Question: Why do we have so many lay eucharistic ministers in the Church today? Often they seem untrained, and they dress badly. I never heard of laypeople giving Communion in the Church before the Second Vatican Council. Do you think that Pope Benedict XVI will abolish lay eucharistic ministers, as some people would wish?
— Name and address withheld
Answer: I have no way of knowing whether or not we have too many lay eucharistic ministers (properly called extraordinary ministers of holy Communion) in the Church in general. Certainly in the parishes I am familiar with, there is no overabundance. Indeed, my own experience is that people are hesitant about becoming ministers due to a sense of unworthiness, as well as to certain shyness about being in public, and so it can be difficult to get people to sign up, and there are often more openings than there are ministers.
While priests and deacons are the ordinary ministers of the Eucharist, in most parishes in which there is only one or two priests, a significant cadre of extraordinary ministers is necessary to avoid unduly prolonging holy Communion, but equally importantly to minister to the homebound and those in nursing homes. (In my parish we have three hospitals and 26 nursing homes; I do not know what I would do without the lay eucharistic ministers.)
As to their training and dress, this is certainly a matter of concern to me, as it is to you. They need to be trained to very high standards and constantly monitored for competence and devotion. In the parishes in which I have served, I have solved the problem of dress by putting the lay eucharistic ministers in albs. This is totally appropriate and according to the norms of the Church. There is no excuse for ministers appearing untrained, and in every parish where the priest does not have time to take care of the matter there should be a coordinator who watches out for glitches and for problems like ministers stumbling over each other in the sanctuary.
While the introduction of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion was a development that came after Vatican II, there is plenty of evidence that laypeople distributed the Eucharist in the early centuries of the Church, and indeed often kept it in their homes (something proscribed nowadays) to be distributed at a later time. I do not for a moment think that Pope Benedict will abolish extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, as some people who intensely dislike their existence expect. What Pope Benedict, like his predecessors (including Pope Paul VI — who introduced extraordinary ministers) object to is the lack of reverence and a certain casualness that can overtake ministers, but not the existence of ministers themselves.
If we did not have lay eucharistic ministers, priests would be overwhelmed, and parish ministry to the sick and homebound would be drastically curtailed. That would surely be a very serious loss. Also with the existence of lay eucharistic ministers there has opened up the possibility of giving Communion under both species to the laity — which I regard as one of the most important liturgical developments since Vatican II (and approved formally by the council itself). So, I am all for extraordinary ministers of holy Communion — well-trained, well-dressed, devout, reverent and good models of Catholic faith. They play a crucial role in the Church and immensely enhance parish ministry.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.