Ministers to the Body of Christ
Reflecting on the Task of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion
The year 2013 will mark 50 years since the publication of Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council. During the months to come, we are sure to be reading a lot about SC and its living legacy. But the year will bring another significant milestone: 40 years since the Vatican's publication of Immensae Caritatis (On Facilitating Reception of Communion in Certain Circumstances), the instruction that created a new role that became an integral part of parish life: the extraordinary minister of holy communion.
A close look at Immensae Caritatis (meaning "boundless charity") might surprise you. For one thing, the call for special ministers of the Eucharist is just one of several topics addressed in this brief document, which also allows for the reception of holy communion more than once in a day under certain circumstances, mitigates the eucharistic fast for the sick and elderly, and provides guidelines for the giving of communion in the hand. Authorizing extraordinary ministers of holy communion was only a part of the larger purpose of this instruction, which was to make the Eucharist more accessible to the people of God. EMHCs assist the priest, of course, but first and foremost they help the assembly. As servants of the community, they are entrusted with a simple task: to make the Eucharist, the proof of the boundless charity of Christ, more available to Christ's people. In so doing, they help the church to transform the world:
The new conditions of the present seem to demand that, without prejudice to the supreme reverence due to so great a sacrament, access to communion be made easier, so that by sharing more fully in the effects of the sacrifice of the Mass, the faithful may more willingly and intensely give themselves to God and to the good of the Church and of all humanity. (para 2)
This anniversary year is a good time to reflect on the role of EMHCs. Since we hold that lex orandi, lex credendi — how we pray shapes what we believe — it seems fitting to shape our reflections around the Book of Blessings' Order for the Commissioning of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The commissioning builds on Immensae Caritatis in its emphasis on the role of EMHCs as servants to the community. Here I offer some reflections on passages from the rite, suggesting ways it might shape how we train — or retrain — our extraordinary ministers of holy communion.
Our brothers and sisters are to be entrusted with administering the eucharist, with taking communion to the sick, and with giving it as viaticum to the dying. (BB 1875)
From the beginning, EMHCs have been commissioned not only for Sunday Mass but for service to those who cannot gather with the community: the homebound, the sick, and the dying. The church envisions people going forth from Sunday Mass to bring both the Eucharist and the community to those who are unable to come for the celebration. This connection is made visible in a special way at the Holy Thursday liturgy, when "at an appropriate moment during Communion, the Priest entrusts the Eucharist from the table of the altar to Deacons or acolytes or other extraordinary ministers, so that afterwards it may be brought to the sick who are to receive Holy Communion at home" (Roman Missal, Holy Thursday, 33).
How is this vision lived out in our parishes? Do the EMHCs who serve at Mass also bring communion to the homebound, to hospitals, to nursing homes, and to prisons? The two responsibilities go hand-in-hand, suggesting that this ministry is not primarily a liturgical one but a ministry of pastoral care, of reaching out to those who would otherwise not have ready access to the sacrament of Christ's body and blood. How do our EMHCs see themselves — as liturgical functionaries or as pastoral care ministers?
In bringing communion to those who cannot join the assembly for Mass, EMHCs also have the task of bringing the love and care of the community. That can happen when the minister takes time — before beginning the communion rite — to share news, updates on friends from the parish, and perhaps ideas from the Sunday homily. As a community, we are called to pray for each other, and the EMHC not only reminds the homebound or hospitalized person that the community is praying for him or her but also brings names from the parish's prayer list and asks the homebound person to pray for them as well.
You must be examples of Christian living in faith and conduct; you must strive to grow in holiness through this sacrament of unity and love. Remember that, though many, we are one body because we share in the one bread and one cup. (BB 1875)
The EMHC must be living his or her faith in its fullness. Indeed, anyone invited into ministry should be an example of Christian "unity and love." Such ministers participate fully, consciously, and actively in the Mass, not only when they are "on duty" as ministers but at all times, week in and week out; they find nourishment in the Eucharist and experience the unity of the community; they lives their eucharistic faith in the way they interact with others.
In my experience, finding people to serve as EMHCs is easy. The challenge comes when we must ask someone to not continue in the ministry. Removing people from ministry is never easy, but it can be somewhat easier when there are clear guidelines for participation. Commissioning EMHCs for a designated period of time, perhaps one or two years, offers regular opportunities to review how the commission is being lived out, to offer suggestions, and to allow a minister to move on when he or she can no longer meet the requirements of service.
