I’m not sure if I was horrible at little league because I detested it, or if I detested it because I was horrible at it.
One of my earliest memories of a prayer life was when I was 8 and would petition the Almighty to open the heavens and unleash a torrential downpour so I wouldn’t have to go to practice and I could stay home and draw.
Compared to my teammates, my baseball abilities were towards the bottom—I could neither throw nor catch very well. When I was at the plate, I would dig in my cleats and raise the bat with no intention of swinging. With an obvious preference for the latter, my hopes were to either get hit with a pitch or get a base on balls. When the pitcher would throw a wild pitch that flew over the umpire’s head, the coaches would scream “good-eye, Gonzalez, good eye!”
At practice, the coaches made sure we were all treated equally despite the huge range in our skill levels. All of us were validated and made to feel part of the team. None of us were excluded. When the season would mercifully end, no one would go home without a trophy, plaque or certificate—everyone went home with something.
I wonder if the desire for inclusivity contributed to a custom at Mass where the minister of Holy Communion (ordinary and extraordinary) imparts a blessing on children and non-communicants (non-Catholics, Catholics in a state of mortal sin) who approach with arms crossed over their chest. This practice allows everyone to participate. Come Communion time, no one is left sitting on the bench—I mean pew.
The Origin of the Practice
I wondered where this practice started and several internet sources affirm that the custom was popularized by Dale Fushek who founded Life Teen in the early 80s. This practice then spread throughout the U.S. and beyond. Today, it is so common, that some parishes have codified it in their own instructions. A parish in the Midwest published it’s “Guidelines for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion” which reads in part:
Blessing of Children
“It is sometimes difficult to determine if children have made their First Communion or not. We instruct the parents of this age child to have them come forward with arms crossed if they are not receiving communion. If you are unsure, just ask the child, or the parents, if the child has made their First Communion. It is permissible for you to bless a child by putting your hand on their head or shoulder saying “God Bless You”, but do not make the Sign of the Cross.”
The guideline above assures that blessings given by Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are “permissible”—that someone in authority has given permission and made it lawful. Is it indeed licit for Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to bless? Does the Church envision lay people blessing at all?
Who Can Bless?
Should lay people pronounce blessings? Absolutely!
“every baptized person is called to be a ‘blessing,’ and to bless. Hence lay people may preside at certain blessings…”–Catechism of the Catholic Church #1669
We may bless ourselves with holy water when we enter a church, say a blessing before a meal, or bless our children before bedtime. In fact, the USCCB published a book entitled Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers to facilitate lay blessings.
Lay ministers may also perform certain blessings as part of their ministry:
“Other laymen and laywomen, in virtue of the universal priesthood, a dignity they possess because of their baptism and confirmation, may celebrate certain blessings, as indicated in the respective orders of blessings, by use of the rites and formularies designated for a lay minister.” –General Introduction, The Book of Blessings #18
“Let provision be made that some sacramentals, at least in special circumstances and at the discretion of the ordinary, may be administered by qualified lay persons.”–Sacrosanctum Concilium 79
However, the Church also teaches that:
“the more a blessing concerns ecclesial and sacramental life, the more is its administration reserved to the ordained ministry (bishops, priests, or deacons).”–Catechism of the Catholic Church #1669
From this, can we can deduce that, during Mass—the source of the sacramental life of the Church—it is the deacon or priest that should confer this blessings to non-communicants? Yes, they should, that is if there were a blessing prescribed at this time. But there are no provisions for this practice in any of the Church’s official liturgical documents.
But the Vatican has not been completely silent on this topic.
What does the Church say?
In 2008, Fr. Anthony Ward, S.M., Under-Secretary for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, answered a personal letter asking precisely this question. His response gave clear reasons why this practice is illicit. He cites that a blessing is given at the end of Mass after the concluding prayer when the priest makes the Sign of the Cross over the assembly. A personal blessing at Communion would be unnecessary since a corporate one will be given minutes later.
He counsels against lay people conferring blessings at Mass so as to “avoid any confusion between sacramental liturgical acts presided over by a priest or deacon, and other acts which the non-ordained faithful may lead.” Ecclesiae de Mysterio – Article
He also points out that the laying on of hands during communion is inappropriate and is to be discouraged.
So, it seems that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments—the Vatican office assigned to regulate and promote the sacred liturgy—is opposed to the practice. It does not appear to be in keeping with Church law. One priest in particular, Father Cory Sticha, outright refuses to bless children who approach him in the communion line. He cites paragraph 22 of Sacrosanctum Concilium which states:
“Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.”
He maintains that a priest does not have the authority to add a blessing to the liturgy where one does not exist.
With this in mind, some parishes have instructed the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion to tell non-communicants:
“Receive the Lord Jesus in your heart” or “Jesus loves you” to the children.
These words are not blessings but rather admonitions and joyful declarations. But, neither is this practice Church teaching and is also absent from the Mass rubrics.
So what are we to do?
This Sunday, when a person approaches the EMHC with arms crossed, what should happen? Stay the course? Should they be ignored? Told to shuffle along? Get redirected to the priest’s line? Receive an admonition when they are expecting a blessing?
What about parents with small children? Should they leave them in the pews, unattended?
If this practice is indeed illicit and needs correction, how do we pastorally escape from the corner we’ve painted ourselves into?
What is clear is that a definitive, authoritative stance should be taken by the Holy See in this matter. This way there is continuity in the Universal Church—either all parishes will do and say the same thing, or none of them will. We will eliminate what is happening today where some parishes are telling their EMHCs that imparting a blessings is licit while the Curia is saying the exact opposite.
What about you? Is the entire assembly in the Communion line the embodiment of “all are welcomed” and “let the little children come to me,” or is it merely a way of fulfilling a sense of entitlement where no one goes home “empty-handed”? Does the practice blur the lines between laity and the clergy? Would receiving a blessing instead of Communion be enough for some so that they never right their relationship with the Church? Is receiving a blessing a beautiful witness to non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics? Is it a way of indoctrinating children into the rhythm of the Mass? Share and let’s learn together!