Taking the Law into their Own Hands

Taking the Law into their Own Hands
In the last couple of weeks, I have encountered two instances of people setting themselves up as liturgical police and attempting to impose their particular version of liturgical law on others.
In the first example, a pastoral care worker at an aged care facility asked whether a visiting special minister of communion from the local parish was entitled to refuse to give communion to one elderly lady with dementia because ‘she cannot recite the Our Father as required by Church law’.
I simply could not believe that a supposed ‘minister’ (from the Latin ministerium, meaning ‘service’) of the Church could take it upon herself to make up and enforce such a heartless rule. As the pastoral care worker said, it did not give the staff a very good impression of the Catholic Church, especially when they were aware that the elderly lady frequently said prayers in her first language of Italian.
Extraordinary Ministers of Communion do not take it upon themselves under any circumstances to refuse to give communion. The pastor gives his approval for certain sick and infirm people from the parish to be given communion in their homes or in institutions. It is certainly not the role of a lay minister to withdraw such permission.
In the second instance, I received an email saying:

“Occasionally in the parish we have lay led liturgies on a weekday when a priest is not available. We normally have Liturgy of the Word with Communion. This was the case this morning because our parish priest suddenly took ill.
After the service, a number of people, including several involved in parish liturgical ministry, complained that the communion was illegal, the rule being that when a Sunday Eucharist is available, communion should not be distributed at a lay led liturgy during the week.
I checked the Archdiocesan ‘Guidelines for Lay Leaders of Liturgy’ but could not find anything there to support their claim. Could you please clarify the situation for us?”

It is certainly not 'illegal' for lay ministers to distribute communion from the reserved sacrament at a Liturgy of the Word service during the week. Parishes cannot schedule regular Sunday Celebrations of the Word and Communion to replace Mass if Eucharist is celebrated at another time or in another place nearby (this does not apply to emergencies such as when the priest suddenly gets sick or doesn't turn up). Nowhere in the official liturgical documents is it stated that the distribution of communion cannot be added to a Liturgy of the Word held in a parish during the week when Sunday Eucharist is available.
Distributing communion outside Mass is not encouraged as a regular practice. If people too readily accept communion in place of Eucharist, the danger is that Eucharist will cease to be the 'summit and source' of Catholic worship. It also means that we can put off dealing with the issue of the shortage of priests to lead Eucharist.
Being a liturgical minister is not about enforcing liturgical law, particularly laws of one’s own making. Christian ministry is about service, not power or prestige. It carries on the saving work of Christ in the world and finds its source in the risen Christ. All those who minister in the Church need to keep in mind always that they act in Christ’s name.


Elizabeth Harrington