The humbling experience of being an EMHC

The humbling experience of being an EMHC September 25, 2011

After the recent decision in Phoenix, cutting back on distributing the Precious Blood at communion, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) are really all that necessary or helpful.

My neighbor in Patheosian bloggery, the great Max Lindenman, has some thoughts:

Serving as an EM, like manning a soup kitchen, is an enriching experience. But the enrichment is of a very different type. I’ve only done it a few times — at my old parish, I was a second-stringer, called up when one of the regulars flaked — but on each of those occasions, I was struck by how transformed all the recipients looked. Awe and anticipation had erased everything petty or silly from their faces, and teased out everything good and fine and noble. Even the people I knew well looked like strangers — strangers I was sorry I hadn’t met.

I gather it’s become conventional wisdom to say the opposite — that most communicants behave on the receiving line like barbarous Unitarians, clipping their nails, sending text messages, or changing their tampons. Maybe they look that way from the side, to someone studiously comparing their conduct to his own (which is above reproach, natch). Faced head-on, the picture is very different.

At most of the other parishes I’ve attended, the EMs tend to be senior citizens. This is good for two reasons. First, once they reach a certain age, most people develop a grandfatherly or -motherly touch; they won’t thrust the Sacrament at a communicant like they’re stamping his hand in front of a club. Second, EM-ing is low-intensity work. It’s something of the greatest importance that senior citizens can do without straining themselves. Not all people were blessed with the constitution required to catechize the !Kung or take dives in front of Israeli bulldozers.

Read the rest.

UPDATE: Evidently, some people don’t get the message.  Kindly refrain from deciding — and then stating in the comments — that most of those who receive communion are in a state of mortal sin.  I’m serious, folks.  I won’t tolerate that kind of crap.  Comments here are now closed.

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32 responses to “The humbling experience of being an EMHC”

  1. Again, this Baby Boomer blog ignores what the law of the Church calls for in favor of personal experience or subjective opinion.

    Here is what the Code of Canon Law says:

    Canon 910 says that, “the ordinary minister of holy communion is a bishop, a priest, or a deacon.” In other words, an person who has received one of the three basic holy orders.

    Canon 230 #3 says that, “where the needs of the Church require and where ministers are not available, lay people…can supply certain of their functions, that is…distribute Holy Communion, in accordance with the provisions of the law.”

    I wonder how many EMHCs are only there to “get people involved.” Are there really not enough bishops, priests, or deacons in these parishes? Are there really no other ordained ministers available?

    What about the overly-abundant use of the second species? Doesn’t this create an overplus of supply needlessly, since reception of the host communes one with 100% of the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Our Lord? What’s the point, especially when you consider that its usage is more restricted under the law since 2005 (as Bishop Olmstead has pointed out) and that it creates a huge opportunity for sacrilege (i.e., spilling).

    What about the discernment of the faithful? While I don’t doubt many can keep the absurd and pointless one hour fast, how many have done an examination of conscience to see if they can discern any mortal sin since their last confession (long ago, for many)? I doubt that the cattle call 99% communicant culture at most suburban parishes can claim this.

    EMHCs are an experiment which is no longer needed.

  2. Ryan

    Some observations:

    –My parish — maybe 3,800 headcount — has about 100 EMHC’s. These EMHC’s serve two-year renewable terms and they have to go through a required continuing education program for re-certification. Their cycle ends/ re-starts on Corpus Christi Sunday. In any given year, out of that estimate of 100, maybe 80 re-certify and 20 are new.

    –Those who do not re-certify include those who move away from the parish; those who have become too infirm to do the ministry; and those who were family members of shut-ins who have died in the interim and they do not want to continue.

    –About one third do not help out at Mass at all but are responsible for anywhere from one to 20 shut-ins/ hospital and nursing-home patients. Their individual assignments vary greatly, but it would not be unusual if those ministering to shut-ins/hospital and nursing home patients perform their ministry on a weekly basis.

    –EMHC’s who perform their ministry at week-end Masses do so an average of once a month. At week-end masses, we have eight stations for Holy Communion (four for the Body of Christ and four for the Blood of Christ): the celebrant and deacon take two and lay folk have six (we have a deacon “on-ceremony” at all week-end masses). AND, yes, we offer dual species at all week-end masses.

    –EMHC’s attached to the two elementary schools and our high school — usually teachers — might be performing their ministry on a weekly basis.

    Reading between the lines of your comment, I get the impression you are not in favor of EMHC’s. That’s sad. They do a marvelous ministry and are needed far more than you might imagine.

