It often happens that persons present themselves, or are presented by others, to receive a blessing at the time others approach to receive holy Communion. While the beginning of this practice is a bit hard to pin down, it seems to have begun in the United States in the late 1980s or early 1990s out of a desire to help those who cannot receive holy Communion for one reason or another feel included.
To be sure, inclusion is often a noble concern and Jesus came to gather the nations into the peace of his kingdom, but such a practice often neglects to reveal an important aspect of his kingdom: Everyone is welcome in this kingdom and all are called to receive the Eucharist if certain prerequisites are met. The requirements are neither burdensome nor unreasonable: a person must have received the grace of baptism, attained the use of reason sufficient to distinguish the Body and Blood of the Lord from ordinary bread and wine, and strive to live a life according to Christian morals and make use of sacramental confession to maintain communion with the church.
Some months ago, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki wrote to the priests and deacons serving in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois to explain his practice when someone approaches him for a blessing in the procession reserved for those who will receive holy Communion:
“I do not give any blessings during the time for Holy Communion. Everyone at Mass receives a liturgical blessing from the celebrant at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments after the distribution of Holy Communion and immediately before the dismissal. I do not touch anyone, pat them on the head, or make a sign of the cross on their forehead or over their forehead. I make no gesture at all toward them with my hand. If someone above the age of reason approaches me in the Communion with their arms folded indicating that they do not actually wish to receive Holy Communion, I invite them to make a spiritual communion by saying, “Receive Christ spiritually in your heart.” As I say this, I bow my head slightly toward the person while I hold the Host in my hand for the next person who wishes to receive. I do nothing with babies or children being held in the arms of an adult, since a child below the age of reason presumably would not understand the concept of spiritual communion. I do happily and readily give individual blessings to babies, children and anyone else who so wishes after the recessional as I shake hands and greet people as they exit church.”
In the same communication, Bishop Paprocki expressed his desire that “the ordinary and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion in our diocese would emulate my personal pastoral practice.”
The Holy See has been studying this issue for several years now and, while no decision has been made regarding this practice, several principles ought to be borne in mind.
First, each liturgical procession has a purpose. The procession at the beginning of the holy Mass moves the celebrant and the ministers from the sacristy or from the door of the church to their places in the sanctuary and it is not envisioned that others take part in this procession. The procession during the Gospel acclamation moves the one proclaiming the Gospel, together with the servers and the Book of the Gospels to the ambo. Here, again, it is not envisioned that others take part in this procession. In a similar manner, the Communion procession moves the communicants from their places in the nave of the church to the steps of the sanctuary. Again, it is not envisioned that others take part in the procession.
Certainly no one would suggest that infants or young children be left on their own in the pews; parents or those watching them bring them forward because it would be unwise to leave them behind. Young children were carried or walked in the Communion procession for centuries and, to my knowledge, no child felt left out or neglected because a blessing was not given. I remember frequently accompanying my great aunt in the Communion procession and the fact that I could not yet receive holy Communion deepened a desire within me to receive the holy Eucharist.
A second observation pertains to blessings given by extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, those who have been deputed to assist the priests and deacons in moments of necessity. The Book of Blessings reminds us that the lay faithful, in virtue of their respective office in the church, such as parents to their children, may impart blessings, but they are not to do so while a priest or deacon is present. The reason for this is simple: priests and deacons are ordained to minister in the name of the church and in the person of Christ. Consequently, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion should not give a blessing to anyone in the Communion procession because there is always a priest present at that moment.
This leads us to a third consideration to keep, a consideration seen during periods of exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. When the Eucharistic Host is placed in the monstrance for the faithful to adore, a priest does not give blessings in the church because he is in the presence of one who is greater than himself. During Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, the priest or deacon wears a humeral veil in which he enfolds his hands as he holds the monstrance to show the blessing does not come from him, but from Christ. In the same way, it would be inappropriate for a sacred minister to give blessings while he holds the Eucharist in his hands as communicants come forward to receive the Lord.
Each of these reasons helps to explain Bishop Paprocki’s practice, a practice that is in harmony with the current liturgical norms and the tradition of the church. It is good to invite those who cannot receive holy Communion to ask the Lord for the grace of a spiritual Communion by which they seek to draw closer to him. As their hearts yearn to receive him, let us pray they will be led to request full communion with his church and so receive the Eucharistic Lord himself.