By NANCY FRAZIER O’BRIEN, CNS | Published November 9, 2006
At the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will no longer be permitted to assist in the purification of the sacred vessels at Masses in the United States.
In an Oct. 23 letter, Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked his fellow bishops to inform all pastors of the change, which was prompted by a letter to him from Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the change will take effect on the First Sunday of Advent, which is Dec. 3.
The history concerning the directive in the United States is that in 2002 the U.S. bishops had received an indult—or church permission—for lay extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to help cleanse the Communion cups and plates when there were not enough priests or deacons to do so. That indult was granted for a period of three years and was an exception to the worldwide directive given in the 2002 edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM).
When, after the three-year period expired, the bishops asked the Vatican to extend the indult or make it permanent, the request was declined.
Bishop Skylstad, who heads the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., said Cardinal Arinze asked Pope Benedict about the matter during a June 9 audience “and received a response in the negative.”
Noting that the GIRM “directs that the sacred vessels are to be purified by the priest, the deacon or an instituted acolyte,” the cardinal said in his Oct. 12 letter that “it does not seem feasible, therefore, for the congregation to grant the requested indult from this directive in the general law of the Latin Church.”
In response, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory has asked parishes in the Archdiocese of Atlanta beginning on the First Sunday of Advent 2006 to have all sacred vessels purified by a priest, deacon, or instituted acolyte.
“I am aware that this may cause some hardship in parishes with large congregations and the custom of distributing Communion under both species, especially when no deacon or instituted acolyte is available,” the archbishop wrote to priests and deacons.
“Several pastoral measures are available to make this transition easier. The GIRM permits that vessels be purified either after Communion or after Mass, and parishes with large numbers of vessels may find it more convenient to do so after Mass,” he said.
Archbishop Gregory added, “In any case, all of the Precious Blood that remains should be consumed at the end of Communion” by the extraordinary ministers. “In the Archdiocese of Atlanta, the permission for extraordinary ministers to consume any of the Precious Blood that remains after Communion continues in effect.”
The archbishop also gave his guidance on two other pastoral approaches spoken of by Cardinal Arinze: the distribution of holy Communion under only one species or the use of intinction.
“At present the use of intinction is not encouraged in the Archdiocese of Atlanta,” Archbishop Gregory wrote.
“The choice to distribute Communion under one or both kinds remains at the discretion of the priest,” he concluded.
Cardinal Arinze’s letter noted that although receiving Communion under both kinds is a “more complete” sign of the sacrament’s meaning, “Christ is fully present under each of the species.”
“Communion under the species of the bread alone, as a consequence, makes it possible to receive all the fruit of eucharistic grace,” he said.
Along with the letters from Bishop Skylstad and Cardinal Arinze, bishops received a new resource prepared by the bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy titled “Seven Questions on the Distribution of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds.”
The committee document also suggested distribution of Communion by consecrated bread alone or by intinction when the number of communicants makes the purification of vessels by priests, deacons or instituted acolytes alone “pastorally problematic.”
The document notes that the “extraordinary ministry” by which laypeople distribute Communion “was created exclusively for those instances where there are not enough ordinary ministers to distribute holy Communion, due to the consummate importance of assuring that the faithful have the opportunity to receive holy Communion at Mass, even when it is distributed under both species.”
Ordinary ministers of Communion are priests and deacons, with instituted acolytes being permitted in the Roman Missal to help the priest or deacon “to purify and arrange the sacred vessels.”
In the United States, instituted acolytes, who must be male, generally are seminarians preparing for priesthood or men in formation for the permanent diaconate.