ROME, SEPT. 7, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: My parish is thinking of making young teenagers into extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in order to try to keep them practicing their faith. I myself am not very comfortable with this, especially as they do not help with anything else round the parish. I think that "He who is faithful in little things," etc., and that they should be encouraged with smaller jobs, at least to begin with. So what is the minimum age for an extraordinary minister? I have looked up references to extraordinary ministers on your Web site but they do not seem to answer this question. -- G.D., High Wycombe, England

A: This is not an easy question to answer, as it appears that there are no universal norms to guide us. It should be remembered, however, that this decision does not belong primarily to the parish but to the bishop. Also, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be called upon only if really needed.

I would also question the wisdom of the motivation. While not making any mention of age, the norms of the 1973 document "Immensae Caritatis" indicate the qualities of the person chosen for this ministry:

"The faithful who are special ministers of communion must be persons whose good qualities of Christian life, faith, and morals recommend them. Let them strive to be worthy of this great office, foster their own devotion to the eucharist, and show an example to the rest of the faithful by their own devotion and reverence toward the most august sacrament of the altar. No one is to be chosen whose appointment the faithful might find disquieting."

While there are many young people who have shown heroic sanctity and not a few fulfill the requirements mentioned above, I do not consider it appropriate to use this very important ministry as a means of retaining interest in attending Mass. A young person should only be considered as a suitable candidate if he or she would go to Mass anyway.

Even among those churches whose bishops have issued norms, there is quite a difference in opinion.

In the United States it would appear that the most common minimum age is 18. This is the norm in dioceses such as New York and St. Louis. Some others have a lower age, such as Detroit which indicates "high school age."

Most European countries such as Germany and Italy as well as some Latin American bishops seem to opt for higher minimum ages of between 21-30 years old, although exceptions can also be found.

In Italy, the bishops set the minimum age for seminarians to receive the ministries of instituted lector or acolyte at 21. The bishops consider that "before this age it is difficult that the person has reached a stable orientation and the candidate an acquired pastoral rapport."

If this is required of a seminarian who has received several years of formation, some bishops draw the conclusion that an even higher level of maturity is required of laypeople. Thus many Italian dioceses, such as the Patriarchate of Venice, have established 25 years as the minimum age for extraordinary ministers.

In 2009 the archbishop of Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo issued precise norms in this respect. We offer them as an example, fully aware that each bishop is free to judge for himself what is best pastorally for his own diocese:

"1) The mandate of EMHC is conferred exclusively by the Archbishop who, for the moment, has decided not to avail himself of the faculty of permitting priests to entrust this mission to suitable persons in cases of necessity [...]. Therefore, no priest or deacon may entrust this mission to others on his own initiative.

"2) The choice of the candidates must be made in a community manner, hearing the parish pastoral council, and must take into account the following:

"-- A good level of Christian formation, especially formation obtained at an Institute of Religious Sciences or similar institute;
"-- Full ecclesial communion;
"-- A solid Eucharistic piety;
"-- A recognized capability of dialogue, of attentiveness and service toward the elderly and sick;
"-- Eventual experience as a volunteer or with Caritas;
"-- Commitment toward some specific sector of diocesan or parish pastoral service. Particular care should be taken in choosing the candidates for this ministry so as to avoid causing disquieting the faithful.

"3) Superiors of communities of female religious can be granted this ministry during their mandate, although the dispositions of numbers 2, 4, and 8 also apply to them.

"4) Each pastor shall evaluate the number of extraordinary ministers (men and women) to be presented to the archbishop, with the written consent of the candidate, and according to real needs.

"5) Those who can be proposed for this ministry must have reached 25 years of age in analogy with the dispositions of the Bishops' Conference with respect to the ministries of lector and acolyte. The mission of extraordinary minister ends on reaching 75 years of age.

"6) The conferral of the ministry will be ordinarily held in the cathedral presided over by the Archbishop.

"7) The diocesan liturgical office will grant a credential card with the duration of validity and eventual renewal of the ministry.

"8) The duration will be normally three years and renewable on the request of the pastor or religious superior and with the consent of the minister.

"9) The ministry can only be carried out in the place for which it has been granted (parish, religious community) as specified in the credential."

These precise norms are clearly not applicable everywhere, but I believe that they do go to show the seriousness with which the process of choosing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be taken.

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Follow-up: Speaking in Tongues at Mass

After our mention of the norms of the Brazilian bishops' conference on speaking and praying in tongues during Mass (see Aug. 24), a reader from Indiana wrote:

"In 1975, at the International Conference on the Charismatic Renewal held in Rome, Pope Paul VI allowed Cardinal Suenens to concelebrate a charismatic Mass in St. Peter's. At that Mass, there was most definitely praying in tongues (not 'speaking in tongues') along with singing in tongues by the cardinals, bishops, priests and laypeople all gathered together at this Mass, with the Pope's approval. It was a beautiful time of worship in the heart of the Church. The Pope himself spoke to us after Mass with words of welcome and advice for those involved in the charismatic renewal. It is important to make a distinction, as St. Paul himself does, between speaking in tongues and praying in tongues."

The document I quoted from Brazil clearly made the distinction between praying and speaking in tongues, but finally decided that neither was appropriate in the context of Mass.

The fact that in 1975 Pope Paul VI allowed this concelebration in no way suggests an official approval of all charismatic practices during Mass. In 1975 the Catholic charismatic renewal was barely 8 years old and the Pope was offering cautious encouragement to the movement.

The Church is not hasty in granting definitive approvals or condemnations. It prefers to observe new spiritual realities and orientate little by little. In this sense the 1994 Brazilian document or the 2000 Instruction on Prayers for Healing by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith represent more mature reflections in the light of lived experience.

The aim of such reflections and guidelines is not to condemn the charismatic renewal but to help it achieve its full potential as an integral part of the Church.

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Readers may send questio ns to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.