The distribution of Holy Communion past and present: an historical survey

The distribution of Holy Communion past and present: an historical survey

Fr Sebastian Camilleri OFM

Formerly known as Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, and often incorrectly called Special Ministers, Extraordinary Ministers of Communion (the term insisted upon in the 2004 Vatican document Redemptionis Sacramentum) are acolytes or any others of Christ's faithful, approved by the parish priest according to the norms of Canon Law.

In times of necessity, on account of the shortage or non-availability of priests, such ministers, men and women (including members of religious orders), may assist in distributing Holy Communion to the congregation during weekly and Sunday Masses, and to sick or infirm people in hospitals or homes who are unable to receive Communion in churches.

Lay and religious, recommended to perform this sacred task with dignity, are called Extraordinary, because in accordance with the conditions set out in Canon Law, the Ordinary Minister of Holy Communion is a bishop, a priest or a deacon (910).

The Vatican Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priests, promulgated at the direction of Pope John Paul II in 1997, is quite specific:

"Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at Eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present or when those ordained ministers present at a liturgical celebration are truly unable to distribute Holy Communion. They may also exercise this function at Eucharistic celebrations at which there are particularly large numbers of the faithful and which would be excessively prolonged because of an insufficient number of ordained ministers to distribute Holy Communion" (Article 8 #2).

Communion for the sick

In our times, it is a common sight to see the priest, after Holy Communion, handing little silver or gold-plated pyxes containing consecrated Hosts to the ministers to carry them to give Communion to the sick, as our medieval Catholic ancestors once carried the Blessed Sacrament to the sick in a "Chrismal", made of a cloth, like a folded Corporal, as used at Mass.

Earlier still, St Columbanus (550-625) prescribed penalties for dropping the chrismal accidentally or leaving it behind through negligence.

This ministry, in fact, can be traced back to Our Lord's command to the twelve apostles to "heal the sick" (Matthew 10:8). In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II tells us: "The Church believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies. This presence is particularly active through the Eucharist, the bread that gives eternal life and that St Paul suggests is connected with bodily health (I Cor 11:30) ."

Indeed the ordinary minister of the Sacrament is a priest who also administers Holy Communion to the sick of the parish in their homes, hospitals and hostels. St Justin Martyr (100-165), in his description of Christian beliefs to the Emperor Antoninus Pius (140), said that "the deacons give Communion to each of those present and carry away the consecrated bread and wine and water for those unable to attend" (Apology, 1, 65).

In the early centuries of persecutions, when it became impossible for Christians to meet at Mass or consecrate in public without endangering their lives, it was normal for lay people, both men and women, to take the consecrated bread at Mass and to give themselves Holy Communion at their homes.

According to one history of the Church: "The early Christians received Holy Communion under both species, bread and wine. To those who could not be present at the meeting because of sickness or infirmity, it was carried by the deacons. Christians were permitted to keep the Blessed Sacrament in their homes, or to carry it with them on journeys" (The Story of the Church by Frs G. Johnson & J. Hannan, Tan Books, p.49).

Writing at Carthage in 192 AD, Tertullian (166-220) refers to this practice, saying that reception of the Blessed Sacrament seems to have been frequent in the early Church when a woman would receive the Eucharist at home, in secret, before taking any food (Ad Uxorem).

St Tarsicius

The young acolyte, St Tarsicius, was stoned to death, murdered because he was found carrying the Blessed Sacrament to Christian prisoners. His death in 175 AD in Rome, rather than surrender the Sacrament to profanation in the hands of a hostile mob, is first mentioned by Pope St Damascus (366-384 AD) in his Epigramata. He said: "[B]rave Tarsicius died carrying about him the Sacrament of the Body of the Lord".

Eusebius of Caesarea (260-340) speaks of a dying Christian man who sent for a priest to give him Holy Communion and the Blessed Sacrament, which must have been preserved in the church, was taken to him (Ecclesiastical History, VI, 44).

St Paulinus of Nola (354-431) witnessed St Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (339-397), receiving Holy Viaticum in his own residence while close to death (Vita Sancti Ambrosii). Though rarely, the celebration of Mass in the home of a sick person seems to have been permitted. As a matter of fact, Paulinus of Nola had an altar in his chamber so that he could offer Mass up until his death.

At the time, the formula used for administering Holy Communion to the sick, in an ancient Ambrosian Ordo Missae, states: "May the Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ, dipped and anointed in his Blood, cleanse you from every sin."

During the time of persecution in the Roman Empire (64-313), when to be a Christian was considered to be a criminal offence against the state, the box in which the Blessed Sacrament was carried to the homes of Christians was called "arca". The term "pyx" was also used but could mean "tabernacle". It is presumed that the pyx was left at homes, so that the sick and other Christians present could receive Holy Communion.

With the cessation of the persecutions, and with people able openly to profess their faith, sadly abuses crept in. Some heretics pretended to take Holy Communion, but privately took the Sacred Hosts away for various unworthy purposes.

This profanation of the consecrated Hosts was condemned by two Councils in 380 and 400. St Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, in 251 AD had earlier referred to a woman who tried "with unworthy hands to open the pyx in which the Body of the Lord was kept and she was deterred by a fire rising up out of it" (De Lapsis).


Such abuses led to prohibitions on leaving the Blessed Sacrament in homes. The Council of Caesarangustiana (380) declared anathema anyone who only pretended to take Holy Communion, after receiving the Sacred Host at Mass. A priest chronicler, Reginon (915), wrote that "the sacred Oblation" would "be reserved in the church, only for the Viaticum for persons in danger of death".

While abuses led to restrictions on lay persons keeping consecrated species in their homes, after the Edict of Milan (315 AD) the practice of taking Holy Communion to the sick and dying would continue unabated as from the beginnings of the Church until the present day. The viaticum that sustained our ancestors in the faith can be brought to us when the end of our lives is near.

Bede the Venerable describes how the famous Saxon Christian monk poet, Caedmon, who died in 680, received the heavenly viaticum in his hand on his death-bed" (Historia Ecclesiastica).

At the Council of Nicea in 325, it was agreed that none of the baptised, even if they lapsed, should be denied Holy Viaticum being brought to them at the moment of death. This practice was extended to apostates, even if at the time of their death they had not yet completed the penance imposed, though if they recovered they were obliged to continue their penance. Cardinal Giovani Bona (1609-1674) describes this as the practice of the Church accepted everywhere" (Rerum Litterarum).

During the upheaval of the Reformation in England it is worth noting that Pope St Pius V allowed Mary Queen of Scots - who was imprisoned for twenty years by her cousin Queen Elizabeth - to give herself Holy Communion, which she did until she was executed in 1587.

It is thus assumed that a number of consecrated hosts were brought to her periodically, by ministers of Communion or a priest during all the years she spent in prison.

The time-honoured custom of carrying the body of Christ to the sick, which is a daily practice in our Church to-day, is a dear remembrance of Christ's compassion for the sick; this is their perennial hope of eternal life. As Charlemagne, crowned by Pope Leo III in St Peter's Basilica on Christmas Day 800 as the first Holy Roman Emperor, said: "This Eucharistic Mystery is sometimes called Viaticum, because if anyone enjoys it on the way, he will arrive at that life which he already has within himself" (Liber, vii, 101).

Thus the Church in her mercy, from the beginning and through the centuries, has provided for all possibilities, ensuring for example that the infirm faithful can receive the Body of Christ in Holy Communion in danger of death, either from the hands of priests or from Extraordinary Ministers of Communion.

Father Camilleri, who has been a regular and much appreciated contributor to AD2000, is at present ministering in his home country of Malta

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