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Communion

I Crossed the Line at Mass

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In my travels I’ve attended Masses where there is no protocol in place for Communion—it’s a free-for-all.

All the members of the congregation simultaneously stand and exit from either end of the pews, find the nearest extraordinary minister of Holy Communion (EMHC), then go against the flow of traffic to find their way back to their seats. Often times those who sit in the middle of the pew arrive after those at the end who are already kneeling in prayer. They are forced to either climb over them or initiate an awkward square dance in a crowded aisle until all are seated.

Communion at my parish, on the other hand, is executed with pinpoint precision. The celebrant, deacon and six EMHCs take their preassigned places. An usher directs each row to rise and exit the pew on the same end. They stand in a single-file line and, after receiving Communion, enter the pew on the opposite end and take their seats. Henry Ford would be proud. It truly is a model of efficiency…except for one detail. My wife likes to receive Communion only from an ordained minister—the closest being the deacon, who is stationed at the opposite side of the church.

Solution 1: Move. Sit where the deacon or celebrant will be distributing Communion. Aha! But we’ve just left the cry room and need to be near the escape hatch.

Solution 2: EF Mass. Go to Mass celebrated in the extraordinary form where there are no EMHC. While I have a great love and respect for the traditional Latin Mass, we cannot attend. Look for a future post on this topic.

So each and every Sunday, we cross the line.

We are not alone. There are other habitual line-crossers among us. How do I know? The deacon distributes the Eucharist shoulder-to-shoulder with an EMHC whose line is typically half as long as the deacon’s. If there were no line-crossers, the length would be equal. They are not.

And it’s not just a difference of 3 or 4 people. When the EMHC has finished distributing Communion to all in her line, the deacon still has 20 or so in his. The usher standing behind the deacon motions the faithful to move over to balance the lines. No one moves, including my family. I pretend not to notice: oh look, something very interesting on the floor! It makes me feel bad, I know the usher!

The EMHC also beckons people to hop over to her line. No takers.

By crossing the line, we disrupt the Swiss-like accuracy of the Communion procedure, usurp the authority of the usher and make the EMHC feel like a second grader with cooties.

Our Mass is packed so the help of the EMHCs is warranted and licit:

“Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.”—REDEMPTIONIS SACRAMENTUM 158

I have no problem with EMHC, heck I’m best buddies with one! But in order that my family go to Communion at the same time, I must disrupt protocol and deny them like Peter did our Lord.

How about you? Do you prefer receiving Communion from an ordained minister or is the EMHC perfectly fine? Are you an EMHC? Have you experienced this phenomenon or is it particular to my parish? Do you have cooties? Share and let’s learn together!
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46 Comments

  1. Alice Bleignier

    March 31, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    Our Church files out & back in an orderly fashion, as it should be. I have always thought of EM’s as the Body of Christ giving the Body of Christ to the Body of Christ. That makes us all one with Christ! What more could you ask for?

  2. Peter Belanger

    May 23, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    We have 5 masses Saturday and Sunday and the 9:00 am on Sunday is packed. Our ushers do a great job of getting only one side of the pew up at a time and there are few awkward resitting problems. The lines are balanced because there’s an intuitive understanding that it’s the host, not the minister. It’s never been discussed at Mass but I bet 30 seconds from the priest to explain that 1) the host from the eucharistic ministers is valid and 2) it might SHORTEN THE MASS to balance the lines would solve this problem!

    • Miles

      May 23, 2014 at 6:39 pm

      Is there a pressing need for shorter Masses? I think denizens of modern America need MORE in the sanctuary with Our Lord, not less.

  3. Cheryl Spaulding

    May 14, 2014 at 3:40 pm

    I had never actually thought about this, but when I do and I watch, you are correct Dan. How VERY sad this is. The focus of the communion is NOT the person who gives it to you, it is the Eucharist. Why would anyone need to take it only from a Priest of Deacon. As I said, just sad and an example of why our Church has been bogged down for years. The past is past. It’s not coming back, get over it.

    • Miles

      May 14, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      Gee, Cheryl, your comments appear to dismiss nearly two millennia of fruitful liturgical tradition rather blithely…I would contend that there’s nothing sad at all about communicants indulging their preferences one way or the other, although I’ll happily tag myself as the dreaded “traditionalist” by saying that I prefer to stay in line with age-old norms and receive from the ordinary minister, since the absurd flock of “extraordinary” ministers serving at every weekend Mass at my parish operates in contravention to the requirements of the GIRM, and I just don’t want to be part of that. As for your unsubstantiated and undetailed assertion that this is “an example of why our Church has been bogged down for years”…how so? I could go on for hours about what I believe constitute the woes our Church has labored under for the past five decades, and faithful Catholics opting to receive Our Lord from the ordinary minister of Holy Communion is certainly not numbered among them.