  3. @DeaconNorb, doing some quick math here. I’m assuming that the 3800 number is weekly Mass attendees, not registrants. If so, EMHCs would get something like 50 parishioners on average. You don’t think that’s stretching the definition of a “need of the Church?”

    What percentage of your Mass attendees communicate, and what relationship does this have to your confession attendance? I’m willing to bet the answer to the first question is “99 percent,” and the answer to the second question is “almost none.” If so, there is absolutely no doubt that many of these people (most?) are in mortal sin, and to communicate is to eat and drink their own condemnation. That’s not a judgment, but the odds are frankly not good given what we know about even active Catholic participation in contraception, cohabitation, irregular Mass attendance, etc.

    Has your parish examined dual species communication in light of the expired 2005 permissions? I must admit I’m not fluent in what this did, but it seems to me that your liberal use of the second species may have at least some expired permission attached to it.

    Your best point is hospital visits. It’s entirely likely that a priest shortage combined with a graying parish could create a crunch here. If so, that creates a “need” that was likely envisioned by the Code of Canon Law.

  4. Ryan,
    If you haven’t stepped over the line of being judgemental, you are very close.
    Don’t forget what we heard in yesterdays Gospel…
    “…sinners and taxcollectors are making it into heaven, but scribes and Pharisees are not…

    Catechize and then allow the Holy Spirit to take over.
    Rules are great for organizing and unite but when taken without a dose of love are an ugly thing.

    Peace to all

  5. Ryan…

    It’s not a good idea to spend this sort of energy determining how many people who approach the communion rail are in a state of mortal sin.

    Tend to the beam in your own eye, and let God worry about the rest.

    And if you continue to pass this sort of judgment — and yes, it is passing judgment — your next attempt will be deleted.

    Thank you for your cooperation.

    Deacon G.

  6. Beautifully explained, Deacon Norb. Except for three year periods instead of two years, you have described use of extraordinary ministers in my diocese. Being able to take the Eucharist to those unable to come to Mass is a blessing to both the person receiving and the EM. With busy, busy priests these days, it may be the EM who can relay the request for the priest to visit for confession or at times of need. Thanks for saying it so well. (A lot of the comments will probably end up on the original blog.)

  7. Ryan
    As an EMCH I greatly resent your implication concerning confession attendance. I “go to confession” the Saturday before i am asked to serve. I see the other EMCHs there usually as well. For you to begin to make any statements about another person’s state of grace to serve in any capacity is at best inappropriate and most likely is a judgement, that you do not have the ability to make. And since you are concerned about a laundry list of possible sins of others have you examined your life fully?
    On a more personal note the training every third year – we are a small parish – has opened my eyes even more to the grandeur of the Eucharist and God’s gift to us. Since my wife is also a EMCH it has deepened our faith together. On those Sunday’s when I am called to serve I feel more than humbled.

  8. I am an Extra Ordinary Minister of Holy Communion (and male), it is a ministry that is beyond description. Now if each parish had 5 to 10 Deacons (ordinary ministers of Holy Communion), we would not need so many extra ordinary minsters. I will guess that many men that are being call to be a Deacon do not have a close, personal relationship with Jesus to be able to hear his call, or maybe lacking in the courage to say yes to that call.

    As to the receiving of the Precious Blood of Jesus, why in all the world should we not receive his precious blood? Can you imagine Jesus saying: “This parish can afford the wine, and the gold chalices, and you have the proper methods of purification of the chalice, but just skip receiving my blood”. Can you imagine Jesus saying: “Too many children are spilling my blood on the floor, they should be banned from receiving my blood.” (See Luke 18:15-17) I understand the Real Presence, which is why I know we should be receiving Jesus in his blood (if we choose to).

    I have an illness called Celiac disease, I can not eat any gluten or I become ill. Our parish has the low-gluten hosts for me and a few others, however there may be 1000 to 1200 people receiving communion at 10:00 am mass, and the Priest may forget to get the low gluten hosts. Just last week the Priest could not get the Pyx with the low gluten hosts open (Coincidence or God’s providence?) I typically only receive the Precious Blood.

  9. Throwing one’s self in front of an Israeli bulldozer is a good thing? I would have hoped I could find relief from the Media and the Left’s anti-Israel hatred here.

  10. (My apologies if this appears twice; I had problems posting it.)

    This thread gives me an opportunity to ask a serious question about EMHCs.

