Thursday, 5 August 2010

Communion under both kinds and EMHC (2): lay ministers of Holy Communion

In the current edition of the Diocesan Directory for my own diocese of Brentwood is a section headed "Guidelines for Ministers of Holy Communion". These guidelines were revised by the Bishop in 2005. One might reflect on the absence of the words "special" (used in the instruction Immensae Caritatis that gave legislative permission for lay people to be commissioned as ministers of Holy Communion and to which the guidelines make reference in their first paragraph) or "extraordinary" (used in the revised 2002 General Instruction on the Roman Missal) in this title. Most of the guidelines set out the practical provisions to be followed in the diocese, and, as such, are quite reasonable.

The one paragraph in the guidelines that refers to Communion under both kinds is as follows:
Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it is distributed under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clear expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the relationship between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Father's Kingdom (General Instruction on the Roman Missal n.281).
Now that we have had the experience of Communion under both kinds for a good number of years, made possible by Ministers of Holy Communion, I would like to re-emphasise that this should be the norm at all Masses.
In the context, the reference to Ministers of Holy Communion is to commissioned lay ministers, and there can be no doubt about this being the intended reference.

Now, as I suggested in my first post in this series, there is every reason to encourage the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds.

The use of lay ministers to achieve this, however, gives rise to a set of considerations in addition to those relating to the nature of Communion under both kinds itself. These considerations are about the nature of the ordained ministries of the priest, deacon and bishop as ministers of the Eucharist to others. They are the "ordinary" ministers of the Eucharist. In other words, distributing Holy Communion to the faithful, be that during the celebration of the Liturgy itself or in circumstances outside the Liturgy, or leading a Eucharistic celebration outside Mass, relates to and arises from their office in the Church as ordained ministers; it is a proper part of their ministry. When a lay person undertakes a Eucharistic ministry of this type, they do so in an "extraordinary" or "special" way. It is not something that relates to or arises from their office as lay people in the Church; instead, it is an assistance to the ministry that is proper to the priest, deacon or bishop undertaken, as the instruction Immensae Caritatis suggests, so that access to Holy Communion does not become impossible or excessively difficult for the lay faithful.

Now, the word "ordinary" does have an everyday meaning in addition to its technical meaning with regard to different ministries in the Church. Something is "ordinary" when it happens regularly, frequently or, indeed, all the time. Now, in Brentwood diocese (and, I expect, in many other English dioceses) the use of lay ministers to distribute Holy Communion is "ordinary" in this second sense though "extraordinary" in the first sense. This every day use of lay ministers does act as a counter-sign, a kind of going against the sign-value of the office of the ordained ministry with regard to the Eucharist. Expressing this in traditionalist terms, some would talk about the hands of the priest being anointed or consecrated in order to handle the Body and Blood of the Lord, and therefore the lay faithful should not handle them or, the sacred vessels. This counter-sign to the office of the priest or deacon is why many, and not all of us traditionalist by any means, prefer not to receive under both kinds when doing so involves receiving the Precious Blood from a lay minister.

There are situations where the use of lay ministers is quite understandable - taking Holy Communion to the sick and housebound or in situations of genuinely large Mass attendance, for example. But I do find it a bit ironic that, in many situations, the positive sign-value of Holy Communion under both kinds provides a basis, by the use of lay ministers, for undermining the sign-value of the office of the ordained minister with regard to the Eucharist. It would be very helpful if something could be done to deliver a better balance between these two sign-values in pastoral practice. I offer some suggestions below, based on the principle that lay ministers are only used in a way that is clearly "extraordinary".

1. At a weekday Mass in many parishes, the numbers receiving Holy Communion are actually small enough to allow the following practice. The celebrating priest could distribute the Sacred Host to the faithful and then the Precious Blood - either by the faithful queueing a second time to receive from the chalice (after all, this is what they do when a lay minister is used) or by them forming a line across the front of the Church and the priest going along the line once with the Sacred Host and a second time with the Precious Blood. When lay ministers are used to assist with the larger numbers at Sunday Mass there is some sense of the "extraordinary" nature of that assistance. Both of the sign-values are in play, and can be the subject of suitable catechesis in the parish.

2. At any celebration of Mass, the practical provisions of nn.162-163 of the revised (2002) General Instruction on the Roman Missal with regard to lay ministers could be observed. These provisions expect the lay ministers to only approach the sanctuary after the celebrating priest has received Holy Communion, to themselves receive Communion and then to assist with distributing Communion to the faithful. Purification of the sacred vessels and the transfer of the ciborium to and from the tabernacle are to be carried out by the priest or deacon. The required assistance in distributing Holy Communion is provided, but nothing more - the assistance can be seen to be "extraordinary" and only to meet the necessity.

3. In situations where lay ministers play a large role in Eucharistic ministry - in taking Holy Communion to the sick or housebound, or in arranging times of Eucharistic adoration or celebration outside of Mass - priests should keep a visible participation in this ministry. Lay people might well take a lead in the practical arrangements, but priests should not be absent. The activity of the lay faithful does not relieve priests of their own ministry in these respects, though clearly the precise circumstances will vary from parish to parish.

1 comment:

Laura said...

If only. At Mass this morning there were perhaps 30 communicants. There were two priests concelebrating. At communion time two old ladies went up to distribute the chalice. Can this possibly be the mind of the Church? Why on earth did one priest not give the chalice?