Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are – forgive me! – a ‘species’ which evolved after the Second Vatican Council. The main founding document, called Immensae Caritatis, was issued by the Holy See in 1973. Its driving idea was “to make access to communion easier”. One aspect was ensuring that there are enough people, ‘ministers’, to administer Holy Communion. This held both within Mass if numbers are large or the celebrant disabled and outside Mass if distances are extensive and there are many housebound or sick. So, in addition to the ‘ordinary’ ministers, i.e. bishop, priest and deacon, the ordained, St Paul VI made room for special ministers, now called ‘extraordinary ministers’, i.e. not bishops, priests or deacons, not ordained but commissioned. He mentioned explicitly lectors, seminarians, religious, catechists and “one of the faithful – a man or a woman”. We would now add acolytes.
The opening Latin words of that initial charter mean “immeasurable love”. There’s a guide. A Eucharistic minister is ultimately a minister of the “immense charity”, the “immeasurable love” of Christ, who instituted the Eucharist and wants his faithful people to share in it as fully as possible. So, you are at the service of Christ’s love for his people.
“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 chosen whose appointment the faithful might be find disquieting.” (IC 1). Normally a parish priest will propose people for this office, and the Bishop will commission them, for a designated period of time, 5 years in this diocese.
So much for background. I’d like next to say something about:
- The meaning of the Mass
- God’s action in the world
- Our share in it.
1. Our Mass comes from the Last Supper. It is the Church’s act of obedience to Jesus’ word to the apostles: ‘Do this in memory of me.’ At the Last Supper, on the eve of his passion, Jesus gathered his disciples in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, he spoke with them, and in the course of a Passover meal, did – to summarise – three things: i) he took the bread and, later, the cup / chalice of wine ii) he gave thanks to / blessed God iii) he broke the bread and gave it and gave the chalice to the disciples who were present.
The Liturgy of the Eucharist imitates and reproduces these three actions of Christ. In the Offertory or Presentation of the Gifts, the Church in the person of the priest takes the bread and wine. In the Eucharistic Prayer, God is thanked and blessed and these gifts become the Body and Blood of Christ. In the Communion Rite, the bread is broken, and Christ’s Body and Blood are distributed to the faithful. A Eucharistic minister comes on stage, let’s say, takes part in, becomes an agent of this third moment, of Christ’s giving, sharing, of his Body and Blood. He or she is a helper, an extension of the ‘ordinary’ minister. The consecrated elements should be distributed in order: from the priest to the ministers and then from him and them to the faithful. Everything flows from the altar. Communion comes to us through the ministry of the Church from the Sacrifice of Christ, as water and blood flowed from his wounded side.
In instituting the Eucharist, our Lord was anticipating what he was going to do and undergo the next day, i.e. offer himself to the Father for our sake. The Eucharist is the translation into ritual of what he was to do “in the flesh”, on the Cross. Dare I say, it’s like the film of the book or like putting a verbal message into sign language? It is the translation of the original reality into another medium. This makes it possible for the memory of his bodily sacrifice to remain alive through time and space, in history, among the faithful. It makes it possible for every generation of believers to draw on the saving power and “immeasurable love” of his self-gift on the Cross – until he comes again and there be no more need for sacraments and ministry.
