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Distribution of Communion When a Deacon Is Present

Date: May 2, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: On February 20, 1987, the Pontifical Council for the Authentic Interpretation of the Code of Canon Law issued an interpretation of Canon 910 §2 which stated that the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may not exercise his or her function “when ordinary ministers, who are not in any way impeded [qui non sint quoquo modo impediti], are present in the church, though not taking part in the Eucharistic celebration.” An ordinary minister may be impeded if he is not vested, has not been notified that he is to assist in this ministry, or cannot easily approach the sanctuary. In such cases extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are free to exercise their ministry. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says when a deacon is present at the celebration of the Eucharist, he should exercise his ministry wearing sacred vestments. I've heard some people interpret this very strictly that the deacon, if present, should always vest and assist. Priests I've talked to would rather have an unvested deacon (as an ordinary minister of Holy Communion) assist with distribution as needed, versus an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. If a deacon attends Mass, but is not vested and is called on to distribute Communion, it creates a logistical challenge as to when it would be appropriate to put on an alb and stole. -- G.P., Ann Arbor, Michigan

A: In this detailed question I am supposing that our reader is referring to GIRM No. 171:

“171. When he is present at the Eucharistic Celebration, a deacon should exercise his ministry, wearing sacred vestments. For the deacon:

“a. assists the priest and remains at his side;

“b. ministers at the altar, with the chalice as well as the book;

“c. proclaims the Gospel and, at the direction of the priest celebrant, may preach the homily (cf. no. 66);

“d. guides the faithful by appropriate introductions and explanations, and announces the intentions of the Prayer of the Faithful;

“e. assists the priest celebrant in distributing Communion, and purifies and arranges the sacred vessels;

“f. as needed, fulfills the duties of other ministers himself if none of them is present.”

It must be noted that the GIRM is taking into account the normal situation of a Mass with a deacon present from the beginning, whereas the interpretation of Canon 910 §2 addresses an exceptional situation in which the ordinary minister, while not taking part in the celebration, is not otherwise impeded. Therefore, I do not believe GIRM No. 171 offers us much light for our specific question.

The commentary that “An ordinary minister may be impeded if he is not vested, has not been notified that he is to assist in this ministry, or cannot easily approach the sanctuary,” does not form part of the official interpretation. Therefore, while worthy of consideration as an expert opinion, it is not law and the use of “may” would also indicate that these motives do not necessarily constitute an impediment. Indeed, the fact that the official interpretation specifically mentions that the ordinary minister may not be taking part in the celebration would imply that this minister would usually not be vested.

The ordinary minister himself, and especially a priest, might consider distributing Communion unvested as being inappropriate in certain circumstances and hence a legitimate impediment. Thus, he would not be obliged to exercise this ministry, especially if extraordinary ministers are available.

I do not think that the official interpretation would strictly require a deacon to vest in order to distribute Communion in these special circumstances unless extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion also wore some distinguishing sign to enhance their visibility. Vesting in alb and stole would always be preferable if possible; for example, a deacon could vest in the sacristy after the recitation of the Our Father or during the singing of the Lamb of God and approach the altar to receive Communion from the priest at the appropriate time.

There may be situations in which he would not receive Communion but could still administer Communion to the faithful; for example, if he had already served two Masses or was present but not taking part in the celebration. 

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