|ROME, 10 MAY 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: At many Masses these days, non-communicating participants approach
the altar at Communion time and receive a blessing when they cannot
communicate. However, some priests do not do this, saying it is not "in
the rubrics." Is it all right for priests to do this?
— M.T., New South
A: As far as I have been able to ascertain, this practice arose over the
last two decades or so, above all in English-speaking countries, such as
Australia and the United States, where Catholics form a significant
minority amid a basically Christian population.
Because of this, it is relatively common to have non-Catholics present
at Mass, for example, Protestant spouses of Catholics, catechumens, and
other visitors. This is especially true of weddings and funerals when
the number of non-Catholics is even larger.
Another common situation, which apparently gave rise to this practice,
is the increase in non-Catholic students at Catholic schools and
colleges. At times, about half the student body is unable to participate
Situations such as these probably inspired the practice of inviting
those unable to receive Communion to approach the altar to receive a
blessing so as not to feel excluded.
Certainly this blessing is not in the rubrics and there is no obligation
to make such an invitation. However, neither is there any prohibition
and the practice seems to have been tacitly accepted by many bishops who
are aware of this nascent custom and have even participated in giving
As far as I know, no bishop has issued specific directives on this
issue, nor has the Holy See intervened although it is certainly aware of
The decision as to whether to adopt such a practice depends on the
concrete pastoral circumstances involved. As in all similar initiatives,
due reflection is required regarding the custom's pastoral utility and
as to any possible consequences that it may provoke in the short or long
term, for example, changing the way people perceive the act of receiving
* * *
Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants [05-24-2005]
Regarding our comments on blessings for non-communicants (see May 10), a
reader asked if my opinion contradicted the following observations made
by Archbishop Chaput of Denver, Colorado, in an article from 2003:
"As members of the community move forward to receive holy Communion
during Mass, parents will often bring their small children along. Over
the years, it has become a custom in many parishes for these children to
receive a blessing. I don't really know where this practice began, but
it's worth some reflection.
"Usually the children in line will look up expectantly at the person
distributing holy Communion. The minister then responds by doing one of
several things: He or she may pat the child's head, or touch the head in
a sign of blessing, or mark the child's forehead with a sign of the
cross. As warm and well intentioned as the gesture may be, in the
context of the liturgy, the Communion procession really isn't the time
for a blessing of children or adults who are unable to receive
"There are times in the liturgical year when the laity assist in
specific acts of blessing, such as the blessing of throats or the
distribution of ashes. These are clearly indicated in the Book of
Blessings. But extraordinary ministers of holy Communion do not
ordinarily have a commission to bless in the name of the Church, as
priests and deacons do. At this point in the liturgy, they have a very
specific function: to collaborate with the clergy in the distribution of
"As we'll explore in a later column, the blessing of the assembly
properly occurs at the end of the Mass. As the body of Christ, the
assembly is blessed together before we depart to live the fruits of the
"What would be appropriate for children to do who accompany their
parents in the Communion procession, and adults who do not receive
"The Communion procession is an opportunity for parents to begin to
teach their children about the great gift of the Eucharist. First of
all, children could learn to give reverence to the Lord hidden under the
forms of bread and wine. Children can already learn from their parents,
and others receiving holy Communion, to give honor to the Lord by bowing
"Parents and catechists should start teaching the mystery of the
Eucharist at an early age. Children will soon begin to desire to receive
holy Communion. This earnest desire to receive our Lord sacramentally is
traditionally called a 'spiritual communion.' Regrettably, we don't talk
about spiritual communion as we once did. But Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus
Liguori and many other great saints strongly encouraged spiritual
communion as a practice.
"Both children and adults can make a spiritual communion. They may come
forward with their arms crossed and bow before the Eucharist. Then the
priest, deacon or extraordinary minister could say to them kindly,
'Receive the Lord Jesus in your heart.' This is not a blessing, but an
invitation to worship, so no gestures are made.
"This spiritual communion would more authentically carry out the spirit
of the liturgy. Being faithful to the truths of the sacramental
celebration allows all of us, young and old, to enter more deeply into
Does it contradict my previous article? All I can say, in typical Irish
fashion is, well, yes and no.
The previous question did not refer to my personal opinion regarding the
appropriateness of these blessings, but to whether they were permitted
or not. The essence of my answer to that question was that the issue was
not clear from a legal point of view and, barring an authoritative
statement from the Holy See, it depended on the local authorities to
judge the opportunity of accepting or rejecting this practice.
