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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Unseen Abuse Of Holy Communion?

Many parishes, if not perhaps every one, has a 'ministry' of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion distributing Holy Communion to nursing homes, hospitals and shut-ins. While this is a noble and worthy practice, one that is depicted in Scriptures, I've often wondered how extent abuse of the sacrament might be. This is nothing like bringing meals to a sick person - this is presenting the Lord of Creation under the appearance of bread to fellow Catholics who would normally be deprived of reception.

I've never been an EMHC, and I don't believe to be called to be one. So I've never gone through any training, or preparation of any kind to become one. So my question is an honest one - it's being asked snark-free. Is there a greater danger of abuse to the Sacrament in this practice than during a Mass? Granted, no one knows the state of any other individual's soul when they present themselves for Communion. But when distributing outside Mass, is there an obligation on the part of the EMHC to ascertain a person's worthiness?

Which leads to my next question - if that's the case, then wouldn't a priest be more appropriate? I personally believe that distributing Holy Communion outside of Mass ought to be restricted to priests and deacons - and while this seems impractical given the low numbers of ordained available to do this - though I believe there ought to be sufficient numbers of retired priests capable of performing this duty, and even non-diocesan priests as well - so that the opportunity for abuse can be mitigated.

What abuse am I talking about? Well, read the following, and come to your own conclusions. I've extracted a couple excerpts from an article at US Catholic On Call: An Excerpt From Paul Wilkes' "In Due Season".

...Over the many Thursdays that followed, I gave Holy Communion to some 4,000 people. I was honored to touch the faces of the living and the newly dead. I was welcomed and was occasionally angrily told to leave. I stood with a spouse whose loved one had just received a terminal diagnosis. I was in the room when all tests came back negative. Each Thursday morning offered me a time to be humbled and dazzled by the deep faith of these men and women. Through these patients I came to a clearer understanding of my own life, my church, and my God.

What follows is taken from various visits, but let us call it a richly representative Thursday, for each Thursday presented its own unique chapter in the book of lives.


In Room 940 is Edna, a black woman in her 50s, who when I introduce myself ("Good morning; Paul Wilkes from St. Mary with Holy Communion for you") immediately apologizes that she's been away from the church, but assures me she is coming back. It is a frequent first volley: Guilt finely honed by my church.

I look into her bright eyes and say, "Well, I wouldn't worry too much about that right now, Edna; the church has come to you. We deliver!" She smiles.

I come closer to her bed. Is this 8 o'clock in the morning in Room 940, or is it the vineyard at day's end? And didn't the vineyard owner see that the needs of those who hadn't had the opportunity to put in a full day's work are really no different from those who had worked all day long? Each needed to be fed, each acknowledged as having done their best, having given their time, with whatever abilities they had.

The popular "What Would Jesus Do?" litmus test-both a subterfuge for appalling abuse and grounds for grace-filled acts-might seem a bit facile a way to guide my actions. But, quite honestly, it seems to make more pastoral sense than the third degree recommended by my Grand Inquisitor eucharistic instructor. Well, what would Jesus do? I am not Jesus, so I can't know for sure. And I am not a priest, so I cannot hear her Confession, which she might normally do before receiving Communion. But does a simple Act of Contrition rising up from this hospital bed from a woman in an advanced stage of respiratory failure and pneumonia not reach the ear of God?

"Edna, before we approach the altar together, so that you might receive this precious gift, let's lay down the burden of our sins," I say. We begin the Act of Contrition together: "O, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee . . . "

My prayer complete, I look down at Edna. I hold the host in the still air before her. The only sound is the muffled gurgling of the machine valiantly trying to cleanse her compromised lungs. "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to this, his eternal banquet. O, Lord I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." I add, "And you are healed, Edna. Your sins are behind you now. Even before you thought about whatever it was you did or didn't do that you felt was sinful, God forgave you. You are as pure and clean and sinless as you were the day you were born, and Christ awaits you with open arms."


For there is not-so-young Elisabeth with a baby boy nestled at her breast. To see the love in that woman's eyes, that sleeping child with unblemished skin and soul-I can't restrain myself. I touch his smooth cheek, play with his tiny toes, and finally bless the child's forehead with the sign of the cross. He stirs, as if he already feels God's presence. I begin my prayer. "Dear God, here we have this beautiful baby-a sign of your love, this mother's love, a father's love. Be with him to guide him so that he grows into a compassionate, kind, yet strong boy and young man. That he will always hear your voice even when the noises of the world tend to drown out everything. That he will be an obedient son, yet a man of his own mind. Bless him and this good woman, Elisabeth, we pray in your strong name, Jesus. Amen."

I look at Elisabeth. "In this tiny piece of bread, Elisabeth, is the God of ages. Here. Right here in this room on the first day of your son's life. He comes to give you the strength to be the mother you know you can be. He'll be with you in those late nights when you don't think you have another ounce of energy. He'll never leave your side." I begin the eucharistic prayer: "This is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those-"

"But, but I haven't been to church in so long, really since college," she says.


"I'm Catholic, and I will have my son baptized, but my husband isn't much of a churchgoer. I don't know how God looks on all this. It's so confusing."

I look down at her, the early morning sun making the host almost translucent. "This is food for your journey of life, Elisabeth. It isn't a reward for good behavior. What kind of God do you think he is, to offer this beautiful food on this incredible morning and then say, ‘No, Elisabeth, sorry-you don't qualify. I've checked your bar code and you're not in the system.' That's not the God that I know." After her Act of Contrition, Elisabeth receives, her tears mingling with the host, a tear, then another, gently falling onto the cheek of her precious son.

There's more at US Catholic. For me, a lot of warning flags and emergency sirens were raised while reading this article. Bear in mind the writer is a lay Catholic. There's no denying his passion and love for Christ, but I sense a great attachment to the emotionality of the moment rather than the holiness of the Sacrament. There seemed to be an over-reliance on how Holy Communion made people feel rather than depending on the reality of what Holy Communion is. He also assumed some priestly duties - or at least came really really close - while distributing Holy Communion.

What are your thoughts? I'm interested in what EMHC's who go around to hospitals and nursing homes have to say. I'm also interested in learning how this was accomplished prior to Vatican II (yes, I'm making a presumption that the rubrics were altered at about that time - I'm open to correction if I'm wrong) - anyone have any information on this?