Father Kenneth Doyle: Dementia and the sacraments/ Proper attire for eucharistic ministers

Q. I bring holy Communion to a local nursing home. Of the 66 Catholics there, many of them have no visitors. Those with dementia are asked whether they would like to receive the Eucharist, and if they say yes, I give them the host.

It saddens me that Jesus suffered to give us his mercy in confession and in anointing, and yet I don’t feel that I can ask a priest to bring these sacraments because I don’t know whether the people were attending church prior to their dementia. Am I correct, and what can be done for these individuals other than praying for them to the Lord? (City of origin withheld)

A. Helpful guidance is available on these matters in “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities” — published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and revised most recently in June 2017.

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle

You are right to ask residents with dementia whether they would like to receive the Eucharist; according to the guidelines, all that is required is that they simply be able to distinguish holy Communion from ordinary food — and sometimes that is shown not by words but by a gesture, even by reverential silence.

The guidelines note, too, that “cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the Catholic to receive the sacrament.”

As for confession and anointing of the sick, why would you demand as a prerequisite that the person had been attending church prior to the onset of the dementia? What’s essential, I would think, is not history, but the current state of the person’s soul — and who are we to measure that?

A priest distributes Communion during Mass. (CNS photo/Al Drago, courtesy Boy Scouts of America)

By all means, try to line up a priest to come to offer these other sacraments. The priest will ask Catholics if they would like to go to confession, and, according to the guidelines, “as long as the individual is capable of having a sense of contrition for having committed sin, even if he or she cannot describe the sin precisely in words, the person may receive sacramental absolution.”

And finally, the anointing of the sick has, as one of its effects, “the forgiveness of sins, if the sick person was not able to obtain it through the sacrament of penance” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1532).

Yes, I know that for forgiveness to take effect one must be properly disposed (i.e., sincerely contrite), but I would always give the person the benefit of the doubt and let God sort it out!

Q. At my parish, the eucharistic ministers wear jeans and T-shirts with printed messages having nothing to do with religion. The lectors wear Bermuda shorts and casual shoes. (The priest and servers wear regular altar attire.) The snare drummer plays the cymbals so loud that the choir cannot be heard when they are singing.

I am a lifelong Catholic, and are these the changes I must accept as the new norm for the celebration of the Mass? (I have not spoken yet to our parish priest about this, because I wanted to see your answer first.) (Hawaii)

A. There is nothing in the church’s universal Code of Canon Law that regulates the specific apparel of ministers of the Eucharist — wisely, I would think, since standards of dress differ somewhat throughout the world.

The website of the bishops of the United States says simply that “all ministers of holy Communion should show the greatest reverence for the most holy Eucharist by their demeanor, their attire and the manner in which they handle the consecrated bread or wine.”

Some Catholic parishes do publish their own guidelines with varying specificity. (One, from a Catholic parish in Texas, says: “MEN: First Choice: suit and tie; Second Choice: sports coat, dress slacks and tie; Least Choice: dress shirt, dress slacks and tie. WOMEN: First Choice: a dress, skirt/blouse, or dress pants suit; Second Choice: there is none.”)

I would suggest that you speak to your pastor about your own feelings. (You might mention the snare drummer, too.)

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, New York 12203.


Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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