One of my very first jobs as a liturgical leader was to train communion ministers. I was a college student in southern Missouri, and the local bishop had given permission for our Catholic student center to have lay communion ministers at Mass. This was way back when that was still uncommon. We also had permission to distribute communion in the hand and communion from the cup — even more uncommon!
The campus minister “volunteered” me to train some of my peers in how to reverently and efficiently share the Body and Blood of Christ with the student body. And I immediately began to freak out. I had only served as a communion minister myself at a couple of retreat experiences. I had no idea what to say to those I was supposed to train.
But as I talked with the campus minister and remembered my own experience, I realized that, unlike lectors, there is not a lot of “how to” in training communion ministers. It is much more about “why to.”
The mystery of Christ, shared through ministry
Since my initial attempt to train communion ministers a lot has happened. Books have been written, workshops have been created, directives have been issued, and websites have been launched. A great deal that has been written and taught has to do with protecting the Blessed Sacrament from any kind of accidental degradation.
A lot of emphasis is placed on crumbs and drops that might go astray. I am not denying the importance of reverence for the sacred species. But the stress placed on reminding communion ministers to not drop things—while neglecting the why of their ministry—seems to be missing the larger point.
When we set out to train communion ministers, I don’t think it is always necessary to spend the bulk of our time on the how to’s. Much of that can be done peer to peer. For those of us in leadership, what we need to do is explore the mystery of Christ that we share in this ministry.
Communion ministers need to know they are first of all ministers of truth. “Since only the truth can make us free” said Pope Benedict XVI, “Christ becomes for us the food of truth” (The Sacrament of Charity, 2).
Communion ministers are servants of the eschatological banquet, which is “celebrated in the joy of the communion of saints” (The Sacrament of Charity, 31).
They are ministers of beauty. “Here the splendor of God’s glory surpasses all worldly beauty. The truest beauty is the love of God, who definitively revealed himself to us in the paschal mystery” (The Sacrament of Charity, 31).
We can even say that communion ministers, in a fashion, proclaim God’s word. The liturgy of the word and the Eucharistic liturgy “are so closely interconnected that they form but one single act of worship” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 28).
Every communion minister manifests a personal encounter with the Risen Christ (see The Sacrament of Charity, 50).
Communion minsters facilitate “the active, full and fruitful participation of the entire People of God in the eucharistic celebration” (The Sacrament of Charity, 52).
When communion ministers contribute to the full celebration of the liturgy, they also serve as catechists. “It must first be said that the best catechesis on the Eucharist is the Eucharist itself, celebrated well” (The Sacrament of Charity, 64).
Communion ministers remind us of the dignity of human life. “The Eucharist, since it embraces the concrete, everyday existence of the believer, makes possible, day by day, the progressive transfiguration of all those called by grace to reflect the image of the Son of God” (The Sacrament of Charity, 71).
Communion ministers are vessels of the Spirit. “Hence the Eucharist, as the source and summit of the Church’s life and mission, must be translated into spirituality, into a life lived according to the Spirit” (The Sacrament of Charity, 77).
Communion ministers remind us of our baptismal mission. “And because the world is ‘the field’ (Mt 13:38) in which God plants his children as good seed, the Christian laity, by virtue of their Baptism and Confirmation, and strengthened by the Eucharist, are called to live out the radical newness brought by Christ wherever they find themselves” (The Sacrament of Charity, 79).
Communion ministers help transform the world through love. “Worship itself, eucharistic communion, includes the reality both of being loved and of loving others in turn. A Eucharist which does not pass over into the concrete practice of love is intrinsically fragmented” (God Is Love, 14).
Communion ministers serve in the tradition of the martyrs as witnesses to faith. “Even if the test of martyrdom is not asked of us, we know that worship pleasing to God demands that we should be inwardly prepared for it” (The Sacrament of Charity, 85).
Communion ministers help make us conscious that “the Eucharist thus compels all who believe in him to become ‘bread that is broken’ for others, and to work for the building of a more just and fraternal world…. Each of us is truly called, together with Jesus, to be bread broken for the life of the world” (The Sacrament of Charity, 88).
Communion minsters are heralds of justice. “Certainly, the restoration of justice, reconciliation and forgiveness are the conditions for building true peace. The recognition of this fact leads to a determination to transform unjust structures and to restore respect for the dignity of all men and women, created in God’s image and likeness. Through the concrete fulfilment of this responsibility, the Eucharist becomes in life what it signifies in its celebration” (The Sacrament of Charity, 89).
Communion ministers, by their ministry, commit us to the poor. “The Lord Jesus, the bread of eternal life, spurs us to be mindful of the situations of extreme poverty in which a great part of humanity still lives: these are situations for which human beings bear a clear and disquieting responsibility” (The Sacrament of Charity, 90).
Communion ministers raise our concern about our need to protect the environment and “to grasp the profound relationship between creation and the ‘new creation’ inaugurated in the resurrection of Christ, the new Adam” (The Sacrament of Charity, 90).
If you asked communion ministers why they serve, I’m not sure you would get the list of “whys” that Pope Benedict and other church leaders have written. But if we stressed mechanics less and mystery more, we might get closer to the why.