Lay ministers of holy Communion should stop offering "blessings-in-lieu-of-Communion" at Mass
Concerns about swine flu have prompted many parishes to discontinue the routine administration of the Precious Blood. Okay, fine.* But there’s another Communion rite practice that should also cease if only out of concerns for public health. This time, however, it’s a practice that (unlike distribution from the Cup) is an abuse per se, namely, that of lay ministers of holy Communion purporting to confer “blessings-in-lieu-of-Communion” on every Tom, Pat, and Harriet who comes up in line.
Lay ministers of holy Communion (by definition, extraordinary ministers thereof), in response to people approaching them without the intention to receive Communion (maybe such folks are non-Catholics** or are Catholic kids prior to First Communion), currently do one of three things: they (1) speak and gesture a sign of the cross over such folks, or (2) lay hands on such persons’ heads or shoulders while voicing a blessing, or (3) waive the Eucharist over them while purporting to confer a blessing. I think all three actions are liturgical abuses.
Let’s consider them in order of gravity:
1. Blessing the faithful with the Most August Sacrament is expressly reserved to the ordained. Lay persons may not confer any blessings with the Host (Eucharistic worship outside of Mass nn. 91, 97-99, and 1983 CIC 1168). This practice should therefore be immediately halted wherever it has cropped up.
2. Touching many persons’ hair, faces, and/or garments while serving food (albeit divine Food) to the public has to be a violation of some health and safety regulation somewhere, not to mention its being poor manners. If the swine flu makes distribution from a common Cup an issue, surely touching hair and heads while serving others food from a common Plate is a problem. This particular practice should therefore be halted promptly, regardless of what one might think about lay blessings during Mass.
3. Ministers of holy Communion have, I suggest, no authority by their office*** to confer any sort of blessing on anyone. Neither the General Instruction on the Roman Missal nor the Book of Blessings (which later source makes provisions for laity to administer certain blessings) authorizes ministers of Communion to confer blessings during Mass. Given that lay persons serving as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion have no liturgical duties besides the administration of Communion, the introduction of a mini-blessing rite to be performed by them seems to me a plain violation of Canon 846. This practice should, I think, be halted pending a study of its liceity by qualified persons and, if appropriate, its authorization by the competent authority (1983 CIC 838, 1167).
In brief, I suggest that lay ministers of holy Communion have no authority to bless anyone in Communion lines, they should refrain from touching people while distributing holy Communion, and they should immediately cease using the Blessed Sacrament for mini-Benediction rites.
If it takes swine flu to provide the occasion of halting these liturgically illicit, and hygienically unsound, lay blessing practices during Mass, so be it.
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* Personally, while I appreciate the enhanced sign value (Sacrosanctum Concilium 55) of receiving from the Cup on special occasions, say, at First Communions or weddings, or maybe at Easter, I find the every-Sunday, even every-day, administration of the Precious Blood to be a time-consuming process that regularly exposes the Sacred Species to profanation. I have directly witnessed at least a half-dozen spills over the last several years, and I’m not counting dribbles on shirts or dresses, or reports from others. Whatever reason is being offered for discontinuing this excessive use of the Cup, I’m for it.
** Non-Catholics are eligible for certain blessings (1983 CIC 1170), but what’s at issue here are blessings by lay persons in the context of Mass.
*** Clergy enjoy a spiritual authority over their people, as do parents over their children. Such figures may and should extend blessings to their charges at appropriate times (1983 CIC 1167-1169). But what authority do extraordinary ministers of holy Communion have over the faithful? None. Who put extraordinary ministers of holy Communion in charge of anything besides distributing holy Communion? No one. Liturgical experts should explore whether the Communion procession ought to be allowed to morph into a “blessing procession” in the first place but, even if “blessings-in-lieu-of-Communion” during Mass are found licit, surely they should be conferred only by priests or deacons.
Update: I see Fr. Edward McNamara recently dealt with the same question and came down largely against the practice of lay conferral of blessing during the Mass. He quotes from a November 2008 (in ecclesiastical times, that’s yesterday!) private letter signed by an undersecretary of the Congregation of Divine Worship. Okay, such a letter is not law, I grant, but it’s pointing pretty clearly against the practice criticized above. Here’s hoping Rome can issue its answer quickly.