Communion from the Altar Part II

The admonition in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal about feeding people from the altar and not from the tabernacle is not “something thought up by the Second Vatican Council” as I once heard somebody claim! As far back as 1742 Pope Benedict XIV highlighted the importance of receiving Holy Communion in a way which insures that “one and the same sacrifice is shared by the priest and the faithful”. This does not happen when we receive Communion from what was offered by other people at another time.

The reason for reserving the consecrated bread is twofold – to provide Communion for the housebound and for the purpose of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. It is not to provide a supply of hosts to service several Masses.

More than 50 years ago, Pope Pius XII stressed the importance of keeping the Mass as an act of sacrifice separate from the worship of adoration so that the faithful would clearly understand the distinctive character of each:

“The altar surpasses the tabernacle because on it is offered the sacrifice of the Lord. In the tabernacle, on the other hand, Christ is present as long as the consecrated species remain, without, however, offering himself perpetually.”

With such strong arguments against the practice, why do people never complain about being given Communion week after week from hosts consecrated at a previous Mass? Perhaps the Church has done too good a job of encouraging people to be “receivers” of Communion and not formed them into an understanding of being “participants” in the Paschal Mystery.

It should be standard practice that hosts from the tabernacle are never brought to the altar before the Communion of the faithful begins. Experienced sacristans can estimate attendance at Mass pretty exactly and adjust the number of hosts on the plate accordingly before it is brought up in the procession of gifts.

If a Communion Minister runs low, more hosts can be obtained from a nearby minister or the last few hosts can be broken. People only object to receiving “part of a host” when parishes use almost exclusively individual round hosts instead of communal altar bread which can be broken and shared.

The ciborium is needed only if it seems that there will not be sufficient hosts even if some are broken. Any left-over hosts can be taken to the tabernacle on a paten and placed in the ciborium. If you want to play it safe, a Special Minister who is not serving can be rostered at each Mass to get the ciborium from the tabernacle after they have received Communion and unobtrusively place it on the altar in case it is needed.

It is less tempting to use the tabernacle regularly during Mass if only a small amount is reserved there. This supply should never be “topped up” during the week unless needed for Communion to the Sick. It is possible to put out close to the exact amount of bread required at weekday Masses and any that remains may be consumed rather than being taken to the tabernacle.

The nature of the liturgical sign demands that all present be able to partake of “the one loaf and the one cup” sanctified at that Mass and thus “become one body, one spirit in Christ”.



Elizabeth Harrington