  4. Barbara Sears

    May 11, 2014 at 8:02 pm

    We have two deacons in my parish. Mostly they are the priest give the communion. EMHC have mostly been used when the priest is ill, or the weeks he is away and the fill in priest is not able to. like the one we had who was very elderly. I do not make a distinction. But then I am a relitively new catholic…

  5. Ignazio

    May 5, 2014 at 7:08 pm

    Dan,
    What if someone isn’t (or doesn’t consider himself) in a state of grace to receive communion?
    What if someone is a non-Catholic, maybe accompanying a friend, attending Mass?
    What if someone has already received communion that day?

    It’s the choreography that’s annoying.
    A little chaos at communion is a good thing.
    It’s not the buffet line at the banquet, first-come-first-served, no cuts, wait your turn, hurry up and get back to your saved seat.
    If you’re delayed a bit, just take the moment for an extra prayer.

    I think we’re in general agreement: let’s raise the level of honor for the Blessed Sacrament.

    Cheers!

  6. sidney

    May 2, 2014 at 11:49 am

    It is okay to adjust your position so as to receive from an ordinary minister. Ushers are facilitators rather than bosses, but sometimes they forget their proper role. Politely ignore them when they get too pushy. Likewise, EMHCs sometimes forget that the E means extraordinary and see themselves as regular ministers of the Eucharist. That is also not your problem. There is no requirement to receive in both species, but to forgo the chalice wouldrequire great fortitude on the part of the Ordinary because so many would squawk of it were not offered.

    • Miles

      May 5, 2014 at 7:43 pm

      Amen, Sidney – I have to say that, while the vast majority of the guys whom I’ve seen performing the role of usher seem to understand their proper role to be an instrument of hospitality, I have also witnessed the odd usher who holds what appeared to be a distorted view of the station he occupies, going about the job with an attitude which I would place somewhere between bouncer and brown-shirt. This is a level of silliness which has no place in the sanctuary where we worship the King of the Universe.

  7. Clayton

    May 1, 2014 at 1:19 pm

    When I was in the seminary in the mid-90’s, the use of extraordinary ministers definitely served a political purpose.

    Lay people were always encouraged to serve as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, when clearly there was no need for such a thing with several priests in attendance and a congregation of, at most, several hundred people at the largest events. As if to make a political statement, in the fall of 1996, at the seminary’s Mass for the installation of acolytes, those who planned the liturgy made a point of arranging for several lay people to distribute the Eucharist, while several concelebrating priests stood by. It seemed to me like one of the efforts to push the buttons of the more conservative seminarians in the hopes of “flushing” a few into view.

    I wrote about this on my blog once:
    http://doxaweb.wordpress.com/2006/02/20/a-clear-focus-on-priestly-formation/

  8. Miles

    April 30, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    Very interesting to read Fr. Sticha’s thoughts on the conferral of blessings upon children (and, presumably, anyone else – such as non-Catholics and those unfit to receive due to the consciousness of serious sin) during Holy Communion.

  9. Miles

    April 30, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    The clericization of the laity is a phenomenon still very much with us, and which radiates so much confusion, disunity and darkness throughout the Body of Christ. That so much woe descended from all the efforts – so many of them born of any provenance but the Holy Spirit – put the documents of Vatican II into effect continues to vex me. May God in His mercy see us through these times!

  10. Dick

    April 30, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    I believe the EMHC phenomenon is less motivated by the need to process large crowds on Sunday (don’t we wish we really had that problem!) and more by a shift in post-Vatican-II emphasis toward a liturgy that is more man-centered. It is of a piece with the priest turning his back on the crucifix to avoid turning his back on the congregation, the elimination of the communion rail so the sanctuary space blends with the pew space, and with liturgical changes calling for designated laymen to pop up to the pulpit to read and to lead in responses, etc, to say nothing of the exchange of the organ for the banjo, the 12-string guitar, and the tambourine. And don’t get me started on the dancing alter girls and the clown masses that some parishes feel are necessary to fill the house.

