ASK FATHER: Extraordinary Ministers and blessings at Communion time

From a reader…


I am a laywoman recently hired by my archdiocese as a sacristan. In this role I am frequently pressed into service as an extraordinary minister. Last Sunday, as I distributed Communion, a young woman approached with her arms across her chest in a manner I recognize as a request for a blessing. [This mysterious gesture has that connotation in some places.  Others use it when they want to receive Communion!] I turned to the priest distributing next to me, but he either ignored or didn’t see me. The young woman looked embarrassed and turned back without being blessed. After Mass I caught her and apologized for making her uncomfortable, offered to get a priest to bless her now, etc. She said she was taught by some nuns in Michigan that she could “do that” – approach a layperson for a blessing. Should I have blessed her? I felt terrible about giving her a traumatic experience.

Don’t feel terrible.  And, no, you should not have blessed her.  Moreover, you did the right thing to offer to get the priest.

This notion that Communion time is a moment for imparting individual blessings originated No-One-Knows-Where.  It is surely as well-intentioned as it is confusing.

Further complicating the issue is the employment of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion who have been instructed – wrongly – to “give blessings” at this moment to those who come forward with their hands crossed across their chest.  Worse yet, people are being told that that is what they should do.

Lay people who are helping with Communion (or doing anything else for that matter) should not make confusing gestures as if they can bless in the manner of a priests.   At the most they might say, “May God bless and keep you,” or something like that.  That’s more of a kind wish than a blessing, so it can be uttered by anyone (without an accompanying sign of the cross).

I remind people that there really is a blessing at the end of Mass.

You can also ask the priest for a blessing outside of Mass.  And you should!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. tamranthor says:

    This problem is easily solved by choosing to not use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

    I have yet to see a situation where they are required for any reason other than folks wanting to get out of Mass early.

    Unfortunately, many parishes do not consider them extraordinary at all, and routinely send up to 12 folks up into the sanctuary to use the Holy Hand Sanitizer and spread the love. Is it really that much of hardship to wait a couple more minutes to receive Our Lord from the consecrated hands of a priest? I don’t get it.

  2. seattle_cdn says:

    At our Parish we say to the person who approaches with arms crossed “receive the Lord Jesus in your heart, Amen.” [Hmmmm….]

    No gestures are made

  3. Chuck4247 says:

    I remember a time when my family was traveling (may have been camping, I don’t remember) and I could not receive the Eucharist that day. I went up to an extraordinary minister with my arms crossed, bowed, and walked away before she could have done anything. My family sits in the front pew, so I happened to be the first person in line, which may contribute to what happened next: After Mass, that woman came up to me and told me that I could have come to her for a blessing. Not knowing how to politely tell her that she was dead wrong, I said nothing at all. Dad spoke to us about what a blessing did and who could do it on our drive away from the church.

  4. majuscule says:

    I am no longer an extraordinary minister… When I attended the training we were told that we could not bless someone as the priest does but that we might do as Father mentioned—say “God bless you and keep you” as if we were blessing our own child.

    I know of an extraordinary minister who takes her “ministry” so seriously that she wanted to be one when she visited a holy shrine in another country. They told her that if she brought a note from her pastor she could do this. I shouldn’t judge but it seems she is taking herself awfully seriously!

  5. BrionyB says:

    Another part of the problem (contributing to long queues and the supposed need for extraordinary ministers) may be that more people are receiving communion than should be, i.e., those not in a state of grace (given the number of people who come up for communion on a Sunday relative to the number who show up for Confession on a Saturday, and the proportion of Catholics who use contraception, live together before marriage, etc.).

    On the positive side, at least the young woman in this anecdote knew she was not eligible, for whatever reason, to receive Holy Communion on that occasion.

    I wonder how many people know about the concept of making a spiritual communion? Maybe that would be something to emphasise more, prayer cards at the back of church, etc.? It would also be a way of gently reminding people that there may be times when they should not be receiving…

  6. Philmont237 says:

    I’ve always just said, “Peace be with you,” and giving a nod to let them know to move on.

  7. Red_Shirt_Hero says:

    Before I was ordained, when acting as an instituted acolyte and before that as an extraordinary minister, I would simply pray, “May God bless you,” whilst making eye contact with the person coming forward for a blessing. No sign of the cross, no hand on the head or shoulder, no waving the Sacred Host about in mock-mini-benediction. A lot of the time, I would get a confused, “Is that it?” stare from the person. More clear catechisis about clergy performing blessings, and the appropriate time for this, is needed.

