ASK FATHER: EMHC’s at a Communion rail

From a reader…


Can a lay person who is commissioned as an EMHC distribute Holy Communion to communicants kneeling at a Communion rail under the Novus Ordo?

Allow me to remind the readership of the 1997 document which ought to frame every questions concerning “Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion”.   Everyone involved in that activity should review the Congregation for the Clergy’s “ON CERTAIN QUESTIONS REGARDING THE COLLABORATION OF THE NON-ORDAINED FAITHFUL IN THE SACRED MINISTRY OF PRIEST” [HERE].   This authoritative document says that “the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion at Mass thus arbitrarily extending the concept of ‘a great number of the faithful’” is “to be avoided and eliminated.

In the rubrics (i.e., the “law”) the determination of the usefulness of EMHC’s is left to the priest to decide.  That said, the local bishop could issue a law restricting or delimiting their use.

Is it wrong to use EMHC’s at a daily Mass with 10 people, or a Sunday Mass with 150? Yes.

Is it against the law? No.

To the question.  EMHC’s are allowed by law.  Kneeling is an acceptable way to receive, arguably the best way.  Nothing in the law says that the “conga line” method is how Communion must be distributed.  Nothing in the law say that the ENHC has to stand in one place.   I surmise that an EMHC could move along a Communion rail.  However, it is one thing for a priest to do this, who has years of experience, and an EMHC who might do this only occasionally.  I would say that, if it is determined that EMHC’s will used, they would need specific instructions and close oversight.

Again, it seems to me that most of the situations in which EMHC’s are employed don’t really call for EMHC’s.

Meanwhile here is an EMHC at a “Communion rail” at a Pope Francis mega-Mass.


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  1. Frank H says:

    Hmm. That “sacred vessel” looks like a styrofoam coffee cup.

  2. Curmudgeon says:

    I gotta say that the caption to the photo is a bit unfair. I’ve been privileged to be at masses celebrated by the last three popes and the ‘communion line’ has always seemed more like a rugby scrum. And it was always priests giving communion.

    So, it has nothing to do with either the current pope or EMHCs. It has more to do with people not being able to form a line and behave themselves.

  3. Charles E Flynn says:

    It is not clear whether the “Communion rail” in the photo is made of metal or people.

  4. ronconte says:

    I once attended a daily Mass on Thanksgiving. When it was announced that 7 priests would concelebrate the Mass, the people made a joyful noise. But when it came time for the readings, one laywoman did all the readings herself, other than the Gospel. And when it came time for Communion, many EMHCs went forward to distribute the holy Eucharist. There were only about 100 persons at that Mass. [A clear abuse.]

  5. Alanmac says:

    It is common in my parish, in the summer, to receive communion from an EMHC wearing flip flops, short shorts and a tube top.

  6. Rob in Maine says:

    Holy Communion should not be like concessions at the Ballpark.

  7. NomenDeiAdmirabileEst says:

    I went to a parish I had never been to this past weekend and was surprised to see the rail being used. I was even more surprised, though, when I turned to walk back to my pew and saw another priest and an EMHC distributing Communion in the usual fashion at the center aisle.

    More in keeping with this article though, for the past couple years EMHCs have been in use for school masses at St. Agnes in St. Paul, where the rail is used exclusively. They’ve always been grown men, teachers at the school actually, in cassock and surplice. When they first started (under the current pastor), one of them told me it had to do with the combination of only having one or two priests/deacons available for school masses, 600+ students, teachers, and visitors, and a school schedule that only allots so much time for mass. I’ve never seen more than one used at a time, though, or at all when there have been three priests/deacons available.

  8. ChesterFrank says:

    One thing that I have noticed is that EMHC’s (almost always in the ratio of 6 females to 2 males) distribute communion at nearly every Mass I attend, but in parishes with a permanent deacon the deacon never distributes the Blessed Sacrament to the congregation. The other certainty is that the deacon does distribute the Eucharist to the EMHC’s before they distribute the same to the congregation. Is the deacon forbidden from distributing Communion to the congregation?

  9. greenlight says:

    On a typical Sunday most parishes in my area will have one priest and one EMHC distributing the Host, and four (!) EMHC distributing the Precious Blood. As long as you only have one priest in residence, there’s really no way to distribute under both species. The practice is so ingrained that were a pastor to try and rein it in I suspect a significant portion of the laity would take it as a personal affront.

  10. Adaquano says:

    What happens at Chester’s parish is the same as mine. We have a permanent deacon but only gives the Precious Blood. I normally attend our 830 because it cuts the EMHC used in half. What saddens me is the many churches in my city, that while they still have the communion rail, it is never used.

