Who is a Minister of the Eucharist?

…and other facts about Holy Communion

Last week during our Credo discussion after Mass, we had an interesting conversation about the Eucharist. While we discussed many of the theological and spiritual considerations around Holy Communion, we didn’t get a chance to cover what you might call some of the “straightforward facts” about the Blessed Sacrament: who can administer it? who can receive it? what are the guidelines for reception?

Eucharistic Minister

One of my big pet peeves in the Church is when Catholics casually refer to the lay people who assist in distributing Holy Communion at Mass as “Eucharistic Ministers.” This is not correct.

The minister of the sacrament of the Eucharist is a priest. Only a priest has the authority from the Church to celebrate the sacrament. Only a priest can offer Mass. Priests are, by definition, the proper ministers of the Eucharist, therefore only priests can rightly be called Eucharistic Ministers.

Deacons, as ordained ministers of the Church, properly assist the priest in distributing the Eucharist to the faithful at Mass. They also are entrusted with taking the Eucharist to those ill or homebound who cannot participate in the Sunday liturgy at the parish. They cannot celebrate the Eucharist, so they are not ministers of the Eucharist. But they do administer Communion (communion being the act of receiving the Eucharist) and so are rightly called Ministers of Holy Communion.

Lay people can be deputed, on either a temporary or ongoing basis, to assist the priests and deacons of the Church to distribute the Eucharist either at Mass or to the homebound. Since they are not ordained, they are not ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, but are called Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.

“Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion” (or EMHC) may be more of a mouthful than “Eucharistic Minister” but it is the proper term. Making sure we use the correct terminology helps us to remain aware of the important distinctions between the laity and clergy when it comes to their role in administering the sacraments.

Who Can Receive?

Most people are aware that the Catholic Church observes closed Communion, meaning that one has to be in communion with the Catholic Church in order to receive communion in the Catholic Church. The Eucharist is the preeminent sign of our communion and so it makes sense that it should only be received by those in communion with the Church.

But it’s not as simple as “Catholics can receive, Protestants cannot.”

The Church teaches that in order to receive the Eucharist, a person must not only be an initiated (baptized) member of the Catholic Church, but must also be in a state of grace — that is, not conscious of any mortal sin. If one has committed a mortal sin, then one needs to go to Confession and receive absolution before receiving the Eucharist. This is because mortal sin breaks our communion with God and with the Church; Confession restores that communion.

We don’t have the space here to go into what constitutes a mortal sin vs. a venial sin, or the spiritual harm that can come from receiving the Eucharist in a state of mortal sin. Suffice to say, if you are aware of having committed a serious sin, you should go to Confession before receiving the Eucharist. This is why in many parishes (including our campus ministry), Confession is offered before Mass.

The Church also teaches that we should prepare our bodies to receive the Eucharist by observing a period of fasting. The time of fasting used to be more extensive in the past, but today the Church only asks us to fast for one hour before receiving the Eucharist. In other words, don’t eat or drink anything (other than water) before Mass.

What if you are not receiving?

If you are not receiving the Eucharist, it is a common practice in many Catholic parishes in the US to come forward in the Communion line with arms crossed to receive a blessing. However, this is not actually part of the ritual of the Mass.

There is nothing in the Church’s liturgy that calls for those not receiving Communion to present themselves for a special blessing. In fact, it actually disrupts the liturgical action taking place. During communion, the priest, deacon, or EMHC is distributing Communion. Asking the priest or deacon to give a special blessing at this time (a lay EMHC can’t offer blessings) interrupts the action in progress.

Technically speaking, it is not proper for a minister to offer a blessing while the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. This is because Christ present in the Sacrament is himself the highest blessing. Many priests I know work around this by offering a “mini-benediction” with the consecrated host, similar to the benediction at the end of Adoration, instead offering a blessing with their own hands.

Simply put, the Communion Rite of the Mass is the time to receive Communion, not the time for giving blessings. Everyone in the congregation will receive a blessing at the end of Mass just a few minutes later, whether they have received the Eucharist or not. Let this blessing be enough.

So what should you do if you aren’t receiving Communion? Remaining in the pew and praying is always an option. You shouldn’t feel obliged to go forward in the line just because everyone else is.

Proper Posture for Receiving Communion

A lot of e-ink has been spilled over the comparative merits of receiving standing or kneeling, in the hand or on the tongue. Whatever posture one personally prefers, the Church does have a standard practice.

The current norm for reception of Communion in the Catholic Church in the US is to receive standing and on the tongue.

The Church allows the communicant to receive kneeling. And the Church allows the communicant to receive in the hand. These are both permitted options. But the norm is standing and on the tongue.

Body, Blood, or Both?

What about when the priest only offers the Body of Christ (the host) to the faithful and not the Blood of Christ (the consecrated wine)? Or what if the minister runs out of the Precious Blood before you can receive? Is it OK to receive just the Body of Jesus? Do you only get half of Jesus?

The Church teaches that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ is substantially present in the Eucharist — even the smallest crumb of consecrated bread or the tiniest drop of the consecrated wine. To receive under only one species, even a small amount, is to receive the Whole Christ.

The only person required to receive under both kinds is the celebrating priest, because drinking from the chalice completes the sacrificial ritual.

How Often Can You Receive?

Because it is true that the Whole Christ is present in even the smallest particle of the Sacrament, you don’t get “more Jesus” if you receive the sacrament more than once in a day.

In order to prevent the misconception that you become more holy by receiving more Eucharist, the Church limits how often the faithful should receive.

The faithful are permitted to receive twice in one day, provided that they are participating in two Masses (in other words, not a Mass and a Communion Service).

We hope these facts and guidelines around reception of the Eucharist are helpful! Let us give thanks always for this precious gift God offers us at each Mass, and pray that we may always receive His Son with reverence and devotion, that he may be our true spiritual food that nourishes us unto eternal life.