Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: It is a common practice here in the Philippines to employ the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at virtually all Masses. Given the large number of communicants at every Mass, the episcopal conference here deemed it justifiable. Now, it has also become common for them to enter the sanctuary at the Agnus Dei and take the ciboria from the tabernacle and place them on the altar before the Ecce Agnus Dei. Is this a legitimate custom? It has also become common for some priests to leave the purification to the EMHCs. — D.T., Sibulan, Negros Oriental, Philippines
A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following regarding the moment extraordinary ministers should approach the altar:
“162. In the distribution of Communion, the Priest may be assisted by other Priests who happen to be present. If such Priests are not present and there is a truly large number of communicants, the Priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, that is, duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been duly deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the Priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion. These ministers should not approach the altar before the Priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the Priest Celebrant the vessel containing the species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.”
To this we may add the indications offered by the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:
“157. If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.
“158. Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.
“159. It is never allowed for the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion to delegate anyone else to administer the Eucharist, as for example a parent or spouse or child of the sick person who is the communicant.
“160. Let the diocesan Bishop give renewed consideration to the practice in recent years regarding this matter, and if circumstances call for it, let him correct it or define it more precisely. Where such extraordinary ministers are appointed in a widespread manner out of true necessity, the diocesan Bishop should issue special norms by which he determines the manner in which this function is to be carried out in accordance with the law, bearing in mind the tradition of the Church.”
In light of these documents, I believe that it is clear that the practice described is not legitimate. Extraordinary ministers should not approach the altar until the priest has received Communion and, during Mass, should receive the sacred vessels from the priest. If it is necessary to take hosts from the tabernacle (a necessity that should be avoided if possible), then it is a deacon or priest who brings these vessels to the altar, usually during the singing of the Lamb of God.
With respect to the purification of the sacred vessels: This task belongs first and foremost to the deacon. If there is no deacon, then an instituted acolyte substitutes the deacon. And finally, if neither of these is present, a priest performs the ablutions of the sacred vessels.
Under no circumstances should extraordinary ministers carry out this task during the celebration of Mass.
During a three-year period from 2002 until 2006 the bishops of the United States received an indult allowing this. The official letter granting the indult said, in part: “[F]or grave pastoral reasons, the faculty may be given by the diocesan bishop to the priest celebrant to use the assistance, when necessary, even of extraordinary ministers in the cleansing of sacred vessels after the distribution of Communion has been completed in the celebration of Mass. This faculty is conceded for a period of three years as a dispensation from the norm of the Institutio Generalis, edition typica tertia of the Roman Missal.”
When the indult expired in March 2005, the U.S. bishops’ conference requested an extension, but no immediate action was taken due to the death of Pope St. John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI. Finally, in 2006 the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship informed the president of the U.S. episcopal conference that the Holy Father had deemed it opportune to deny a request for renewal and the United States returned to the universal practice.
In other circumstances, such as when directing the rite of communion in the absence of a priest or bringing Communion to the sick, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion can legitimately take hosts from the tabernacle and purify the sacred vessels. This is not possible during Mass because the ordinary minister is necessarily present and should carry out his proper functions.