QUAERITUR: extraordinary ministers and “approach the altar”

From a reader:

I have a question about the Redemptionis Sacramentum requirement that the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion do not "approach the altar" until after the priest’s Communion…
What is meant by "approach the altar"? Does it mean they should not come into the sanctuary until…or can they come into the sanctuary as long as they stay away from the altar?
We have 21 people that come up into the sanctuary during the Agnus Dei. They wash their hands with anti-bacterial gel that is in pumps on two extra credence tables at the back sides of the sanctuary and then stand all across the back wall of the sanctuary looking at us and the back of the priest at the altar. Sometimes they first shake hands with each other as a continuation of the "kiss of peace" which took place immediately prior to the Agnus Dei. This entire operation is a kind of "spectacle" that I do not think is in keeping with the solemnity of the Mass and the priest’s Communion which kind of appears as a secondary afterthought. I hope this situation will be corrected in our parish.

First, I cannot fathom why, in a parish church, there should have to be 21 people entering the sanctuary to help with Holy Communion.  Surely this is an abuse of what ought to be an exception permitted in the case of true necessity.

Second, I would say that "approach the altar" means to enter the sanctuary, where the altar is.

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  1. mitch_wa says:

    Could all priests at least stop giving communion to EMHC and Altar Servers before they themselves recieve, leaving these lay people standing there with the Host in their hands waiting for the Celebrant to receive before they do.

    That is the reason I no longer regularly altar serve for Campus Masses, I tried talking to the celebrants before hand about this and but some gave me grief and others just forgot. And I think I was very diplomatic about it all. Thats just the way it goes around here.

  2. The Astronomer says:

    In my ‘progressive’ (i.e. hermeneutic of disruption) parish in NJ, at the 9AM & 1030AM Novus Ordo Masses, it is standard procedure to always have exactly twelve female EMHCs stand behind the presider just prior to the “Lamb of God” & distribution of the Blessed Sacrament. Sort of our pastor’s silent way of doing reparations for the ‘sins of the patriarchal church’ as he put it in a homily last year.

  3. FrCharles says:

    Mitch: At one point in my formation, I was taught this practice, flowing as it did from an erroneous idea of the servanthood and humility of those who serve at the Lord’s altar. ‘Servants should eat last’ was always the slogan, and think this is part of why Redemptoris Sacramentum (along with the rubrics of the 2002 MR) tries to recover a better sense of the priest’s communion.

    Here in the archdiocese of New York, pastors have permission to allow EMsHC to approach the altar during the Lamb of God, which kind of defeats the instruction sometimes.

  4. merrydelval says:

    ChristopherM’s link looks just like my parish, with a forest of EMHCs and almost all older women. They also grab vessels off the altar and plop them down with as much reverence as taking out the kitty litter. Meanwhile, the deacons sit in the pew vested as laypeople. At my former parish, the EMHCs at the priest’s communion came, not into the sanctuary, but stayed in front of the modesty screen of the front pew. Ciboria and chalices were distributed to them there, and taken from them too. There is no need for them to come into the sanctuary at all. Other clergy were always on hand, and when we got rid of Communion under both kinds, we eliminated them at Mass entirely.

  5. merrydelval says:

    Them being the EMHC, not the clergy. Oops!

  6. gloriainexcelsis says:

    A local parish has a list of extraordinary ministers that takes up a whole column in the bulletin, yet there is always a call for more to apply ! There are times when more than one priest is present during Mass and three deacons are there, yet extraordinary ministers are distributing Holy Communion.

  7. Jon says:

    Let’s see, on an average Sunday at my FSSP parish, some 200 people are in attendance. Distribution of Holy Communion takes approximately 8 minutes. Just long enough for the schola to squeeze in O Esca Viatorum.

    That means Father distributes Holy Communion to about 25 people per minute.

    As for the “21,” here’s an appropriate quote from Father Z’s friend, Cardinal Arinze,

    “There should be no attempt to clericalize the laity. This could happen when, for example, lay people chosen as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion no longer see this role as being called on to help when the ordinary ministers (bishop, priest, and deacon) are not available in sufficient numbers to cope with the high number of communicants. When the extraordinary ministers see their role as a power display to show that what the priest can do, the lay faithful can do too, then we have a problem. How else can we explain the sad error of the lay faithful struggling around the altar to open the tabernacle or to grab the sacred vessels — all against sane liturgical norms and pure good sense?”

    I recall a while back His Eminence was asked in an interview when the use of Extraordinary Ministers was appropriate. He answered something to the effect (perhaps someone can provide the exact quote), “When the priest is 80, lame, and there are 1,000 people to receive Communion.”

  8. The custom in my parish is for the EMHCs to approach the sanctuary (but not go up its steps) during the Agnus Dei (not that we sing that in Latin, mind you). Then, they remain standing while the rest of us kneel after the Agnus Dei, as is the default posture in the dioceses of the US (unless your Bishop decides otherwise).