    EMHC support is necessary in truly EXTRAORDINARY circumstances, as when thousands of people are attending a Papal Mass, say. Father Billy Bob in a local parish does not need a staff of extraordinary ministers so he can routinely get through communion a few minutes early. Heaven forefend that we should have to dwell for a few extra minutes on the reception of the true presence of Jesus.

    My solution to all of this nonsense is to drive 40 miles to my nearest TLM parish, where the pastor and assistant pastor, both ordained priests, somehow manage to administer communion to a packed house in a matter of minutes. We all exit pew by pew into two single-file lines in the center aisle, each line feeding half the communion rail with one priest and one alter boy serving each half. We receive the precious body and blood in the host only (no communal drinking from the same cup), we all kneel to receive on the tongue, and we all return to the pews by the outside aisles in a grand rotation — no traffic jams. I’ve never timed it, but it doesn’t seem to take much longer than a moderately long Gospel reading, say, and certainly less time than the homily.

    When I do attend a Novus Ordo Mass, I position myself to receive communion from the Celebrant, and do “cross lines” when necessary to do so. Call me old-fashioned, but I do not consider myself qualified to handle the Host, nor anyone else but the priest. So I receive from him, and on the tongue.

    Those who actually DO worry about how long it might take without a gaggle of “extraordinary ministers” could use the extra time after they return to the pew to thank God that He is more willing to spend extra time with them than they apparently are to spend a few extra minutes with Him.

    • Miles

      May 23, 2014 at 6:43 pm

      Hear, hear.

  11. Cheryl Chalah

    April 30, 2014 at 2:41 am

    Our parish has an extremely orderly way to receive the precious body and blood, with a special section for the handicapped. The celebrant distributes to the handicapped. A deacon along with the celebrant distributes the precious body with EMHCs distributing the precious blood.

    As I receive holy communion on the tongue I prefer receiving from the celebrant or deacon, preferably NOT a permanent deacon. This is not always possible so I roll with the flow. Call me old fashioned or maybe even wrong, but I was brought up to hold priests in high regard. I, like a lot of Catholics believe that Vatican II teachings have been distorted. I have essential tremors and shake quite a bit, so for a long time I did not receive the precious blood because I saw the alarm in the eyes of the EMHCs. Recently I began receiving the precious blood again and after bowing whispering to the EMHCS not to let go as I WILL shake. They are very understanding of this.

    Thanks for listening, and by the way Dan, I don’t have cooties!

  12. Linda

    April 30, 2014 at 1:18 am

    I also do not like to receive from anyone but an Ordained Minister, and I’m becoming a EMHC, but not at Mass. I want to take communion to people who can not receive, I know what my Mother went through when she was too sick to go to Mass. I know, no common sense at all!

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 1:23 am

      Taking Communion to the sick and homebound must be such a powerful experience! Thanks for all you do, Linda!

  13. Miles

    April 30, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I don’t think anyone here would apply the term “wrong” – merely that the delegation of laypersons to perform the role of EMHC has evolved into something other than what it was intended to be: a dispensation allowing lay assistance in the distribution of the sacred species when the situation dictates that the ordinary minister needs the help. Now, it’s become a full-time department, and another example of how the teachings of Vatican II can, and often have, been distorted and misinterpreted.

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 1:28 am

      Miles, you should write for this blog! Perfectly said. We HAVE at times missed the mark in the interpretation and application of the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.

  14. Kelley

    April 29, 2014 at 10:01 pm

    Not sure what all the fuss is about…change lines, if you’d like. My guess is that people are paying a lot less attention to your communion line etiquette than you think.

    • Miles

      April 29, 2014 at 11:52 pm

      Ripping good perspective!

    • Dan

      April 29, 2014 at 11:57 pm

      Very good, Kelley! Perhaps it’s my own narcissism that leads me to believe that all eyes are on us when in actuality no one gives a hoot!

      • Kelley

        April 30, 2014 at 12:07 am

        Amen! Then again, it may be my own wishful thinking that folks are actually taking the time to pray rather than notice what shoes I’m wearing! haha

  15. Michele

    April 29, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    I enjoyed your post, Dan!

    At our previous parish (which, sadly, closed its doors in January), we had precision-like Holy Communion distribution (in fact, I have >never< seen anywhere (and I do get around to many parishes) what you have described above, as far as folks coming from all ends of the pews — that would be very strange to witness!). It was a small parish, and all of our Sunday Masses had both a priest and a deacon distributing the Sacred Host (with EMHCs distributing the Precious Blood). I sometimes went to the vigil as well, and I would always sit on the side where the priest would distribute Holy Communion. I receive on the tongue and have had some very bad incidents of EMHCs really not knowing how to place the Host securely on the tongue.

