In their own words – Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion

October 11, 2012 – the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council – was declared as the first day of a Year of Faith by Pope Benedict XVI. To observe it the United States Council of Catholic Bishops declared, “Catholics are asked to study and reflect on the documents of Vatican II…so that they may deepen their knowledge of the faith.” Two of the many important topics addressed in the Vatican II documents are liturgy and the role of the laity. In Sacrosanctum Concilium “all the faithful” are called to “full and active participation” in the liturgy. Lumen Gentium speaks of the universal call to holiness, inclusive of all the baptized. This was practiced in my home parish in the diocese of Madison, WI where I grew up watching my parents and other adults serve as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHC), lectors, musicians, cantors, and ushers. The experience taught me that all of us are called to live our faith and share our gifts; that we are participants and not just spectators at liturgy.
Given this context, I was surprised when I spoke with my parents on the phone recently and was told they had received a letter saying that Eucharist would soon only be offered to the baptized under one species (the Host) and there would be much less use of the cup at liturgies. Seeking to learn more about this decision, I visited the Diocese of Madison’s website and read the letter Bishop Morlino had written to his priests quoting liturgical norms: “’In practice, the need to avoid obscuring the role of the Priest and the Deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary ministers might in some circumstances constitute a reason…for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species…(Norms, 24).’” Bishop Morlino added “so many of our people do not understand the kinds of reverence due at all times to the sacrament, whether within the Eucharistic Liturgy or outside the celebration.” It would appear the intent of the decision to offer Eucharist under one species and to have fewer Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) is to increase reverence for the sacrament, as Bishop Morlino wrote, to “know and understand the beautiful gift we have in the Eucharist.”
I have been reflecting on this shift, having always attended parishes where there was a good number of EMHCs and served in this ministry myself many times. What is gained and what is lost? Thinking about the question, I sought out reflections from people who serve in this way: men and women, English and Spanish speaking, from a variety of dioceses, young and old, those who are new to the ministry and those who have been serving for decades. Here are some of the words they shared with me about what serving as an EMHC means to them.

Angelica (Diocese of Richmond, translated from Spanish: “Truly, {serving as an EMHC} is a joy for me. I believe it is a form of demonstrating my love for Jesus, giving without expecting something in return. It makes me feel closer to the Father…it strengthens me in my life.”
Pierre (Archdiocese of Washington, DC): “After moving to DC in March, I was looking to get involved with parish life. I became an usher and got involved with the young adult group. I had never been involved with Eucharistic ministry before and wanted to try it out. We are scheduled to serve once a month, I often serve two or three times a month because I fill in as needed. I was grateful for the half-day training I received here in the Washington Archdiocese. The theological background we received there was helpful. Every ministry is special, and this has been particularly meaningful, it’s been a positive experience. There is close interaction with everyone in the parish; I see a lot of people who I wouldn’t otherwise be in touch with. I enjoy the sense of adoration and reverence people bring to the sacrament. The Eucharist is considered the source and summit of Christian life, so it’s a blessing to be able to participate in this way.”
Becky (Archdiocese of St Louis): “{As a Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion}, I fell deeply in love with literally sharing Christ with my fellow parishioners and then my classmates. It became the model for me to live out my life in ministry and then as a social worker by bringing Christ to the world in how I lived, loved, cared for and served people. My husband and I served as the Bread Ministers for our wedding Mass, and it is still one of the best memories I have of that day. We were able to intimately share our faith with all of our guests by either giving communion or offering a thanksgiving blessing.”
Carol (Archdiocese of Baltimore, translated from Spanish): “For me, serving as a Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion means very much. I realize God’s love for me because despite the fact that I am not worthy of many things, especially to distribute his Body and Blood, He still has chosen me to do so. It is a special way of serving which has helped me have a closer relationship to the Lord. The experience has served to make me appreciate the sacrament more, to take it more seriously.”
David (Archdiocese of Chicago) – “I have been serving as a Eucharistic minister for fifteen years. For me, it’s a way to give, a way to serve God. It adds meaning to my life. ‘The body of Christ’ are the four most important words I say every week. Serving in this ministry is a high point of my week.”
Mary (Diocese of Richmond) – “I have been a Eucharistic Minister for over 25 years…and what the ministry means to me today is very different from when I first began serving. In the early days of ministry I basically answered a call to fill a need within the parish. I went to training sessions and became a ‘Eucharistic minister.’ I assisted at Mass and eventually became a Pastoral Care Minister bringing communion to people in the hospital. Being a nurse this seemed like a natural progression. I was connected to the military and moved every few years. With each move I served as a Eucharistic minister in each parish I joined. In the early days I was somewhat disconnected from the sacrament…I was giving people ‘something’ – ‘the body of Christ’…as the years passed and I grew spiritually, an understanding grew within me…that I wasn’t giving- I was ‘sharing’…sharing the journey of life…of humanity…of their joys and pains. Sharing the “community” that we grew in the church building and bringing it to the parishioners in the hospital or home.”

For Angelica, Pierre, Becky, Carol, David, and Mary, serving as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion has enriched their faith life, understanding of the sacrament and relationship with God. I can only imagine their testimonies are representative of so many other lay Catholics who serve in this way. Hearing their testimonies in the light of Vatican II documents I referenced at the beginning of this post, underscores how this ministry for them has been a fulfillment of that vision. Given the words of these lay Catholics, I feel sadness and disappointment that this ministry has been so greatly limited in my own home parish and throughout the Diocese of Madison. I am grateful for the service of these and so many other Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion which help us to “know and understand the beautiful gift we have in the Eucharist.”

2 thoughts on “In their own words – Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion

  1. An interesting and telling contrast: Bishop Morlino seems interested in an abstract, ideal role to be enacted by the priest and deacon. But these Eucharistic ministers speak concretely from their own lives about how they’ve met God and brought God to others. Good post. Welcome, Rhonda.

  2. When I read stories like this, I can only recall the scripture “his heart was moved to pity for the crowd for they were like sheep with a shepherd.” The problem is not that we have too many (Extraordinary) Eucharistic Ministers or even too few priests and deacons. The problem is we have few shepherds. Jesus must weep for the faithful of Madison even as he wept for the crowds in Jerusalem.

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