QUAERITUR: Communion for non-Catholics in a nursing home

From a reader:

A good friend of mine recently put her father in an Alzheimer’s day
care facility at a local Catholic nursing home. Each day a deacon
comes to the nursing home, holds a Communion service, and distributes Holy Communion to anyone present. When my friend told me this, I asked her whether her father, a non-Catholic also receives Communion. She said, “Yes, but it doesn’t matter; he doesn’t know the difference.” When I casually mentioned this case to the administrator of the nursing home, a Catholic, he replied, “Well, it really doesn’t matter; the patients don’t know one way or the other.”

While this may indeed be the case, shouldn’t the deacon and the
administrator of the nursing facility make an effort to “know the
difference” by finding out who is and who is not Catholic so that this
doesn’t happen?

Yes, the deacon and the administrator should take care that non-Catholics are not receiving Communion.  And the deacon and the administrator should know that it does make a difference who receives Holy Communion.  A lot has happened in the last few decades but Communion remains pretty important.

The Code of Canon Law states that there is a narrow set of circumstances in which a non-Catholic may be admitted to Holy Communion.  In this case only the diocesan bishop can give permission for this to happen, not the pastor of a parish, not an individual priest, not a deacon, not a lay minister, not a nursing home administrator.

If non-Catholics are being given Holy Communion, the local bishop should be advised so that he can either confirm or correct the situation according to his judgment.

This brings us to another point, and it is delicate.  If a person is no longer sui compos to the degree that he or she no longer recognizes what the Eucharist is, then due consideration should be given to whether that person should be receiving Communion regularly, automatically.

I am not aware of any specific legislation about Communion and people who are suffering from Alzheimer’s or other afflictions that make it difficult or impossible to discern what the Eucharist is.  We can draw guidance by analogy from the guidelines for First Holy Communion, perhaps.

In the Latin Church children are not admitted to Communion until they have obtained the use of reason.  They must be able to distinguish the Eucharist from normal food and know something about the dignity of what they are being given, and in their own way be able to adore God in the Eucharistic they receive.  (Cf. can 913)

Children who are mentally challenged can be admitted to Communion if they express a desire verbally or by some gesture to receive in a way that shows they have reverence for it.  This same thing could be applied to adults who are in the same situation because of some affliction.

And they must be physically capable of receiving, of course.

In the case of adults, however, I would say that – provided the person is Catholic - the benefit the doubt should be given to them.  As I said, this is a delicate matter.  Also, the situation of Eastern Catholics might be a little different.  Eastern Catholics receive the Eucharist before the age of reason, in continuation with administration of baptism.

All of this takes some discernment and care for individuals.  Their caregivers should be involved as well.   A Minister of Communion, ordinary or extraordinary, cannot simply go in and give Communion to anyone who is there.  That approach is demeaning, and not just for the Blessed Sacrament!

If there is a question about what the deacon is doing, you can consult first with the pastor of the parish where the deacon serves.  If that doesn’t bear fruit, check with the local bishop.  Ask if it matters that non-Catholics are being given Holy Communion without his explicit permission.  If that doesn’t elicit a response, submit your correspondence to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and ask them to explain what that is happening.

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23 Responses to QUAERITUR: Communion for non-Catholics in a nursing home

  1. I would also add that the non-Catholics who wish to receive communion could be approached about whether or not they wish to join the Church.

    Even people of an advanced age and (possibly) limited faculties can have conversion experiences. The priest could meet with them, speak about the Faith, and bring them into the Church. This could be a very low-key process (a person battling the early stages of dementia probably doesn’t need a year long catechesis, and a priest should probably be satisfied that the person accepts the Church as true, and has a very basic understanding of the basic doctrines). Or it could be a very celebratory process (with a party and cake after Mass!) if that is what the person wants.

    Nursing homes are where people face their final trials before death – it is a serious business for any chaplain to guide souls to their final rest in such a location.

  2. I agree with erring on the side of the Eucharist with any Catholic past the ‘age of reason’ –With Alzheimers/dementia/etc, we don’t really know what’s going on with a person’s mind– is it that they no longer know things, or that they’ve lost the ability to communicate those things?

    Medical science tends to err on the side of Behaviorism– if they ACT ‘confused’ , they must BE ‘confused.’

    But we know they have the same soul they always did. So They should be offered confession and the Eucharist–after all, if they’re no longer able to communicate, to move freely, to be UNDERSTOOD, they need the consolation of the Eucharist all the more!!!!

