed the newly baptized about the meaning of the Eucharist:

What you see...is bread and a cup. This is what your eyes report to you. But your faith has need to be taught that the bread is the body of Christ, the cup the blood of Christ.... If, then, you wish to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle as he says to the faithful “You are the body of Christ and His members”.... You reply “Amen” to that which you are, and by replying you consent. For you hear “The body of Christ,” and you reply “Amen.” Be a member of the body of Christ so that your “Amen” may be true.... Be what you see, and receive what you are.
(Sermon 272)

I offer this quotation from Augustine because of what I have learned from many years of teaching graduate and undergraduate students and giving talks on the Eucharist in a variety of parishes. When I ask people what they are doing when they say “Amen” to “The body of Christ,” they often say that they are expressing faith in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Yet I never hear them say that they are affirming their identity as members of the body of Christ.

When I read Augustine’s sermon to them, it usually comes as a surprise. St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth that “we were all brought into one body by baptism, in the one Spirit, whether we are Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and that one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us to drink” (1 Cor 12:13). It was the shared gift of the Spirit that made the Corinthians one body. That same baptismal gift has continued to be constitutive of the church through the centuries. The gift of the Spirit, given in baptism, incorporates people into the body of Christ, where they participate or share in Christ’s life. Paul used the word koin-onia to describe this shared life, the communion of persons with Christ and one another. Members of the body of Christ are a communion in Christ’s Spirit.

In his letters, Paul made it clear that the gift of koin-onia was a dynamic reality, a gift to be realized continually within the body of Christ. At times he called upon the churches to express their shared life in Christ by contributing to a collection that would alleviate the sufferings of members of a church in another locale. His rationale was that those who had come to share in one another’s spiritual blessings ought to be of service to one another in material things (Rom 15:25-27). The communion in Christ’s Spirit, at the heart of the community’s identity as the body of Christ, was regularly expressed and realized each time the church gathered to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As Paul reminded the Corinthians, “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:16-17). Paul’s reminder to the church of Corinth continues to be pertinent for every liturgical assembly gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and share in the body and blood of Christ. The eucharistic ritual action of each assembly is intended to be a manifestation and realization of its shared life in Christ.

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