Taking Care With Communion Ministry

Gavin’s comments on Communion Ministers only underscore what I think the key problem in the ministry seems to be: insufficient mindfulness on the part of the clergy. Gavin’s solution is to take the administration of the ministry out of the local pastor’s hands and legislate from Rome or the national conference. My solution would be to tell the occasional priest to shape up: put some serious thought into the needs of Sunday and daily Masses, and plan accordingly. Failing that, put the lay people in charge. I know I’ve always put more thought than the clergy into the Communion practices at my parishes: that’s why the boss pays me.

In one of Gavin’s example, one person isn’t really enough to distribute both forms to twenty people. If a deacon isn’t present, one cup minister is needed here. I might also foresee an architecture problem: twenty people scattered across a church. A presider makes a judgment call: I can take a minute to explain a new procession pattern to the twenty of you because you sat in your “assigned” seats instead of the front two rows. Or I can ask one of you to distribute the Eucharist so everybody can approach the sacrament unemcumbered by new directions. It would take some foresight before Mass to ask people to gather in a transcept or otherwise clump close together.

In the other example, four people distribute Communion to five others. One of two things is happening here: three scheduled lay Communion ministers have shown up despite the numbers and are simply serving as assigned. Unfortunately, the pastor did not bother to meet with them before Mass to explain the situation–that would be the polite and reverent thing to do. The other possibility is that Communion ministry has been put on the dummy switch in this parish. Sometimes people don’t show up, so the laity have been trained or told to count to four and fill the slots as needed, without regard for particular circumstances. And given the way some pastors insist on special treatment during liturgy (and on occasion throw a tantrum when they don’t get it) it seems easier to go with the pattern and let Father audible his adjustments on the fly if he wants them.

Either way: the fault of the priest. But funny how that doesn’t get covered in Vatican documents written by cardinals who never seem to have the problem of celebrating Mass as the lone cleric in a room of hundreds. Our legislation is being penned by the inexperienced.

Priests generally distribute Communion quickly. Maybe on the verge of irreverently every now and then. Gavin asks about a guideline for numbers of people per Communion minister. I would say it depends on the expectations of the parish tempered by the demands of the rite. Adding Communion under both forms does not add more than a minute to the preparation and cleansing of vessels, and is irrelevant to the discussion. My benchmark would be ten to twelve people per minute per minister of the Body of Christ. Eight or nine would be ideal, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment.

If you have one or two cup ministers per Body of Christ minister, then you can do the math for both the expected time and number of lay Communion ministers. My parish’s largest Sunday Mass has up to 600 people. We have five ministers of the Body. For 120 ministers to distribute at about twelve a minute, that’s ten minutes for Communion, which is close to what we do. I routinely program two congregational pieces for the procession here, and rare is the day both are not completed in full at the 10:30 Mass.

There is one unfortunate practice I see since  Redemptionis Sacramentum designated the gesture of reverence before receiving. Many communicants tend to bow as the person in front of them receives the Sacrament. This is wrong, I think. It does let the minister continue at up to fifteen people per minute. But it instills a certain assembly-line attitude in the Communion line. Get it done, and get it done expediently. The whole act of receiving Communion needs to slow down to achieve a better reverence.

And if increased reverence is the hope, then curia, pastors, liturgists, and others need to look beyond individual acts of reverence. If receiving Communion is all about standing in an orderly line, bowing, receiving, and returning for a knelt prayer, we may have missed the overall effort, especially when communicants are bowing at the person ahead of them in line.

I doubt seminarians and young priests are trained in the distribution of Communion. From what I’ve seen lay ministers are better prepared and more reverent. Most clergy get up to speed quickly, but in the rush to learn how to preach and preside, one basic but important skill sometimes gets lost. And if it weren’t lost, how do you explain the common practice of clergy showing up to vest and concelebrate important occasions unannounced? Ever watch them get acclimated to distributing Communion in unfamiliar places and with unfamiliar forms?

