By Dr. Judy Bullock
“Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion” (EMHC) is the official title for a layperson assisting with the distribution of holy Communion at Mass. The “extraordinary” descriptor is used to make a distinction between the “ordinary” or usual ministers that distribute holy Communion at Mass and the exceptional or “extraordinary” ministers. The ordinary ministers for distribution are the priest and the deacon, whose responsibility is serving the chalice when Communion is given under both forms. Laypersons may help to distribute the Sacred Host or the Precious Blood when there are not a sufficient number of priests or deacons present to distribute holy Communion in a timely manner.
The need for additional ministers arose from the increase in size of parish communities, a limited number of clergy to serve them, and the reception of holy Communion under both forms (Sacred Host and Precious Blood). The Holy See responded to this need by giving bishops the authority to prepare and commission EMHC. These ministers could assist when there were not enough ordained ministers to avoid a disproportionately long period for the distribution of holy Communion. Also, to assist parishes to serve the needs of the sick and infirm, these ministers may take holy Communion to patients in hospitals, nursing homes, and to those that are homebound.
The primary responsibility of the EMHC is to distribute holy Communion reverently and safely, following the directives in the Norms for Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America, issued by the bishops of the U.S. with the approval of the Holy See. The manner of distribution is both respectful and pastoral. The EMHC raises the Sacred Host or the Chalice, makes eye contact with the communicant, says, “The Body of Christ” or “The Blood of Christ.” Before placing the Sacred Host in the hand or on the tongue of the communicant and before offering the chalice to the communicant, the EMHC gives the communicant an opportunity to respond “amen” and to give the gesture of reverence, a bow of the head.
After the distribution is completed, the EMHCs carry the vessels to a side table or sacristy where they may consume what remains in the chalice. The remaining Sacred Hosts are placed in the tabernacle for taking Communion to the sick and dying. Sometimes, if there is an over abundance of Sacred Hosts remaining, the EMHC may need to help to reverently consume these extra Sacred Hosts after Mass. Although the EMHC does not perform the ritual of purification of the vessels, they do help with washing the vessels after Mass.
With the special nature of this ministry, a mandate or permission from the bishop of the diocese is required for a layperson to serve as a Communion minister. The request for a mandate comes from the individual’s pastor. He testifies that his parishioner is a) a fully initiated Catholic (baptized, confirmed and has received holy Communion), b) is a practicing Catholic in good standing, and, c) has completed formation for this ministry in the areas of Eucharistic theology, spirituality and ministry, as well as, the pastoral or practical side of this ministry. In this archdiocese a mandate is given for a period of five years and can be renewed with the recommendation of the pastor. After receiving a mandate, EMHCs are commissioned by their pastor to serve as a communion minister in their parishes. EMHCs may serve outside their parishes with the permission of the priest celebrating the liturgy, e.g. for a wedding or funeral.
Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.