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Extraordinary Ministers and Both Species of Communion

And more on shifting or substituting the Sunday Liturgy.
by Father Edward McNamara, LC | Source:

Question: I understand that the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion is to be just that, "extraordinary." I also understand that the distribution of the Blessed Sacrament under both species to all the faithful has been allowed by the U.S. bishops' conference, given its fuller sign value. Thus my question is this: Which trumps which? It is almost unheard of for a parish to distribute Communion under both species without recourse to extraordinary ministers. Is it preferable to avoid using extraordinary ministers and distribute under one species only? Or is it preferable to distribute under both species and have recourse to extraordinary ministers on an ordinary basis? -- V.D., New York

Answer: I would say that the word "extraordinary" has several shades of meaning and this probably leads to some confusion.

From the liturgical point of view, an extraordinary minister is one who performs a liturgical act in virtue of a special delegation and not as an ordinary minister. Thus, in the case of Holy Communion, the ordinary ministers are the bishop, priest and deacon. That is, it is a normal part of their ministry to distribute Communion.

Anyone else who distributes Communion does so as an extraordinary minister. That is, it is not a normal part of their liturgical functions, but they have received this mission in virtue of a delegation. The instituted acolyte receives this delegation ex officio, so to speak, in virtue of his institution. He may also purify the sacred vessels in the absence of the deacon as well as expose and reserve the Blessed Sacrament in a simple manner for a period of adoration.

All other ministers act in virtue of a habitual delegation from the local bishop, usually acting through the pastor, or an immediate ad hoc delegation from the priest celebrant to respond to difficult circumstances.

Therefore, the status of extraordinary minister is not dependent on the ministry's frequency but rather pertains to the nature of the ministry itself. Even if one were to assist in administrating Communion every day for several years, one never becomes an ordinary minister in the canonical or liturgical sense.

Another case of the concept of extraordinary minister is the role of a priest with respect to the sacrament of confirmation in the Latin rite. Canon law Nos. 882-888 state that the bishop is the ordinary minister of confirmation, but the law foresees the possibility of priests administering this sacrament under certain conditions.

For most other sacraments, especially penance, Eucharist, holy orders and anointing of the sick, there is no possibility of extraordinary ministers.

However, the current use of the word extraordinary is not unknown in liturgical norms. For example, the 2004 instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum" says: "It is the Priest celebrant's responsibility to minister Communion, perhaps assisted by other Priests or Deacons; and he should not resume the Mass until after the Communion of the faithful is concluded. Only when there is a necessity may extraordinary ministers assist the Priest celebrant in accordance with the norm of law" (No. 88).

This same document refers to the practice of Communion under both species:

"[100.] So that the fullness of the sign may be made more clearly evident to the faithful in the course of the Eucharistic banquet, lay members of Christ’s faithful, too, are admitted to Communion under both kinds, in the cases set forth in the liturgical books, preceded and continually accompanied by proper catechesis regarding the dogmatic principles on this matter laid down by the Ecumenical Council of Trent.

"[101.] In order for Holy Communion under both kinds to be administered to the lay members of Christ's faithful, due consideration should be given to the circumstances, as judged first of all by the diocesan Bishop. It is to be completely excluded where even a small danger exists of the sacred species being profaned …."

Thus, while Communion under both species is praised there might be circumstances where prudence recommends forgoing it because of the practical difficulties entailed. Hence "Redemptionis Sacramentum" continues in No. 102:

"The chalice should not be ministered to lay members of Christ's faithful where there is such a large number of communicants that it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that 'more than a reasonable quantity of the Blood of Christ remain to be consumed at the end of the celebration.' The same is true wherever access to the chalice would be difficult to arrange, or where such a large amount of wine would be required that its certain provenance and quality could only be known with difficulty, or wherever there is not an adequate number of sacred ministers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion with proper formation, or where a notable part of the people continues to prefer not to approach the chalice for various reasons, so that the sign of unity would in some sense be negated."

From this text we can adduce that, in principle at least, Church norms recognize the possibility of using well-formed extraordinary ministers to assist in distributing Communion under both species. Therefore, rather than one norm trumping the other, it is a question of evaluating all the pertinent circumstances before deciding what to do. The mere fact of having to use extraordinary ministers does not appear to be a sufficient reason not to proceed with Communion under both species, provided that the ministers are duly qualified.

