If you took a vacation this summer and had the joy of participating at Mass in a church other than the one you usually attend, you may have noticed that since we belong to a universal Church, there was an incredible similarity between the Mass you attended on vacation and your usual Mass back home.
On the other hand, you may have also noticed slight variations between the two. My intention in this present article is to examine the legitimacy of one common variation, namely, the practice of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion giving blessings during Mass. As in all of my articles, I do not wish to give a complete historical overview or to exhaustively treat the theological reasoning behind such practices. Rather, I hope to simply and clearly explain the ius vigens, that is, the law presently in force.
What is an EMHC?
In order to properly understand the issue, we must first examine the role of the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (hereafter abbreviated EMHC). An EMHC is a lay person who has been commissioned — typically by the bishop or vicar general — to distribute Holy Communion to those present at Mass when needed. The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the official instruction manual of the Mass, describes the function of EMHC’s in articles 162-163.
To summarize, the EMHC’s first approach the altar only after the priest has received communion. After receiving communion themselves, they then receive from the priest the proper vessels containing the Most Holy Eucharist and in turn distribute Holy Communion to the faithful gathered for Mass. When the distribution of communion is finished, they return the sacred vessels to the altar where the priest is to purify them and the EMHC’s return to their spots in the congregation.
When can EMHCs be used?
Lay persons who are called upon to distribute Holy Communion during Mass are not actually called “lay ministers” as the title of the article may lead you to believe. On the contrary, they are properly referred to as “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion,” which happens to be a very descriptive term.
As we have already seen above, EMHCs are indeed ministers of Holy Communion, but there is more to it than that. They are extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The presence of this necessary adjective is not intended to communicate that they are wonderful people, even though most of them are. Rather, this word “extraordinary” is meant to distinguish them from the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, who are priests and deacons.
As those who have been ordained in order to serve the Christian faithful, priests and deacons are the ordinary ministers, that is, servants of Holy Communion. Priests and deacons have been set apart by the Sacrament of Holy Orders to serve the rest of the Body of Christ, especially at the altar.
In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments promulgated an instruction entitled Redemptionis Sacramentum, which clarified certain matters regarding the Eucharist. In paragraph 88, it states that it is “the priest celebrant’s responsibility” to distribute Holy Communion, perhaps assisted by other priests or deacons who are present. Paragraph 157 of that same document notes that if there is a sufficient number of ordinary ministers present, then EMHCs should not be used.
However, article 162 of the GIRM indicates that if there are no other ordinary ministers present and there is “an exceedingly large [valde magnus] number of communicants,” the priest celebrant may then call upon EMHCs to assist him. Paragraph 151 of Redemptionis Sacramentum explains further that these EMHCs are to be used “only out of true necessity” and that when they are used, “special urgent prayers of intercession should be multiplied that the Lord may soon send a priest for the service of the community.”
Thus, paragraph 158 summarizes that EMHCs may only be used when the priest is impeded (e.g. old age or sickness) or when “the number of faithful coming to communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.”
Can EMHCs give blessings?
With this proper understanding of the role and usage of EMHCs, we can now begin examining the question at hand. As noted in the introductory paragraph, this is one of those practices that seems to vary by community. In some places children and non-Catholics are instructed to come up with their arms crossed in order to receive a blessing from the EMHC, whereas in other parishes, they are asked to remain seated. Even the blessing given varies greatly from place to place. Whatever the practice may be, let us now ask whether EMHCs are permitted to give blessings during communion.
In 2008, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments received a letter asking precisely this question. The congregation responded in a private reply with five observations on why this practice is not permitted.
But first, let me note that even though private replies do not have the force of universal law, they typically (and this one especially) contain an excellent analysis and resolution of the issue, giving us a unique look at the practice of the Roman Curia. In other words, this private reply is persuasive not by reason of authority but by the authority of right reason, to which every well-intentioned Catholic should submit. Here are their five observations:
Blessing given at end of Mass
The Congregation for Divine Worship points out in their first observation that the liturgical blessing of the Mass is given to everyone gathered in the church just a few moments after the distribution of Holy Communion. This occurs when the priest, making the sign of the cross, says, “May Almighty God bless you, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
In other words, there is no need to bless only some members of the congregation (e.g. children and non-Catholics) during communion, when the entire congregation is blessed by the priest just moments later.
Laity unable to bless at Mass
In the second observation, we are reminded that within the context of Mass, blessings are the competency of the priest, not lay persons. Article 18 of the Book of Blessings notes that even though lay persons may give some blessings, “whenever a priest or deacon is present, the office of presiding [over a blessing] should be left to him.”
A 1997 instruction, Ecclesia de Mysterio, on the collaboration of the lay faithful further indicates that the laity should never say prayers or perform actions during the Mass which are proper to the priest, as this may lead to a confusion of roles. Since the blessing of the congregation during Mass is reserved to the priest, lay persons must avoid doing so.
Laying on of hands discouraged
The third observation addresses the practice in some places where the EMHC lays hands on a member of the congregation as a sign of blessing. The private reply states that this practice “is to be explicitly discouraged” because the laying on of hands has its own “sacramental significance” which is inappropriate here. The Catechism notes that since this specific sign commonly accompanies the administration of sacraments (e.g. Confirmation) and the succession of the apostles, the laying on of hands must not be used here.
Some prohibited from receiving blessings
Finally, in the fourth and fifth observations, the private reply notes there are some who should neither approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those mentioned in canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, such as those under the penalty of excommunication and those persisting in manifest grave sin. Giving a blessing to these persons might give the impression that they are in full communion with the Church or have returned to good standing. In order to avoid the possibility of scandal, EMHCs should not give blessings.
Additions to the rite prohibited
Finally, even though the private reply does not specifically mention this, we ought to recall that “no one may on a personal initiative add to or omit or alter anything in [liturgical] books” as canon 846 of the Code of Canon Law clearly states. Nowhere in the Roman Missal or the GIRM are the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion instructed to bless those unable to receive communion; therefore, this practice of blessing is one of these additions to the rite which is strictly prohibited.
Making use of the sacramentals
Sometimes we may be tempted to think that since something is not part of the Mass it has no spiritual importance. But this would be to neglect the power of the sacramentals, such as blessings, which are liturgical actions signifying spiritual effects obtained through the intercession of the Church. Done properly and in the right context, these blessings better dispose us to receive grace and sanctify various occasions in life.
One such sacramental that lay persons may administer is the blessing of sons/daughters, which can be as simple as praying over your children: “May the Lord keep you and make you grow in his love, so that you may live worthy of the calling he has given you, now and for ever. Amen.”
Therefore, even if EMHCs are not permitted to give blessings during Mass, the desire to bless is good nonetheless and can become a fruitful aspect of our faith when done in accordance with the Church’s rites. As a parent, I have always enjoyed the practice of blessing my young children before bed and teaching them to reverence the Eucharist with a simple bow of the head as they walk past the minister of Holy Communion at Mass.
Paul Matenaer holds a M.T.S. from Ave Maria University, teaches for the Seat of Wisdom Diocesan Institute in the Diocese of Madison, and is currently studying canon law at St. Paul University in Ottawa, Ontario, where he lives with his wife and three children.