2. We can now put this in a wider context. At the beginning of the Creed we affirm that God, the Almighty Father, is our creator. But God does not simply begin things; he conserves and develops them – like parents who raise their children as well as beget them. And in the case of all living things the ‘sacrament’ – the sign and instrument – of this divine action is food. The Bible is all about it. In Genesis, God gives man first plants and fruit for food and the same, mutatis mutandis, to the animals, the birds and reptiles (Gen 1:29-30). The first sin was the taking of a forbidden fruit; it was the impatient, premature appropriation of food to ourselves, rather than a waiting to receive it. After the Flood, man is given animals to eat as well. Then come so many stories of feeding, sometimes miraculous. Joseph provides grain to his brothers in a time of famine. Manna and quails are given in the wilderness. Elijah summons rain. Elisha multiplies the loaves. Psalm 103 praises God for all this natural and supernatural nourishing: “You make the grass grow for the cattle, and the plants to serve man’s needs…All of these [living creatures] look to you to give them their food in due season. You give it, they gather it up: you open your hand, they have their fill.” Ps 135 – a litany of praises – recounts all God does in creation and for the people of Israel with the refrain, “For his great love is without end”. And the climax is: “he gives food to all living things, for his great love is without end.” All this looks forward to God’s ultimate act of feeding: the gift of his Son, the Bread of Life, our everlasting sustenance. It’s no surprise then that food and drink are at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. Think of the first sign, Cana – the way Jesus eats with tax-collectors and sinners – the discourse on the Bread of Life in John ch. 6 – the multiplication of the loaves, one of the few miracles in all four Gospels – the institution of the Eucharist – the meals with the disciples after the Resurrection. So, the feeding that is intrinsic to creation and the marvellous feedings of Israel’s history climax in God the Father’s inviting us to the table of his Son. And Jesus enters into the will of the Father, and says, ‘Take this all of you and eat of it…drink of it…this is my Body, this is the chalice of my Blood.’ In the Eucharist we are fed sacramentally on God, in preparation for the ultimate feeding ‘mouth to mouth’ of the beatific vision, the heavenly banquet, the supper of the Lamb.
3. Man is made in God’s image and so we are called to ‘image’ this nourishing activity of God. The man is put in the Garden to till it and care for it. We are called to accept the gifts of nature with thanksgiving (‘saying grace’) and to cultivate them. They are both ‘fruit of the earth and work of human hands’. We grow food, raise animals. We cook. We feed our children, come together for meals, share food with one another. This is the primal Eucharist of human life. In the ordinary domestic process of feeding ourselves and others we are already working with God, and kitchen and table are already sacred places. But with the Incarnation and the Eucharist all this is raised to a higher power. The Word becomes flesh and his flesh becomes our bread. The fruit of the earth and the work of human hands become holy things: the humanity and divinity of the Son of God. Bread becomes his Body and wine his Blood. There is a qualitative leap. But our co-operation is not set aside. As Eucharistic ministers, we are lending our body, our hands and our voice to the divine work: standing, administering, saying, ‘The Body of Christ’. We share with our fellow believers the “holy things”. We do so connected to the heart and will of God. We are the ministers of Christ’s immeasurable love. We are doing something divine. We are living out our image-hood.
So, the first requirement of a Eucharistic minister is that he / she be baptised (and confirmed), i.e. a member of God’s holy people, a child of God, a living branch of the Vine, raised to a higher power in her own person. A second is that he / she understand what he/she is doing: working consciously with God. A third is that his / her heart and will are engaged: “God loves a cheerful giver”. Another is that he / she be authorised, i.e. commissioned by a bishop. The Liturgy is not a free for all. “It is the action of Christ and of the People of God arrayed hierarchically” (GIRM 16). It is the action of a coherent, organic body, both united and differentiated: united by faith and baptism, differentiated by various ministries and functions, held together by the Holy Spirit in the Body of the Church.
All this looks forward to the Supper of the Lamb where we will be fed by God and feed each other.
So it is a great and holy thing we are part of, amid all its practicalities and distractions. We are privileged to give “holy things to the holy people.” And isn’t there something extraordinarily touching about it as face after face comes before us: fresh faces, tired faces, eager faces, sad faces, distracted faces, focussed faces, young faces, wrinkled faces? Here are God’s beloved sons and daughters, with different levels of faith and charity, but stretching their mouths and hands towards the Food of God. “The eyes of all look to you, to give them their food in due season”. “And lifting up his eyes and seeing that a crowd was coming towards him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘How are we to buy bread, so that this people may eat?’” (John 6:5).