Extraordinary Eucharistic ministers. (News in Brief: Vatican).
While other items in the list such as homilies given by lay people and indiscriminate and common recitation of the Eucharistic prayer did not seem out of order for the Pope to take issue with, the practice of lay people distributing Communion has become so commonplace that its presence as an abuse seems startling.
However unsettling the statement may be, it should not be too surprising. Over the last several years Rome has stressed over and over again that the role of laity in distributing Communion is to be an exception to the rule that bishops, priests, and deacons are the ordinary ministers.
In fact, Immensae Caritatis, the original 1973 document from the Vatican laying out the permission for such extraordinary ministers, spelled out that they should only be used "because of a great crowd of people or some disability of the celebrant."
That document, and subsequent ones, also note that extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are not to be selected willy-nilly but according to a specified order. The normal extraordinary minister of the Eucharist is an installed acolyte, a ministry only open to men. Mter acolyte the order is "major seminarian, man religious, woman religious, catechist, one of the faithful--man or woman."
As has happened so often, the Church's generosity in allowing an exception for extraordinary circumstances has been abused and the Magisterium is forced, like a good mother, to correct her errant children. Thus in 1980 Pope John Paul II ordered another document covering the issue to be promulgated.
The 1980 document Inestimabile Donum reiterated the instruction that "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 Mass excessively long."
It also said: "A reprehensible attitude is shown by those priests who, though present at the celebration, refrain from distributing Communion and leave this task to the laity."
But the abuses continued. Priests, not bishops, were regularly selecting various laity to assist in distribution of Holy Communion without any discernible order. Lay people were and are being used at nearly every Mass as extraordinary ministers. Some ministers were being treated by some priests like concelebrants, by receiving Holy Communion apart from the rest of the faithful.
In 1997, Rome intervened once more. Pope John Paul promulgated "The collaboration of the non-ordained faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest." The document spells out that even bishops are to appoint extraordinary ministers only in cases of "true necessity." It says, "A non-ordained member of the faithful, in cases of true necessity, may be deputed by the diocesan bishop." With regard to the priest, the document notes, "In exceptional cases or in unforseen circumstances, the priest presiding at the liturgy may authorize such" but only on a temporary basis.
The 1997 document goes beyond merely stressing that extraordinary ministers should be reserved to extraordinary circumstances. It spells out that "certain practices are to be avoided and eliminated." Thus, "the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass is to be avoided and eliminated. Why? Because it arbitrarily extends the concept of 'a great number of the faithful.'
One argument which has duped many into believing that extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist are commonly permitted is the idea that, "Extraordinary" refers to the fact that lay distributors of Holy Communion are not ordained ministers. But the application of the term "extraordinary" refers to the function itself, a function which is "supplementary and extraordinary."
The 1997 document also states that the practice of "extraordinary ministers receiving Holy Communion apart from the other faithful as though concelebrants" should be eliminated.
The new Latin Roman Missal released in May 2002 also addresses some of the abuses associated with extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. The Missal, the English translation of which is underway, notes that extraordinary ministers are not to assist in the transfer of consecrated hosts and the Precious Blood to sacred vessels, nor are they to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle and return the remaining consecrated hosts to the tabernacle.
During Benediction, the bishop, priest, deacon, and even the Holy Father himself, uses the humeral veil to cover his hands while holding the monstrance containing Our Lord. Why is one not to touch the monstrance? Is it the gold that matters, or the Sacred Host which the monstrance contains? Symbolic gestures matter. If every Tom, Dick, and Henrietta is allowed to distribute Holy Communion without Holy Orders, the significance of the One whom we receive becomes obscured.
It wouldn't be surprising if the Church received even further instruction on the subject. On Holy Thursday this year, the Holy Father released his latest encyclical on the Holy Eucharist. Within the encyclical he promised a decree on the liturgical norms regarding the Blessed Sacrament set to be released shortly.