Issue: What is an “extraordinary” minister of Holy Communion? What is the role of lay people in the distribution of Holy Communion?
Response: An extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is an un-ordained person appointed by the bishop or his delegate to assist ordained ministers in the distribution of Communion. The “ordinary” ministers of Holy Communion are bishops, priests, and deacons, all of whom have received the sacrament of Holy Orders.
The Church does permit the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion under certain circumstances. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting Canon Law, provides:
When the necessity of the Church warrants it and when ministers are lacking, lay
persons . . . can also . . . distribute Holy Communion in accord with the prescriptions
of law (no. 903).
Discussion: Following the liturgical renewal of Pope St. Pius X via his decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus (1905), there was a great increase in the number of laity who received Holy Communion on a regular basis. In the last generation, there has been a decrease in the number of ordinary ministers, i.e., bishops, priests, and deacons. In light of these changes, the Church has authorized non-ordained or “extraordinary” ministers to distribute Communion. The use of extraordinary ministers has been controversial in some circles, with clergy and lay people disagreeing on when extraordinary ministers should be used.
First, we need to understand our terms properly. As noted above, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are bishops, priests, and deacons. Every other minister of Holy Communion is extraordinary. “Ordinary” in this sense does not mean what is customary or usual. It simply means “ordained.”
There are two types of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, in that some are acolytes. The ministry of acolyte, according to canon law, is open to lay men who have reached a specified age, and there is an installation liturgy at which the candidate receives this non-ordained ministry. Practically speaking, this ministry is usually reserved to seminarians who are preparing for priesthood. The vast majority of parishes in this country do not have formally installed acolytes. Others who are not acolytes are called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.”
The foregoing is summarized in Canon 910 of the Code of Canon Law:
§1 The ordinary minister of Holy Communion is a bishop, a presbyter [priest], or a deacon.
§2 The extraordinary minister of Holy Communion is an acolyte or other member of the Christian faithful deputed in accord with [Church law].
There is a 1973 Instruction of the Vatican Congregation for the Discipline of the Sacraments (Immensae Caritatis), which lists the circumstances in which local bishops may permit lay persons to distribute Communion. The first of these circumstances is “whenever no priest, deacon, or acolyte is available.”
The Vatican Congregation for the Sacraments further addressed the matter in its 1980 Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery (Inaestimabile Donum):
The faithful, whether religious or lay, who are authorized as extraordinary ministers of
the Eucharist, can distribute Communion only when there is no priest, deacon, or acolyte, when the priest is impeded by illness or age, or when the number of the faithful going to Communion is so large as to make the celebration of the Mass excessively long. Accordingly, a reprehensible attitude is shown by those priests who, though present at the celebration, refrain from distributing Communion and leave this task to the laity (no. 10).
The foregoing guidelines, in some circumstances, are open to interpretation. For example, when is the congregation so large that the use of extraordinary ministers is necessary to keep Mass from being “excessively long?” In such circumstances, the decision is ultimately subject to the discretion of the pastor.
The use of laypersons in the distribution of Holy Communion, while meeting very real needs in particular situations, has in many places become an overuse. Two relatively recent instructions from the Vatican have sought to reestablish the Church’s norms for their use:
Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priests (Ecclesiae de mysterio, 1997, various dicasteries).
Instruction on Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist (Redemptionis Sacramentum, 2004, Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments).
These instructions emphasize the difference between the service of the non-ordained faithful and that of the sacred ministers. They repeat proscriptions against the priests permitting the laity to serve in their stead. They also revisit criteria for the use of extraordinary ministers – when there is “a great number of the faithful” and when Mass would otherwise be “excessively prolonged.”
Also desirous of curbing their overuse, the U.S. Bishops included in their Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds (November 2011) the following consideration for the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion:
In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary ministers might in some circumstances constitute a reason either for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species or for using intinction instead of distributing the Precious Blood from the chalice (no. 24).
Holy Bible (Catholic Edition)
Catechism of the Catholic Church
Vatican II Documents
Code of Canon Law (Latin-English ed.)