What constitutes the necessity of the use of extraordinary ministers at the distribution of Holy Communion?
In describing what determines the need for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, it is first necessary to define this title, especially in relationship to other ministries. Whereas most ministries at Mass are “ordinary,” such as priest celebrant, altar server(s), reader(s), etc., the ministry of distributing Holy
Communion is subject to circumstances where in some cases it is carried out by those whose ministry is “extraordinary.” Those ministries that are deemed
ordinary are carried out by those for who their state in life it is proper for such—the ordained priest as celebrant, an ordained deacon who proclaims the Gospel and assists directly at the altar, or by laity who rightly are called to proclaim the non-Gospel Scripture readings and may assist with bring the bread, water, and wine to the altar. On the other hand, ministries that are considered “extraordinary” belong to a category of ministries that are properly called “collaborative ministries.” Canon Law defines such collaborative ministries this way in canon 230 §3: “When the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can supply certain of their duties, namely…to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law.” In other words, the employment of ministers in a “collaborative” or “extraordinary ministry” is to be based upon an actual need for assistance by the clergy (those who “ordinarily” offer the ministry) when there are not a sufficient number of clergy available to provide for the pastoral needs.
Therefore, the necessity of employing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion is fully in consequence of not having enough clergy available to carry out this task. Perhaps you have noticed here that the deacons who are present at Mass, even if they are not directly serving on the altar, always distribute Holy Communion ahead of any lay people doing so – in keeping with these principles of the clergy being the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and laity only serving extraordinarily. How is the necessity for extraordinary ministers determined, one may ask? It should be based strictly on whether or not the ordained clergy can fittingly carry out the task in a
manner that is neither too burdensome nor requiring an inordinately long time period.
Now some would argue that having the laity assist with distributing Holy Communion is a way to have more people participating at Mass – and thus should be encouraged. However, what is more important as a means of participation at Mass is that all people, according to their state in life – founded upon baptism - are able to prayerfully enter into the mystery of the Eucharist, praying, meditating, and receiving the graces that Jesus Christ offers through the Mass. In this case, extraordinary
ministers of Holy Communion would rightly be understood as being used only when the circumstance of not having enough clergy to carry out this task is present.
Therefore, such a need for extraordinary ministers is truly more limited than we sometimes may have experienced. Risk I say: I believe that Church’s across our country would look quite different if all truly knew and took to heart these few words above about proper participation in the Mass – and especially that true participation is less about “doing” and more about “prayerfully entering into the mystery.”
While these words may raise concern in some minds and hearts, I do say that at present, our diocese’s leaders (that is, the Bishop and in particular the “Presbyteral Council” that advises him on matters pertaining to pastoral concerns in the diocese) are reviewing our policies and procedures on extraordinary ministers of Holy
Communion. In due time, it is hoped that all parishes will be both more consistent and more effective in the employing of such extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion – that the Eucharist will be offered in the most reverent and proper manner – facilitating more fully the conscious participation of all the faithful.