Communion from the Altar in Practice

Q. I have just been reading the Liturgy Lines article in reference to communion being distributed from hosts that have been stored in the tabernacle.  Do you have any practical suggestions to offer as to how we can organise for the right number of hosts to be consecrated?

A. The average attendance at Sunday Masses is a starting point for deciding how much bread to provide for communion. Sacristans and/or greeters soon become skilled in knowing if there is a significant deviation from the norm at a particular Mass and can alter the amount accordingly.

Perhaps the best person to do this though is the presider who is in a position to judge the numbers at Mass fairly accurately and can remove or add bread if necessary after it has been brought up in the procession of gifts. This is especially the case at school or funeral Masses when people without experience often overestimated what is required.

Being faithful to what the liturgy documents say about the bread for communion also helps:

“By reason of the sign, it is required that the material for the Eucharistic Celebration truly have the appearance of food. Therefore, it is desirable that the Eucharistic bread, even though unleavened and made in the traditional form, be fashioned in such a way that the Priest at Mass with the people is truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful. ... Moreover, the gesture of the fraction or breaking of bread, which was quite simply the term by which the Eucharist was known in apostolic times, will bring out more clearly the force and importance of the sign of the unity of all in the one bread, and of the sign of charity by the fact that the one bread is distributed among the brothers and sisters.” (GIRM 321)

The communal whole-wheat altar bread made by Cavanagh has the appearance of real food and allows the bread to be broken for the entire assembly.  Four of them break into one hundred pieces so it is easy to estimate the number required for the whole assembly.

A video clip on the Liturgy Brisbane website ( demonstrates breaking six altar breads for one hundred and fifty people and dividing them evenly into four vessels.  Breaking the bread this way is not prolonged and can be done easily in the time taken to sing the Lamb of God.

The document Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass says: “The consecrated hosts are to be frequently renewed and reserved in a ciborium or other vessel, in a number sufficient for the communion of the sick and of others outside Mass.” Again there is no mention of hosts being reserved in the tabernacle for distribution at Mass. Constantly “topping-up” the ciborium goes against the call for reserved consecrated bread to be frequently renewed so that it retains the taste and appearance of real food.

Even if for some reason we believe that normal principles of hospitality do not apply here, respect for Christ’s real presence should urge us to ensure that the bread which bears the sign never becomes old and stale as happens when hosts are allowed to accumulate in the bottom of ciboria!

Elizabeth Harrington