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Where Communion Should Be Distributed

Date: June 26, 2022
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.

Question: During communion at Mass, is there any guideline or indication as to where the ministers should stand to distribute to the faithful? It seems that most priests prefer to step down off of the last sanctuary step so as to be on the same ground level as the faithful, while a few others prefer to remain a step up so as to remain in the sanctuary. It seems one could argue symbolic significance for both locations. Sometimes the Church architecture with tight space in front of the altar requires the distributors to stand a step up. Is there an expressed preference in any of the guidelines? -- W.P., Leipsic, Ohio

Answer: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says the following regarding the Distribution of Holy Communion:

“160. The Priest then takes the paten or ciborium and approaches the communicants, who usually come up in procession.

“It is not permitted for the faithful to take the consecrated Bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them on from one to another among themselves. The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004, no. 91).

“When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant. When Holy Communion is received under both kinds, the sign of reverence is also made before receiving the Precious Blood.

“161. If Communion is given only under the species of bread, the Priest raises the host slightly and shows it to each, saying, The Body of Christ. The communicant replies, Amen, and receives the Sacrament either on the tongue or, where this is allowed, in the hand, the choice lying with the communicant. As soon as the communicant receives the host, he or she consumes the whole of it. If, however, Communion is given under both kinds, the rite prescribed in nos. 284-287 is to be followed.

“In the distribution of Communion the Priest may be assisted by other Priests who happen to be present. If such Priests are not present and there is a truly large number of communicants, the Priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, that is, duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been duly deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the Priest may depute suitable faithful for this single occasion.

“These ministers should not approach the altar before the Priest has received Communion, and they are always to receive from the hands of the Priest Celebrant the vessel containing the species of the Most Holy Eucharist for distribution to the faithful.”

As can be seen above, there is no indication whatsoever as to whether the priest or minister should be on the first step of the sanctuary or at ground level. At least in the present rite I think this is a simple question of practical logistics and would be loath to read any symbolic or theological meanings into one or the other option.

It depends on many variable factors, such as the space available in the sanctuary, the height of the minister, the distribution of Communion under one or both species, etc.

Indeed, in large concelebrations and even for celebrations in major churches with numerous faithful it is quite common to have several points of distribution so that there are several simultaneous Communion processions.

The rite of communion using the 1962 missal is somewhat more complex. Communion is received kneeling, on the tongue and at the communion rail. The priest, in distributing Communion, makes a sign of the cross with the host in front of each communicant while saying the form of administration. In making the sign of the cross he should not carry the host beyond the edge of the ciborium or paten.

Although this form of receiving Communion is undoubtedly very reverent, it also reflects a time in which receiving Communion was often, but not always, less frequent than today.

It also embodies a vision of the sanctuary area as being a reserved precinct to which access was more restricted than would be the case in most churches today with the presence of more lay ministers.

While the present rite is far simpler it should still be carried out with all due respect and reverence for the sublime gift of the Eucharist.

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