ROME, 7 SEPT. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: My parish is thinking of making young teenagers into extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in order to try to keep them practicing their faith. I myself am not very comfortable with this, especially as they do not help with anything else round the parish. I think that "He who is faithful in little things," etc., and that they should be encouraged with smaller jobs, at least to begin with. So what is the minimum age for an extraordinary minister? I have looked up references to extraordinary ministers on your Web site but they do not seem to answer this question. — G.D., High Wycombe, England
A: This is not an easy question to answer, as it appears that there are no universal norms to guide us. It should be remembered, however, that this decision does not belong primarily to the parish but to the bishop. Also, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be called upon only if really needed.
I would also question the wisdom of the motivation. While not making any mention of age, the norms of the 1973 document "Immensae Caritatis" indicate the qualities of the person chosen for this ministry:
"The faithful who are special ministers of communion must be persons whose good qualities of Christian life, faith, and morals recommend them. Let them strive to be worthy of this great office, foster their own devotion to the eucharist, and show an example to the rest of the faithful by their own devotion and reverence toward the most august sacrament of the altar. No one is to be chosen whose appointment the faithful might find disquieting."
While there are many young people who have shown heroic sanctity and not a few fulfill the requirements mentioned above, I do not consider it appropriate to use this very important ministry as a means of retaining interest in attending Mass. A young person should only be considered as a suitable candidate if he or she would go to Mass anyway.
Even among those churches whose bishops have issued norms, there is quite a difference in opinion.
In the United States it would appear that the most common minimum age is 18. This is the norm in dioceses such as New York and St. Louis. Some others have a lower age, such as Detroit which indicates "high school age."
Most European countries such as Germany and Italy as well as some Latin American bishops seem to opt for higher minimum ages of between 21-30 years old, although exceptions can also be found.
In Italy, the bishops set the minimum age for seminarians to receive the ministries of instituted lector or acolyte at 21. The bishops consider that "before this age it is difficult that the person has reached a stable orientation and the candidate an acquired pastoral rapport."
If this is required of a seminarian who has received several years of formation, some bishops draw the conclusion that an even higher level of maturity is required of laypeople. Thus many Italian dioceses, such as the Patriarchate of Venice, have established 25 years as the minimum age for extraordinary ministers.
In 2009 the archbishop of Manfredonia-Vieste-San Giovanni Rotondo issued precise norms in this respect. We offer them as an example, fully aware that each bishop is free to judge for himself what is best pastorally for his own diocese:
"1) The mandate of EMHC is conferred exclusively by the Archbishop who, for the moment, has decided not to avail himself of the faculty of permitting priests to entrust this mission to suitable persons in cases of necessity [...]. Therefore, no priest or deacon may entrust this mission to others on his own initiative.
"2) The choice of the candidates must be made in a community manner, hearing the parish pastoral council, and must take into account the following:
"— A good level of Christian formation, especially formation obtained at an Institute of Religious Sciences or similar institute;
"— Full ecclesial communion;
"— A solid Eucharistic piety;
"— A recognized capability of dialogue, of attentiveness and service toward the elderly and sick;
"— Eventual experience as a volunteer or with Caritas;
"— Commitment toward some specific sector of diocesan or parish pastoral service. Particular care should be taken in choosing the candidates for this ministry so as to avoid causing disquieting the faithful.
"3) Superiors of communities of female religious can be granted this ministry during their mandate, although the dispositions of numbers 2, 4, and 8 also apply to them.
"4) Each pastor shall evaluate the number of extraordinary ministers (men and women) to be presented to the archbishop, with the written consent of the candidate, and according to real needs.
"5) Those who can be proposed for this ministry must have reached 25 years of age in analogy with the dispositions of the Bishops' Conference with respect to the ministries of lector and acolyte. The mission of extraordinary minister ends on reaching 75 years of age.
"6) The conferral of the ministry will be ordinarily held in the cathedral presided over by the Archbishop.
"7) The diocesan liturgical office will grant a credential card with the duration of validity and eventual renewal of the ministry.
"8) The duration will be normally three years and renewable on the request of the pastor or religious superior and with the consent of the minister.
"9) The ministry can only be carried out in the place for which it has been granted (parish, religious community) as specified in the credential."
These precise norms are clearly not applicable everywhere, but I believe that they do go to show the seriousness with which the process of choosing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion should be taken.
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Follow-up: Teens as Extraordinary Ministers [9-21-2010]
In the wake of our commentaries on teenage extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (see Sept. 7) a reader asked, "What about the practice in some parishes where at a wedding Mass the priest 'on the spot' deputes the bride and groom as Eucharistic ministers so that the couple can give Communion to one another and then to each other's family, relatives and friends."
This practice has been specifically forbidden in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 94: "It is not licit for the faithful 'to take ... by themselves ... and, still less, to hand ... from one to another' the sacred host or the sacred chalice. Moreover, in this regard, the abuse is to be set aside whereby spouses administer Holy Communion to each other at a Nuptial Mass."
Related to the theme of extraordinary ministers was the following question from a reader in Atlanta, Georgia: "Regarding GIRM No. 162, do the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion have the option of when they 'approach' the altar? Some feel that the proper interpretation is that the extraordinary ministers leave their pews during the 'Lamb of God,' assemble standing at the base of the altar while the rest of the community kneels, and then 'approach' the top of the altar stairs after the celebrant receives Our Lord in communion. Others feel that the extraordinary ministers should not leave their pews until the celebrant receives Our Lord in communion, and then come to the top of the altar stairs. In this way, the extraordinary ministers are kneeling with the rest of the community before they approach, while in the first option they are standing."
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], No. 162, says: "The priest may be assisted in the distribution of Communion by other priests who happen to be present. If such priests are not present and there is a very large number of communicants, the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, e.g., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion. These ministers should not approach the altar before the priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the priest celebrant the vessel containing either species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful."
I would first observe that the question of whether the extraordinary ministers are kneeling or standing during the "Lamb of God" applies only to most dioceses of the United States and a few other countries. In most countries the people stand at this moment, as foreseen in the general norms (although these norms also contemplate and recommend maintaining kneeling wherever it is customary).
I would say that the meaning of the expression "approach the altar" is that extraordinary ministers should only come to the altar in order to receive the sacred vessels. They should not be present in the altar's immediate vicinity, in the manner of concelebrants, until their service begins.
However, if the design and logistics of the chapel require it, there is no reason why they could not all gather in a convenient place within or near the sanctuary at a reasonable distance from the altar. They can thus approach the altar immediately after the priest's communion. The most opportune moment for this gathering would be after reciting the "Lord, I am not worthy," especially if distances are short. If the number of ministers or the complex design of the sanctuary calls for it, it could also be discreetly done during the "Lamb of God."