|ROME, 24 MARCH 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: In America, the custom of giving blessings to people who are unable
to receive Communion is growing rapidly. In my parish, in Texas, it
appears that the practice of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion
tracing a cross onto the head of small children and visitors has become
more important than the Eucharist itself. Many have commented to me that
it is so "unwelcoming" not to do this. I have pointed out in liturgy
meetings that neither the Rite of Blessings nor the Roman Missal
envisions this practice. As a deacon I am greatly bothered by this
trend, but my "parish administrator" is hesitant to change the habit of
the previous pastor. In fact, at weddings and funerals this behavior is
encouraged for non-Catholics by our presiding priests. I would greatly
appreciate reading or hearing your opinion/suggestions on what appears
to be an insert into the Eucharistic rite and perhaps a disservice to
our ability to create a true desire and understanding for receiving
Christ at Mass in holy Communion.
A: We have addressed this topic on a couple of occasions (May 10 and 24,
2005) in which we expressed misgivings regarding this practice. At the
same time, we pointed out that the legal situation of the usage is murky
with bishops making statements falling on both sides of the argument.
Recently, however, a document has appeared in several Internet sources
which indicate that the Holy See is tending toward a negative view of
the practice. The document is a letter (Protocol No. 930/08/L) dated
Nov. 22, 2008, sent in response to a private query and signed by Father
Anthony Ward, SM, undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
As a private reply the letter is not yet a norm with legal force and, as
it makes clear, is not a definitive reply. However, it provides some
valuable pointers on the legitimacy of this practice and the mind of the
Holy See regarding it.
The letter said that "this matter is presently under the attentive study
of the Congregation," so "for the present, this dicastery wishes to
limit itself to the following observations":
"1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each
and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent
to the distribution of Holy Communion.
"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),
"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.
"4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio n. 84,
'forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral
nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who
remarry'. To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for
communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have
been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good
"5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy
Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church's discipline has
already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor
receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged
in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or
interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin)."
Although the letter as such is not legally binding, some of its points,
such as No. 2 on the prohibition of lay ministers giving liturgical
blessings, are merely restatements of existing law and as such are
Nor did the letter deal with all possible circumstances, such as the
case of small children mentioned by our reader. Because of this, some
dioceses have taken a prudent wait-and-see attitude regarding these
blessings. For example, the liturgy office of the Archdiocese of
Atlanta, while reiterating that "the Archdiocese has no policy
prohibiting the use of blessings at the time of Holy Communion,"
prudently suggested to pastors that it "may be appropriate to avoid
promoting the practice until a more definitive judgment regarding its
value in the liturgical celebration can be obtained."
* * *
Follow-up: Blessings at Holy Communion [3-24-2009]
Several readers commented on the question of blessings at Communion
(see March 24) after we presented a letter from the Holy See expressing
a fairly negative assessment of this practice.
Our readers expressed opinions both in favor and against, often
outlining situations that the practice would promote or hinder.
One reader, for example, commented on the value of Mass in itself: "I
have read St. Leonard's [of Port Maurice, 1676-1751] 'The Hidden
Treasure' and was deeply moved at his writing about the miracle and the
power of the Mass. Everyone in this world should be invited to attend
Holy Mass no matter what religion or in what state of grace they find
themselves. Especially fallen away Catholics who might be divorced and
remarried (but they really are not married in the eyes of the Catholic
Church) or Catholics who are in the state of mortal sin due to
addictions of one sort or another. They try to amend their lives but
fall too often, and they must sit in their pews while 'everyone' else
gets up into the procession line. This is an embarrassing situation to
one who is guilty of mortal sin ... [but being unable to go to
confession] would not dare to compound their sins by sins by the
sacrilege of receiving the holy Eucharist.
"So, if they were allowed to join the procession to receive a
blessing 'by the priest or deacon' they would not stand out as one who
is in a state of mortal sin. For that is the only reason they would not
receive, being that the fasting rule of one hour is almost impossible to
"I have come to the conclusion that many Catholics just stop going to
Mass for this reason.
"Many people need a reason for not receiving the Eucharist on a
Sunday morning and at least a three-hour fast would allow some excuse.
The good Catholics would have a deeper respect for just what they are
doing and the sacrifice of fasting is a good way to inspire respect."
I agree with our reader that even those who are unable to receive
Communion should attend Mass; indeed, they retain the same obligation to
do so as all Catholics.
However, I would point out that St. Leonard's work was written at a
time when the practice of frequent and daily Communion was quite rare,
even among vowed religious and pious Catholics. Therefore it cannot be
supposed that the object of his work was particularly aimed at those
unable to receive Communion.
Indeed, for those in such a situation the principal grace of the Mass
would be that of conversion: that is, finding the strength to remove the
obstacles to their being able to approach the altar and receive the
bread of life. This is true both of those who are afflicted by sin as
well as those, such as a non-Catholic attending Mass with a spouse, who
cannot receive Communion for other reasons.
In some cases a blessing might help such people attend Mass by
avoiding an embarrassing moment. But it could also have exactly the
opposite effect by singling them out for a blessing when others receive
Communion. Likewise, this situation is more often than not provoked by
the bad habit in many parishes of insisting on an orderly pew-by-pew
communion procession when a bit of confusion would be enough to help
such people pass unnoticed.
In other cases, human frailty being what it is, the possibility of
receiving a blessing in lieu of Communion might actually satisfy some
people so that they never actually take the plunge of regularizing their
situation before God and the Church.
All in all, anecdotal evidence could probably be presented for all
sides, and the question should eventually be decided by Church
authorities on the basis of solid theological arguments.
There are good arguments for restoring the three-hour fast, and our
reader gives some of them. Some bishops proposed this a few years ago
while others objected that it would make some successful pastoral
initiatives, such as lunch-hour Masses in urban centers, almost
Another reader, a priest, asked, "What if a person coming for a
blessing during Communion time is living in sin and a person who knows
that person and sees that person thinks that the person is about to
receive Communion? Since the communicant's back is to the people in the
pews, could not this situation be a source of scandal?"
I would say that if the possibility of receiving a blessing is a
known option, then a person who is unable to see whether or not someone
has communicated should in all charity grant them the benefit of the
doubt and not cede to the temptations of rash judgment.
Even if such a person believed that the other had received Communion,
then, once more in charity, they should rejoice that the sinner has
found a way to make his peace with God and is now able to approach the
Except in cases of notorious public sins, the nature of which require
some form of public reconciliation, we should respect the other's
conscience and refrain from making judgments as to the state of their
souls. It is true that pastoral practice usually advises some people who
have been reconciled to attend Mass where they are unknown so as to
avoid rash judgments. But even if this advice is not followed, then our
tendency should always be toward charitable thoughts.