    Our new parish (which consists of three churches, built in the late 1800's, merged together) uses the communion rail and only the priest and deacon distribute (although an EMHC goes to the choir loft) — so I don't have to worry any more on the weekends!

    I also agree with Ben! We have four sons, aged 20 down to 8, and all of them serve at the altar. Our priest and deacon encourage all of the boys to pray and ask God if He is calling them to the priesthood. If God is calling one or more of our sons to the priesthood, we would be thrilled!

    God bless, Michele

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 12:04 am

      Thanks for sharing Michele! At the end of Mass, we bring out a “Vocations Cup” and hand it off to a family to pray for vocations. Do all 4 of your sons serve simultaneously? At the same Mass?

      • Michele

        April 30, 2014 at 12:26 am

        They often do, Dan, although my oldest attends a local university, so he isn’t usually available during the week. We use five servers at most Masses, more for special occasions. We also have all male servers, which is why I think the older boys don’t mind continuing to serve.

  16. Miles

    April 29, 2014 at 7:54 pm

    Question: what’s the rush? How is “unduly prolonged” justly defined? My beef with the thoroughgoing overuse of EMHC in most parishes is that it too often seems like the goal is the set some sort of record time – to get it over with as quickly as possible. And that frame of mind has no place in the authentic public worship of the Church. P.S.: Reception on the tongue would certainly streamline the process and, for those concerned about going “long”, it speeds things up significantly – aside from the many other excellent recommendations to restricting reception of the Body to the traditional form.

    • Michele

      April 29, 2014 at 8:11 pm

      You’re right, Miles. I went to daily Mass at a local parish last night and there were 20 – 25 people there. The priest distributed and also EMHCs for the Sacred Body and one or two (I didn’t notice exactly) for the Precious Blood. SO unnecessary!

      • Dan

        April 30, 2014 at 12:08 am

        For 25 people?! Extremely unnecessary!

  17. Cindy

    April 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    I prefer to avoid the EMHC, since I have small children with me, and the EMHC often feel inclined to overstep their role by attempting to bless children, a role specifically reserved to the priest. In general, I would prefer to receive from the ordinary minister, a priest or deacon, simply because they are the ordinary minister (so as you said, out reverence for the ordained). I know there are times/places where EMHC are necessary, but often I think it’s not a matter of “the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other GENUINE reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be UNDULY PROLONGED,” but rather of convenience. If communion lasted a little longer, would that really hurt us? What could we do with the extra time?

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 12:51 am

      Cindy, thanks for writing. You are right, there is nothing more important we can be doing than attending Mass. As other commentators noted, exactly what does “unduly prolonged” mean? 5 minutes? 10 minutes? 30 minutes? But what is the solution? Is the next General Instruction going to provide a mathematical table: “If there is no deacon and the congregation is greater than 200, you may use 2 EMHCs. However, if there is a deacon or the Mass in concelebrated, you may use 1.” I can see it now! A big chart that across the top has ranges of numbers for the congregation, down the left has the number of ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. Then, where they intersect is the number of EMHC allowed for that Mass. Too legalistic, huh?

  18. Monica Benninghoff

    April 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    If I’m carrying my toddler grandson, I’ll ‘cross the line’ so he can receive a blessing from the priest, otherwise I have no problem receiving communion from an EMHC. I am a trained EMHC on substitute status, so I’m very familiar with ‘line crossers.’

    You just smile in understanding that some people prefer to receive Christ’s body and blood from a priest or deacon.

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 12:43 am

      So Monica, you do not feel slighted or offended if your line is empty and the deacon’s line has 20 people?

      • Agnes Goh

        September 13, 2014 at 9:59 pm

        I’m a reluctant EMHC. I try to lie low and serve only when I have to. If the priest asks me, I accept out of obedience. I never feel slighted when people prefer the ordained minister because that’s my preference too !! 😀

  19. Dennis

    April 29, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    I receive Holy Communion from an ordained minister , if there are EMHC’s I will in the line where the priest is. In my part of the country (USA) EMHC’s is an abuse and in my parish there are more then enough priest to assist with Holy Communion — I often see priest standing in the back of the church while EMHC give Holy Communion also-Why is that Father can not make it into the church for communion time but he can make it to the door to shake your hand as you leave the church?

