Special Ministers of Communion

Last week I talked about Ministers of the word, those members of the assembly whose role it is to proclaim the scriptures at liturgy. This week I will look at those lay people who help with the distribution of Holy Communion during Mass and to the housebound.
People often use the term ‘eucharistic ministers’ to refer to these liturgical ministers, but the official designation is Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Now, we know that these people are special, but why are they labelled extraordinary when other liturgical ministers aren’t?
They are call extra-ordinary or special because the ordinary ministers of communion are bishops, priests and deacons, that is, those who have been admitted to holy orders.
At most celebrations of Mass there is only one priest and no deacon. Now that most people receive communion every time they come to Mass and communion is usually under both kinds, special ministers are needed so that the time taken for communion is not disproportionately long in comparison with other elements of the liturgy. Special ministers are not used for the sake of speed or efficiency, however, but to ensure that sharing communion is a genuine experience of eating and drinking together
The role of special ministers is to serve the assembly by distributing the elements during the Communion Rite, so they are Special Ministers of Communion not ‘eucharistic ministers’. The latter term should be used only to refer to the ordained minister, the one who presides at the eucharist.
The ministry of assisting with the distribution of communion was first established by Pope Paul VI in the instruction Immensae Caritatis issued in 1973. This document refers to the need for special ministers at Mass ‘lest reception of communion become difficult because of insufficient ministers’. Also, when the ordinary ministers are unable to take communion frequently to the sick and aged, special ministers are needed ‘so that the faithful may not be deprived of this sacramental help and consolation’.
The bishop, as chief pastor of the diocese, is responsible for approving people as ministers of communion. These ministers are carefully selected by the parish priest. Prior to their designation to the ministry they are required to undertake preparation consisting of liturgical and spiritual formation as well as practical training. They are then commissioned by a public rite of designation celebrated in the community where they will function.
The liturgical ministry of communion is a very personal and caring ministry. It is also a ministry of unity, faith, respect and hospitality.
Communion ministers need to be those who respect all people and have a caring approach inside and outside the liturgy; who are comfortable making contact with people with eyes, words and hands; who are willing to forget themselves in order to serve others.
Communion ministers need to develop the art of dignified movement and be able to hold the plate and cup and share the consecrated bread and wine with reverence. Above all, they need the capacity to be truly present to the other in that special moment of communion together as members of “The Body of Christ”


Elizabeth Harrington