    On the other hand, if they’re NOT Catholic, we should give them the respect of not ‘converting’ them against their will.

  3. Jaybirdnbham says:

    On the topic of whether Communion should be given if the patient seems “out to lunch” from dementia, I offer the following which I personally witnessed:
    I went with my spiritual director (a priest) to a nursing home once, where he was giving Communion to a couple of the patients. One of them, a woman in a wheelchair, was obviously in a deep level of dementia, and didn’t seem to know who he was or what he was there for. Father talked quietly to her for a few moments while she stared off into space, totally ‘out of it’.

    BUT: the moment he held the Host in front of her face, everything changed! She looked at the Host, closed her eyes for about 3 seconds, then opened her eyes, looked straight at the host again with obvious recognition, and opened her mouth to receive her Lord.
    This was the most beautiful example of God’s graces that I’ve ever seen. It’s burned into my memory, and I thank God that He allowed me to see this small miracle that day.
    No one giving Communion to a Catholic with dementia should assume that the person won’t somehow recognize Jesus in the Host somewhere in the depths of their soul.

  4. ppb says:

    When my dear Lutheran grandmother was in a nursing home, I used to sit with her occasionally when there was a Catholic Communion service. The EMHC asked everyone individually, “Are you Catholic?” If the answer was “yes,” he gave the person Holy Communion. If the answer was “no,” he gave them a blessing with the Sacred Host instead. Yes, I know, that last part was questionable; but at least an attempt was made to find out who was Catholic.

  5. BUT: the moment he held the Host in front of her face, everything changed! She looked at the Host, closed her eyes for about 3 seconds, then opened her eyes, looked straight at the host again with obvious recognition, and opened her mouth to receive her Lord.
    This was the most beautiful example of God’s graces that I’ve ever seen. It’s burned into my memory, and I thank God that He allowed me to see this small miracle that day.
    No one giving Communion to a Catholic with dementia should assume that the person won’t somehow recognize Jesus in the Host somewhere in the depths of their soul.

    I am no expert on philosophy, but I think that is a first-rate example of what Dietrich von Hildebrand called the “super-actual”: what we are and what we know is always real and always exists, even when it is pushed into the background and we are not consciously aware of it or cannot access it at a given moment. Even when our bodies are so impaired as to hinder our faculties, our souls and all their gifts are still intact; the dementia will not persist after death. I agree: give those who suffer from dementia the benefit of the doubt, because their faith has not ceased to exist.

  6. SonofMonica says:

    I agree with the comments here about erring on the side of communicating to one with dementia or other challenge(s). My own experience with my grandfather was one where he seemed to revert to a child-like state. But even if my grandfather may have forgotten a lot of who he was or what was going on, I know that my grandfather’s Eucharistic King did not forget about him or his need for grace.

  7. wolfeken says:

    Half of self-described Catholic do not believe the bread and wine are actually the Body and Blood of our Lord — and I can’t help but think it’s because there is such little regard for the manner Communion is handled since Vatican II.

    Just a little refresher for the way Communion would be administered to the sick until the late 60s: http://www.sanctamissa.org/en/resources/books-1962/rituale-romanum/21-the-sacrament-of-the-holy-eucharist-communion-of-the-sick.html

  8. Rich says:

    Assuming it’s locked, who gave this guy a key to the tabernacle?

  9. Ralph says:

    ” Eastern Catholics receive the Eucharist before the age of reason, in continuation with administration of baptism.”

    Why are Latin Catholics held to a “higher standard” when it comes to receiving Our Lord? Doesn’t sacred scripture teach us that we must be able to discern Christ in the Eucharist less we bring judgement on ourselves (1st Cor. 11: 28-29)?

  10. William says:

    Short time ago, a group from our Diocese (Superior in Wisconsin) went on pilgrimage to Ireland. One of our perm. deacons went along, too. A non-Catholic friend of mine was gently coaxed into joining the group. All the pilgrims went to Holy Mass daily. One of the lay women on the trip advised my non-Catholic friend (a Methodist whose understanding of “taking communion” is vastly different from our own) to remain in the pew while the others received Holy Communion. The Deacon, however, intervened and told the non-Catholic that is was perfectly alright for her to join the others in receiving Holy Communion!

