Communion Services -Their Origin and Future

In response to a question posed in the Zenit Daily Dispatch some time ago, Father Edward McNamara wrote that “a Catholic who has even an inkling of the full meaning of the Mass would never voluntarily settle for a Communion service.”   Far too many Catholics have no clear understanding of what is happening and who is present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  Until this lack of clarity is resolved, any discussion about Communion services will have very limited value. Out of necessity then we must begin with these questions: What is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  What happens at the Mass?  Who is really present there?  What benefits do we receive by participating at the Mass?

In his powerful book, The Way to God, the late Father Winfrid Herbst, S.D.S. tells us that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, “is not a mere commemoration of the Sacrifice of the cross.  No, it is the same, the actuality, the renewal, the continuation, the representation of the Sacrifice of the cross… so that when I assist at Mass I am present at the Sacrifice of the cross as much as Mary, John and Magdalen were.  It is the unbloody renewal of the bloody Sacrifice of the cross.”  How often we Catholics come to Church to socialize with friends, families and acquaintances. Should we not come primarily to worship, adore, and give honor and glory to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? When we understand what the Mass is, we shall!

When properly understood and when participated in with proper intent, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “is offered,” as Father Herbst reminds us, “to give God Honor and Glory, to give God thanks for his benefits, to obtain the remission of our sins and make reparation for them, to obtain the precious grace of conversion by which a person is led to make repentance and reconciliation with God, to obtain victory over temptations, either by getting more efficacious actual graces or by having the temptations themselves lessened or eliminated all together.” But there is more, much more to this magnificent gift (see § 1322-1372 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

St. John Marie Vianney taught, “There is nothing so great as the Eucharist. If God had something more precious, He would have given it to us" and “If we really understood the Mass, we would die of joy.” In current times, Father William Casey of the Fathers of Mercy reminds us that “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most important event that occurs every day on the face of the earth.”   

 “Mass,” Pope Pius VI tells us, “is the most powerful form of prayer.” “The celebration of Holy Mass,” St. Thomas Aquinas writes, “is as valuable as the death of Jesus on the cross.”  St. Padre Pio also reminded us of four beautiful truths: (1) “It would be easier for the world to survive without the sun than to do so without the Holy Mass” (2) “The heavens open and multitudes of angels come to assist in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” (3) “If we only knew how God regards this Sacrifice we would risk our lives to be present at a single Mass” and (4) “The best preparation for a happy death is to assist at Mass daily.”

“The Eucharistic Sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the sacrifice of the cross is forever perpetuated, is the summit and the source of all worship and Christian life” according to Canon 897. Next in Canon 898, we are reminded: “Christ's faithful are to hold the Blessed Eucharist in the highest honor. They should take an active part in the celebration of the most august Sacrifice of the Mass; they should receive the sacrament with great devotion and frequently, and should reverence it with the greatest adoration.”

In The Decree on the Life and Ministry of Priest (“Presbyterium Ordinis”) the Vatican II fathers observed that the bond which gives unity to the priest’s life and work “flows mainly from the Eucharistic Sacrifice, which is therefore the center and root of the whole priestly life” (§14).  Pope John Paul II noted in his Encyclical on the Eucharist (“Ecclesia De Eucharistia”) that the Eucharist “is the source and summit of the Church’s life” and that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “must be the center of each priest’s life” [§31].  He went on to emphasize that “we must understand then, how important it is, for the spiritual life of the priest as well as for the good of the Church and the world, that priests follow the Council’s recommendation to celebrate the Eucharist daily” [§31].  Short of serious personal illness or an unforeseen and pressing emergency, is there any compelling reason why a priest would not offer Mass each day? After all, who can fathom the benefits flowing from the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?

Is it any wonder then that both John Paul II and his successor Benedict XVI have repeatedly urged all of us, priest and laity alike, to rediscover a sense of “awe and amazement” in the Eucharist, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and at Eucharistic Adoration? How we go about getting to that point of awe and amazement is beyond the scope of this article, save to briefly note that for many reasons we have lost the sense of the sacred within our Church buildings and in the manner in which we worship and conduct ourselves while there.