  8. Gaetano says:

    As an installed acolyte, I have had similar experiences with the Communion line. I have also had to deal with the frustration of a priest and EMHCs continuing to blessing my infant daughter when I went up for Communion. I never found a polite way to do it.

    The crossed arms are especially confusing in light of the fact that some Byzantine Catholics cross their arms when they receive communion (with a spoon!). This led to an issue when we attended a Byzantine Catholic service with a visiting bishop who was very confused when I asked him not to give Communion to our daughter. I didn’t have time to explain “Because we’re Latins.”

  9. MrsMacD says:

    Related but slightly off topic in defense of blessings for children. I have had screaming children blessed by a priest at the communion rail immediately stop screaming. It has helped me get to the end of the Mass with my sanity intact.

  10. I was just about to echo Gaetano’s note, that some Eastern Catholics cross their arms (a St. Andrew Cross) when they receive Holy Communion. In my corner of the world (Western Pennsylvania), we experience this because we have a sizable population of Eastern Catholics and some cross their arms even when receiving at Mass celebrated according to the Latin Rite. When someone comes up with arms crossed, it’s hard to tell what they really want.

    Our Eastern Catholic brethren are owed an apology from whatever pastors/catechists/liturgists who stole their liturgical sign FOR RECEIVING COMMUNION to instead be used by those NOT RECEIVING for the practice of “receiving a blessing”.

    Our brethren who cannot receive Holy Communion for whatever reason deserve proper instruction about Spiritual Communion as well as being taught a better sign for those times that they might find themselves accidentally herded into a Communion line but cannot receive. When I was trained as an Acolyte in the seminary, we learned the discreet sign of index and middle finger held up in front of the lips (like you might do in “shushing” someone… such as the EMHC who attempts to give a “blessing”).

  11. Kathleen10 says:

    In our area we are taught that this is for small children who accompany parents to the altar. That way if Johnny has not made his First Holy Communion, there will be no confusion for Father and Father can give Johnny a blessing instead. In that regard I think it is a good idea.

  12. restoration says:

    Putting aside the illicit “blessings” by EMHCs (i.e. they have ZERO authority to bless anyone other than their own children), the whole issue of even using EMHC has not been addressed.

    Unless this sacristan is serving as an “Extraordinary Minister” at a Papal Mass or some enormous church that has thousands of communicants, there should be no reason for her EVER to serve in this capacity. What an abuse! Please tell your priest to do what he was ordained to do and distribute communion from his consecrated hands and not ask lay people to do so. From the USCCB website:

    “When the size of the congregation or the incapacity of the bishop, priest, or deacon requires it, the celebrant may be assisted by other bishops, priests, or deacons. If such ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are not present, “the priest may call upon extraordinary ministers to assist him, i.e., duly instituted acolytes or even other faithful who have been deputed for this purpose. In case of necessity, the priest may also depute suitable faithful for this single occasion (GIRM 162).”

    Let’s be honest. How often does the “size” require help? This is simply a job parishes invented in 1970 to facilitate fake “participation”. Strike a blow for purity in the liturgy and refuse to participate in what is a widespread abuse facilitated by our lackluster clergy who are too timid and lazy to correct the laity.

  13. s i says:

    I have heard priests give a little speech just before Communion, (especially at funerals and weddings), telling people to come up with their arms crossed over their chests to let them know they will not be receiving but will get a blessing. Why do they do this? If you’re not receiving, then don’t approach! It’s that simple.

  14. Nan says:

    There’s a young man at UST who typically goes to Last Chance Mass but sometimes comes to the Byzantine parish with a friend or 10. Father’s announcement before Communion is “don’t stick out your tongue! don’t stick out your tongue! don’t stick out your tongue!” due to the aforementioned gold spoon.

  15. Geoffrey says:

    As an instituted acolyte, I simply say “Praised be Jesus Christ”, which is almost always well received. Only once did someone insist on a “blessing”. I think I just tapped them (lightly) on the head, trying to hide my annoyance.

    I think EMHC have to do something similar until the “powers that be” tell the faithful to remain in their pews if not receiving Holy Communion. We instituted acolytes and EMHCs have no other option.