    This seems awkward to me. The EMHCs don’t kneel, while EVERYBODY ELSE DOES (except the priest). That might be sending the wrong message to some people.

    And they approach the altar after the priest consumes the Host, but BEFORE he drinks from the Chalice. I’m nit-picky about these things. I don’t see why they can’t just wait another 10 seconds.

  9. Bill in Texas says:

    In our parish, the EMoHC (no more than 7, ever, and both women and men, of all ages) do not even get up from their kneelers in the pews until after the priest’s communion. The priest distributes communion under both species to the altar servers first, then the EMoHC. The priest then hands the ciboria and the cups to the EMoHC. We are instructed to place the ciboria and the cups back on the corporal with respect and reverence. We wait until the priest returns the ciboria with the consecrated hosts in them to the tabernacle. When the priest genuflects after this, we bow, and then we leave the sancuary, pausing at the credence table to rinse our fingers. It is done quickly, quietly and with dignity. As far as I am aware, everything is exactly as called for by Redemptionis Sacramentum and all other requirements. I’m sorry to hear that so many here are in parishes where these are not observed.

  10. irishgirl says:

    ’21’? Good grief….where was this done?

    Cardinal Arinze had it right on the nose! There’s too much ‘clericalization of the laity’!

  11. Jordanes says:

    In my parish on Sundays, we have about 10 people (six or seven more than needed) serve as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at each mass. Formerly they would just mozy up into the sanctuary during the Agnus Dei, and then they’d stand behind the priest in a long line, waiting for Communion. In the past I think they’d even go up there prior to the Peace, and the priest would shake their hands. But a few years ago the pastor arranged to have them come up to the sanctuary steps during the Agnus Dei and then to resume kneeling with the rest of the laity. Only after the Non Sum Dignus are they permitted to enter the sanctuary. This change was to recover a properly Catholic understanding of the difference between a priest’s eucharistic action and the laity’s participation in Mass. The extraordinary ministers only help distribute Communion, and thus shouldn’t come into the sanctuary until the priest needs them. They’re not “deputy priests.”

  12. abigail9 says:

    Yikes, I’m sorry you have to be a part of that. Isn’t the document you reference the one in which the Holy See calls for the use of “Extraordinary Ministers” to pretty much cease:

    158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.[259] This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.

    Oh well, I guess if priests and bishops don’t agree with the Holy Father, they just go their own way. Isn’t that Protestant?

  13. Mickey says:

    I think I know this parish in the Arlington VA diocese(?)…we used to go to Holy Mass there and attempted to return. I was so put off by the liturgical abuse, we had to switch parishes….

    Besides the aforementioned army of lay people in the Sanctuary…most of the EMHC’s self-communicate the Precious Blood. When we were parishioners, I was an EMHC…and I asked about the practice and why we couldn’t use communion plates from the servers to catch any particles. The “liturgist” basically told me I was all wet, refused (as far as I know) to discuss it with the pastor. I stopped being an EMHC at that moment and was glad to leave the parish when I was transferred.

    Did I add that there are THREE priests at that parish? And only one vests to distribute Holy Communion?

    When we returned to the area, I tried to return…only it was worse.

    Now we drive further to get to a parish where at least they “Say the Black and DO the Red”. Really…that’s all I ask…

  14. chironomo says:

    Our new Pastor (came to us last February) put an end to the practice here of EMHC’s coming up around the altar during the Lamb of God. They now remain in their places until after the Priest receives and then they stand and come forward.

    This same pastor has asked that we begin singing the Sanctus and Agnus Dei using Mass XVIII beginning in October at ALL Masses…he already does so at daily Masses.

  15. MichaelJ says:


    “Need” is a funny, kind of subjective word. I would say that there are about 10 more EMHCs in your parish than are needed.

  16. james says:

    Is there really a need for these “ministers” anymore? This travesty (and that’s, indeed, what it is) should be eliminated. Publically. By the Holy See. Perhaps this is in the works. Let’s pray it is.

    What needs to happen ASAP is the return of the altar rail and kneeling for reception of the Blessed Sacrament.

    Only males should serve. And we wonder why vocations
    have taken a hit over the years? Could it be that our
    young men and boys never see males on the altar, or
    leading the Rosary before Mass. Our Holy Name Societies
    have perished. Where are the male role models in these

    The modernization of the Church at the parish-level, due
    to the laity wanting their collective wills imposed of
    the Church… Again, no wonder we have seen a steep
    decline in vocations over the past 40 years.

    “Oh well, I guess if priests and bishops don’t agree with the Holy Father, they just go their own way. Isn’t that Protestant?” – Spot on.
    The laity fall into the same category. Just read many
    of the comments on the NCR website. Proof right there
    many of these people are simply not Catholic.

