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Revised guidelines issued for extraordinary ministers of Communion

By Sarah M. Barrett
Posted: 3/6/2009

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Among the practices reiterated by the archdiocese's updated Policy on the Use of Extraordinary Ministers is that extraordinary ministers must be handed the sacred vessels from a member of the clergy, rather than taking them from the altar themselves. The policy issued this week was last revised in 1991. Pilot file photo/ Gregory L. Tracy

After nearly two decades, the Archdiocese of Boston has issued a new Policy on the Use of Extraordinary Ministers, reflecting the modifications made to liturgical norms since its last revision in 1991.

The document, issued March 1, accommodates the changes and clarifications of practices instituted since the promulgation of the Vatican's General Instruction of the Roman Missal in 2000 and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion in 2003, said Father Brian Mahoney, the director of the archdiocese's Office of Worship.

"The revised document is just to update the previous guidelines so that they are more in line with the norms and practices that the Church is calling us to," said Father Mahoney; "Particularly coming out of the new General Instruction and the Norms for the Distribution of Holy Communion put out by the USCCB."

The General Instruction, or GIRM, is the Vatican's detailed document providing the theological perspective and liturgical laws governing the celebration of Mass of the Roman Rite. First promulgated by the Second Vatican Council in 1969, the GIRM is part of an ongoing process of liturgical renewal and represents an organic continuity with the theological directives of the council fathers; their injunction marked the first step toward the "full, conscious and active participation" by the laity in the Church's liturgical life.

The new Policy is the product of two years of work by the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission. Its intention is to make clear what is appropriate and inappropriate practice, and to insure that the substantive clarifications made to liturgical legislation are included in the guidelines, said Father Mahoney.

One of the most visible modifications made to the document since 1991 reflects a change in the title from extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, commonly called 'eucharistic ministers', to extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. The change signals a clarification in the function of the ministers, said Father Mahoney, "to make clear that they are really just there for the distribution of the Eucharist," he said.

The new Policy also makes clear that certain practices occurring in some parishes were not in accordance with liturgical law and thus were no longer to occur, said Father Mahoney, citing the practice of extraordinary ministers waiting to receive holy Communion until after its distribution. Also, each extraordinary minister should be handed a sacred vessel by a member of the clergy, rather than collecting it from the altar himself, he said.

In a document issued in 2004, "Redemptionis Sacramentum" ("The Sacrament of Redemption"), the Vatican reiterated that norms for celebrating Mass must be followed exactly to safeguard the sanctity of the Eucharist.

The instruction, written by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments--also responsible for authoring the General Instruction--admonished the perpetration of liturgical abuses, particularly citing the abuse of allowing of lay people to carry out functions reserved to clergy.

In accordance with that instruction and the instruction of the GIRM and the Norms, the revised policy features substantive clarifications in its language, intended to clarify the terms and admonish any malpractices perpetrated in the diocese.

"In some parishes the extraordinary ministers would come up and help with the fractioning rite, and both the General Instruction and the Norms for the Distribution of Holy Communion made it clear that that practice should not happen," said Father Mahoney.

The revised document explicitly states that while the extraordinary ministers may enter the sanctuary during the Agnus Dei, "they do not assist in breaking the consecrated bread."

The Policy highlights that extraordinary ministers are only to be used when there are insufficient ordained ministers capable of administering the Sacrament.

In addition to clarifying the function of the extraordinary ministers, the document provides guidelines on the selection and terms of ministry; the prerequisite spiritual, theological and practical formation of ministers; their appearance and manner of handling the Blessed Sacrament; as well as precise instructions on normal procedure, administration of holy Communion to the sick and homebound and what to do in the instance of mishaps with the consecrated bread or wine.

In conjunction with the promulgation of the new Policy, Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley issued a formal letter to the diocese's pastors, parish administrators, rectors and priests. In the letter, the cardinal extended his gratitude to the men and women who serve as extraordinary ministers of Communion.

"We are greatly blessed by their devotion to the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist," he said. "Please be assured of my prayers for you and all your loved ones as we go forward with the work of the Church."

Related resources:" target="_blank">Cardinal's letter on revised guidelines for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy" target="_blank">Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion Revised Guidelines