When Lay Ministers Take Holy Communion to the Sick

Canon Law and the Lay Minister of Holy Communion

Ideally, Catholics should approach the Eucharist during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Nevertheless, it is not always possible for Christ’s faithful to do so without grave inconvenience. In the case of sickness, this grave inconvenience may be physical or it may be moral. If the sickness deprives the individual of all his energy and thus he lacks the strength to get out of bed, then the grave inconvenience is physical. If the person is able to get out of bed and move around, but his illness is a highly contagious disease, then the grave inconvenience is moral in that he ought not risk the health of the general public.

Regardless of whether the illness causes moral or physical impossibility, the Church is still obliged, insofar as it is possible, to meet the spiritual needs of her faithful. From these needs arise the Church’s ancient pastoral practice of visiting the sick. This practice includes taking the Eucharist to the elderly, the sick and the infirm. It involves sharing in prayer and the word of God during these visits. These eucharistic visits may take place in the home, at the hospital bed, or in any institution that provides basic care and day-to-day living arrangements to the elderly, the sick and the infirm.

A minister of Holy Communion typically encounters three types of situation when taking Communion to the sick. The first is a regular visit to someone suffering from the effects of age, illness or infirmity. The second concerns a visit to someone who is dying. In this situation, the Church refers to the Holy Eucharist as Viaticum. This last word means “food for the journey,” keeping in mind that death is a journey into the afterlife. And the third situation concerns a sick or dying child. A lay minister of Holy Communion should be aware of how to proceed in each situation.

A minister of Holy Communion is simply a baptized Catholic who lawfully takes the Eucharist to other Catholics. Canon 910 distinguishes between an ordinary minister of Holy Communion and an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. Ordinarily, the Church entrusts bishops, priests, and deacons with the ministry of taking Holy Communion to the sick. Thus clergy are ordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

When a layperson takes the Eucharist to the sick, he or she acts as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. In other words, he or she acts in an extraordinary capacity because the priests and deacons are unable to meet the needs of all the Catholics in a specific area. A common example is that of a priest who pastors a large flock within a geographically dispersed parish, without any available permanent deacon or assistant pastor to help him.

In keeping with canon 910, a layperson may become an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion in one of two ways. The first is by law. This applies to any layman who receives the stable ministry of acolyte. According to canon law, an acolyte automatically becomes an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, in much the same way that a deacon becomes by law an ordinary minister of Holy Communion upon his ordination. Subsequently, the acolyte has precedence over any other potential extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

Yet what happens when the number of clergy and acolytes within a given parish is insufficient to meet the pastoral needs of every sick parishioner? Sometimes it is simply impossible for the clergy and acolytes to take the Eucharist to every sick parishioner. Fortunately, the Church does not abandon her sheep in these circumstances. Having foreseen such a need, canon 230 provides for the possibility of other lay people fulfilling the duties of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. Yet they may only do so when the number of clergy and acolytes are insufficient to carry out this duty in a timely and orderly fashion.

Pastoral Principles for Lay Ministers

A lay minister of Holy Communion should always maintain open communication with the pastor, as well as any other priest or deacon who oversees the layperson’s ministry to the sick. Good communication is important for two reasons. First, it insures that the layperson fully understands his or her proper boundaries as a lay minister in taking the Eucharist to the sick. The extraordinary minister of Holy Communion fulfills a certain ministerial function that is ordinarily carried out by a priest or deacon. As a lay minister, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion does not replace the pastor or any other clergy.

Second, good communication facilitates the pastor’s capacity to exercise wise pastoral judgment in his day-to-day ministry. A priest can only base his pastoral decisions upon the information available to him. If a priest requires the assistance of lay people to take Holy Communion to the sick, then the priest will also likely rely upon his lay ministers to act as his eyes and his ears during their pastoral visits to the sick and the homebound. In practical terms, the lay minister should make every attempt to administer Holy Communion within the larger context of a pastoral visit to the sick, the aged, and the infirm. If possible, the pastoral minister should inquire about the seriousness of the illness or infirmity. If the person’s health has substantially worsened since the last visit, then the lay minister should immediately report this to the pastor.

Another pastoral principle is that proper reverence should be shown toward the Eucharist at all times. This includes the time spent transporting and handling the Holy Eucharist. The present author knows of one particularly egregious incident in which a minister placed the Holy Eucharist in an envelope and sent it to his sick and elderly parishioners via regular postal mail. Not only is this highly inappropriate, it is a sacrilege. If done for a sacrilegious purpose, such an action even carries an automatic excommunication.

A third important pastoral principle concerns the right to receive Holy Communion. In keeping with canon 912, every baptized Catholic has the right to receive the Holy Eucharist unless he or she is prohibited by canon law. A lay minister of Holy Communion must always be mindful of this fundamental right when approached for Holy Communion. Because this concerns a basic right of every Catholic, a lay minister must presume that a baptized Catholic who presents him- or herself for Holy Communion is not prohibited by law. In practical terms, this means a lay minister of Holy Communion should probably not refuse someone Holy Communion unless instructed to do so by the diocesan bishop or the pastor of the parish.

