My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Every year as the new year approaches, newspapers run articles telling people about new laws that will take effect on Jan. 1 at the federal, state, and local levels of government. This is helpful so that people will know what will be expected and give notice for them to take the necessary steps to be in compliance with the new laws.
Church laws do not change very frequently, but sometimes changes in practice are introduced, such as when the new English translation of the Roman Missal took effect nine years ago on the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the church’s liturgical year.
Here in the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, the Instruction on the Custom of Blessings During Holy Communion will take effect on Jan. 1, 2021. I approved this Instruction for implementation with input from our diocesan Office for Divine Worship and the Catechumenate, and with the affirmative recommendation of our Presbyteral Council and Diocesan Pastoral Council, following consultation with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Holy See. The full text of this Instruction is available online at dio.org. This Instruction seeks to provide consistency to the practice of what should happen in our diocese when people come up in the Communion line, but who themselves are not going to receive holy Communion.
There are a variety of reasons why people do not receive holy Communion when they come to Mass. In some cases, they are children who have not yet received their confirmation and first holy Communion. Others do not receive because they are not Catholic. It could be that a person is conscious of having committed grave sin but has not yet had a chance to go to confession and receive absolution from the priest in the sacrament of penance. It might also simply be that a person has had something to eat right before Mass and hence has not observed the required one-hour fast before receiving holy Communion.
Whatever the reason, it has become customary in the United States and some other countries for people to present themselves to the minister of holy Communion with their arms crossed in front of their chest to indicate that they do not want to receive holy Communion but wish to receive something else. The question is: What is it that they should expect to receive if they are not receiving holy Communion? Often they would receive a blessing. Other times they would be invited with various words to make a spiritual communion.
As I have travelled around the parishes of our diocese over the past 10 years, I have seen a variety of practices, sometimes with the minister of Communion tracing the sign of the cross on the person’s forehead and other times patting children on the head.
In addition to the inconsistency of different things happening in different communion lines, sometimes within the same church, there are several other problems that arise liturgically as well as hygienically.
In terms of hygiene, especially during this time of heightened awareness of the transmission of germs due to the coronavirus pandemic, ministers of holy Communion should not be touching people’s heads and then using those same fingers to distribute the consecrated hosts to the next communicants in line without having disinfected their fingers or washed their hands. From a theological perspective, it has been a longstanding tradition in the church that ministers of holy Communion should not touch anything else after distributing the Body of Christ until after they have purified their fingers.
There are also some key liturgical issues that are involved in the custom of blessings during holy Communion. One issue is that lay people who are commissioned as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion are not authorized to bless anyone at any time during Mass. Certainly, there are household blessings and prayers that laity may impart, such as parents on behalf of their children. But it is a basic principle of liturgical hierarchy that ministers of blessings should defer to those of higher ecclesiastical rank. Thus, the laity should defer to a deacon if a deacon is present, deacons should defer to priests, and priests should defer to the bishop when it is a question of who should give the blessing when two or more ranks of ministers are present.
But it is also true that deacons, priests and even bishops are not to give blessings during the time of holy Communion. The General Introduction to the Book of Blessings is clear: “No blessings except those specified may be joined with the eucharistic celebration” (no. 28). And the General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly specifies that the priest or bishop is to bless the people during the concluding rite following the Prayer after Communion (nos. 90 and 167). Thus everyone at Mass receives a blessing from the celebrant at the end of Mass.
So if those coming up in the Communion line do not receive a blessing at that time, what is it they are invited to do? The answer is that they should be invited to make a spiritual communion by the priest, deacon, or extraordinary minister of holy Communion, who makes a slight head bow towards the person and says, “Receive Christ in your heart.” Since this is not a blessing, but an invitation to worship, no other gesture accompanies these words, and no verbal response is given.
The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops describes the practice of spiritual communion in this way: “All who are not receiving Holy Communion are encouraged to express in their hearts a prayerful desire for unity with the Lord Jesus and with one another.” This can be done in a person’s own words or with a prayer such as this one by St. Aphonsus Liguori: “My Jesus, I believe that you are present in the Most Holy Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I desire to receive you into my soul. Since I cannot at this moment receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. I embrace you as if you were already there and unite myself wholly to you. Never permit me to be separated from you. Amen.”
I hope this Instruction will provide a consistent practice throughout our diocese and help to foster a deeper appreciation for the meaning of spiritual communion for those who are not able to receive the holy Eucharist.
May God give us this grace. Amen.