  16. Father G says:

    The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments gave a response back in 2008 regarding this matter:

  17. frjim4321 says:

    The idea that people can “go up for a blessing” promotes the idea that doing such is like receiving “Communion Lite,” and relegates one of the most important gestures of the liturgy (processing) to a mere queue.

  18. rbbadger says:

    The faculties I received when I was ordained a priest in 2016 explicitly forbid priests from giving blessings during the distribution of Holy Communion. However, when I was a transitional deacon and once distributing Holy Communion alongside the Bishop, I was giving out blessings. I wasn’t corrected for it, I noted that our bishop’s practice was to say, “May the Lord Jesus come into your heart”. Archbishop Chaput gave very similar guidance in 2005.

    The faculties for deacons make no mention of this. However, the faculties for priests do. Not many priests in my diocese follow these directives. I try to. It’s awkward though, especially with the deacons around me blessing and worst of all touching the heads of those non-communicant children. I am but a parochial vicar, so there’s only so much I can do.

  19. threej says:

    In the Archdiocese of Portland, Archbishop Sample has made this point pretty clear in the new Archdiocesan Liturgical Handbook:

    “1.21.18 Extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are deputed for the sole purpose of
    distributing Holy Communion. They are not to administer blessings or lay hands upon people who approach them who do not wish to receive Communion, even if they are requested to do so. In the celebration of Holy Mass there is only one blessing, imparted to the entire congregation by the principal celebrant at the end of the celebration. (90)

    Given the need for a clarification regarding Blessings during the Communion Rite, the Archdiocese will soon offer some direction for a pastoral approach which respects the norms of the Sacred Liturgy.

    (90) See CDWDS, Response, 22 November 2008: “1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion. 2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest” (cf. EDM 6 §2; CIC, can. 1169 §2; RR, De Benedictionibus [1985] n. 18). 3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands – which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here – by those distributing

  20. Sue in soCal says:

    I was pressed into service as a Eucharistic Minister by one of the priests at my parish. I had no training and did not want the job (he also insisted I lector and cantor). In obedience, I did as asked even though uncomfortable. I became increasingly uncomfortable as people would come up to receive a blessing. The best I could come up with was a “God bless you” with no gesture.
    What was especially troubling to me was to see trained and sanctioned EMs not come up to help distribute Communion, no matter how long I waited for one to go up before approaching the altar my self, but show up in the Communion line. They all knew that I was not a trained EM. I’m not sure if this was some form of sloth or something else.
    I soon let other EMs give out the Body of Christ while I took the Chalice of the Precious Blood. Finally, to the displeasure of my pastor, displayed from the altar, I became too busy praying in the pew to notice that there was no EM for the distribution of the Eucharist. I would go up for the Chalice if no other EM was there. Eventually, my pastor accepted my return to an ordinary daily Mass attendant.
    I think that when there are multiple priests available there should be an all hands on deck policy for Communion and, if not, there should be only one EM, if that. I would happily see the end of EMs at Mass.

  21. Gabriel Syme says:

    @ tamranthor

    This problem is easily solved by choosing to not use extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion.

    I have yet to see a situation where they are required for any reason other than folks wanting to get out of Mass early.

    You are so right. EMHC’s are completely needless. Who could not wait a few minutes extra, to receive Our Lord from one of his consecrated ministers?

    Anyone giving time to help out at Church should be commended, but it seems clear that the role of EMHC was instituted chiefly to glorify lay people and suggest a parity of function between lay people and priests.

    The liberals must think they are ever so sneaky, but they are so transparent. You know: “We don’t have women priests, but – wink, wink – look at all the women up there, addressing the congregation and giving out communion, eh? Just like the priest, eh? Wink, wink”.

    Any visitor to a modern mass in a Catholic Church, who knew nothing of Catholicism, would not come away with the notion that the role of priest is fundamental, unique and necessary. They would only see him as one of several people milling about the sanctuary doing similar things. They all speak at the microphone, they all handle and distribute the Eucharist.

    They would not realise that only the priest can do the consecration and preach the Gospel. They would not realise that only the consecrated hands of the priest should handle the Eucharist. Indeed, probably many modern Catholics do not even know these things, and who could blame them?