The fourth important pastoral principle concerns the purpose of pastoral ministry. It is to serve Christ’s faithful. A lay minister to the sick does not assume a higher place within the local church community upon becoming an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. To illustrate this point, one of the author’s friends owned a Catholic bookstore. The author recalls an amusing incident while visiting his friend at work, in which a laywoman came into the store, picked out some books, and proceeded to the counter. She then demanded the same clergy discount as the parish priest. When the author’s friend asked why, the woman answered that Father had just appointed her the parish’s newest extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. She became indignant when the author’s friend politely turned her down.

While only God can judge the woman’s heart, it appears that this woman had forgotten the purpose of ministry. It is to serve God through service to one’s neighbor. Others will perceive the conduct of a lay minister in carrying out his or her ministry as a reflection of the Church. Thus a lay minister should remain Christ-like in his or her conduct, as well as focused upon the purpose of his or her ministry. The context of his or her ministry is visiting and administering Holy Communion to the sick, the elderly, and the infirm.

Fifth, a lay minister should observe the proper liturgical rite when taking Holy Communion to the sick. Depending upon the particular circumstances, there are several liturgical rites a layperson may use outside of the Mass. A lay minister should consult with the pastor when he or she is uncertain which rite to use. A lay minister should also prepare carefully, making sure that he or she is familiar with the rite and completely understands it. If the lay minister remains uncertain about a prayer, a reading, or an action to be carried out during the rite, he or she should consult with the pastor.

Ordinary Visits to the Sick, the Elderly, and the Infirm

A lay minister of Holy Communion may be called to visit the sick in a number of different surroundings. These may include private homes, hospital rooms, or nursing homes. There may be one sick person to visit or there may be several. Some will suffer the physical and mental effects of sickness, age or infirmity more strongly than others. Whenever it is possible, celebrating the Rite of Communion and the Celebration of the Word should be part of a more comprehensive visit with the sick.

Because there is a short form and a long form of this rite, the lay minister of Holy Communion should carefully weigh each of the aforementioned facts. For instance, the long form is generally considered more appropriate for communal celebrations where those gathered are just beginning to feel the affects of their illness, infirmity, and age. Thus this rite is more appropriate in retirement homes or assisted-living facilities, where the sick and the elderly are gathered in great numbers and remain highly functional.

On the other hand, the shorter form may be used when visiting a widow or an elderly couple in their own home, especially when neither friends nor family are present. Of course a minister of Holy Communion should always use the shorter rite when the health of the individual has degenerated past the point where he or she can comfortably partake in the longer form.

These factors also help the lay minister to determine the level to which the sick, the elderly, and the infirm are capable of actively participating in the liturgy. If their condition is weak, their capacity to participate may be restricted to minimal responses. Some may not even be capable of those. On the other hand, others may be capable of sharing in the readings and, in the case of communal celebrations, assisting the lay minister in presiding over the rite. Of course the lay minister should also invite friends, family, and those who care for the sick to participate in the liturgy.

Alternatively, the person may not have or be in close contact with friends and family. Sadly, many of today’s sick and elderly suffer from the poverty of loneliness and neglect. In such cases it is all the more important that the lay minister take the necessary time to inquire directly of the person about his or her condition. Not only does this keep the lay minister abreast of what is happening — information that he or she may subsequently need to share with the pastor — but it also provides the sick with much-needed human contact. This alone is a tremendous comfort to those who lack anyone else with whom to share their daily burdens. Nevertheless, the lay minister should avoid imposing conversation or an extended visit where an individual’s condition is too weak to allow for it. Sometimes, simply sitting by the sick person’s bedside and quietly praying brings the most comfort.

Finally, while the Church still prescribes a fast of one hour from all food and drink prior to receiving the Holy Eucharist, canon 919 dispenses the elderly and the sick from this requirement. Additionally, recognizing that they, too, require their strength, the Church also dispenses those who care for the sick and the elderly from the requirements of the eucharistic fast.

The Eucharist is the source and the summit of every Catholic’s life of faith. It is in partaking of Holy Communion that Catholics receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ. It is important that Catholics not be deprived of the opportunity to receive the Blessed Sacrament due to illness, age, or infirmity. Yet ordinary ministers of Holy Communion cannot always fill the great need among Christ’s faithful. Therefore extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion must be properly prepared according to both pastoral theology and canon law to fulfill this need in taking the Eucharist to the sick.

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Pete Vere is a canon lawyer and a Catholic journalist. He recently co-authored Surprised by Canon Law: 150 Questions Catholics Ask About Canon Law (Servant Books) with Michael Trueman and More Catholic Than the Pope (Our Sunday Visitor) with Patrick Madrid. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada.

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