    At many parishes, including mine, it is not uncommon for those not receiving Communion — e.g., small children or adult catechumens — to approach in the Communion line but to indicate, e.g. with folded arms, that he or she is not receiving, and to be given a blessing instead.

    That’s one thing if a priest, deacon, or bishop is giving Communion.

    Yesterday at Mass, however, I saw a small boy approach an EMHC, and he was given a “blessing” instead of Communion.

    Now, granted that there might be pastoral issues with regard to encouraging the boy’s faith, not making him feel rejected at the altar, etc. He was a *very* young boy. But —

    Since when are EMHCs, or any lay people for that matter, authorized to bless anybody? Ordained clerics, yes; but lay people? Wouldn’t this imply that being an EMHC is some sort of quasi-clerical state, which of course it isn’t?

  11. I think instead of EMHCs we may need extraordinary ministers of reconciliation/confession EMRCs at this point. Ryan does make the well known point that 99% of a given suburban parish communicates without fail every Sunday, but hardly anyone goes to confession. This simply a fact not a judgment.

  12. I have acted as an extraordinary minister of communion many times in the past and still do. But I think Ryan has a point about the disconnection between communion lines and confession lines. I don’t remember who said that either we are very, very holy or we are taking the body of the Lord unworthily. There needs to be a better catechesis so that we learn to discern and to value the sacrament of penance.

    Having experienced mass in other countries I have seen places where there are no extraordinary ministers because they are not allowed (Juarez, Mexico) and the priests give communion to hundreds of people in a few minutes; people just form and walk to the priest who gives the host without major problems.

    Am I against extraordinary ministers? No, but there seems to be an approach in churches in the U.S. that makes it almost no longer an extraordinary duty, but a right to be always exercised and that is a form of abuse of the situation. I have seen people get actually angry and flustered if they are not allowed to distribute communion “But that is my ministry!” they say.

    Our Church is a sacramental and juridical Church. We have the Code of Canon Law and just as we submit to the laws of the United States as American Citizens, we also are under the rule of Canon Law as members of the Church. Should they be applied in a pharisaic way? I don’t think anyone argues for that.

  13. Different idea but on the same topic.

    One of the deaneries in our rather expansive diocese has been holding area-wide/deanery-wide EMHC re-certification programs for at least four cycles. The last cycle was during Lent 2011.

    On that designated Sunday afternoon, in the largest church in that area (seats somewhere around 600), EMHC’s from five different parishes came together for their program. The church was close to being filled. The first hour was a presentation on the theology of Eucharist by one of the Spiritual Directors at our local Retreat House and during the second hour, each parish held a “break-out group” to air out specific issues of local importance. There was also a separate “break-out group” for those EMHC’s who minister in the area-wide Spanish Language Mass.

    What the hosting parish did was to have a local videographer come in and record the formal presentation. Afterwards, each parish was provided with one to four DVD copies of that presentation to use for folks who could not attend.

    They are planning on continuing that approach into the future — including recording the theology presentation.

  14. As far as people in the Communion line who approach with their arms crossed for a blessing, what is wrong with the EMHC saying simply, “God bless you!”, or making the sign of the cross in the air with the Host and not saying anything?
    All blessings are from God, and if they don’t use a blessing form restricted to the ordained, what is the big deal? We ask God’s blessing on our food, on our loved ones every day; none of us has the power of ourselves to bless anything.

  15. Ryan,
    …and all we’re saying is there’s too much analysis to your conclusion which makes your comment look very judgemental.
    Try using more of your faith skills and less of your analytical skills…use that trust in the Lord that is (to me) evident in your last post.

    Peace to all

  16. I started this blog with at least an open mind, although I must admit that I’ve seen quite a few absent minded folks approach Holy Communion with all of the reverence of a mosh pit. I lost all interest in the blog, and all respect for the author, with the gratuitous, through away comment regarding women’s hygiene. Was that really necessary to the point the author was trying to make? Seems like the author wants to protect his street rep more than his readers!

  17. I think with the changes in the mass about hit a church near you…this an excellent time for parishes to truthfully look at all aspects of how they do Eucharist and to seriously consider any changes including EMHCs.
    Parishes should be sitting down with the GIRM and consider if their practices are really for the glory of God, or if they are pleasing the people…putting on a show or giving in to not offending some by discluding them.

    Peace to all

  18. –EMHC’s who perform their ministry at week-end Masses do so an average of once a month. At week-end masses, we have eight stations for Holy Communion (four for the Body of Christ and four for the Blood of Christ): the celebrant and deacon take two and lay folk have six (we have a deacon “on-ceremony” at all week-end masses). AND, yes, we offer dual species at all week-end masses.