So what are Communion services, where did they come from, and what benefits or fruits, if any, have flowed from their use?  Should we be concerned over the proliferation of weekday “Communion services” in certain areas of our country?  Why are we being offered an alternative to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass? The closest thing to a “Communion service” occurring in the Catholic Church prior to the Second Vatican Council was our “Good Friday” services, held on the day when no Mass can be celebrated but on which we may receive Communion.

Then, in June of 1973, the Sacred Congregation of Divine Worship promulgated Eucharistiae Sacrementum – “On Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist Outside of Mass.” This document (along with Canon Laws 897 and 898) restated the norm - ideally one should receive the Eucharist during the most august Sacrifice of the Mass.  However, limited provisions were made then under certain specific circumstances for distribution of Communion outside of Mass. The “Communion services” that we now see, were not included in those provisions.
But in June of 1988, because of the growing shortage of priests in some areas of the world,  the Congregation of Divine Worship issued a “Directory for Sunday Celebration in the Absence of a Priest.”  It was never intended that this should become a long-standing or commonplace solution.  Sunday celebrations of this specific kind, however, were and are to be considered altogether extraordinary. In fact, the 1988 directory specifically precluded a number of practices that had found their way into some parishes, such as the prohibition against any layperson authorized to lead the assembly in the absence of a priest using words that are proper to a priest or deacon or engaging in any rites that are too readily associated with the Mass, since these might give the impression that the layperson is a sacred minister. 

Not surprisingly, about the time this directory was issued, inquiries were made concerning the appropriateness of weekday celebrations in the absence of a priest since that document specifically dealt only with the Sunday obligation to worship, and did not authorize, and was not proper for the weekday Communion services sprouting up in place of the Mass. Significantly, there was no specific directory  from the Congregation of Divine Worship at that time for such weekday services.    
In response to inquiries it had received, the US Conference of Bishops offered its recommendations to the country’s bishops in an attempt to assist them in the formulation of guidelines for such weekday celebrations In doing so, the Conference’s Committee on Liturgy reiterated the recommendation of Pope Paul VI that priests “worthily and devoutly offer Mass each day in order that both they and the rest of the faithful may enjoy the benefits that flow so richly from the sacrifice of the cross.”  The Committee also reminded its priests that “Pope John Paul II echoes these words [of Paul VI) in recalling that the celebration of the Eucharist be the ‘most important moment of the priest’s day, the center of his life,’ and urging that priests should be encouraged to celebrate Mass every day, even in the absence of a congregation, since it is an act of Christ and the Church.”

The Bishops specifically recommended that whenever possible, daily Mass should be celebrated in each parish; that when that is not possible, the Mass schedule of nearby parishes should be available to parishioners. If a nearby parish is celebrating Mass on a given weekday, serious consideration should be given to encouraging people to participate in that Mass rather than the parish scheduling a Liturgy of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion; and that such liturgies should never be scheduled for the purpose of “providing a role” for deacons or lay ministers.[1]

In some areas of this country, these recommendations were ignored and Communion services proliferated.  Some priests encouraged their religious sisters and lay people to become “presiders” of these services, sometimes allowing them to inappropriately mimic and mirror the dress, words, actions and rituals reserved for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Some pastors failed to catechize their parishioners properly about the significant differences between the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and Communion services.

Some bishops questioned the appropriateness of celebrations in the absence of priests, and prophetically warned of the problems that might ensue.  For example, the Bishops of Kansas issued a statement informing their flock in 1995 that they had

“come to judge that Holy Communion regularly received outside Mass is a short-term solution that has all the makings of becoming a long-term problem… with implications that are disturbing: a blurring of the difference between the celebration of the Eucharist and the reception of communion; a blurring of the distinction between a priest and a deacon or a non-ordained minister presiding over a communion service; a blurring of the relationship between pastoral and sacramental ministry; a blurring of the connection between the Eucharist and the works of charity and justice; a blurring of the need for priests and therefore a blurring of the continual need for vocations; and a blurring of the linkage between the local church and the diocesan and universal church that is embodied in the person of the parish priest.”