    The idea that EMHC are there as an occasional “necessary help” to the priest is a nonsense. Its very rare that I am seen at a novus ordo these days, but if I am- as in my youth – there is always a huge surplus of EMHC, such that many of them just end up standing doing little or nothing. Even the protestant practice of communion under both kinds – now pretty standard at modern masses – seems to have been brought in purely to generate an additional role for lay people (holding the chalice).

    I have heard of weekday masses where the number of EMHC has rivaled the size of the congregation itself. As an aside: I heard a funny, but sad, story of a novus ordo sunday mass in France, where the number of elderly concelebrating priests was actually greater than the number of (also exclusively elderly) people in the pews.

    How did the Church and her ministers manage for 2,000 years, without EMHC? Heaven knows!

  22. James in Perth says:

    I would only add to the comments above about the Byzantine rite that a person may receive a blessing from the priest or deacon by not crossing their arms. The priest or deacon then blesses them by saying a short prayer while touching the chalice on the top of the individual’s head. I’ve seen something similar done in Armenian rite with children who have not yet received their first Holy Communion.

  23. Fr_Andrew says:

    Two birds with one priest … I don’t use EMHCs nor do I give blessings while distributing Communion.

    Solves a bunch of problems, this.

    My thought :

    1) After holding Our Lord, it’s not a good idea to be waving my hand about before its purified (I’m distributing Communion to the faithful, not onto the faithful),

    2) if when Our Lord is exposed in the monstrance I don’t bless the incense, then when He’s in my hand or just had been, it’s not the right time to be blessing other things or people, either.

  24. L. says:

    I suggest that when someone shows up in the communion line but wants only a blessing, the Ordinary Minister of Communion or the EMHC should lightly tap the person on the head and use a Latin word for “Go away.” Having no Latin, I looked on a translation site and thought “absisto” would be a good one to use. The recipient would have no clue what happened and the minister would have done nothing wrong, so everybody wins!

  25. KateD says:

    The subject of laypersons handling the Eucharist always reminds me of “Warning from the Beyond”.

    If the original questioner is interested in reading it, they may find it available for free on-line.

    This question has caused me to dig up my copy and re-read it. It reminds me of my own laxity in so much…..sigh….and this is what struck me in particular:

    “We were furious with HER (points upwards) when she received Communion. At that time she saw and experienced mystically all that happened at the Last Supper. She nearly always knew everything. She was appointed to guide the Church. The Apostles were also appointed to do so, but she had to cooperate with them to a great extent. We have already had to say that she was on her knees day and night praying for the Apostles that all should be done right in the Church of Christ.”

    “On her knees day and night praying for the Apostles that all should be done right in the Church…..”

    Can you imagine how we could impact the Church (and the World!) for the better if we all heeded that example? How it would lend strength to the successors of the Apostles, our Bishops, if we should be ON OUR KNEES praying for them day and night? Imagine: no more scandal, no division within the Church, no talk of relationships outside of Sacramental Marriage, no abortion…..

    … more sacrilege

  26. KateD says:


    I encourage our children to go up for a blessing even if they are not in a state to receive the Eucharist. He did say to let them come to Him.

    We are so blessed to have the opportunity to kneel before Our Lord in the Most Holy Sacrament and to receive blessings from the bishops, priests and deacons. Who could stay away? Who can stand across the room from their Beloved and not rush joyfully to Him at the first opportunity?

    Besides, soon enough we may, through persecution or simple logistics, have fewer opportunities to kneel and receive blessings.

  27. KateD says:

    Thank you Fr_Andrew and Father G for your comment and link. I had never thought about it from that perspective before…..hmmmmm

  28. hwriggles4 says:

    I was an EMHC at a college parish in San Antonio (I am not one now because I prefer to receive from a priest or deacon) and one caution we had from the main priest was behavior. Others who attend Mass will see you as an EMHC, and this priest cautioned us not to be getting blitzed and other forms of debauchery.

    Most places, EMHC ‘s when used must meet criteria such as (this is what I was told by a good pastor years ago): A practicing Catholic, must be baptized and confirmed, received first Eucharist, and IF MARRIED, marriage must be in accordance with the Catholic Church. Some dioceses require names of EMHC’s to be submitted to the bishop. By the way, I do agree that EMHC’s are overused. Some of the larger parishes that seat 1500 to 2000 at the 1100 am Sunday Mass can use them, but they may be able to use 10 and not 20.