    You describe a reasonable set up for your parish given the number of members, but this also describes the arrangement at most every church I go to no matter the number of parishioners. My own church has the exact same set up except we have no deacon so that makes seven EMHC’s and we only have about 150 people in attendance per Mass (that makes ~100 in the communion line–I’m just guessing). We could easily cut out four of them at each Mass without adding an appreciable difference in communion time at my parish. Here is my problem with EMHC’s: they seem to exist for their own sake or have many more than are actually needed in a lot of parishes.

  19. @oldestof9, “trust in God” is all well and good when you have a challenge you are dealing with, or a mystery, or even a crisis that seems bigger than your ability to handle.

    But in this case, we have a potentially very serious problem with the most important aspect of our faith–the Eucharist. God gave us a brain, and there is nothing wrong with using it to make sure that this most precious treasure of the Church is properly-safeguarded. To not use our intellect in this cause would be negligence.

    EMHCs are an innovation. For most of the Church’s history, no one less ordained than a deacon could touch the Eucharist. If EMHCs have lost their grounding (due to the supply and demand distortions I’ve already discussed in detail), we need to use our intellects in order to protect the Eucharist.

  20. Here is a question for consideration: if the Novus Ordo was being designed all over again from the Traditional Latin Mass, but we know what we know now from 40 years of often hard experience, would the Church even create EMHCs?

    I believe the answer to that question is “no.” The Church would still have communion distributed at a communion rail by a bishop, priest, or deacon. If both species were permitted, it would be through a safe method like intinction.

    EMHCs might have limited utility in very rural or mission settings, and to help out with things like viaticum if there was a great need. Think Clint Eastwood’s deputized marshal character from “Hang Em High.”

    If I’m even mostly right there (and I think you know that I probably am), that should inform the way we think about EMHCs in our parishes today.

  21. Melody

    The big deal would be if the person coming up thinks that a blessing equals or can take the place of receiving the body and blood of our Lord. This is not a blessing line, it’s accepting our Lord and God into ourselves. No blessing can take that place.

    This year in another Diocese I heard for the first time that if you were not receiving you should stay in your seat. It sounded harsh at first but I understand the meaning behind it.

  22. No Ryan, Trust Him in ALL THINGS.

    I’m not saying that we need to pray and then sit back and let the Holy Spirit do His thing. We DO need to do the heavy physical lifting as it were.
    I’m just saying that because of your “alalysis” we are on opposite ends of this burning candle.

    I’ve made it a rule in person and in blogging, to only explain myself (3) times. My time is up…next.

    Peace to all

  23. Ryan wants to ‘protect the Eucharist’ …. by limiting it? What would Pius the X say to that??.
    Maybe bishop Olmsted should re-read PiusX and forget about limiting Eucharist and lay ministry. BXVI too wants evangelization not limits or he would limit his trips, one would surmise.. smaller, purer is heresy IMHO.

  24. With regards to people aproaching for a blessing, I heard a priest one time say that “if you want a blessing, stay until Mass is over and you will get one”.

    #14, that sounds like a lay person doing Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament…

  25. Based on visits to parishes other than mine the numbers of people I have seen at Sunday Mass who DO NOT partake of the Lord’s Blood over the years (always over 50% and frequently 80% or more) people are voting with their feet against the practice. Our parish is an “Italian” parish with strong European roots and we do not regularly give Communion under both species.
    We are a universal church, and I admit that I did not know that the English speaking world had become an island unto itself on this practice. Now that I know this. I find it very hard to defend this sort of American religious exceptionalism (To borrow a political term beloved by super-patriots).

  26. You know, I think this issue of a “blessing” in lieu of receiving communion has been thrashed out in at least three other comment-streams on this blog.

    Bottom Line: YES. there are some blessings reserved for bishops; others reserved for priests and bishops; and still others reserved for deacons and priests and bishops. Those restricted blessings are all printed out in “The Book of Blessings” which should be in the sacristy/vestry of every Catholic Church. Each diocese also has a book known as the “Paegella of Faculties” which lists the pastoral obligations of Bishops, priests and deacons when it comes to ceremonies and blessings.

    BUT, those are not all the possible blessings out there. While were do not here of this so much in the post-Vatican church, fathers were always allowed to bless their families. That blessing goes way back to the Book of Genesis. Other “blessings” are more spontaneous. There is certainly no objection for a Catholic to “receive a blessing” from a non-Catholic. I know of both Jewish and Islamic pastoral leaders who have given blessings in Catholic settings to Catholic audiences.

