Jan 16, 2020

Why are “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion” called “extraordinary”?

The precision of many liturgical terms has sharpened over the post-Conciliar years. What was once “one in being” is today rendered “consubstantial” in the Creed. Bishops are said now to be “ordained” rather than “consecrated.” The sacrament of “Last Rites” is now more commonly called “Anointing of the Sick.” What’s in a name? In each case, the developed language more accurately reflects the reality to which it refers.

The same evolution appears in what are called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion,” those laypersons who assist pastors in distributing the Eucharist at Mass. For example, one of the first post-Conciliar documents to mention these ministers, “Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass” from 1973, refers to them as “special ministers of communion.” Later on, in 1980, the Holy See’s “Instruction Concerning Worship of the Eucharistic Mystery” (Inaestimabile Donum) calls such laity “extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist” (at least in most translations). Later still, in 1997’s Instruction “On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests” (Ecclesia de mysterio), the title became “extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.” This title was confirmed by the Church’s most recent and, at this point, final word on the subject, Redemptionis Sacramentum, “On Certain Matters to be Observed or to be Avoided Regarding the Most Holy Eucharist.”

The name of the ministry—“extraordinary minister of Holy Communion”—reflects most accurately the function of the ministry, namely, the distribution of Holy Communion in extraordinary circumstances by one not given this function simply as a consequence of baptism. Names such as “special minister of Holy Communion,” for example, don’t acknowledge the “extraordinary” nature of the occasion or the minister. “Extraordinary minister of the Eucharist,” while acknowledging the extraordinary character of the ministry, could suggest other Eucharistic-related tasks beyond that of distributing Holy Communion, such as exposing or reposing the Blessed Sacrament or even consuming the remaining precious Blood after the faithful have received (which is a task not inherent to the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and requires further permission from the Diocesan Bishop [Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under both Kinds, 52]).

But beneath the terminology of “extraordinary” stands a further sacramental truth. The Church’s pastors—bishops, priests, and, as their assistants, deacons—serve as Holy Communion’s “ordinary” ministers. While the faithful do not have it in their baptismal “job description” to distribute Holy Communion, the pastors find such distribution an essential role of ordination. Beyond the theology and legal prescriptions, the etymology of “pastor” makes the point. A “pastor” is one who feeds and nourishes—leads to pasture—and he does so based on the root of the word: pa-. Also built upon this same word for “feed” is panis, “bread”; pantry, the room for the bread; and companion, one who shares bread. In short: pastor and feeding with bread (in this case, the Bread of Life) belong together, and a pastor who doesn’t feed is like a chef who doesn’t cook, a painter who doesn’t paint, or a reader who doesn’t read.

The Church’s pastors are the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, while those who assist them are rightly called “extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion”

—The Editors


The Editors