While Communion under both species is graced with indubitable spiritual advantages, it is not an absolute value and, as the norms suggest, it should be omitted if there is any danger of profanation or due to serious practical difficulties.

Nobody is deprived of any grace by not receiving from the chalice, as Christ is received whole and entire under either species.

* * *

Shifting or Substituting the Sunday Liturgy

Question 1: We here in Nepal have a very peculiar situation. Sunday is a normal working day in this country (I believe also in many Arabian countries). Therefore, over many years (30-plus), we have been having our entire Sunday celebration shifted to Saturday, the only day on which people could participate fully. However, this has led to some confusion: For some people it is hard to feel that the Sunday obligation is fulfilled by attending Mass on Saturday. Another problem is the question over what Mass to celebrate on Sunday. Some of us just repeat the same Mass; some others instead celebrate the Saturday Mass on Sunday. At times, some of the feasts on Saturdays are lost because of our particular situation. I personally miss the Saturday Mass, because I am used to celebrating on both days. And to add to all this, is our national calendar, which is different from the Gregorian calendar; the month begins somewhere in the middle of the Gregorian calendar. For all official purposes we have to use that national calendar, and most of our people too use that calendar. For example, we had debates on several occasions: When is the first Friday of the month? As per the Nepali calendar or the Christian calendar? -- P.P., Katmandu, Nepal

Question 2: Here in our country, very often parishes celebrate the parish feast on Sundays, e.g. the feast of St Jude's Church, etc. Is this correct? If the Sunday Readings are not proclaimed but some other readings pertaining to the feast day are read, I thought that it is not right to do so. -- M.J., Colombo, Sri Lanka

Answer: As both questions are related to the Sunday liturgy, I will attempt to answer them together.

In the first case, it is important to remember that for Christians Sunday as such is not a transferable feast. During the first three centuries Christians met on Sunday even though it was a normal working day, and many of them were slaves taking a great risk. This often meant getting up very early or perhaps sneaking out in the evening. (Of course, we are also in an epoch when the mere fact of being a Christian could lead to a painful death.) As one group of ancient martyrs famously related to the magistrate who sentenced them, "We cannot live without Sunday."

Sunday Mass has not lost any of its value or importance to the lives of Catholics, nor have they become less heroic in defending their faith as recent events have shown. At the same time, the present circumstances of Christian living and the Church's desire to care for the spiritual needs of as many of the flock as possible can lead to some innovations.

Therefore what is the situation of Sunday in Nepal, Arabia and some similar situations?

First of all, Sunday always remains Sunday, and the proper liturgy of the day should always be celebrated. Likewise as far as possible the faithful should attend Mass on Sunday or on Saturday evening. If it is necessary and useful, then priests should be willing to celebrate Mass at unusual times.

In those cases where permission has been granted for Sunday liturgy to be celebrated on a Friday or Saturday morning because Sunday is a normal workday, it is important to note that it is not a case of transferring Sunday to another day. Rather, it is a pastoral response so that those Catholics who find it impossible to attend Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday might not be deprived of the riches offered by the three-year cycle of biblical readings and prayers.

Canonically speaking, those who are objectively unable to attend Sunday Mass are dispensed from the precept and in fact have no obligation to attend Mass on Friday or Saturday Morning. If they do attend, then they do something that is very good. And when this is a common situation pastors act well in addressing their spiritual needs by providing the best liturgical fare while being careful to avoid the impression that they are moving Sunday to another day.

As our correspondent points out, this can sometimes lead to losing some celebrations that fall on a Saturday. In some cases it might be enough to mention the feast in the prayers of the faithful and the homily; on others it might be pastorally more useful to actually celebrate the feast on Saturday morning instead of using the Sunday texts.

The other question, regarding the proper calendar to follow when the local one is different, is something of a conundrum. In such cases the local bishops would be the ones to decide. If need be, the bishop would ask the Holy See for permission to change the dates of certain liturgical feasts that are tied to the Gregorian calendar, such as the solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

Since practices such as the first Friday or first Saturdays are devotional and not official liturgical practices, I see no difficulty in adjusting the practice to local needs.

Finally, a reply to our reader from Sri Lanka: Since the patron saint of a parish is usually ranked as a solemnity within the parish church itself, it is permitted to transfer the celebration to the nearest Sunday so as to allow as many parishioners as possible to attend.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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