    Back to the personal blessing in lieu of communion. I first saw this option (including the crossed-arm posture) from non-Catholic laity coming forward in the Catholic communion line over forty years ago. It was most evident in those Catholic organizations where ecumenical relationships are treasured. It did not take long for that custom to move into the mainstream of Roman Catholicism.

    Even though this practice has been around for over forty years, and is widely followed, there is no formal text for this blessing.

  27. I don’t know about all people, but at least deacons should abide by what their bishops allow and ordain and by the directives in the GIRM, Canon Law and other pertinent documents. If your bishop allows communion with both body and blood, fine, and if he does only allow it with one species, well then, fine too. We can’t become a law onto ourselves.

  28. Deacon Norb,

    A few years ago the CDW published a couple of notes in response to questions about blessings at Communion time. In those notes 2 paragraphs are particularly applicable here:

    “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. ”

    It’s pretty clear that EMHC’s are not to be blessing or laying their hands on anyone during Communion. While there may be instances where a “blessing” by a layman might have some meaning, during the Mass is not one of them.

    It might help to reinforce belief in the Real Presence if the handling of the Sacred Species were restricted to priests and deacons, unless for true necessity a layperson needed to be deputized to assist with distribution. Recognizing that the Sacred Host is only normally handled by ordained ministers of the Church can help to remind us of the Truth of the Holy Eucharist.


  29. Getting back to the main topic, Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani 2002 (The Universal General Instruction of the Roman Missal) has this to say about communion under both kinds in Article 281:

    “Holy Communion has a more complete form as a sign when it is received under both kinds. For in this manner of reception a fuller sign of the Eucharistic banquet shines forth. Moreover, there is a clearer expression of that by which the new and everlasting covenant is ratified in the blood of the Lord and of the relationship of the Eucharistic banquet to the eschatological banquet in the Father’s kingdom.”

    It is not just the American Bishops/USCCB that sees the fruits of offering the sacred blood to the laity.

  30. My husband and I were married three months ago, and we were very humbled to have 7 priests, 2 deacons, and 2 instituted acolytes present at our wedding.

    Because of my concern for the reverence of the sacrament, I asked if we could only distribute the bread to family and friends at our wedding Mass.

    Our pastor asked that we distribute under both species, as is the custom at the parish. He said this shows a “more complete” sign, and with so many priests, deacons, and acolytes, it was not an issue to distribute the blood in addition to the bread. It was so beautiful to see so many priests distributing the Body and Blood of Jesus.

    I challenge pastors, priests, and lay leadership to be certain the training for extra-ordinary ministers fully explains what extra-ordinary ministers are truly doing – distributing the Body and Blood of Christ, and not just remind the extra-ordinary ministers where to stand.

  31. Re: Patrick #29

    I am assuming that the document you quote is available from the Vatican web-site. How about its URL ?

  32. Deacon Dave:

    While I appreciate completely GIRM Art. 281, Art. 283 goes on to say:

    “283. In addition to those cases given in the ritual books, Communion under both kinds is permitted for:

    a) Priests who are not able to celebrate or concelebrate Mass;

    b) the Deacon and others who perform some duty at the Mass;

    c) members of communities at the Conventual Mass or the “community” Mass, along with seminarians, and all those engaged in a retreat or taking part in a spiritual or pastoral gathering.

    “The Diocesan Bishop may establish norms for Communion under both kinds for his own diocese, which are also to be observed in churches of religious and at celebrations with small groups. The Diocesan Bishop is also given the faculty to permit Communion under both kinds whenever it may seem appropriate to the Priest to whom a community has been entrusted as its own shepherd, provided that the faithful have been well instructed and that there is no danger of profanation of the Sacrament or of the rite’s becoming difficult because of the large number of participants or for some other cause.

    “In all that pertains to Communion under both kinds, the Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America are to be followed (particularly nos. 27-54).”

    Can someone tell me exactly what that means and how it limits Art. 281?

    Just what are “those cases given in the ritual books”?

    Are parish priests limited to Communion under both kinds only when Diocesan guidlines permit it?

    As to the excessive use of EMHC, I think that it is something that you know when you see, but is otherwise hard to define universally. I stopped being an EMHC for other than hospital and shutin visits when my parish pastor presented himself to me for Holy Communion – kinda felt like I was taking his place.