  11. wised says:

    As with many things, familiarity brings a lax performance. In our diocese, EMHC training took place about 10 years ago. There has been no attempt at a refresher certification. I would welcome it. It is long overdue. Our pastor has ignored repeated requests for additional training within our parish to bring everyone onto the same page. Appropriate attire would be a welcome expectation. One should not look like they walked in from the grocery store to be an EMHC. It is bad enough to see what passes for church attire in the pews, but on the altar your better clothing is the only acceptable attire.

  12. iPadre says:

    Everybody is territorial, even those who are faithful. “Do what’s right Father, until you take away my ‘right’ to give Communion.” No one has the right to distribute Our Lord’s body, except for ordained ministers.

    The best solution is following the law of the Church. Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion are to only be used under extraordinary circumstances. They never give Holy Communion in my parish. I am the Father and “I feed my sheep.”

    People have said to me: “Father, you should have help. It’s a lot for you all alone.” Nonsense, especially with the altar rail. Problem is two things, we are too lazy to do our “job,” or we don’t want to “offend” anybody, lest they don’t like us.

    I have EXMs who go to the shut ins on Sunday when I am saying Masses and cannot go.

  13. priest up north says:

    It seems to me the “elephant in the room” is the unintended regularity (and now days “expectancy”) of Communion under both kinds. Perhaps a good start would be to revisit and act upon that which Sacrosanctum Concilium set forth in regards to the envisioned times for the Precious Blood to be received so as to move toward the real intent (and right rarity) of employment of EMHCs.

  14. majuscule says:

    While we had our permanent deacon he would distribute the Precious Blood unless there was a huge crowd and he was need to distribute the Host along with the priest. (It’s a really small church and I wonder if that was necessary.) Since he passed away we now have a lay EMHC distribute from the chalice.

    There was a parish training a few years ago where it was finally clarified to the EMHCs of our three churches that the priest was to purify the vessels. (Rabbit hole coming up so don’t go down it. I just want to get it off my chest…) We have a new pastor who just yesterday told the EMHC that she was to purify the chalice that she used. The good news is that there is a diocesan training coming up noted in the bulletin. Perhaps that will be clarified from the diocesan level.

  15. Joe in Canada says:

    I’m interested in how long people would be willing to have Communion last, before they would find use of EMHCs acceptable.

  16. albizzi says:

    Instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum”
    [158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion …/… 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.
    What means “unduly prolonged”? Is a sunday mass that needs about 1 hour celebrating it, unduly prolonged when it lasts 5 minutes more rhan usually?
    Matthew 26:40 “And He comes to the disciples and finds them sleeping, and says to Peter, Thus ye have not been able to watch one hour with me?”

  17. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Think some of these points have been brought up before.

    But in response to some of the post-ers …
    * All other things being equal, in the N.O. Masses, if both species are distributed, the deacon is assumed to distribute the Precious Blood only, not the Sacred Host. (This is mentioned in the instruction for the missal).

    * Various liturgical documents specify that the deacon is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion. EMHC’s are not. So there is virtually no circumstance where it is acceptable for a deacon NOT to distribute while EMHCs do. (Possible rare exceptions such as physical handicap might prevent — but in that case, perhaps he shouldn’t serve at Mass in the first place. Deacons are rarely necessary in N.O. Mass).

    * Liturgical documents state very clearly only a priest or deacon may purify the vessels. (Never an EMHC).

    * In my parish, I did change from both species to Host-only at most Masses. Yes, there was some wailling and complaining from some (mostly older) parishioners who complained they had a “right” to receive both species. (They don’t). Lots of catechesis occurred. Most people OK with it now.

    * Without EMHCs, the time for distribution of Holy Communion itself of course takes a little longer, but this is often mostly offset by the time NOT used to distribute the gifts between multiple vessels, purify additional vessels, distribute Communion to EMs, have them purify their hands (which they tend to want to do with massive amounts of sanitizer, applied at the last minute, as if we were in the midst of a plague), etc. So the TOTAL MASS time is rarely reduced significantly by having EMHCs, unless there is a very large congregation. (Sadly not the case very often in this era of declining Mass attendance). But the psychology of parishioners who have long been conditioned to having these Communion “lines” be very short for such a long time now is quite problematic. Because they don’t notice the extra time taken for the other items. But do notice the length of the line itself and say, “But Father, we NEED more ‘Communion Ministers’, because Communion is taking so-o-o-o-o-o long!”