"These implications,” the Kansas bishops noted, gave “them pause in approving the distribution of Holy Communion outside Mass on Sundays. Such practice could well contribute to the erosion of our many-sided belief in the Eucharist. It is for this reason that we restrict such services to emergencies only. And by that we mean unforeseen circumstances when a priest is not available."

In April of 2004, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments  promulgated “Redemptionis Sacramentum" [RS], Instructions on the Eucharist,  to address many of the liturgical abuses, including celebrations conducted in the Absence of a Priest that had surfaced and had been blindly followed in the years following Vatican II.

The bishops were told, among other things, that it is necessary to avoid any sort of confusion between this type of gathering (in the Absence of a Priest) and the celebration of the Eucharist; that the they should prudently discern whether Holy Communion ought to be even distributed in celebrations carried in the absence of a priest,  that it would be preferable when both a priest and a deacon are absent, that the various parts of the celebration be distributed among several faithful rather than having a single lay member of the faithful direct the whole celebration alone, and that it was never appropriate to refer to any member of the lay faithful as “presiding” over these celebrations.

Finally, and of great significance for our current discussion are the following provisions in RS, §165:  “Likewise, especially if Holy Communion is distributed during such celebrations, the diocesan bishop, to whose exclusive competence this matter pertains, must not easily grant permission for such celebrations to be held on weekdays, especially in places where it was possible or would be possible to have the celebration of Mass on the preceding or the following Sunday.  Priests are therefore earnestly requested to celebrate Mass daily for the people in one of the churches entrusted to their care. Sadly, these weekday “services” continue in many dioceses and parishes.

Surveys and statistics show a very large percentage of baptized Catholics do not attend Sunday Mass regularly, and only thirty percent of those who attend Sunday Mass actually believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacred Eucharist.  In light of these facts and the foregoing discussion concerning the origin and nature of Communion services, is it not appropriate, timely and necessary to assess whether such services should continue and to what extent they may have contributed to so many Catholics devaluing the value of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, their priests or their belief in the Real Presence of our Lord? [2]

I have no doubt we would rediscover a sense of “awe and amazement” for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Eucharist if, when we next attend, we follow the suggestions offered by Father M. Raymond, OSSO:

“…when the Host is held on high and a chalice lifted…look up! Look up and see what Mary saw. See a naked man squirming as He bleeds against a blackened sky; see a battered human body, writhing on a tree, prisoned there by savage spikes that have torn through Sacred hands and feet; see thorn-tortured head tossing from side to side as anguished torso labors, lifts and strains; see the eyes of God roll towards heaven beseeching, as broken lips blurt out that soul piercing cry: ‘My God, My God, Why has Thou forsaken Me?’

 “What is this?  This is the Mass.  This is Crucifixion.  This is what Mary saw at the elevation of Christianity’s first Mass.  This is what you should see at the Elevation of every Mass!” (“God, A Woman, and The Way”)

 You will never find or experience this Truth at a “Communion service.”  So let us conclude with this question. Now that you have more than “an inkling of the full meaning of the Mass,” would you or should any Catholic voluntarily settle for such “services” again?

[1] The mere inconvenience or hardship caused parishioners who would now have to travel some distance to a parish other than their own in order to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should be an insufficient justification for priestless liturgies. What if our Lord had felt it was too inconvenient for Him to walk the Via Delarosa?

[2] Notably in 2008, one Bishop ended the practice of Communion services, bringing his Diocese, as he wrote, “into conformity with the liturgical norms of the Church.”  (See his pastoral letter entitled “Do This In Memory of Me”}. 

(This article, with the exception of the footnoted material and photographs set forth above, originally appeared in the February 2011 issue of Homiletic & Pastoral Review, under the title, A History of Communion services)



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