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
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.