Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I am an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in my parish. In my own diocese, the practice is for all ministers (ordinary and extraordinary) who have handled the host to rinse their fingers after the distribution of Communion. On a recent visit to the Diocese of Santa Fe, I noticed that the diocesan guidelines for EMHCs specifically prohibit the washing of hands after the distribution of Communion. In areas where EMHCs are told not to wash their hands, what should they do (if anything) after having handled the host? Is there a reason why the washing of hands has been prohibited? — C.W., London
A: While practice might vary widely, I would say that the customs of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be guided by what is prescribed for ordinary ministers.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says the following regarding the purification:
“278. Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if necessary, wash them. Likewise, he should also gather any fragments that may have fallen outside the paten.”
This refers to visible fragments, even if small. The need for such washing, however, is actually quite rare, and most priests will use the first option of rubbing the fingers over the paten, occasionally with the help of a purifier.
I would say, therefore, that this would also be the general rule for extraordinary ministers. Should there be a real need, then, the hands should be washed. In most cases, however, it is not necessary to do so.
Since the GIRM foresees the possibility of the need for washing hands after distributing Communion, it would not be correct to explicitly forbid it. Indeed, in all fairness, the norms issued by Diocese of Santa Fe do not forbid it, and our reader might have missed a small but important detail. The text of the diocesan norms says the following:
“EMHCs do not wash their hands in the ablution bowl in the sanctuary either before or after distribution of Holy Communion. All EMHCs are reminded to wash their hands in the sacristy or the rest room before Mass begins.”
The important words here are: “do not wash their hands in the ablution bowl.”
The term “ablution bowl” could refer to two types of vessel.
In the context of the ordinary form it would most likely refer to the bowl used by the priest for the lavabo, or rite of washing of hands, at the presentation of gifts. The lavabo would usually be left upon the credence table near where the sacred vessels are left to be purified.
In the context of the extraordinary form, although still used in some places for the ordinary form, the ablution bowl or ablution cup is a small bowl-like container, filled with water, and located near the tabernacle. After the distribution of Communion the priest or deacon dips his thumb and index finger into the water to purify them and wipes his finger on the purifier.
Since we are certainly in the context of the ordinary form, the diocesan rule is actually quite sensible and avoids a danger of disrespect to the Eucharist.
The water used for the priest’s washing of hands is not blessed or treated in any special way. It is also symbolically connected to the priest’s admission of his personal sinfulness and would thus not be an appropriate place for the fragments.
Thus, if the EMHCs were to use this bowl, a real danger exists that the water containing fragments could be thrown down the public drain. Although Christ would no longer be really present in the fragments soaked in the water, the Church still treats them with respect.
Even if the much smaller ablution cup is present, its use by several EMHCs would require an unnecessary mini-procession as it can be used by only one person at a time.
If and when it becomes necessary to wash the fingers after distributing Communion, the priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers should always make sure that the water used is poured into the sacrarium or directly into the ground, as is done with the water used for the first washing of sacred linens that might contain fragments.
The same rule would apply in dioceses such as that of our reader. If the custom exists that ordinary and extraordinary ministers always wash their hands after distributing Communion, then a special vessel should be reserved for this purpose different from that used for the lavabo.
Historically, the practice of washing the fingers after the sacrifice is mentioned as early as the year 709, and around the same time the First Roman Ordo speaks of the washing of the pope’s hands as soon as all had received Communion. After the year 1200 it became customary and later the norm to purify the fingers over the chalice first with wine then with water and to drink the mixture.
This remains the norm for the extraordinary form. The norm for the ordinary form is found as above in GIRM, No. 278.
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Follow-up: Inscriptions on Liturgical Items
Pursuant to our Sept. 8 piece on dedicatory or memorial inscriptions, a bishop wrote in to make the following suggestion: “Please also suggest that the inscriptions on chalices, ciboria, etc., not be placed in a visible place.”
His Excellency is, of course, perfectly right. All such memorial inscriptions should be on the underside of sacred vessels and should not be visible while the sacred vessel is being used in the liturgy itself.
There may be visible inscriptions on chalices and ciboria, but they always refer to Christ and the mystery being celebrated. Such inscriptions are usually taken from the Bible or the liturgy; for example, “This is the Lamb of God,” or “The Bread of Life,” or “The Mystery of Faith.”
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Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.