Since Vatican II (but not because of Vatican II, which is a common defense of liturgical abuse) we’ve had, at most parishes, a multitude of laypersons giving the the Holy Eucharist to the Catholic faithful – almost every time Mass would be celebrated. First and foremost, I would like to make the point that these laypersons who give Holy Communion are not actually to be called “Eucharistic Ministers”. The Eucharistic Minister (the “ordinary minister of Holy Communion”) is a bishop, priest, or deacon. The proper title for a non-ordained person who distributes the Eucharist would be “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion”.
I’d also like to make the point, before going further, that even if Father positively encourages laypeople to distribute Our Lord at Mass every week, the Church disagrees. If the Church disagrees, Father’s own opinion doesn’t really matter.
With that said, the title “Extraordinary Minister” does not mean that the minister is wonderful (in the way that a cake could be called “extraordinary”, for example). To find the meaning of the word “extraordinary” in this case, it helps to realize that it is in fact two words: extra+ordinary. Extra comes from Latin and means basically “outside of”. Ordinary is synonymous, more or less, with “common”. Thus, we have “outside of that which is common”.
And indeed, the Extraordinary Minister should be “out of the ordinary”. In an excellent Vatican document from 2004 entitled “Redemptionis Sacramentum”, we read the following:
157 If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.
158 The extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the priest and deacon are lacking, when the priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. … A brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.
God forbid Communion take a few extra minutes, right?
Now it is important to note that if you or someone close to you has been an Extraordinary Minister in the past, you’re not guilty of a sin, especially considering that you probably began that function in obedience to the priest’s request. Nevertheless, now you know the Vatican position on it, and the Vatican holds more weight than the priest’s desire.
My question is, if the constant use of Extraordinary Ministers is an abuse, how did the practice get so widespread? That’s a topic for another post, I guess.