Ponder, for a moment, the spectacular phenomenon known as photosynthesis. Through photosynthesis, billions, perhaps even trillions, of plants receive energy from the sun, enabling them to grow and flourish. The very existence of plant life on Earth will cease without this life-giving energy from our nearest star.
So it is with Holy Communion, the sacrament in which Catholics throughout the world receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Through this intimate encounter, the Word made flesh, our bodies are spiritually nourished and more completely assimilated into His. The Church encourages every Catholic to receive frequent Communion, even every day if possible.
“Holy Communion is the centrality of our faith,” says Michael Donaldson, the Diocese’s director of Pastoral Care for Families in All Stages. “It’s the source and summit of our Catholic faith. It’s what brings us together every Sunday and what feeds us so that we may be present with Christ for others.”
While bishops, priests, deacons and acolytes (those on their way toward ordination into the priesthood or deaconate) distribute Holy Communion, there are an insufficient number of these ordinary ministers to do so without rushing the process. For this reason, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion assist with this sacrament.
“On a normal Sunday Mass at a parish, most of the time you’re going to have extraordinary ministers helping out,” says Lesa Truxaw, director of the Diocese’s Office for Worship. “The distribution of Holy Communion is supposed to be done reverently, with care. It’s not supposed to be unduly long, but we’re not worried about being inefficient with something so important.”
Thanks to the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (commonly referred to as EMHCs), every Catholic can receive Holy Communion in a solemn, worshipful manner. For this reason, EMHCs are essential.
This position is particularly necessary in the Diocese of Orange.
“In our Diocese, we’re blessed to have so many people going to Mass,” Truxaw says. “Christ Cathedral draws 9,000 to 14,000 people on a given weekend. In other places in the country, you won’t see these numbers, so Extraordinary Ministers aren’t necessary.”
On the other hand, Truxaw says, “It all depends on the Eucharist celebration. For example, it would be highly unusual to have an extraordinary minister at an Ordination Mass or a Chrism Mass.”
EMHCs were first permitted in the U.S. in 1971. In January 1973, Pope Paul VI, in “Immensae Caritatis,” extended this permission to the universal Church. He wrote, “Present-day conditions demand that greater access to Holy Communion shall be made possible, so that the faithful, by sharing more fully in the fruits of the sacrifice of the Mass, might dedicate themselves more readily and effectively to God and to the good of the Church.”
Most laypeople become extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at the request of their parish’s clergy. To qualify, they must have been baptized, received First Communion and received Confirmation. Future EMHCs are trained in theological and practical matters.
“Practical training includes what you wear, some of the terminology, where you sign in, where you stand and scheduling matters,” says Truxaw. “Eucharistic theology includes concepts such as Eucharist as a meal and a sacrifice, transformation, real presence and the ecclesial nature of Eucharist.”
The number of training hours varies from parish to parish. The names of those who complete the training are then sent to the bishop for approval.
In the Diocese of Orange, an EMHC serves for a maximum of two years. “It is renewable,” says Truxaw, “based on the discernment of the pastor and priests of the parish.” However, “If [an extraordinary minister] does something notorious or causes the Church to be seen in a negative light, he or she can be removed. This is very rare, but it illustrates how important the position is.”
Important, indeed, since extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion fill a critical need in parishes near and far.
HELPING THE HOMEBOUND
It’s essential that all Catholics have the chance to receive Holy Communion, including those who cannot make it to Church. These include the sick, elderly and infirm. Since it’s often impossible for the clergy and acolytes to take the Eucharist to every homebound parishioner, some extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are trained to visit private homes, hospital rooms, nursing homes or any other institution that provides daily care to those who cannot go out.
“[These EMHCs] need to learn basic pastoral care skills: how to be good listeners, how to be present, attentive and hospitable, how to lead prayers, how to interact with those who are sick or dying,” says Michael Donaldson. “The Holy Eucharist is placed in a vessel known as a pyx. Extraordinary Ministers receive blessings from the Mass to go forth into the community.”
EMHCs are trained in a different ritual. “Within the Pastoral Care of the Sick, there is Communion of the Sick,” says Lesa Truxaw. “There are different options for different situations. Is the setting in a hospital? Is the person [receiving Holy Communion] homebound? There’s Communion in Ordinary Circumstances [in the homes of the sick, for example] and Communion in a Hospital or Institution.”
In addition, say Donaldson and Truxaw, EMHCs are trained to know the correct protocol for different environments, specifically when visiting those who are vulnerable. “They need to look for any signs of abuse and act accordingly,” Donaldson says.