What is Communion and what does it mean for us?
When most think of the Eucharist, they immediately think of the Mass and the reception of holy Communion, which is an important connection. However, most do not stop to think about what Communion means. At Communion, we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, truly and wholly present. It is the most intimate moment of the Mass for each individual person because it is in this moment that we receive into our own body the Precious Body of Jesus Christ. Everything in the Mass has led us to this moment of encounter between the faithful and the Lord, and it is this moment from which and to which our entire lives must flow. As Vatican II tells us, the Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life. The very word Communion, which is used to describe this moment, depicts this great importance through its many and varied meanings.
On one level, it is communion with the Body of Christ, the church, in a unified action of reception and prayer. Here we can see the meaning of St. Paul’s statement that “though many, we are one body.” In holy Communion, we are united as God’s people, all sharing the Body and Blood of Christ. Thus, we become his body living in the world today and giving witness to him. In Communion, we truly are the “Body of Christ.” This is not to be neglected since it is a very real aspect of the liturgical celebration.
On another level, it is God’s communion with us, since he empties himself in an act of humility so that we might truly eat of his flesh and drink his blood.
Finally, the most important meaning of this communion is an entrance into the communion of the Triune God. God himself is always the primary mover in our lives, calling and beckoning us to himself, and it is no different in holy Communion. Here, he beckons us forth to receive him and by his entrance into our souls, we enter into the communion of persons within the Blessed Trinity. Here, though often we are not aware, we can gain a very real glimpse into the glory of heaven, if we are aware and acknowledge the meaning behind this extraordinary act.
Who can distribute holy Communion? How are people selected?
The ordinary minister of holy Communion is an ordained cleric – bishop, priest or deacon (Canon 910:1). Due to his state in life, the ordained minister is the one who, in ordinary circumstances, distributes holy Communion by virtue of his ordination and his function in persona Christi, in the person of Christ. The extraordinary minister of holy Communion is “an acolyte or another member of the Christian faithful” (Canon 910:2). The guidelines governing the extraordinary minister are most clearly found in the “Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of the Priest”: “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 where 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).
All should take care to observe the reverence necessary for the distribution of this most Blessed Sacrament in their appearance, manner and gestures. For those chosen by their pastors to take on the role of extraordinary minister of holy Communion, there is a special training in place in the archdiocese to help them to learn more about the important ministry they are being asked to take on. What an honor to be chosen to take part in this ministry and to use one’s faith and hands to feed God’s people with the Body and Blood of Christ. Extraordinary ministers of holy Communion should prepare themselves spiritually for this great privilege.
Why do some churches distribute both species and others only distribute under one?
The Second Vatican Council widened the church’s regulations on the distribution of holy Communion, such that the faithful may be offered holy Communion in the Host (the Body of Christ) as well as in the Precious Blood on more occasions in order to offer a more complete sign of the Eucharist to the faithful. In the United States, the decision to have Communion distributed under both species is left to the regulation of each local bishop, who usually encourages the use of both species, unless pastoral reason suggests otherwise. It is important to remember, however, that if the Blessed Sacrament is distributed under one species only, the fullness of Christ is still received – his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.
After Communion, why do some priests dip their hands in water? What happens to the sacred vessels after Communion?
In discussing the Real Presence, we reaffirmed the church’s teaching that Jesus Christ is present in each and every particle of the Host and in each and every drop of the Precious Blood. Therefore, great care is taken to ensure that our Lord present in the Eucharist is safeguarded and treated with the utmost of reverence. Thus, after Communion, priests, deacons and extraordinary ministers of holy Communion purify their hands. Some place their fingers in water to remove any and all particles of the Blessed Sacrament, allowing it to dissolve in the water that can then be properly disposed of. Similarly, after Communion (either during or after Mass), all of the sacred vessels are purified with water that is always carefully consumed to ensure that the Blessed Sacrament is treated with proper reverence.
Ian Bozant is a second-year theologian studying for the Archdiocese of New Orleans at Notre Dame Seminary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.