Blessings at Holy Communion

And More on Safekeeping of the Eucharist

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ROME, MARCH 24, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.



Q: In America, the custom of giving blessings to people who are unable to receive Communion is growing rapidly. In my parish, in Texas, it appears that the practice of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion tracing a cross onto the head of small children and visitors has become more important than the Eucharist itself. Many have commented to me that it is so "unwelcoming" not to do this. I have pointed out in liturgy meetings that neither the Rite of Blessings nor the Roman Missal envisions this practice. As a deacon I am greatly bothered by this trend, but my "parish administrator" is hesitant to change the habit of the previous pastor. In fact, at weddings and funerals this behavior is encouraged for non-Catholics by our presiding priests. I would greatly appreciate reading or hearing your opinion/suggestions on what appears to be an insert into the Eucharistic rite and perhaps a disservice to our ability to create a true desire and understanding for receiving Christ at Mass in holy Communion. -- D.I., Texas

A: We have addressed this topic on a couple of occasions (May 10 and 24, 2005) in which we expressed misgivings regarding this practice. At the same time, we pointed out that the legal situation of the usage is murky with bishops making statements falling on both sides of the argument.

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."

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Follow-up: Eucharist in Sacristy Safe

In the wake of our March 10 comments on the importance of the altar of repose, a priest from Arizona wrote: "Thank you for clarifying what is meant by the rubrics for Holy Thursday. The only challenge is that since no hosts are consecrated on Good Friday we need to reserve a very large amount to accommodate the faithful who participate in the Liturgy of the Lord's Passion. Most repositories, and even tabernacles, are too small to reserve the Blessed Sacrament. Also, most repositories are portable and not secured as the tabernacle is required to be. Hence, the sacristy closet. What say you?"

Another reader asked: "At the end of the Holy Thursday service there is a procession of the Blessed Sacrament. Up until a few years ago the procession ended at the tabernacle in our church. Our worship committee and liturgical director decided to build a resting place or shrine (for lack of a better description) for the Blessed Sacrament. This is located in the middle of the gym floor in our grade school next door. So now our procession goes through the church and then outside and over to the gym. My question: Is this liturgically correct? We have a perfectly good church and a tabernacle. I have a problem (as do others) with Jesus being left at center court. Not to mention the complaints I've received from people who have no way to kneel because of the hard gym floor."

Taking both questions together, I would suggest that most of these difficulties can be resolved over time and with careful planning. Since these difficulties will return every year, a parish could invest in a suitably sized portable tabernacle and large sacred vessels. In some cases, such as the Good Friday celebration, it is also an opportunity to reuse the large ciboria that were common before the present (and commendable) preference for administrating hosts consecrated at the same Mass. These large ciboria may still be held in storage somewhere.

It might also be an opportunity to purchase and restore to sacred use the liturgical appointments such as tabernacles and large candlesticks that come from closed-down churches.

Since the Holy Thursday procession represents the movement from the Lord's Supper to Gethsemane, the place for reservation should not be in the habitual tabernacle unless the church has a separate Blessed Sacrament chapel. It may be a side altar or some other place within the church or another suitable location nearby. It should be as beautiful as possible and decorated with flowers, lamps and candles. Many places also include portable olive trees and wheat sheaves to create a suitable ambience for prayer and reflection. It is also common to avoid excessive electric lighting and to drape the space around the tabernacle with carpet and fine cloth.

Therefore, it is not against liturgical law to set up the altar in the school gymnasium, provided that the place is decorated in a manner worthy of the Blessed Sacrament. It is important that at least some pews or kneelers be provided so as to allow for adoration. If the altar of repose is in the same church, then only the ministers and a representative of the faithful need take part in the procession while the others remain in their pews.

Because of its temporary status, and the fact that the Eucharist is usually accompanied almost all the time, the altar of repose need not be secured like other tabernacles. As mentioned last time, if there is a real danger of theft, then the Eucharist may be temporarily withdrawn after adoration.

What if so many people attend the Good Friday services that far more hosts are required than can be reserved in the altar of repose? In that case, it is possible to reserve just one large ciborium in the altar-of-repose tabernacle and reserve the others in a suitable place that should remain locked until the moment of communion. In this way, all adoration would center around the altar of repose. If the other place is the sacristy, then strict silence should be observed out of respect.

After communion on Good Friday the remaining hosts may only be used for the sick or, on Holy Saturday, as viaticum. These are not returned to the altar of repose but are placed in some other suitable and worthy place that remains locked. For example, if the church has a Blessed Sacrament chapel, then the hosts could be placed there but the chapel should be curtained and inaccessible until after the Easter Vigil Mass. It could also be some other space in the sacristy that can be suitably cordoned off.

After the Good Friday service a temporary altar of repose is usually dismantled and stored away. The flowers which customarily adorn it may be used for the Easter Vigil.

From the point of view of the sign, it is best not to use the hosts consecrated on Holy Thursday until Easter Monday so that as far as possible the faithful may receive hosts consecrated at the Easter Masses.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.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.