ZE09032401 - 2009-03-24
Q: In America, the custom of giving blessings to people who are unable to receive Communion is growing rapidly. In my parish, in Texas, it appears that the practice of extraordinary ministers of holy Communion tracing a cross onto the head of small children and visitors has become more important than the Eucharist itself. Many have commented to me that it is so "unwelcoming" not to do this. I have pointed out in liturgy meetings that neither the Rite of Blessings nor the Roman Missal envisions this practice. As a deacon I am greatly bothered by this trend, but my "parish administrator" is hesitant to change the habit of the previous pastor. In fact, at weddings and funerals this behavior is encouraged for non-Catholics by our presiding priests. I would greatly appreciate reading or hearing your opinion/suggestions on what appears to be an insert into the Eucharistic rite and perhaps a disservice to our ability to create a true desire and understanding for receiving Christ at Mass in holy Communion. -- D.I., Texas
A: We have addressed this topic on a couple of occasions (May 10 and 24, 2005) in which we expressed misgivings regarding this practice. At the same time, we pointed out that the legal situation of the usage is murky with bishops making statements falling on both sides of the argument.
Recently, however, a document has appeared in several Internet sources which indicate that the Holy See is tending toward a negative view of the practice. The document is a letter (Protocol No. 930/08/L) dated Nov. 22, 2008, sent in response to a private query and signed by Father Anthony Ward, SM, undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
As a private reply the letter is not yet a norm with legal force and, as it makes clear, is not a definitive reply. However, it provides some valuable pointers on the legitimacy of this practice and the mind of the Holy See regarding it.
The letter said that "this matter is presently under the attentive study of the Congregation," so "for the present, this dicastery wishes to limit itself to the following observations":
"1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion.
"2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, § 2; Canon 1169, § 2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).
"3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands -- which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here -- by those distributing Holy Communion, in substitution for its reception, is to be explicitly discouraged.
"4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio n. 84, 'forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry'. To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good standing.
"5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church's discipline has already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin)."
Although the letter as such is not legally binding, some of its points, such as No. 2 on the prohibition of lay ministers giving liturgical blessings, are merely restatements of existing law and as such are already obligatory.
Nor did the letter deal with all possible circumstances, such as the case of small children mentioned by our reader. Because of this, some dioceses have taken a prudent wait-and-see attitude regarding these blessings. For example, the liturgy office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, while reiterating that "the Archdiocese has no policy prohibiting the use of blessings at the time of Holy Communion," prudently suggested to pastors that it "may be appropriate to avoid promoting the practice until a more definitive judgment regarding its value in the liturgical celebration can be obtained."