Q: In August you addressed some encouraging words to religious education teachers. Could you please do the same for extraordinary ministers of holy Communion? Thank you.
A: Can something come from nothing? In the musical play and movie “The Sound of Music,” Maria, the nun-turned-governess, sings that “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.”
That might be true for human beings, but is it also true for God? At the Easter Vigil, we hear in the creation story from the book of Genesis that God made the heavens and the earth out of nothing. But does God always start with nothing? It seems that God chooses to start with something — with the human — when God is acting for and with human beings. And God has a long history of doing so.
Jesus knew that. So, when Jesus wanted to feed the large, hungry crowd of his hearers on the hillside in Galilee, he didn’t start with nothing. He started with something: a young boy’s five loaves and two fishes (John 6:1-15). Jesus didn’t ask his heavenly Father to create enough loaves and fishes for everybody out of thin air. He could have, but he didn’t. Jesus began this great miracle with loaves and fishes provided by the young boy. How surprised and happy he must have been that Jesus chose to use his lunch in so great a miracle. Clearly, God likes to start with something — with the human — when dealing with us human beings.
In the Eucharist, God starts with human food — bread and wine — and lets them become the body and blood of God’s son through the power of the Holy Spirit. God starts with the human — bread and wine on the altar, and the bread and wine of our lives — and brings out the beyond-the-human in them. We become the body and blood of Christ that we receive.
So it shouldn’t surprise those who serve as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion that God starts with the human in them and brings out the beyond-the-human in their ministry. God never takes away our human nature in giving us a share in the divine nature; God loves the human too much to ignore it or reject it. The incarnation of Christ proved that, as will the resurrection of our bodies.
That is why God invites women and men — not angels — to minister the body and blood of Christ during the eucharistic celebration and to bring it to the sick and homebound outside it. This ministry was opened to laypersons 45 years ago (”Immensae Caritatis,” Jan. 25, 1973).
Once, I stood before a cashier in a store who gave me not a word of greeting, but only the most uninterested facial expression, accompanied by the most energy-less handling of my items. As if to say: “I really don’t care whether you are here or not.” We dare not treat those in the Communion procession like that. It is true that anyone can be tired and have a bad day. But it’s precisely then and there that the truly dedicated liturgical minister will ask for and receive the grace to serve well, maybe extra-well, in spite of all that hinders.
That is what we fellow servants of Jesus Christ are called to do. “The reality of Christ acting in and through us in the liturgical act is a consolation and a grace because it is Christ’s work, not ours. It is also a challenge, reminding us that we need to celebrate the Liturgy with care and reverence, so that our ministry reflects Christ himself through the gifts and talents he has given to each of us” (“Stewards of the Tradition – Fifty Years after Sacrosanctum Concilium,” statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Divine Worship, 2013).
When you find yourself succumbing to routine in your ministry of Communion — when your voice becomes sing-songy, or when you fail to wait for communicants to respond “Amen!,” or when you wonder why the whole congregation apparently decided to get into your line, or when you scan the approaching communicants and see only numbers and not persons — then it is time to refocus on the significance of the actions you are performing.
Mentally stop and imagine that you are giving Communion to one person only: the next person coming up to you. Imagine how careful and reverent you would be if you were to give Communion to only one person at each liturgy. Yet, in a sense, that is what you are doing. No matter whether you give Communion to 10 people or 10 times that many, each person receives Communion from your hands once. Your presence and actions will have much to do with how that person receives the Lord Jesus in Holy Communion for that day, for good or ill. Such is the challenge and responsibility of your call to ministry.
“Haste is the death of devotion,” said St. Francis de Sales. Perhaps this is why, when I have finished ministering the body of Christ to the last communicant, I wait in place for just the briefest moment before returning to the altar. This is my way of reminding myself that I am in no hurry to be anywhere else or doing anything else at this time.
The Eucharist that we minister is nourishment for body, mind, heart and soul — nourishment for our life of faith, for our journey to the fullness of charity. If we truly wish this to be a reality in the lives of those to whom we minister the Eucharist, it must first be true for us liturgical ministers.
The old theological maxim remains true for us: We can’t give what we don’t have. Our whole being should be eucharistic, shaped by the Eucharist, all the time, not just during our service at the eucharistic celebration. This means that the spirituality of ministers of holy Communion should have the Eucharist as its focus.
Do you arrive at church early in order to have some quiet time for prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, or stay after Mass for such prayer?
Do you regularly make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament or participate in Mass during the week, so as to extend in your own mind and heart the nourishing and strengthening power of the Eucharist?
Have you considered using the eucharistic prayers or the Prayers after Communion in the Roman Missal as starting points for your own private prayer?
The more that the Eucharist shapes our prayer, the more that such prayer will enhance our ministry of Communion for others and for ourselves. We shall know how powerfully Jesus Christ reveals and confirms our identity as ministers of his body and blood far beyond the longer or shorter time that we serve during the liturgy.
Through our prayerful reflection on the Eucharist, through generous service to others (inside and outside the church), through our careful and personal ministering of the Eucharist at Mass and to the sick, through our sensitivity, grace and faithfulness, we become a real sign of all the richness of the Eucharist. In all our human words and actions of divine service, we help our fellow worshipers to make my hymn text’s words their own:
“As we to you, O Lord, process,
“your people clothe in holiness.
“With beauty fashioned by your art
“adorn our lives and every heart.”
Benedictine Father Michael Kwatera, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, serves as the abbey’s director of liturgy. Please send your questions on liturgy to him at email@example.com or at St. John’s Abbey, P.O. Box 2015, Collegeville, MN 56321-2015.