The admirable Archbishop Chaput has taken a characteristically lucid
position on the issue, and, while his article is not a formal liturgical
norm, it both clarifies the question for his archdiocese, and provides
guidance to other pastors weighing the pros and cons of this still
However, the fact remains that many bishops have made approving comments
regarding it and some have actually participated in such blessings. Thus
the legal issue at the heart of the original question remains doubtful.
Indeed, as one reader has helpfully informed me, the bishops' conference
of England and Wales has published a fairly authoritative statement on
this issue, to wit:
"Even though some in the assembly may not receive 'sacramental'
Communion, all are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The
Traditional idea of spiritual communion is an important one to remember
and re-affirm. The invitation often given at Mass to those who may not
receive sacramental communion
for example, children before their first communion and adults who are
to receive a 'blessing' at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a
deep spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together
the Sacrament of the Body and blood of Christ" (the Catholic Bishops'
Conference of England and Wales, "Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral
Introduction," (Catholic Truth Society, April 2005, In number 212, pg
I would note that the bishops here interpret the blessing itself as a
kind of spiritual communion and so the basic thrust of their thinking is
the same as that of Archbishop Chaput.
As the gauntlet has been hurled, so to speak, regarding my personal
view, I admit to sharing Archbishop Chaput's misgivings as to the
appropriateness of some practical aspects of imparting these blessings.
For example, since lay extraordinary ministers of Communion are not
authorized to give liturgical blessings, in situations where there are
numerous non-communicants the practice could result in a seeming paradox
in which they receive blessings from the ordinary ministers of Communion
while the Catholic faithful receive the sacred host from extraordinary
ministers. Perhaps a lay minister could pronounce a generic formula
calling down God's blessing, but it is rather short shrift compared to
I am also rather queasy about touching people on the head, while
simultaneously administrating the sacred host on the tongue of the next
person in line.
My most serious hesitations, however, stem from a fear that, over time,
the practice of giving blessings to non-communicants could create a new
perception or mentality regarding Communion itself that makes it somehow
equivalent to a blessing, thus weakening the special value that
Communion should have for Catholics. This danger could be especially
present in a school environment with a high proportion of non-Catholics
who receive only a blessing. On the other hand, some priests have
mentioned that it can lower the danger of sacrilegious communions in
predominantly Catholic schools as children and adolescents find it
easier to ask for a blessing than to stay (alone) in their pews.
Likewise, other priests have written to comment on the pastoral
effectiveness of being able to offer Catholics in irregular situations
an alternative to not approaching the Communion rail. One commented that
one couple's receiving the blessing awoke a hunger for the Eucharist
which spurred them to regularize their situation with the Church.
For the above situations I believe the archbishop's suggestion regarding
formation in spiritual communion, or that of the British bishops in
interpreting the invitation to receive a blessing as spiritual
communion, are invaluable and may be even more pastorally effective than
a simple blessing per se. It may be harder to apply, however, to
This brings us to a related question of some members of the Legion of
Mary in California who generously offer their services as extraordinary
ministers of Communion in an assisted-living facility with a large
proportion of non-Catholics.
They ask: "We also know that, as extraordinary ministers of Communion,
we cannot bless anyone, but we do ask Jesus or God to bless them. What
is the proper form of blessing that we can offer our Protestant
brethren? We customarily offer this type of blessing in lieu of sharing
Communion: 'May God Bless you and keep you close to him.'
"Is it proper for extraordinary ministers to lay on hands or to make the
sign of the cross on the head, or over the head, of the person receiving
the blessing? Is it proper to anoint the head of the person receiving
the blessing with holy water?
"We want to act properly in the full spirit of the Holy Father's call
for evangelization by the lay apostolates, without overstepping into
ritual behavior that is the proper domain of the consecrated
From what has been said above I would suggest that you avoid ritual
gestures that might cause confusion, especially to the Catholics
present. However, the formulas provided for the extraordinary ministers
of Communion in the ritual for Communion outside of Mass could also be
used in the presence of non-Catholics. They usually have a third person
plural formula such as "May the Lord bless us, keep us from all evil and
bring us to everlasting life."
If you wish to offer some spiritual activity to all present beyond the
Communion service, then, with the permission of the parish priest, you
could offer some acceptable common prayer once the Communion service has
for example, praying an hour of the Divine Office, which is almost
totally scriptural, would be one possibility.
While liturgical law restricts to ordained ministers the imparting of
liturgical blessings, lay people are not forbidden from using similar
gestures in non-liturgical settings. For example, in some counties
parents commonly make the sign of the cross over and bless their
children as they leave for school.
While on the subject of blessings, a deacon requested if "the deacon may
use the same formula as the presbyter and perform the same action of
making the sign of the cross over the person(s) to be blessed?"
The short answer is yes. The deacon may impart most of the same
blessings as a priest and uses the same liturgical gestures. If a priest
is present however, he should defer to him.
