“If I can’t receive communion from a priest, then I won’t receive at all.”
This distressing statement is one that I have heard too many times. Even if the words are not said aloud, I have also seen this attitude in many people’s actions. As someone who has worked for the Church for a fair amount of time, one of the liturgical ministries I see the most controversy surrounding is that of extraordinary ministers of holy communion.
To be fair, many people have been given good reason to be skeptical of this ministry. Growing up and even in my undergraduate days at UD, I saw an overuse of EMHCs. They were well-meaning volunteers, but their lack of understanding of this ministry and of the Eucharist resulted in sloppy liturgical practices and sometimes even irreverence.
However, I think a quick look at canon law to shed some light on a proper understanding of this ministry and of the Eucharist, may help alleviate some of the concerns that many Catholics have about how communion is distributed, and by whom.
Every sacrament has an “ordinary,” or proper, minister, the person to whose office it properly belongs to confer that sacrament. The Church names three sacraments as those of “initiation”: Baptism, Confirmation and the Eucharist.
In Baptism, the ordinary minister is a bishop, priest or deacon (Canon 861 §1). However, in cases of extreme necessity, such as danger of death, anyone — including even a non-Catholic — can baptize validly, provided they have the right intention and use the proper matter and form, that is, water and the Trinitarian formula.
In Confirmation, the ordinary minister is a bishop, for it belongs most properly to his office, having received the fullness of Holy Orders, to confer that sacrament. However, a priest can also confer this sacrament validly in cases of necessity, if he has been granted the faculty to do so by his bishop. Often, cases like these are granted on an individual basis and only in special circumstances (Canons 882-888).
In the case of the Most Holy Eucharist, Canon 900 §1 states: “The minister who is able to confer the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.”
Later it continues in Canon 910 §1 and §2: “The ordinary minister of holy communion is a bishop, presbyter, or deacon. The extraordinary minister of holy communion is an acolyte or another member of the Christian faithful designated according to the norm of can. 230, §3.”
Canon 230, §3 states: “When the need of the Church warrants it and ministers are lacking, lay persons, even if they are not lectors or acolytes, can also supply certain of their duties, namely…to distribute Holy Communion, according to the prescripts of the law.”
In their general principles for EMHCs, the USCCB provides this: “In every celebration of the Eucharist, there should be a sufficient number of ministers of Holy Communion so that it may be distributed in a reverent and orderly manner. When the size of the congregation or the incapacity of the bishop, priest, or deacon requires it…‘the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, i.e., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose (GIRM 162).’”
The Church herself has recognized and approved the use of extraordinary ministers of holy communion, under the proper circumstances. The validity that we are concerned with has to do with the celebration of the Mass and the confection of the Eucharist. Because you see, Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, and who Jesus is, doesn’t change depending on our own level of worthiness.
The sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato, because of who God is, not because of who we are. The fact that Christ in the Eucharist is truly, fully and substantially present — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity — remains whether you are receiving Him from the Pope or from a fellow classmate serving as an EMHC. Jesus Christ entering our very bodies and souls — is what we need to be concerned about. This is what we should be preparing our hearts for.
So before you switch communion lines next time to avoid an EMHC, I invite you to reflect on what that action says about your belief in the Eucharist. Think more about who it is that you are preparing to receive, and not the person from whom you will receive Him.