I go to a larger church with a number of priests in residence. The mass I attend only has one presider and sometimes a deacon. The presider rotates among the various priests in the parish. Each Sunday before the distribution of communion, a number of priests wearing cassocks, surplices, and stoles swoop into the sanctuary from various doors in order to distribute communion. They have not been part of the assembly until this moment, and as soon as communion has been distributed, they disappear again, presumably returning to wherever they came from.
My experience at this parish is not unique. The phenomenon has become so prevalent I wanted to look at what the liturgical documents say.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) no. 162 says this about the ministers who distribute communion:
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.
This is confirmed in the Norms for the Distribution of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds, nos. 26-28.
In my estimation, there are several issues here with the practice of priests coming in for just the distribution of communion.
The first revolves around the phrase “by other priests who happen to be present (praesentes).” A generous read of this text would suggest that priests and deacons in the general vicinity of the church may be considered “present” and thus can and should function as ordinary ministers for the distribution of communion. However, given that the GIRM is talking about the Eucharistic celebration, a more accurate read of the text would suggest that only those who are participating in the actual celebration of the Mass are “present” and thus should serve as ordinary ministers of communion.
This seems the more accurate interpretation since Redemptionis Sacramentum nos. 154-160 envisions that clergy who have been present for the Eucharistic celebration should distribute communion as ordinary ministers of communion before calling upon extraordinary ministers of communion. But Redemptionis Sacramentum does not envision a scenario where clergy who have not been part of the whole Eucharistic celebration come in to distribute communion and then leave.
This leads, however, to a second more fundamental question: If a priest has not participated in the Eucharistic liturgy, should they be distributing communion? I would say that they should not.
First, the practice of priests coming in before communion and then leaving again after communion seems to fly in the face of Vatican II’s call for full, conscious, and active participation. These ministers are not modeling that type of participation. But more importantly, it seems to devalue the recovery of Christ’s presence in the whole Eucharistic celebration – Word proclaimed, Eucharistic species, priest, and assembly. It disrupts the careful balance sought in the conciliar documents between these various modes of Christ’s presence in the liturgy.
A parallel can be established here to the rules concerning the laity’s reception of communion in the GIRM. GIRM par. 85 indicates that the faithful should ordinarily receive communion from the same Mass:
It is most desirable that the faithful, just as the priest himself is bound to do, receive the Lord’s Body from hosts consecrated at the same Mass and that, in the instances when it is permitted, they partake of the chalice (cf. no. 283), so that even by means of the signs Communion will stand out more clearly as a participation in the sacrifice actually being celebrated.
The faithful are ordinarily to receive from the same elements consecrated at the Eucharistic celebration in order to solidify their participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice. At the same time, GIRM no. 85 makes it clear that while the reception of communion from the elements consecrated in that Eucharistic celebration is the ideal, communion from the tabernacle is also acceptable. As the late Robert Taft has noted:
Eucharistic Communion is not just the sacrament of the communion of the individual with God in the Body and Blood of his Incarnate Son, which Communion from the consecrated species reserved in the tabernacle provides. Eucharistic Communion is the ecclesial communion of the faithful with one another in Christ by sharing together his sacrificial and heavenly banquet. Communion from the tabernacle can hardly claim to signify this except, of course, in the case of Communion brought to those unable to attend the banquet. The stubborn refusal to perceive this seems the result of a shift of emphasis away from Christ’s presence in the community as the purpose of his Real Presence in the eucharistic gifts, to an almost exclusive focus on his presence in the consecrated gifts alone. “The practice of distributing Communion from the tabernacle…erodes the vital connection between the assembly celebrating Eucharist and the Eucharist they receive during the communion rite.” [Taft quoting Judith Kubicki]
In a similar way, the distribution of the body and blood of Christ by those who are not present throughout the Eucharistic celebration also disrupts the connection between the faithful’s reception of communion and the sacrifice being celebrated by the assembly. The distribution of communion by those who have not been part of the assembly disrupts the sign-value of the assembly at precisely the moment where the faithful experience the connection between the various modes of Christ presence in the Eucharistic species, in the presider, and in the assembly. While there may be some pastoral circumstances that call for the distribution of communion by ministers (ordained and lay) who have not been present throughout the whole Eucharistic celebration, ordinarily, the ministers for communion should be drawn from those who have been present.
I bring this up as we embark upon the Eucharistic revival in the United States because I have become increasingly concerned that in many places this revival is attending only to the presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species and not the manifold presence of Christ in the liturgy, especially in the Word of God and in the assembly. I would even say that the priests who come in for just the distribution of communion draw attention to Christ’s presence in the ordained clergy in a way that is detrimental to Christ’s presence in the assembly. The end result is that the careful balance sought by the conciliar documents is not being upheld.
But where is this practice coming from? Perhaps it is motivated in some circles by clericalism and in other circles by practicalities. But regardless of the intentions of those who have adopted it, the practice seems to have its vestiges in pre-Vatican II forms of distributing communion before, after, or during Mass by another priest using “the rite for the distribution of communion outside of Mass” from the Rituale Romanum. This practice was common in the pre-Vatican II liturgy until new rubrics for the distribution of communion within Mass were issued in 1961.
The mixing of practices for the distribution of communion inside and outside of Mass may also help explain the vestments worn by these priests. The donning of the cassock, surplice, and stole seems to be in tension with GIRM no. 336, which notes that an alb is the proper garment for ordained ministers exercising a ministerial function within the Eucharistic celebration. The cassock and surplice, as noted in Redemptionis Sacramentum no. 128, are for those clergy who are present but do not concelebrate. At the same time, Redemptionis Sacramentum no. 15 notes that those priests who are present but do not concelebrate should still distribute communion before any extraordinary ministers of communion are called upon. This would then imply the use of a cassock and surplice for these ministers as they distribute communion; however, no mention of the stole is made. The practice of wearing a stole seems be influenced by the current Rite of Distributing Holy Communion Outside of Mass no. 20, which notes that: “the minister of communion, if he is a priest or deacon, is to be vested in an alb, or a surplice over a cassock, and a stole.” The choice of vesture by these priests mixes practices from the distribution of the Eucharist outside of Mass within Mass itself, precisely what was often done in the pre-Vatican II liturgy. This is even more so the case when the priest distributing communion does not receive communion, which raises its own theological issues.
At times pastoral circumstances dictate practices outside of the norm, but the distribution of communion by those who have not been present for the Eucharistic celebration should not be the norm. Based on the liturgical principles outlined in the GIRM and other liturgical documents, the following is how the documents seem to rank the order of precedence of ministers for the distribution of communion:
- Concelebrant(s) and ministering Deacon(s)
- Priests and deacons who are present
- Instituted acolytes
- Extraordinary ministers of communion
- Other faithful deputized for that single liturgy
- Clergy who have not been present for the Eucharistic celebration
 Robert Taft, “‘Communion’ from the Tabernacle: A Liturgico-Theological Oxymoron,” Worship 88 (2014): 18.
The title of this post has been updated and the content lightly edited.