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!
Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.
It’s time for the Holy See to make a definitive and Universal statement on this and reiterate the importance of our beautiful Liturgy that so many ordained and lay people have taken liberty to change up to be part of the secular culture and try to appease it’s wishes instead of the established body that Christ set forth.
I totally agree with you.
My husband is a Deacon and people think he doesn’t like them or their children because he doesn’t give them a “blessing” in the Communion line! Try to explain it to them and they just say “Father does”. So alot of them crossover to Fr. line! Go figure?
I am a choir director, and I like to follow rubrics as closely as possible, so I can definitely see the wisdom in uniformity in this matter. However, as a mom of two lively little girls, I can also see the other side of the argument. I am so grateful when my youngest comes up with me at Communion time and receives a blessing from the priest or deacon (our extraordinary ministers do not do this). There has usually been some difficult behavior from her either at Mass or within the last hour, and my heart cries out with gratitude when she receives this blessing. She also glows with happiness, and seems to try to behave a little better. I understand why it would probably be wise to clear this matter up, especially if there are parishes where it gets out of hand, but I would dearly miss it on a personal level. I think this blessing increases my children’s desire for Holy Communion, and I think it has a real spiritual effect on them.
I left the church 37 years ago after marrying a divorced man. Today I attended my friend’s funeral and was invited to cross my arms, and come up to the altar for a blessing by the priest. I had never heard of this before. I then realized what I was missing. After reading this reading, I will not do it again.
I believe that the question isn’t whether a layperson (extraordinary minister of Holy Communion) should bless or not bless, but rather the question should be, does the action build up the Body of Christ or weaken the faith. When the question is posed in that manner I think it is very clear that blessing one another builds up the sacred union. By our very baptism we are called to an equal share of the Kingdom and hence involvement in building the Kingdom. Let’s not allow these discussion digress to roles and rubrics or territorial positions – instead let us focus on the mission of Christ.
Christ set forth twelve men with a specific consecration to perform specific ministries with the Gift of the Holy Spirit. For all people to pretend to take on these roles with out this special consecration is a man-made version of Christ’s Church.
I often find myself going up for communion with my arms crossed. More often than not, I am not able to receive communion because I am not in a state of grace and haven’t made it to confession. I used to just not get in line for communion. At some point, I decided that I want to get as close as possible to Jesus and decided that I will go to communion with my arms crossed. I am reminded of women who just touches Jesus’ garment and is healed. So when I go with my arms crossed it is not to receive a blessing from a minister, it is just to get as close as possible to Jesus. For this same reason, I encourage my children and wife (who is “ex-catholic”) to go up with their arms crossed.
The Mass is a bloodless re-creation of the sacrifice of Christ. It has nothing to do with equal opportunity, self-esteem of participants, or egalitarianism. The Mass is not about YOU and what needs to happen to make you feel welcome and included. It is about rendering honor to God for the terrible price paid for your chance at salvation. The atmosphere of reverence this should inspire in the congregation should transcend all self-centered social considerations of how “welcoming” we may appear to visitors; it’s not our house, it’s God’s. He’ll ensure that everyone is welcome, without any self-serving displays on our part pof our inclusiveness.
I highly endorse Dick’s position that the Mass should be focused on rendering adoration to God, not on satisfying the needs of parishioners to conspicuously display inclusivity and various social graces for the sake of visitors and each other. In this regard I also object to the concept of the laity performing functions of the Priest such as administering holy communion. There are rare circumstances such as a Papal Mass where logistics may justify such an improvisation, but Sunday Mass in the local parish does not require it, and the practice also leads to the unnecessary question raised here: “How far should the laity go in performing the duties of the priest?” The question should never even come up.
The answer I think is a three-parter:
1. People come up for a blessing because in so many U.S. parishes the ushers direct the people in such a way that staying seated in the pew is more disruptive than moving along with everyone else. So a person is before the minister (ordinary or otherwise) and declines to receive. Doing nothing feels a bit awkward; we want to find something to do.
2. The balance between the objective and subjective dimensions of our faith is made more elusive due to the poor understanding of the objective teachings of the Church. The objective answer to the question of whether or not EMHC’s should bless non-communicants is ‘no’ (cf. Ecclesiae de Mysterio – Article 6) but we don’t like saying ‘no’ if we don’t have a good basis for it and thanks to our poor catechetical history we don’t have a good answer ready on our lips.