  11. Re: how people received Communion of the sick in the old days

    Well, obviously that was all good and pious. But the fact that there was such rigmarole, or confusion after Vatican II, seems to have discouraged some people. I’ve mentioned before how shocked I was when I found out that my grandmother who died when I was a baby never received Communion after she became too ill to leave the house. And she lived no more than a mile or two from our parish church and was compos mentis till she died though mostly paralyzed, so I don’t know what the heck was going on there.

  12. Fr. Basil says:

    \\If a person is no longer sui compos to the degree that he or she no longer recognizes what the Eucharist is, then due consideration should be given to whether that person should be receiving Communion regularly, automatically.\\

    With respect, may I suggest this?

    Assuming that the communicant in question has expressed faith previously in his life that this is indeed the Body and Blood of Christ (and it’s not just Catholics that believe this), then it might be better to err through mercy than through rigor.

    The idea that the communicant must be of reasonably sound mind enough to “know” what is going on for God to work in our hearts and souls and lives, even through the Mysteries, comes dangerously close to Gnosticism.

    After all, did the dead daughter of the Synagogue president “know” that Jesus was coming to raise her from the dead?

    (Giving Communion to all and sundry, not even knowing if they are baptized, is another issue totally.)

  13. QMJ says:

    Ralph, Latin Catholics are not held to a higher standard. The same standard applies to all Catholics, Latin or other. The Scripture to which you refer says absolutely nothing at all about needing to have the use of your reason in order to receive our Lord in Holy Communion. St. Paul was correcting those who were receiving Communion in a sinful state. These people most certainly do need to use their reason in discerning the Body and Blood of our Lord. However, babies do not sin. One could also argue that people with demetia do not sin, even though they are still capable of committing wrong acts.

  14. gambletrainman says:

    I’ve been just glancing an some of the comments, not reading them thorougly, so I may be commenting on something someone else may have said. If so, forgive me.

    Some years ago, a lady who went to our church was in a nursing home and had either alzheimers or dementia, I don’t remember. Any way, she had been in a coma for a couple of weeks. Our priest made the roughly 150 mile trip (each way) to see her and give her the last rites. As soon as he walked in the room, with several visitors present, she opened her eyes, looked at the priest, and said “Oh, Father you came”. He then annointed her and gave her communion. As soon as he left, she slipped back into a coma, and died within two days. I think that was a mini-miracle.

  15. Fr. Basil says:

    \\” Eastern Catholics receive the Eucharist before the age of reason, in continuation with administration of baptism.”

    Why are Latin Catholics held to a “higher standard” when it comes to receiving Our Lord? Doesn’t sacred scripture teach us that we must be able to discern Christ in the Eucharist less we bring judgement on ourselves (1st Cor. 11: 28-29)?\\

    From my point of view, it is better to ask why the Latin Church changed the ancient Apostolic discipline regarding infant communion?

    The prefiguring of infant Baptism and Communion in 1 Cor 10:1-4 is also given by St. Paul.

    Why should the little ones be deprived of the Feast of the very Lord Who yearns for them to come to Him without hindrance?

    Trust me, I’ve heard enough mothers with their babes in their arms stand in the Communion line in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches say to them, “Jesus loves Jonny. He’s going to feed Jonny with Himself,” and similar words to know that these little ones are “learning by doing.”

    And also, the same argument about delaying First Communion until the “age of reason” is the same argument used by some Protestants to deny Baptism to their babies. (I’ve already touched on the dangers of Gnosticism this approaches.)

  16. Random Friar says:

    I’ve relied on the Legion of Mary volunteers (God bless them with super-abundant grace and blessings!) to tell me which are Catholic and which are not. The only time I would deny a Catholic communion would be if they could not swallow the Host. I will make the Host particle as small as I can, if need be, to help them receive Holy Communion.

    Many times when we think they are gone from us in all but body, something is there, as you might say, a spark. We’ve trusted secular science long enough on “Quality of Life” issues, and we have heard of cases where they have been wrong. VERY wrong. Anyway, if all mental faculties are truly gone, they still do not receiving unworthily. If need be, I will answer to my Lord if I have done anything wrong. But I will err on the side of mercy here as well.

  17. ray from mn says:

    A far more important question needs to be asked: Why do virtually all Catholics receive Holy Communion when they attend Mass. Some of them must be committing a sacrilege.