    This past weekend, I was out of town and attended Mass with my two brothers. The pastor gave an excellent homily about the teaching of the Eucharist. I am glad he did. The pastor also spoke about in his homily that leaving after communion before dismissal is inappropriate.

  29. I think the blessings-at-Communion thingie evolved from the practice of getting rid of Communion rails and herding the congregation up, row by row, into buffet lines. It got to be a lot harder for people who didn’t plan to receive to just stay in their seats. So, being swept along in the crowd, they had to do something. Something could also include going ahead and receiving Communion even when not properly disposed to do so.

    On a side note, about a dozen years ago, I took my late grandfather, who had long since converted to the Mormons, to Mass with me while I was visiting him in another state. He had not been to Mass for many years. Afterwards, he said he was glad to see that Catholics no longer believed that the bread and wine were really the Body and Blood of Christ. I asked him what made him think we no longer believed in the Real Presence. His answer: because lay people were now allowed to go up and handle and distribute the Sacred Species and receive out of the chalice.

  30. GregB says:

    One thing that contributes greatly to the practice of receiving a blessing is the church pew layouts. Some pews have spacing that is reminiscent of the sardine can seating that is done by the airlines. The church I go to has very tight pew spacing in the main part of the church. People staying in the pews would be a bigger distraction than the practice of receiving a blessing. People climbing over people is not very reverent.

  31. BrionyB says:

    I was about to mention the same thing. I am not able to receive Holy Communion myself at the moment or for the foreseeable future, and though I do my best to get out of the way so other people can get in/out of the pew, I feel a bit awkward, as though I’m going against the flow and messing up the system.

    (As if I didn’t feel self-conscious enough being that funny woman wearing a head-covering, clutching a rosary, and inexplicably kneeling down in the middle of the Creed…)

    Should I go up to receive a blessing just to avoid being a nuisance to others?

  32. KnitFoole says:

    This was a really big thing in the Episcopal Church when I was still there. I think other Protestant churches (ecclesial communities?) do it as well, but I’m not sure.

  33. Grant M says:

    I suggest that when someone shows up in the communion line but wants only a blessing, the Ordinary Minister of Communion or the EMHC should lightly tap the person on the head and use a Latin word for “Go away.”

    @L: Looking through my Vulgate, I note that “Vade” is a useful all-purpose word: it can be used severely (Vade, Satana, Mt 4:10) or more gently (Vade in pace, 4 (2) Kings 5:19).

  34. maternalView says:

    When I see the EMs going up to the altar I think here comes the parade. I counted 13 one week. Communion is over in about 5 minutes. That tells me we don’t need EMs. The time one is waiting for others to receive is excellent time for reflection. With the quick distribution of communion there are times I barely get time for reflection especially if the priest leave the purification to the EMs.

    I can’t judge their hearts only their actions. Truly if they thought that it was the body of Christ I have to hope they’d act better. Most of the time it appears they are only concerned about their “part” they’ve been assigned. One woman I saw TOSSING the consecrated hosts into another bowl to even it out. Tossing. It made me sick as if she was tossing some potato chips into a bowl. I wanted to catch her after Mass and suggest more reverence but was unable to. So I stayed and offered prayers in reparation.

  35. MrsMacD says:

    In a parish where blessings are usually given it definitely has it’s advantages. Some instances that I noticed; A mother who was Orthodox and her husband and children were Catholic would come to Mass with her family every Sunday or every second Sunday and go up for a blessing, she was pretty upset when a visiting priest refused to give her a blessing. That said, she is now a Catholic. A godfather stood with his godson for his first Communion. The Godfather put his finger on his lips to indicate that he was not disposed to receive Communion. An older teenaged boy went up to the Communion rail with his family and instead of receiving unworthily he put his finger on his lips to indicate he would receive a blessing.

  36. Alaskamama says:

    Recently I saw an elderly man, apparently nonCatholic by the way he was constantly being instructed throughout Mass by an accompanying middle- aged woman, being nearly dragged up to communion by the woman. He was shaking his head No, indicating he did not wish to receive the Eucharist. She showed him how to cross his arms, and told him he would get a blessing. He was feeble, and though he was sitting in the front row, by the time he reached the priest, his crossed arms had slid down to be both horizontal across his chest. The priest tried to put a host in the old man’s hands and the man said no. So the priest stuck the host in the baffled man’s mouth.

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