3. The explanation of why we say ‘no’ should be a part of the EMHC training: in the context of the liturgy of the Mass, the regular/ordinary/proper minister of communion is an ordained male. So the explanation needs to be something like this: “For reasons that may or may not be easy to explain, Bishop X has allowed the use of specially trained lay people to come up and assist the ordinary ministers in the distribution of the Eucharistic species. (e.g., We have 14 masses each Sunday and they cannot run longer than 60 minutes and we choose to offer both species.) When lay people respond in charity to this persistent need for extraordinary ministers of holy communion, they are reminded to do so in full recognition and assent of the need to make clear the distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary ministers. One of those distinctions is the giving of blessings in the liturgy. Ordained ministers do and lay extraordinary ministers do not. So pray with the non-communicant instead of blessing him.”
Appeals to orthodoxy and appeals to charity are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are the same thing in Jesus Christ, who said “I am the way, the truth and the life.” We can (and sometimes should) say “I love you, but ‘no'”.
Wow, Sydney! What a well balanced answer! What a great line : “Appeals to orthodoxy and appeals to charity are not mutually exclusive.” I often hear: “Fr SoAndSo is so mean! He doesn’t bless the children in the communion line!” I agree that any action we take to solve this will need to involve catechesis. Thanks for sharing!
How about “appeals to orthodoxy and appeals to echumenical” instead? We are not Orthodox, we are Catholic. We are certainly call to be echumenical, however. We have many rites available to us at this age. The hard truth is, because of misinterpretations following Vatican II, many liturgical abuses were introduced and continue to be introduced and this is not going to go away any time soon. The solution is not to sternly insist everyone return to one form of Mass because that would produce even more fallen-away Catholics than we already have. The solution is to be echumenical as our last three popes have called for. Fortunately, because of the many rites available to us, we can be fulfilled no matter where we are in the holiness of our faith lives. The Catholic Church is the one, true unified Church. She has always insisted on unity. Unity of faith does not, however, mean purity of faith.
One more related thought, if you will: The baptized of the New Testament inherit the privileges ascribed to the tribes of Jacob in the Old Testament. Over time, ‘laos’ was contrasted with ‘kleros’ or clergy and the dignity of the concept of being a lay person was progressively lost. The value of the laity was revived with Vatican II. One is certainly not strengthened by a blessing or the admonitions and joyful declarations received when receiving Christ in the the Eucharist. None-the-less, the Body of Christ is more unified in a complete the march to the altar and return to the pew. The baptized faithful are blessed by that action of the clergy or the EMOHC (who always and only acts with the permission of the priest).
I find when we worry too much about where the lines are it can lead us to an over emphasis in a legalism and self preservation, and under emphasis in welcoming and seeking out others.
I think roles are clear enough. Treating others with charity, that we could use more of.
The laity (the ‘laos’ in Greek) are the People of God. Exodus 19:5-6 refers to the Israelites as the ‘segullah’ or the Lord’s ‘treasured possession.’ When the phrase was translated from Hebrew to Greek for the Septuagint, the word ‘laos’ was used. In his 1994 “Theological Lexicon of the New Testament.” Ceslas Spicq comments about the change from the Hebrew ‘segullah’ to the Greek ‘laos’ by writing, “No text explicitly cancels this title for Israel; it is as if the church constitutes a new, faithful generation.” Theologian Yves Congar noted, regarding ‘laos,’ that the word and the idea of consecrated people “is carried over in the term ‘People of God’ in its New Testament context in 1 Peter 2:5, 9-10.” As such, as Sacrosanctum Concilium (the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from Vatican II) notes that Christ is present in the assembled Church at Mass, in the Eucharist received at Holy Communion, in the person of the priest, in the Word, and in the assembly which is the Body of Christ. For those who are assembled, but who may not receive the Eucharist, a blessing from the priest or the EMOHC acknowledges that person’s presence as a member of the Body of Christ whether that person is a baptized member of the Catholic Church, a member of another Christian denomination, or the Anonymous Christian (described by Karl Rahner). The Body of Christ needs all its members to be present and strengthened in order to carry on the work of the Lord during the week. If a person or that person’s care-taker truly believes that what is happening in the Mass is nothing, then that person will more than likely will not join the march to the altar. So, more likely than not, a payer for blessing will not be “wasted.” The majority of the assemled gatherers in line for Holy Communion are another sign of the Body of Christ incarnated and strengthened for the Lord’s work in the coming day or week. IMHO.