Finally, a lay woman from Canada asks: "At the opening of the Mass and
its closing we are blessed by the priest. I have traditionally blessed
myself following reception of the Eucharistic species. However, I
recently read that this is inappropriate in that it interferes with the
unifying theme of the initial and closing blessings by the priest. What
is the meaning of blessing oneself after reception of Eucharist? And,
what is considered appropriate at this time in our Church's history?"
Strictly speaking, the priest does not bless us at the beginning of
Mass; rather, we all make the sign of the cross together as a sign of
faith. The only proper blessing is that at the end of Mass which is a
concluding blessing before the faithful are sent forth to continue their
Christian mission in the world.
Your custom of crossing yourself (also sometimes called blessing
oneself) after receiving Communion is simply an act of private devotion
and an expression of faith in what one has received. It does no harm
whatsoever to the symbolism of the Mass and probably does you a lot of
spiritual good. ZE05052423
* * *
Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants, Continued
The theme of blessings for non-communicants (see May 10 and
24) has struck
a chord, albeit a sometimes dissonant one, in many readers. For this
reason I will revisit the theme once more.
(Before embarking, however, I would like to thank the kind reader who
made me realize that I pertain to the ranks of the grammatically
challenged by confusing the first and third person plural in my previous
One reader proposed that accepting the possibility of this blessing of
non-communicants went against the principle that "liturgical documents
are prohibitive of all that they do not prescribe."
While in no means in favor of liturgical inventiveness, I do not believe
this to be a valid principle in interpreting liturgical law.
Liturgical norms have several levels ranging from the Divine decree
(such as the essential elements of the sacraments) to precepts
descriptive of prevalent customs, the latter constituting the vast
majority of liturgical norms.
The different levels do not lessen their value as true laws, which
require obedience. But they are usually content to set out a general
scheme with no desire to rigidly set every gesture to the exclusion of
For example, in a recent controversy regarding some bishop's forbidding
the faithful to kneel after Communion until everybody had received, the
Holy See stated: "The ... prescription of the 'Institutio Generalis
Missalis Romani,' no. 43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within
broad limits a certain uniformity of posture within the congregation for
the various parts of the celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to
not regulate posture rigidly in such a way that those who wish to kneel
or sit would no longer be free."
The same could be said about other acts of private fervor such as making
a sign of the cross after receiving Communion.
Since much liturgical law is grounded in custom, canonists generally
admit that, according to canons 23-28, some ecclesial communities have
the capacity to introduce customs that either interpret the law, or fill
a vacuum or silence regarding the law.
Many, but not all, liturgical canonists deny that a community may
establish a custom contrary to the law. They also discuss the relative
capacity of the diocese or the bishops' conference to introduce customs
in liturgical matters.
Even admitting the ability of these entities to introduce customs, since
Church law already has official mechanisms for adapting the liturgy to
local needs, these should be respected so as to avoid any cause of doubt
or unnecessary conflict.
Historically, the use of customs that either interpret the law or
establish practices to adapt to situations or conditions not expressly
covered by the law, are frequent.
Even in the far more minutely regulated liturgy before the Second
Vatican Council there where many particular customs that responded to
concrete pastoral needs. For example, in the Baltic country of Latvia,
the Catholic minority
hemmed in on one side by a branch of Lutheranism that conserved many
Catholic trappings and on the other by the Russian Orthodox
developed a strong tradition of congregational singing not foreseen in
the rubrics and quite different from the liturgical practice of
neighboring Lithuania, where Catholics constituted the majority.
On the other hand, several other readers did express a fear that the
introduction of the blessing for those not receiving Communion breached
the general liturgical norm that "Therefore, absolutely no other person,
not even a priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on
his own authority" ("Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 22).
Here we are on different terrain. Even if we were to accept that the
blessing offered to non-communicants could be established as a
legitimate custom that responds to new pastoral demands, not foreseen in
the law itself, it is clear that it is not incumbent on the individual
priest to introduce a novel rite into the Communion procession.
Finally, even if we were to accept the (still hypothetical) legitimacy
of this custom, I would be personally hesitant to generalize its use
beyond those areas where it has proved a useful pastoral solution to
specific problems for relatively small groups.
I also see no pastoral advantage in using it for children before their
first Communion. A child who observes parents and siblings approaching
the altar should have a greater sense of hope and desire to be able to
participate just as they do.
As we mentioned before, a blessing in this case could even weaken the
awareness of the greatness and uniqueness of holy Communion. It can also
cause pastoral problems insofar as it is an easy custom to introduce
but, once in, very difficult to renege upon, due to parental