    One of the worst results of Vatican II was having people go up to receive Communion by pews. That should cease immediately, allowing those not in the state of grace to avoid calling attention to themselves by making it clear that they are not receiving that day.

    It also might make sense to increase the fast from one to three hours or so. With evening Masses, fasting from midnight is no longer practical.

  18. CarpeNoctem says:

    OK, here’s another concern. There’s legal liability in this practice.

    If one takes advantage of another’s diminished state to impose a particular religious practice upon them…. a religious practice they would not have otherwise participated in while they were sui compos, that would be a violation of their civil rights… and an actionable offense for a lawsuit if a family, kin, or some other interested party found out.

    Without implying any kind of syncretism or making an inference that Catholicism stands as one among many equivalent, peer religious groups, it does make a difference whether one is Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, Muslim, Druid(-Reformed**) or whatever. As certainly as someone may very well not want their protestant grandmother receiving the Eucharist under these circumstances, I can darned-well assure you that when I am drooling all over myself that I do not want to be initiated or ascribed into the Muslim faith or be ‘saved’ by the latest revival preacher that comes through the old folks home. Certainly it could not account before the Almighty against me, as it would not be a human act of faith on my part, but it would be a potential scandal to others, a violation of all I stand for, and the height of presumption for the minister involved.

    It seems, at best, that the deacon lacks respect and devotion for the people involved. At worst, I wonder if he might be committing sacrilige by imposing a sacrament upon a person against his/her will?

    ** = isn’t that a Spaceballs reference cluttering my mind? Ugh.

  19. smad0142 says:

    I think mentally challenged children, or adults who develop Alzheimer’s, should also recieve the Eucharist, so long as they are Catholic. In this instance I think we can learn a thing or two from our Eastern brethern. Christ desires most earnestly to be with those who struggle, and so long as they can physically recieve Him AND are Catholic, I see no valid reason for denying the Eucharist to them. Even though we can not see any outward signs of their recognition, they are Catholic and they are in a state of grace, so we should presume the love of the Eucharist to be present in their hearts.

  20. Philangelus says:

    I brought the Eucharist to a local nursing home when I was in college. That was the only reason I became a lay minister of the Eucharist at all. A professor, a graduate student and I would go down the hill, gather the residents who we thought were Catholic, and have a little Eucharistic service in an empty room.

    I cannot tell you for sure that all the ones who were brought down to us were Catholic. I would ask and sometimes not receive an answer. The other two had been doing it longer and knew who generally came or who generally was brought down. But several times I would say, “Are you Catholic?” and receive no answer whatsoever.

    The ministry was heartbreaking. After I left that school, I couldn’t do it again elsewhere. I have no idea if we did the right thing in every case. I was trying to do right by Jesus, but really, I don’t know.

  21. mjd says:

    The Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity of Jesus is the ultimate spiritual healing nourishment for any Catholic patient. My 92 year old mother (Anne Lucy) was placed in a rehab facility after breaking her hip 2 weeks ago. The anesthetic, xanax and pain meds have caused confusion. I bring Communion to the sick, so when I brought Our Lord to her, she perked up and received. She’s more alert, keeps her eyes open for longer periods of time. The physical & occupational therapists have seen an improvement. Last week, she also received The Sacrament of the Sick. Never forget that Jesus is the Divine Healing Physician.

  22. Mary Bruno says:

    I work in a nursing home. The EMHC bring the Eucharist and an employee from the nursing home has a list of all the Catholics and they seek out these individuals. If there is someone new who says they are Catholic they will receive. I have not found anyone claiming to be Catholic who is not. Not that it never has happened, but those I have witnessed are Catholic. If asked they will usually say, “no I am..name of the religion.” Those who are confused/cannot answer do not receive Communion.

    I have also experienced the very demented, confused even agitated person calm in the presence of the Eucharist. I have seen them join in the Our Father and then receive Communion, usually on the tongue. I have seen this many times where a person with dementia who cannot hold a conversation that makes any sense remembers how to receive the Lord in a respectful manner.

    There are some with swallowing difficulties and they receive a very small piece of Communion.

  23. Mary Bruno says:

    I would also like to add at our parish there is a boy who has some sort of disability. He began to receive Communion and was very awkward with it and what you may say appears disrespectful (although, I highly doubt he was intentionally “disrespectful”) It took him many months, but now he receives Communion in a respectful manner. It took a little time to teach him, but he learned. His mother was teaching him each week.