  18. hwriggles4 says:

    My mother is an EMHC at her parish. A few years ago, there was an incident on a summer day (I live in Texas, where 90 degree days are normal from April to September) where a host fell into a college age girls underwear. Yes, this is true, and I will spare the details. It was embarrassing for all parties involved, and after the incident the good pastor reiterated how important proper attire is for Mass.

  19. yatzer says:

    Our parish priest decided against having EMHCs a while back. I didn’t even notice for some months; not sure what that means.

  20. un-ionized says:

    Joe in Canada, of course you want to hear that Communion should take as long as it takes, unfortunately in some places they need to clear the parking lot, hence the 55 minute Mass.

  21. DavidR says:

    @Joe; as long as it takes. Where could you possibly need to hurry off to that could be as important as Mass?

  22. bombcar says:

    If the time delay is so important, let’s go back to the REALLY traditional form, and have only the Priest’s communion during Mass; the people who want to receive can approach after Mass, and those that are in a hurry to leave can leave.

  23. Philmont237 says:

    I saw this done surprisingly well at St. Bonifacious in Wiesbaden, Germany.

  24. wendyquade says:

    A priest can distribute under both species. It’s called intinction.

  25. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EDITION | Big Pulpit

  26. Deacon Jason says:


    To answer your question: as ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, deacons (permanent or otherwise) are not only allowed, but required to distribute communion to the faithful before EMHCs are used — the same as applies to bishops and priests.

    As for whether we distribute the Body or the Blood, that is up to the practices of the locale and parish. For instance, in my parish we always serve the Body at the front of altar next to the president during a normal Sunday mass.

    That being said, there is a special liturgical relationship between the deacon and the chalice that makes serving the precious blood especially fitting…so for major liturgies at our cathedral, the priests are assigned the Body and the deacons are assigned the Blood. But that is not liturgical law in any fashion, just a fitting custom.

  27. Deacon Jason says:

    Father, to pick a small ‘nit’ with your first point, the wording in the GIRM regarding deacons distributing communion is:

    “At Mass the Deacon has his own part…in distributing the Eucharist to the faithful, especially under the species of wine…” (GIRM #94)

    This gives a preference for the deacon distributing the Blood (it is indeed fitting), but does not seem to be a hard limitation/prohibition of any kind. In other words, the presider violates no liturgical norms for the Mass if he assigns a deacon to distribute the Body.

  28. Deacon Jason says:

    Father, I humbly retract my precious comment…I forgot about the wording in #182 that makes the requirement more clear.

    That is what I get for late night commenting…alas, there is no delete!

  29. Deacon Jason says:

    Update: ignore my second paragraph (see my response to Cincinnati Priest below) unfortunately there is no edit functionality for errant comments!

  30. Gabriel Syme says:

    On Saturday I attended a Pontifical High Mass, offered by Cardinal Burke during a visit to my City. It was magnificent.

    The Church was full to bursting, every seat was taken and I think there were even screens set-up in the Church hall where there was over-flow seating. I had never been in such a busy Church. I don’t have a figure for the attendance, but wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was over 1,000 people.

    The Cardinal and 2 priests distributed communion at the altar rails (mobile wooden kneelers, as the Church lacks proper altar rails) and this did not take overly-long. Perhaps 10-15 minutes at the most.

    Later that day, I had the dubious pleasure of sitting through a novus ordo (vigil) mass as I was asked to make an appeal afterwards, on behalf of a Catholic charity I am involved in.

    I do not take communion at novus ordo masses anymore, for a myriad of reasons, but I noted that the priest had FIVE lay people helping him issue communion (both kinds) to a congregation which was probably less than one tenth of that at the Cardinals mass.

    I was mildly encouraged to see some people ignore the lay people clutching chalices, given we receive Christ whole and entire from the hosts alone (distributing the precious blood needlessly is just another way in which the modern Church copies the protestants – although what the protestants distribute is NOT the precious blood, of course).

    In my opinion, the abuses involving EMHCs is an example of how the modern Church quite intentionally says one thing but does another. I do not think I have ever seen a genuine need for EMHCs, for example, there was an additional priest present at the novus ordo mass I mention (not that it was impractical for the celebrant to issue communion alone).

    The argument that Communion “takes too long” if the priest doesn’t use EMHC is bogus. It didn’t “take too long” for 2,000 years and in any case, what could be more important to a sincere (and properly disposed) Catholic than receiving Our Lord? And so what is a few minutes wait? If someone feels than have somewhere more important to be than the communion line, I think they have to ask themselves a few questions.

    The role of EMHC, and their over-use by some priests, is – again in my opinion – a means by which the modern Church seeks to glorify lay people: this is because the modern mass is centered on the lay people, not on God.