  17. joecct77 says:

    At my Mom’s church the rush starts at the Our Father so all can hold hands in back of the Priest. The last time I went, it looked like The Last Supper.

  18. Rob in Maine says:

    At my parish they (five or six for a Mass with < 200 ) used to stand up by the altar, now they stand below (the altar is raised upon a dais) and to one side.

  19. Sandy says:

    21!!!! If only Cardinal Arinze’s statement could be read all over the world – I wish!!! One parish near us has a blurb in the bulletin. It says that because of swine flu virus, guidelines from the diocese ask that there be no holding hands at the Our Father or hand shaking at the sign of peace, and that the “cup” not be offered to the assembly. (What wording!) It was announced the first time, now it’s pretty much ignored by priests other than the pastor, and of course, people don’t read the bulletin. This would be a GREAT time to get rid of many EMHCs, and have Communion under one form only.

    Another pet peeve of mine is the practice of many EMHCs of arriving at the altar and continuing the glad handing all around, even though we have moved to the next prayers and the “sign of peace” is over. If they could only see Who is on the altar.

  20. Sandy says:

    correction: there is a missing exclamation point after “I wish!” “One parish” is a new sentence.

  21. JohnW says:

    Extraordinary ministers of Holy communion is an abuse in this coutry at every urban parish. The lay people who are the extraordinary ministers don’t know or don’t care that it is an abuse. I also know that there are many many people not in full communion with the church who are “extraordinary ministers. This is an abuse that must be stopped. Let us pray for the Holy Father to disallow this practice.

  22. ssoldie says:

    Dosen’t anyone use common sense anymore?

  23. NLucas says:

    Honestly, the most difficult thing to do somtimes is to successfuly strategize where to sit to receive Holy Communion from a priest. When I’m at an OF Mass by myself I can usualy infiltrate the priest’s line when I misjudge, but with a family of eight it really makes quite a ruckus. In our parish, one of the EMHCs regularly posts himself where the celebrant posts at all the other Masses (while the celebrant distributes to the elderly and handicapped in their pew). It’s a lot like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates.

    At the risk of being inflammatory, it seems to me that there are few practices that contribute more to the widespread disbelief in the Real Presence than the regular reception of Holy Communion from a layperson at Holy Mass. If we really believe It to be what we say It is, we would be more circumspect in unconsecrated hands ministering the Sacrament. Why wouldn’t we all want to normally receive Christ from an Alter Christus?

    In Christ,

  24. Tom Ryan says:

    I heard that Rome was going to crack down on this by saying that at no time should the number of EMHCs exceed the number of communicants.


  25. NLucas says:

    Kudos to Frs Jay Scott Newman and Dwight Longenecker at St Mary’s in Greenville, SC–they solved this problem quite effectively. We stopped there on our way through during our vacation a few weeks ago. A packed church, yet three priests distributed Holy Communion in about the same time a battery of EMHCs would in your typical parish. And Fr Longenecker offered the Mass ad orientem as well.

    In Christ,

  26. Paul Knight says:

    When I was in England on holiday I attended Mass in one church where they used seven or eight EMHC’s. In the church there couldn’t have been many more people than we normally have at St. Henry’s (our small cathedral church in Helsinki) on a Sunday. When they had finished distributing Communion the EMHC’s took the chalices into a backroom somewhere, probably the sacristy. I shudder to think what they did with the Precious Blood which was left over.

    I know for a fact I saw an abuse, yet apparently this is all too common.

  27. ChristopherM says:

    Paul K.-

    I once heard Fr. Corapi tell a story, about how after mass at a parish he was visiting they did that, and they just left the Precious Blood in the cabinets in the sacristy. Fr. Corapi said he took all the candles in the sacristy and lit them and placed them around the cabinets and the Pastor asked him what he was doing, he replied that he was making an Holy Hour because Jesus was in the cabinet.

    I think that is how it goes… of course, it would be better to hear it for yourself.

  28. mfg says:

    Jordanes: They’d stand behind the priest in a long line and the priest would shake their hands. Try this one on: In my former NO church, same thing, except that the priest would hug each one, man and womn alike. In another church I visited on vacations, the EMHC were an army in long white gowns, a division or a regiment, all elderly, all officious, looked like evangelical protestants, this in a church where the pastor (celebrant) has three assistant priests (listed on his flyer) but I never saw one of them. Thank the Good Lord, it is now years later and we have an FSSP parish, and another parish where the priest agreed to learn and celebrate the TLM so all the bad stuff is ancient history for me.

  29. Melody says:

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves, and a major reason why I quit being an EMHC long before I became a proper traditionalist.

    It mars the sacred moment, elevates the people when she should be elevating Christ, and is generally ugly and chaotic.

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