  20. Nicholas

    April 29, 2014 at 7:19 pm

    My wife and I are both trained EMHC’s. We’ve even had the edgiest EMHC duty of exposing the blessed sacrament (obviously with pastoral permission and the unavoidable absence of a priest or deacon). Even still my wife prefers to receive from an ordinary minister. So, when I don’t feel like it’s painfully disruptive, I will yield and let her lead the family (myself and three small children) across the lines. We have spoken about it at length and for her it has nothing to do with deficiency of the Eucharist at the hands of an EMHC. The blessed sacrament is the blessed sacrament. She cites two reasons: 1) in our area there is a tendency to overuse the role of the EMHC. Sometimes it takes more time to distribute the Eucharist to the 6 EMHCs than the rest of the congregation. 2) she likes for our children to receive a blessing from an ordinary minister. It’s the two moments when our children get a personal relationship with their “persona Christi”: blessing at communion and a high five after the recessional. Humorously enough we have also had the discussion that in the most traditional sense the blessing of children (and those who cannot receive) is an exogenous insertion.

  21. Maureen

    April 29, 2014 at 6:45 pm

    I am an extraordinary minister. We have HUGE parishes in the Cincinnati Archdiocese. Our Pastor has been very ill. Our Associate is on overload with weddings, funerals, daily Mass and Sunday Liturgy. I also do homebound ministry; if I didn’t, most of our nursing homes (all if them actually), hospital and homebound parishioners would never receive Jesus in the Eucharist. I consider it a calling and a duty and believe me, I wish we had more Priests and Deacons but we don’t. I honestly think there should be more instruction for it than there is but if we didn’t have this help, our Priest couldn’t do it at all. I don’t think it takes away from the Eucharist if you receive from a minister, so curious. Do you think it is wrong?

    • Dan

      April 30, 2014 at 12:40 am

      Thanks for writing, Maureen! And thank you so much for answering the call. As you say, the sick and homebound would not receive the Eucharist if you weren’t there. I have no problems standing in line to receive from an EMHC.

  22. Ben

    April 29, 2014 at 3:03 am

    Solution 3:
    Encourage more vocations in your parish. More priests and deacons = problem solved 🙂

    • Dan

      April 29, 2014 at 3:09 am

      Best. Solution. Ever. No more calls please, we have a winner! Brilliant, Ben!

      • Ben

        April 29, 2014 at 3:16 am

        In all seriousness, I think the way forward with this would be getting the priest to encourage the congregation to receive Holy Communion from the nearest available minister. Some people need a little persuasion to change, especially the elderly since all along they have been receiving Communion from a religious.

        • Dan

          April 29, 2014 at 3:38 am

          A great observation, Ben. EMHCs are completely foreign to those who grew up in a Pre-Conciliar Church. I thought it may also be cultural. Does this aversion occur in your parish?

          • Ben

            April 29, 2014 at 3:53 am

            The parish I attend is military precise and there is a wheelchair area right up front for disabled and old people so they don’t need to get up to receive communion. The ushers typically tend to block off queue cutters so maybe thats why I hardly see it happening, in fact the priest usually finishes distributing communion before the EMHC since the center aisle has fewer pews than the side.

            It might be a cultural thing like you said. I live in Asia, so the church is rather young here and the congregation are also more willing to listen.

  23. Joyce Donahue

    April 29, 2014 at 2:32 am

    Wow – that made me chuckle! It sounds like a number of people in your parish would benefit from some catechesis about extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist. I still see a few line-crossers, but not very often in my parish. In fact, if one line is longer and the other is open, people will automatically even out the shorter line. What you describe seems disruptive to the flow of the communion rite.

    Since my diagnosis with celiac disease a few months back means I have to have the low-gluten special host – and I am the only one at the moment doing this – I do usually receive from one of the ordained ministers, but only because this is confusing to the EM’s. If that were not the case, I have no preference.

    • Dan

      April 29, 2014 at 2:47 am

      You know, Joyce, I see this a lot in parishes down here in Miami, FL which are predominantly Hispanic. Maybe that has something to do with it? When I went to Mass in Rhode Island, this disparity didn’t exist. Is it reverence for the ordained? Catechetical deficiency? Superstition? Personal preference? Habit? Culture? Who knows! The answer may lie in the realm of cultural anthropology and human behavior than liturgy or theology.

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