    I also believe that EMHCs (and lay readers – of which I used to be one) are means for the modern Church to have female “almost-priests” while saying women cannot be priests. In many parishes, women do everything bar read the Gospel and do the Consecration. This situation denigrates and marginalises the role of Priest.

    I can well imagine Pope Francis, or other modernist, solemnly reminding us that women cannot be priests, while winking and nodding toward the women speaking from the lectern and issuing communion.

    The mainstream Church wont get itself out of the hole it has dug itself into, until it starts doing what it’s own documents say and stop this situation of doublespeak which has lasted decades.

    I go to the SSPX on a Sunday and the district superior had a note in the latest newsletter criticising the following:

    – late coming to mass
    – people wearing casual clothes to mass (skintight red trousers and bare shoulders drawing particular ire)
    – women not covering their heads at mass
    – people chatting in Church*
    – people rushing off after mass without staying to offer a prayer of thanks to God for the mass
    – too few volunteers to clean the Churches

    Before wading in, he noted that as the relevant authority he had the duty to correct error and disorder wherever it appears. That’s what the mainstream Church needs to do, lay down the law to lay people and errant clergy alike.

    (*I used to go to a Jesuit Church where a priest told the congregation it was acceptable to chat with your neighbours in Church. That was one of the earliest red flags for me).

  31. Imrahil says:

    Dear Joe in Canada,

    I’m interested in how long people would be willing to have Communion last, before they would find use of EMHCs acceptable.

    That is an interesting question. I have already asked myself that, and while it would be difficult to prove what I am going to say from clear principles in an easy manner, I do believe that it is from a sound Catholic instinct that I answer the following:

    – five minutes, on a weekday, if the Mass altogether due to singing or a sermon reaches at least 45 minutes even with such a short Communion,
    – ten minutes on a weekday otherwise,
    – twenty minutes on a Sunday or holiday of obligation or a Saturday evening Mass fulfulling the Sunday obligation, and on Ash Wednesday Evening, Mass of the Last Supper, and Good Friday; also the Easter Vigil, because it is that long anyway;
    – thirty minutes in the chief Mass of a Sunday or a Holiday of Obligation (with, for Christmas, one chief Mass in nocte and one chief Mass in die), provided the rest of the Mass takes at least one hour but not much more.

    Dear DavidR,

    I’m afraid that our principles must be theoretically practicable. So, there must be a theoretical answer to the question: what would a pastor of a 5000 souls parish (having no assistant) do if 4500, presumably after having Confessed, would show up for Mass (which they have to) and Communion (which, in the circumstances described, they are entitled to) and not only the 500 that he maybe can expect to actually show up on a normal Sunday. And I’m afraid that while much more length can and should be tolerated than is at present, there still is a limit, and if (say) he can give Holy Communion to fifteen people per minute (which I guess is fast), that makes five hours of Communion Service on, if the rest of the Mass is very long, a six-and-a-half-hour Mass; and it is quite obvious that this would be both disproportional and too much of a burden on the faithful.

    And no, this situation cannot i.m.v. be dismissed with “in practice this doesn’t happen”. This would mean to count on the great majority of Catholics breaking the third Commandment, or else being in a too sinful state to receive Holy Communion.

  32. Fr AJ says:

    Keep in mind that at times the pastor has little authority to decide where Holy Communion is distributed. In one of my parishes a previous pastor instituted receiving Holy Communion at the rail only to be forbidden by our bishop.

  33. Geoffrey says:

    As an instituted minister (acolyte), and thereby an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion by right of institution, I am always more than happy to step aside for an ordained minister (deacon or concelebrating priest). That is as it should be. As far as stepping aside because too many lay men and women were scheduled… not so much.

    Anyway, occasionally a communicant will kneel on the stone floor to receive Holy Communion from my most unworthy hands. It is a moment of humility, not only from them, but for me. Kneeling communicants is a good reminder to both ordinary and extraordinary ministers of what is really happening, as we can often “forget” due to laziness, routine, etc.

  34. TWF says:

    Here in Vancouver our cathedral is a shining example of NOT overusing EMHCs. At all Masses (7 on Sunday and 4 on weekdays), priests who are available come in from the Rectory just before communion time to help the celebrant with distribution (at the altar rail I might add – you always have the choice to receive standing in the centre aisle or kneeling at either side along the rail – I would say it’s 50/50 at all Masses). When an EMHC is required, if an insufficient number of priests are “hanging out” in the Rectory, the EMHC walks along the altar rail.

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