Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In our parish I have been noticing during the past few years that the Eucharistic ministers receive Communion every time they come to distribute the blessed Eucharist. On Fridays we do more than 10 Masses. Some Eucharistic ministers receive communion up to six or seven times as they feel it essential to receive the blessed Eucharist whenever they come to distribute the same. As far as I understand from the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism, the faithful can receive Communion only two times a day. Even if he receives the second time, he should have attended the full Mass. — V.R., United Arab Emirates
A: Our reader is correct in interpreting canon law on this point.
The key canon for this question is No. 917. It states, “A person who has already received the Most Holy Eucharist can receive it a second time on the same day only within the eucharistic celebration in which the person participates, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 921 §2.”
Canon 921.2 says, “Even if they have been nourished by holy communion on the same day, however, those in danger of death are strongly urged to receive communion again.”
Thus, a Catholic may receive Communion a second time but only during a Mass which he attends. Outside of Mass a second or even third Communion may only be received as viaticum for the dying.
Except in the case of viaticum, one should fast for an hour before both receptions of Communion.
The instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum also repeats this general principle:
“95. A lay member of Christ’s faithful ‘who has already received the Most Holy Eucharist may receive it again on the same day only within a Eucharistic Celebration in which he or she is participating, with due regard for the prescriptions of can. 921 § 2.’”
The difference between the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and Redemptionis Sacramentum is that the latter refers to “a lay member of Christ’s faithful.” This takes into account that canon law foresees that priests might sometimes have to celebrate three Masses for pastoral reasons.
There is a theological reason for this, in that the priest as minister of the holy sacrifice is required to complete the sacrifice by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. He should do this before distributing Communion to others.
Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are deputed to assist in administrating the sacrament in a convenient way, but they do not have any obligation to partake of the sacrament as has the priest. They do have an obligation to follow the general norms of the Church and as such, should they generously offer their service at more than two Masses, they must choose at which two Masses they receive Communion and at which they should refrain from doing so.
When they do not receive Communion they are not obliged to attend the entire Mass but could only enter at the moment their service was required. In this they would be in a similar situation as that of many priests before the institution of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. At that time it was common for the other priests of the parish to enter the church after the Our Father and assist in the distribution of Communion. They would not receive Communion themselves. Also, at that time canon law did not allow for more than one Communion a day except in the case of viaticum for the dying.
In most countries this is not a real problem, as most scheduled Masses will have assigned extraordinary ministers, if they are required, and only occasionally will they have to offer their service at more than one Mass.
It would appear that in our reader’s ecclesial context there is a shortage of those who are willing and/or able to qualify for this service, and the burden falls on relatively few.
Therefore, until this shortage is remedied, I would suggest that the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion who are not going to communicate should wait until those EMHCs who are going to receive Communion have done so, and then approach the altar to simply receive the ciborium for administrating the sacrament to the rest of the faithful.
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Follow-up: Why We Have Liturgy
An eminent theologian has honored me with a comment on my September 13 column on the nature of the liturgy. He says: “In your fine column answering briefly the basic question about what the liturgy is, you say our offerings are ‘alongside’ Christ’s. It seems to me it would be better to say that he gathers our offering up in his. For we are not able to make any offering at all on our own or by ourselves, but we can really offer any work we do as his members, because that really does belong both to us and to him.”
Our reader is correct in his assertions, although I think the word alongside could still be acceptable in the context of the final doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer. In this wonderful synthesis of the Eucharist, and in a way, of the entire Christian existence, all honor and glory are offered to the Father “through, with and in” our Lord Jesus Christ in the unity of the Holy Spirit. For me “alongside” expresses somewhat the “with” even though it is inseparable from the “through” and the “in.”
The unity of the Holy Spirit can refer to the Trinitarian union in love but, in a liturgical context, can also refer to the unity that gathers us together as a Church. Indeed the ancient text that inspired Eucharistic Prayer II (the third-century work “The Apostolic Tradition”) makes this quite specific:
“[T]hat we may praise you and glorify you,
through your son Jesus Christ,
through whom to you be glory and honor,
Father and Son,
with the Holy Spirit,
in your Holy Church,
now and throughout the ages of the ages.
In this way the liturgy is entering into the life of the Trinity, but we do so, not so much as individuals but insofar as we are united by the Spirit as Christ’s Church.
The individual does not disappear but insofar as he relates to God he cannot ever be separate from the Church. Indeed we can say that it is practically impossible for a Christian to pray exclusively for himself, for every authentic prayer is in the Body and sanctifies the whole Body. Every authentic Christian prayer is a prayer in the Body of Christ. What is added in liturgical prayer is that it is not just a prayer in the Body, but of the Body of Christ, Head and members together, in giving glory to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
It is this great reality that makes living the liturgy cause such wonder and awe when we begin to grasp its depth.
I wish to thank our reader for this pertinent observation which helps to deepen the theme once more.