Choreographing good processions is an art. I don’t think you can legislate it. Too many factors come into play: the expectation of the assembly that their Mass will not last longer than a certain accustomed time, the geography of the nave, the longtime expectations of pastors and ministers, not to mention the new effort to legislate reverence. The curia and other reform2 commentators do not realize that lay people are not the enemy. If Cardinal O’Malley is any indication, I suspect the American bishops are clued in. Redemptionis Sacramentum is getting implemented not because its ideas are superior or more reverent, but because muckety mucks in high places said so.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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16 Responses to Taking Care With Communion Ministry

  1. Liam says:

    The practice of gesturing while someone ahead of you receives is not found, to my knowledge, in any legislation, but is the product of informal parish and diocesan guides.

    Google: communion bow “while the person ahead of you”

    You will see what I mean.

    I don’t do it that way. I reverence after the person ahead of me receives.

    * * *

    Gavin can speak for himself, but my impression of his comment was that it was not a situation where Communion was being distributed under both species (it’s not required, though it’s good practice at festal celebrations – which includes all Sundays).

    * * *

    As I’ve said before, in my perfect world all would be fed from the same hands (and, if able, in the same place) – priest and deacon, shall we say – intinction would crown this. I view the multiplication of communion ministers as just an echo of preconciliar practice of the army of priests and servers showing up at the communion rail to dispense to line-by-line phalanxes of communicants. To me it’s more of a continuation of that same dispensary spirit than real reform.

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  3. I treasure the times I’m called upon, as a lay person, to serve as an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. Rumor has it parishioners appreciate that I’m assigned that as well since I absolutely refuse to race through distribution, repeating “BodyofChrist” as quickly as possible. In fact, I won’t even receive from priests or deacons who acts as if they’re doing piece work on an assembly line.

  4. Anne says:

    I teach new Eucharistic Ministers that they should be focused on two things, the consecrated bread and wine and the presence of Christ in the people who approach. Smile, make eye contact, be aware of how long the line is but don’t rush, be reverent.

  5. Tony says:

    The priest at the hermitage where my wife and I attend Latin Novus Ordo on first Fridays distributes both species by himself (well, with an acolyte holding a paten). He intincts the host and places it on the extended tougue of the kneeling communicant.

    To be fair, there’s usually about 30 people attending.

  6. Lisa says:

    Liam writes: “The practice of gesturing while someone ahead of you receives is not found, to my knowledge, in any legislation, but is the product of informal parish and diocesan guides.”

    The practice that HAS been prescribed by the USCCB as one of the Conference’s adaptations may be found in GIRM #160. The beginning of the third paragraph of GIRM #160 states: “When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister.”

    How people came to understand bowing “his or her head before the Sacrament” as doing such while the person in line before them is actually receiving the Sacrament is beyond me.

  7. Liam says:


    Google the search terms, and you will see myriad informal guidelines to that effect. Obviously, they were crafted with from a pragmatic perspective to keep the assembly line moving…because we all know American Catholics would have fields of cows if the communion procession did not move at least as fast as 2 seconds per person…

  8. Barb says:

    At least two dioceses that I know of sent out out specific instructions telling communicants to bow while the person ahead of them in line was receiving in order to save time.
    That was explicitly given as the reason in my sister’s diocese (suburban chicago)– so that everyone can receive “in a timely fashion” are the words, I think the column she showed me said.
    I am with the poster who waits, I am not bowing to the behind of the person in front of me.

  9. Lisa says:


    I did do the Google search and I am still clueless. True, the Communion Rite should never be immoderately prolonged, but it also should not be improperly hastened.

    Next we’ll have the suggestion that to expedite the veneration of the cross on Good Friday, that as the person in front of you approaches the cross you may/should bow, genuflect, or blow a kiss!

  10. Mollie says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with making my reverential bow while someone else is receiving — quite the contrary, in fact. When I genuflect toward the tabernacle on entering a church, I don’t worry about whether anyone else is in my way. The blessed sacrament is the same whether or not there’s another person standing between me and it; the blessed sacrament is holy whether it’s in someone else’s hands (or mouth) or my own. I don’t expect this to apply to everyone, but for me, bowing just before “my turn” feels less ostentatious (ergo more genuinely humble and reverential), AND more considerate of my fellow worshipers. Keeping those considerations in balance seems to me proper to the idea of the communion procession. We go up to receive as one body, not simply as an act of private devotion.

    As for venerating the cross: most parishes I’ve been to on Good Friday use a cross big enough to allow more than one person to venerate it at a time. It’s possible to be mindful of efficiency without diminishing reverence.

