EXTRAORDINARY MINISTERS OF HOLY COMMUNION IN THE CHURCH: MISCONCEPTIONS, QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
The inclusion of Rev Sisters/Seminarians/Rev Brothers/lay-faithfuls extraordinary ministers in the distribution of Communion does it emanate from the Papacy or from the Diocesan Bishops?
Firstly, apart from Bishops, Priests and Deacons, all other Ministers of Holy Communion fall into the category of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. It must be noted, however, that being an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion is not something automatic, irrespective of one’s maturity or level of learning or rank among the Lay Faithful. To be an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, one must be officially installed or commissioned for such ministry by a competent authority.
On the contrary, Bishops, Priests and Deacons are classified as Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. They are classified as Ordinary Ministers of Holy Communion because the faculty to function as a Minister of the Sacred Species is a natural consequence of their reception of any of the grades of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Secondly, the official Church, for various serious Pastoral Reasons, allows some lay persons (namely, Religious that are not clerics, maybe sometimes Seminarians also and other members of the laity) to assist in the distribution of Holy Communion at Mass or to help bring the Holy Communion to the sick or to those who through no fault of theirs cannot attend the Eucharistic Sacrifice, but who are prepared and disposed to receive Christ in the Eucharistic Species. They are known as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion . This group of Pastoral Assistants are officially designated and assigned, and normally through a written decree and a Liturgical Rite. They could be classified into three categories:
1) Firstly, those who were duly installed or instituted as Acolytes (before now open to only males). The ministry of acolyte is one of the minor ministries that exist in the Church. It is also one of the ministry a candidate to the permanent diaconate or priesthood must receive before receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders. For Pastoral Reasons, it can be conferred on someone also who is not on the process to the Clerical State. Apart from assisting the Bishops, Priests and Deacons at Mass, acolytes can function also as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Those who belong to this group are instituted or installed through the Rite of the Installation/Institution of Acolytes after having undergone the necessary formation stipulated by law.
2) secondly, those who were officially assigned as Extraordinary Ministers of Communion either at the Diocesan Level, or at the Parish Level, or in some Catholic Ecclesia Communities or also in some Lay Religious Communities. The person could be male or female. Those who belong to this group are commissioned by the Diocesan Bishop (or his equivalent in law e.g. Diocesan Administrator) through a Written Decree and a Liturgical Rite.
3) The third group involves the adhoc commissioning of someone, through a simple prayer over the person, to perform the duties of an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion for just one liturgical gathering. This is not a stable state, but an adhoc arrangement where pastoral exigencies necessitates that.
However, with the document Spiritus Domini published Muto proprio by Pope Francis on the 10th of January, both male and female can now receive the ministries of lector and acolyte after having undergone the formation stipulated by Law. This document made some changes from what used to be the norm as was directed by Pope Paul VI in the Motu Proprio Ministeria Quaedam (17 August 1972), that only allowed males to be admitted to the ministries of lector and acolyte. The document by Pope Francis also reformulated the words of Canon 230 § 1 to now read;
“Lay persons who possess the age and qualifications established by decree of the conference of bishops can be admitted on a stable basis through the prescribed liturgical rite to the ministries of Lector and Acolyte. Nevertheless, the conferral of these ministries does not grant them the right to obtain support or remuneration from the Church.”
Why is it that non of the above appears when a Bishop celebrates the Eucharist?
Where Extraordinary Ministers are duly formed and commissioned, there is nothing preventing them from assisting at Mass even when the Bishop presides the Holy Eucharist. However, the rule is that of Pastoral Need . Is there Pastoral Need at such occations for them to function. Pastoral Need in this case could be that distribution of Holy Communion by the Priests and Deacon alone at such Liturgical functions could unduly prolong the time of the Eucharistic Celebration. In summary, their ministry is subject to Pastoral Necessity. In a situation where there is good number of priests and deacons, as is usually the case in some of the masses celebrated by the Bishop, it becomes unnecessary for them to exercise the ministry of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. However, this does not prevent them to assist at Mass at other levels (e.g. preparing the offerings and making sure that the things needed for Mass are available).
(3) Why is it that non of the above appears in the anointing of the faithful with oil and during the imposition of the ashes on the forehead of the faithfuls?
Firstly, the Annointing of the Sick is one of the Seven Sacraments. The Ordinary Minister for this Sacrament is a Bishop or a Priest. Apart from assisting in the preparation of the place for the Celebration of this Sacrament and assisting the person to receive this Sacrament, and also remotely assisting the Bishop or Priest during the Celebration of this Sacrament, lay persons of every category cannot validly and fruitfully administer this Sacrament.
With respect to the distribution of ashes on Ash Wednesday, only priests or deacons can bless the ashes which are to be distributed to the faithful. Lay Persons are ordinarily excluded from the Rite of blessing of ashes. Where grave Pastoral Needs present themselves, lay persons can assist in the distribution of ashes; e.g., bringing ashes to a sick person in the hospital or an elderly person at home who cannot come to mass or even when there huge number of those to receive ashes.
Nota bene: In the event of extreme necessity (e.g. soldiers in the war front, communities totally cut off from priests through some form of natural disaster, etc), there is nothing that could prevent a lay person, with the right intention and in good faith, from adapting the Rite of Blessing of Ashes and distributing such also to those around.
Fr Cyril Nnamdi Unachukwu CCE
(2nd March 2021)
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