As ministers of holy communion be, therefore, especially observant of the Lord's command to love your neighbor. For when he gave his body as food to his disciples, he said to them: "This is my commandment, that you should love one another as I have loved you." (BB 1875)
On Holy Thursday, the Gospel reading never fails to surprise. Instead of hearing the account of the institution of the Eucharist from one of the synoptic Gospels, the church gives us John's account of Christ washing the disciples' feet and giving them the mandatum, the new commandment of love. To celebrate the Lord's Supper is to be called to service. To be one among the company of Christ's disciples brings with it the responsibility to wash one another's feet.
The rite of commissioning quotes the same Gospel, reminding EMHCs that they must be "especially observant" of this great commandment. They must recognize themselves as servants, gently and lovingly washing the feet of the community in the way they serve that community — in the way they approach and distribute the sacrament.
To be a follower of Christ is not only to serve others as Christ did: it is to be served as well. Like Peter, those most eager to serve others sometimes balk at being served: "You will never wash my feet" (Jn 13:8). We all know fellow ministers (we might be among their number ourselves) who prefer to be "doing something," serving rather than being served, and who question the idea in Milton's sonnet that "they also serve who only stand and wait" (On His Blindness, line 14). Our EMHCs must be able to serve and be served. We know that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35), but in the case of the Eucharist, the reverse is true. There is no greater blessing than to receive the Eucharist. Are our EMHCs aware that their greatest dignity is as members of the praying assembly, the body of Christ, fed by the Eucharist?
Are you resolved to undertake the office of giving the body and blood of the Lord to your brothers and sisters, and so serve to build up the Church? (BB 1876)
"The office of giving." We are sadly familiar these days with high-profile cases of people being denied communion for various reasons. These events generate controversy and comment, and they create real confusion for parish EMHCs. What should they do if So-and-so should approach or if such-and-such should happen? Fortunately, the Order of Commissioning is very clear: the task of these ministers is to give Christ's body and blood to their brothers and sisters, not to withhold or deny it. Obviously, there are rare occasions when someone approaches who is clearly unaware of what they are doing or unable to receive. Part of the formation of EMHCs should be to develop flexibility and good pastoral judgment when these situations occur.
The primary task of the EMHC is to give, and give, and give — to young and old, confused and confident, casual and awestruck. Can we help our EMHCs to treat each of these encounters as the sacred thing it is — smoothing the way for Christ to come to his people? For we believe that this is not a random assortment of people who have come together for various reasons, whose motives we may secretly question. In Eucharistic Prayer III, we ask God to listen "to the prayers of this family, / whom you have summoned before you." We are not a crowd but a family; not so much deciding to come forward as being gathered in by God. EMHCs "serve to build up the Church" when they recognize that it is not they who are giving communion — it is Christ himself who is using their hands to feed his beloved people, one by one.
Are you resolved to administer the holy eucharist with the utmost care and reverence? (BB 1876)
It is important for our EMHCs to handle the consecrated species in a way that speaks of their care and reverence: holding the cup with two hands, gently covering the bowl or paten when they are carrying it to their station, letting their actions and gestures speak of their faith in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It is also important for them to know how to respond quickly and reverently when a host falls, when a drop is spilled from the cup, when someone wanders away with the host still in his or her hand. All of these things are important because the way the eucharistic elements are handled during the Mass can increase — or damage — the faith of those who gather.
Our training should emphasize that the Eucharist is not a thing, an object, but a living reality, a sacramental encounter between the living Christ and his living body, the church. We need to encourage our EMHCs to treat the other body of Christ with the same care and reverence: making eye contact and presenting a calm and joyful demeanor to each person. Do our EMHCs stay focused, not getting distracted by annoying noises, long lines, or short lines? Do they handle the unexpected with grace? Do they treat each person who comes forward for communion as if she or he were the only person receiving communion that day? In short, do they treat the people as the body of Christ that they are?
May they faithfully give the bread of life to your people.
Over the past 40 years — after a good many struggles — the ministry of EMHC has become an accepted and essential part of parish life. Through their hands, the presence of Christ has been extended to more and more people at Sunday Mass. Countless people in hospitals and nursing homes, people in jails and detention centers, and people confined to their homes have been nourished with the sacrament and with the love and prayers of the parish community. This anniversary year is a good time to take stock of how far we have come and to reflect on ways we can help our EMHCs be even better ministers of — and to — the body of Christ. ML
Corinna Laughlin is director of liturgy at St. James Cathedral, Seattle. She also serves on the liturgical commission of the Archdiocese of Seattle.