  11. Glen says:

    The correct term is Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. A Communion Minister is a priest. Lay persons may be allowed to pretend they are priests, but we aren’t quite there yet.

    EMHCs are to be employed when necessary. Is spending an extra ten or fifteen minutes in God’s house unnecessary?

    It’s sad to read a comparison of Holy Communion distribution to a fast food drive through. Communion is not considered a meal by the Catholic Church. You can find that irreverance in Protestant offshoots.

    If we treated Mass as a Sacrifice, Christ dying for our sins, then perhaps belief in the Real Presence would increase. When the tabernacle is no longer the focus of the sanctuary and Sacrifice is no longer the focus of the Mass, it’s no wonder the Church has lost so many faithful.

  12. Todd says:

    Thanks for commenting, Glen.

    While not disagreeing with you, the correct term is unwieldy and awkward. I’ve heard it shortened to “extraordinary minister,” which can be applied to just about everybody for a variety of ministries in the Church. This abbreviation is inaccurate.

    The priest is not a “Communion Minister,” but a “Eucharistic Minister,” a term with a distinction beyond just distributing Communion. I’m not in favor of the term “Eucharistic Minister” for lay people in that context. My bishop has said that “Communion Minister” is an appropriate term and I concur. It lacks the fussiness of the five-word title. It says what it needs to say.

    The rites of pastoral care of the sick recognize lay communion ministers as well. “EMHC” isn’t mentioned once in that rite. The rites of PCS suggest that Mass with the sick led by the priest is the ideal situation. But we know the usual (if not ordinary) situation is that lay people bring Communion to the sick.

    I would agree on your sadness, but that is the fault of the clergy and their actions. I’m only the messenger on that score.

    The Holy Father has corrected the notion explicitly: the Mass is indeed meal as well as sacrifice. Both are true and neither one detracts from the other.

    You allude to erosion of belief in Real Presence, but that point has been challenged and repudiated in many places. The fact is that nobody polled Catholics decades ago. We really have no idea if belief in the Real Presence, as a statistic, is less today than years ago. What we do know is that the percentage of US Catholics receiving Communion is about the same as it was fifty years ago.

    And lastly, most sociologists reading the data conclude that the loss of the faithful occurred when the sense of Sunday obligation eroded, not any revisionist notion of an impoverished liturgy. It would seem the inactive Catholics are those who declined the grace of receiving the Sacrament–and all that entails.

  13. Jim McK says:

    “The correct term is Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. A Communion Minister is a priest. Lay persons may be allowed to pretend they are priests, but we aren’t quite there yet.”

    This is an interesting interpretation of “Extraordinary”. Communion ministers come in two flavors, ordinary and extraordinary. How would it be if we applies your interpretation of “extraordinary” to the Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite, as the modern version of the Tridentine Rite is now known?

    ~~The correct term is Extraordinary [form of the Roman Rite]. The Mass of Paul VI is ~the Eucharist~. [The Extraordinary form of the Roman Rite] may be allowed to pretend they are ~the Eucharist~, but we aren’t quite there yet.~~
    No one should accept such gibberish as a proper use of the term ‘extraordinary’, just as no one should accept your similar use about ministers of communion.

  14. Andy says:

    I am just watching at this girl on the picture, showing her tongue. I think she must be crazy. Why do you promote mad children?

  15. Amy says:

    The universal norm for the Latin Rite is communion reception is to received on the tongue while kneeling. Let us never forget this. Furthermore, Extraordinary Ministers are not supposed be to used at every Mass.

    We don’t have EMHC and only receive from our priest. We receive while kneeling at the communion rail and receive communion on the tongue. This is only slightly more longer than using EMHC because there is only the chalice and ciborium to purify after communion reception.

    • Todd says:

      Hi Amy, and thanks for commenting on a long-dormant post.

      The universal norm is fairly irrelevant. I also receive on the tongue, but I put the host on it myself. The more usual practice is whatever happens in the particular parish. You clearly have a small community for a priest to do his duty for people. I point out that for my parish which routinely has 600-800 people at its most populated liturgy, it would take our pastor the better part of an hour to spiritually feed all the people.

      There is nothing wrong with lay people distributing the Eucharist. Law and practice allow for it, and this is hardly likely to change anytime soon.

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