Thursday, September 3, 2015

Ask Tony: Should I receive Communion only from a priest or deacon?

In the Crux article referenced in the screencap to your left, the author, Rev. Kenneth Doyle, answers the question with a verbal shrug: “It is, of course, the same Eucharist — whether received from a priest or from a lay minister — and ... I am a bit surprised when someone feels compelled to make a choice.” Referring to a deceased parishioner’s aversion to lay Eucharistic ministers, Fr. Doyle said, “In the scope of things, I felt that his preference was a small issue. For me, it came under the heading of the ‘big tent’ that embraces a wide variety of Catholics.”

The person at Saint Gabriel’s Newsroom who wrote the “Share” was, at bare minimum, uncharitable: nothing Fr. Doyle said was in any meaningful sense modernist, nor did he deny or denigrate the right of the consecrated to distribute the Eucharist. Moreover, the boast that s/he only receives on his/her knees and from consecrated ministers is so pompously self-congratulatory it invites ridicule; as we used to say when I was a kid, “Whaddaya want for that, a Bozo button?”

What really is the issue here?

In 1973, with the approval of Ven. Pope Paul VI, the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship issued the Instruction Immensae Caritatis, which authorized the appointment of “special ministers” from the ranks of the non-ordained to assist with the distribution of Communion. Eventually, to underline the fact that deacons and priests were the ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the title of these appointees was changed to “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion” (usually abbreviated EMHC).

Uncharacteristically, the Vatican was thinking ahead. The years since the close of Vatican II had already seen a wave of priests and ordained religious exiting the ranks, especially since the promulgation of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, which was widely (and rightfully) interpreted as a sign that the Vatican was refusing to change in the way many “reformers” wanted. This exodus would continue over the next three decades; only in recent years have the number of ordained priests begun to rise again. I have read elsewhere that the number of priests per 1,000 Catholics in America prior to 1965 was much higher than was historically usual. In any event, the main purpose of authorizing EMHCs was to permit as much access to Communion as possible under different circumstances.

However, the introduction of the EMHCs was simply one of many changes to the celebration of the Mass that had occurred in a remarkably short time, many of which were never foreseen or called for by the Council. For our purpose here, the most important effect of these changes was the alienation of Catholics who were fond of the ancient Latin rite, and who saw the changes as not only unnecessary but ugly, even corrupting. Over the years, the numbers of the traditionalists have been slowly growing; however, there are no firm numbers to say how large a proportion they are of practicing Catholics.

EMHCs are simply one of many sore points in the relationship of traditionalists with the Church at large. To most, the sanctity of the Eucharist is subtly denied by being held by unanointed hands, as is the sanctity of the sanctuary by the treading of so many profane feet. Clericalism may be a legitimate concern; traditionalists, however, are equally concerned that over-emphasis on lay participation and the universal priesthood of believers has led to a blurring of distinctions. The Vatican echoed this concern, and attempted to alleviate it, in a later instruction from the Pontifical Council for the Laity, clarifying the limits to which laypersons could share in the ministry of priests. Nevertheless, traditionalists still contend that lay participation in distributing the Eucharist diminishes the perception of the sacred in the ritual. Their arguments have much to commend them, when made respectfully and charitably.

Make no mistake, however: whether or not you like the use of EMHCs, their use is both canonically valid and licit. Receiving the Eucharist from a priest or deacon isn’t the problem — the problem is going out of one’s way to not receive it from an EMHC. The Body and Blood lose nothing essential by being received from a duly-appointed layperson. Or, to put it more strongly: receiving only from the ordained doesn’t make you a better Catholic.

So what’s the point of going to all the trouble?

It’s one thing to want to pay special reverence (latria) to the Body and Blood by receiving them on the tongue while you kneel. But to deliberately avoid an Extraordinary Minister is to pass an implicit judgment on his/her fitness to distribute that isn’t within the layperson’s competence. If the priest and the bishop have no objection to him/her touching the Eucharist, neither should you. Again, it’s one thing to avoid an action specifically forbidden by liturgical norms; for instance, holding one’s hands out in the orans position, a gesture reserved by the rubrics to the celebrant(s) (see Pontifical Council of the Laity, “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests”, 6.2). However, EMCHs don’t fall into this category.

Saint Francis, I’ve been told, was once asked what he would do if he knew the celebrant of the Mass were in an illicit relationship with a woman. He replied, “I would receive the Body of my Lord from the hands of his anointed priest.” You, dear Catholic reader, go to Mass to worship the Lord, to hear His words and participate in His sacrament ... not to cause a disruption, to force a change, or to score liturgical points. If the issue matters that much to you, find a parish where there are no EMHCs.

If you can’t, then don’t disrupt the participation of others with your peregrinations. Simply get in the nearest line and, with grace and gratitude, receive the Eucharist from the validly-appointed person at the head of it.

That is all. Semper Fi.