Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I was told that a priest who isn’t participating in the Mass (that is, he’s not celebrating, concelebrating or attending), is not allowed to distribute Communion in that specific Mass or that it was improper for him to do so. That is, a priest should not just come in, distribute Communion, then go away. Is this true? Any liturgical law governing this issue? — L.P., Macau
A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in describing Mass with the people (without a deacon or concelebrants), says the following:
“162. In the distribution of Communion, the Priest may be assisted by other Priests who happen to be present. If such Priests are not present and there is a truly large number of communicants, the Priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, that is, duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been duly deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the Priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion.
“These ministers should not approach the altar before the Priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the Priest Celebrant the vessel containing the species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.”
Later, when describing Mass with a deacon, the GIRM says:
“182. After the Priest’s Communion, the Deacon receives Communion under both kinds from the Priest himself and then assists the Priest in distributing Communion to the people. If Communion is given under both kinds, the Deacon himself administers the chalice to the communicants; and, when the distribution is over, standing at the altar, he immediately and reverently consumes all of the Blood of Christ that remains, assisted, if the case requires, by other Deacons and Priests.”
The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum declares the following:
“88. The faithful should normally receive sacramental Communion of the Eucharist during Mass itself, at the moment laid down by the rite of celebration, that is to say, just after the Priest celebrant’s Communion. It is the Priest celebrant’s responsibility to minister Communion, perhaps assisted by other Priests or Deacons; and he should not resume the Mass until after the Communion of the faithful is concluded. Only when there is a necessity may extraordinary ministers assist the Priest celebrant in accordance with the norm of law.”
All of the above documents mention in some way that priests who happen to be present but are not concelebrants, may assist in distributing communion. The documents are silent on whether this presence is during the whole Mass or if they happen to be present just for communion.
Our reader formulates two questions. First, is it unlawful for a priest to enter just to give Communion? Second, is it improper?
From the point of view of lawfulness, I would say that the above documents, and historical practice, favor its legitimacy.
Although not totally explicit as to the specific point at hand, Redemptionis Sacramentum’s clear preference for priests and deacons over the use of extraordinary ministers would seem to favor the practice mentioned by our reader.
Before the establishment of the possibility of having extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and the restoration of concelebration, there was no viable alternative to having priests come for the moment of communion, especially on festive days when there were many communicants. Hence, not only was there no law against a priest coming from the sacristy to assist with communion, but this was the habitual practice and was in perfect conformity with liturgical law. Indeed, it was part of a priest’s habitual duties to be available to assist at communion at several Masses on Sundays and festivities.
There has been no change in the law that would suggest that this practice is now forbidden. Likewise, whenever a large Mass is celebrated in the extraordinary form it would be the correct practice.
It must also be recalled that priests and deacons are the ordinary ministers for distributing Communion and can exercise their ministry at any time.
It’s true that circumstances have changed and that this situation is probably now uncommon. Even when there is more than one priest in a parish they often have simultaneous pastoral activities that make availability for distributing Communion an impossibility.
However, while admitting the lawfulness of the practice, we could ask if it is the best and most proper procedure.
For example, today there is a certain awareness and expectation that those exercising a ministry within the celebration should ideally form part of the assembly and participate fully. In this sense, while assisting only at communion remains a legitimate option as an exercise of the ordinary ministry, it would probably be preferable for a priest to concelebrate if this can be done.
In former times, when priests would regularly come out to distribute Communion, it was most common to take a large ciborium from the tabernacle, distribute the hosts, and reserve the ciborium, purify the fingers and return to the sacristy.
Today, there is often Communion under both species. In such cases, it is slightly more complicated for a priest who has not participated at the Mass to simply enter for communion.
For example, although a non-participating priest may assist with distributing Communion, he should refrain from joining in the purification, especially if this entails consuming large fragments or taking the remaining Precious Blood from the chalice. These tasks should be reserved to those ministers who have participated in the entire celebration.
Therefore, these changed circumstances, while far from rendering a priest’s exercise of his ordinary ministry as something improper, should introduce a note of caution so as to avoid taking Communion outside of Mass.
In conclusion, a priest’s entering the celebration just to distribute Communion is lawful and proper. In the ordinary form, however, it would not represent the ideal model from the liturgical point of view, which would prefer this ministry to be carried out by concelebrants if possible.
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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.