Sunday, 6 November 2011

What Can Lay Eucharistic Ministers Do?

A friend suggested I write a post to explain what Lay Eucharistic Ministers may do. He felt it might be helpful for some. I have often heard these lay people being referred to as “Lay Eucharistic Ministers” or “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist” or even just “Eucharistic Ministers”. I agreed, so here I go. Question: What may “Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist” or “Lay Eucharistic Ministers” do? Answer: Nothing. (I am done with the post!)

He was obviously not amused at this answer until I explained the reason for the answer to him. You see, there is in fact no such thing as an “Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist” or a “Lay Eucharistic Minister”. So, I cannot explain what they may do because they simply do not exist.

“…"the only minister who can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained Priest”. Hence the name “minister of the Eucharist” belongs properly to the Priest alone. Moreover, also by reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon, to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass.[1]

This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not “special minister of Holy Communion” nor “extraordinary minister of the Eucharist” nor “special minister of the Eucharist”, by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.[2]

So, when a member of the laity is used to distribute Holy Communion, the correct and only term to use when referring to that person is “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”.

Sadly, it seems that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion have taken on plague like proportions within many parishes in South Africa. Although, I am sure, this is not common only to South Africa. I sometimes get the impression that it is used, by some parish priests, almost like a reward or recognition system for the laity in the parish. I have even been present when a perfectly healthy, young, able-bodied priest sat doing nothing while Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion distributed Holy Communion.

Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.[3]

I must say that I have yet to find a parish, which made use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion during Mass, where this was truly needed. In the worst scenario that I experienced, Mass, by my calculation, would have taken 10 minutes longer than it did. Ten minutes surely is not to be considered “undue prolongation”.

It is clear that a blurring of the lines has occurred in some parishes and that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are being treated almost as though they are part of the clergy. One example of this blurring of the lines is the practice of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion joining the priest in the sanctuary before the priest has received Holy Communion. I have even witnessed Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion receiving Holy Communion together with the priest, like concelebrants would.

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.[4]

Then of course there is also the practice of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion consuming the remaining Precious Blood at the credence table after Holy Communion. Added to this is the practice that Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are assigned the task of purifying the sacred vessels, either during Mass or immediately after Mass. These practices are both specifically forbidden.

The sacred vessels are purified by the priest, the deacon, or an instituted acolyte after Communion or after Mass, insofar as possible at the credence table.  … Care must be taken that whatever may remain of the Blood of Christ after the distribution of Communion is consumed immediately and completely at the altar.[5]

In closing, I must of course touch on the distribution of Holy Communion to the sick and another erroneous practice. When an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion will be used to take Holy Communion to the sick, the pyx, containing the Blessed Sacrament, must be given to the Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, by the priest or deacon, after distribution of Holy Communion has been completed during Mass. 

The Extraordinary Minister of the Holy Communion must then leave the church immediately and go directly to the sick person. The Extraordinary Minister of the Holy Communion does not stay until the end of Mass and most certainly does not join the rest of parishioners for tea after Mass. Furthermore, the Extraordinary Minister of the Holy Communion most certainly may not take the pyx, containing the Blessed Sacrament, anywhere other than directly to the sick person. (It cannot be taken home overnight or carried around while doing “other things” until a convenient time arrives for distributing it to the sick person.)

No one may carry the Most Holy Eucharist to his or her home, or to any other place contrary to the norm of law.[6]

A Priest or Deacon, or an extraordinary minister who takes the Most Holy Eucharist when an ordained minister is absent or impeded in order to administer it as Communion for a sick person, should go insofar as possible directly from the place where the Sacrament is reserved to the sick person’s home, leaving aside any profane business so that any danger of profanation may be avoided and the greatest reverence for the Body of Christ may be ensured. Furthermore the Rite for the administration of Communion to the sick, as prescribed in the Roman Ritual, is always to be used.[7]


  1. Excellent post. I was coming in to correct you and was about to mention the very same thing!

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  3. You again! I'm starting to like your blog :-)

  4. Thanks Michelle. I have been a lazy writer. Glad you have enjoyed some of what I have written. God bless you.