Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In November 2008 the undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments wrote a letter against the lay conferral of blessings in lieu of Communion. It contained very explicit instructions and referrals to canon law and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM]. I am concerned that the practice is still allowed by some parish priests. Has there been anything further from the congregation in this connection? — J.M., Sydney, Australia
A: We published most of the text of this letter in our column of March 29, 2009, and had already touched upon the topic in earlier years (May 10 and 24, 2005).
In that 2009 column we said: “Recently, however, a document has appeared in several Internet sources which indicate that the Holy See is tending toward a negative view of the practice. The document is a letter (Protocol No. 930/08/L) dated Nov. 22, 2008, sent in response to a private query and signed by Father Anthony Ward, SM, undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
“As a private reply the letter is not yet a norm with legal force and, as it makes clear, is not a definitive reply. However, it provides some valuable pointers on the legitimacy of this practice and the mind of the Holy See regarding it.
“The letter said that ‘this matter is presently under the attentive study of the Congregation,’ so ‘for the present, this dicastery wishes to limit itself to the following observations’:
“1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion.
“2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, §2; Canon 1169, §2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).
“3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands — which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here — by those distributing Holy Communion, in substitution for its reception, is to be explicitly discouraged.
“4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio n. 84, ‘forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry’. To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good standing.
“5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church’s discipline has already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin).
“Although the letter as such is not legally binding, some of its points, such as No. 2 on the prohibition of lay ministers giving liturgical blessings, are merely restatements of existing law and as such are already obligatory.
“Nor did the letter deal with all possible circumstances, such as the case of small children mentioned by our reader. Because of this, some dioceses have taken a prudent wait-and-see attitude regarding these blessings. For example, the liturgy office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, while reiterating that ‘the Archdiocese has no policy prohibiting the use of blessings at the time of Holy Communion,’ prudently suggested to pastors that it ‘may be appropriate to avoid promoting the practice until a more definitive judgment regarding its value in the liturgical celebration can be obtained.'”
Little has changed since that time with respect to universal law. The legal situation of the usage is still murky, with bishops making statements falling on both sides of the argument. There would, however, appear to be a tendency in recent documents to discourage the practice or at least show some hesitancy.
Thus the Diocese of Saint Augustine in the U.S. has the following norms for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion but which, in this case, also apply to priests and deacons:
“26. The blessing of children or non-communicants should not be encouraged during the distribution of Holy Communion. Should individuals present themselves or children for a blessing during the Communion procession, ministers may trace the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead. This gesture is not accompanied by any words.”
The Diocese of Orlando, while more open, makes some explicit restrictions:
“A. Blessings – In recent years, the practice has developed that those not receiving communion join in the communion procession to receive a blessing from the minister. For those communities which have elected to follow such a practice, the following should be kept in mind: a. Lay ministers should not bless with a gesture or formula used by clerics. For example, they should not make the sign of the cross over someone while using the Trinitarian formula. A simple ‘Receive the Lord Jesus in your heart’ with or without a light touch of the head or shoulder would be appropriate. b. Likewise, no one (cleric or lay) should give a blessing with the host in their hand, simulating Benediction.”
That of the Diocese of Prince George in Canada:
“Within the Mass, the act of blessing belongs to the ordained minister – bishop, priest or deacon – and not to lay persons (CCC, 1669; CIC, 1169). If someone who is not receiving Holy Communion approaches an Extraordinary Minister, the latter should offer a simple greeting, such as ‘may God bless you.’ The Extraordinary Minister should not use any gesture, such as laying a hand on the person. The laying on of hands has its own sacramental significance and is inappropriate in this context (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, November 22, 2008).”
The Diocese of Austin, in Texas:
“f. The Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion cannot give a liturgical blessing to those who do not receive Holy Communion.”
The bishops’ conference of England and Wales has published a fairly authoritative statement on this issue, albeit before the 2008 letter; to wit:
“Even though some in the assembly may not receive ‘sacramental’ Communion, all are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The Traditional idea of spiritual communion is an important one to remember and re-affirm. The invitation often given at Mass to those who may not receive sacramental communion — for example, children before their first communion and adults who are not Catholics — to receive a ‘blessing’ at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ” (the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, “Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction,” Catholic Truth Society, April 2005, In number 212, page 95).
Finally, Melbourne, Australia, has this:
“A worshipper, whether child or adult, may come forward in the Communion procession with arms folded to indicate their desire for spiritual rather than sacramental Communion. In that case follow diocesan directives as to the appropriate word or gesture. One option could be to hold up the host before the person and say ‘May Jesus Christ dwell in your heart.’”
Therefore, I would conclude that the tendency appears to move away from imparting blessings, but, wherever a certain custom already exists, it can be interpreted as a kind of spiritual communion accompanied by a prayer that Christ enter into the person’s heart.
This would appear to be a middle-ground approach that I think could be acceptable while awaiting a definitive solution, if one is needed.
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