Friday, May 10, 2013


At mass yesterday, after the post-communion drum solo, I saw one of the extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion returning to the altar. No, there was no flood or fire or imminent fiasco which imperiled us and necessitated an extraordinary minister, nor were throngs of parishioners expiring in the lines. The use of extraordinary ministers is of course de rigueur these days. Perish the thought that anyone should be forced, at mass of all places, to sit and pray by himself. Anyway, what struck me was less the lack of necessity for such an exception to the norm, than there realization that serving as an extraordinary minister is perhaps the last thing I'd want to do at mass.

First, I can't imagine receiving Communion at the altar all by myself while the rest of the church looked on. Likewise, I would never want to receive and then go off and do something, whatever it is, without first praying. I suppose it is possible to serve as an extraordinary minister and not receive beforehand, but receiving before ministering seems the default.

Second, I wouldn't want simply to be handed the ciborium full of Holy Communion. I mean, they just hand it off to you, often very casually, I might add. The slightest thought about what the sacred vessel contains should give one pause.

Third, it is not my preference to receive in the hand. I can't remember the last time I did. How can one just touch the Consecrated over and over again? It doesn't compute.

Fourth, I don't think I could actually utter the words. Who am I to assert such a thing? Who am I that anyone should affirm such to me?

All of these objections have in common a reverence, fear even, of the mystery. How can one step into it without a priest's authority and training? Cultivating the reverence needed to offer mass is a nexus of scholarship, self-understanding, discipline, and prayer. So why would one so eagerly step into part of the priest's role?

Most people, I think, just want to help. This is something that they're permitted to do, so why not do it? Such people are, in my experience, pious, often very pious, but it is a certain sort of piety. It is an intellectual piety though which they understand the importance of the liturgy, and perhaps even that there exists an ineffable dimension, but it is not an emotional piety. They don't fear or tremble before the sacrament.

Or maybe they do. For my humble part, I can't fathom why you'd take up such a burden, or how you could truly bear it, outside the context of priestly duties and training. There are so many ways to serve outside the liturgy and so much one needs from it, that the choice baffles me.

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