The Minister Of The Eucharist

The Minister of the Eucharist

The Eucharist being a permanent sacrament, and the confection (confectio) and the reception (susceptio) thereof being separated from each other by an interval of time, the minister may be and in fact is twofold: (a) the minister of consecration and (b) the minister of administration.

(a) The minister of consecration

In the early Christian Era the Peputians, Collyridians, and Montanists attributed priestly powers even to women (cf. Epiphanius, De hær., xlix, 79); and in the Middle Ages the Albigenses and Waldenses ascribed the power to consecrate to every layman of upright disposition. Against these errors the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) confirmed the ancient Catholic teaching, that “no one but the priest [sacerdos], regularly ordained according to the keys of the Church, has the power of consecrating this sacrament”. Rejecting the hierarchical distinction between the priesthood and the laity, Luther later on declared, in accord with his idea of a “universal priesthood” (cf. 1 Peter 2:5), that every layman was qualified, as the appointed representative of the faithful, to consecrate the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The Council of Trent opposed this teaching of Luther, and not only confirmed anew the existence of a “special priesthood” (Sess. XXIII, can. i), but authoritatively declared that “Christ ordained the Apostles true priests and commanded them as well as other priests to offer His Body and Blood in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” (Sess. XXII, can. ii). By this decision it was also declared that the power of consecrating and that of offering the Holy Sacrifice are identical. Both ideas are mutually reciprocal. To the category of “priests” (sacerdos, iereus) belong, according to the teaching of the Church, only bishops and priests; deacons, subdeacons, and those in minor orders are excluded from this dignity.

Scripturally considered, the necessity of a special priesthood with the power of validly consecrating is derived from the fact that Christ did not address the words, “Do this”, to the whole mass of the laity, but exclusively to the Apostles and their successors in the priesthood; hence the latter alone can validly consecrate. It is evident that tradition has understood the mandate of Christ in this sense and in no other. We learn from the writings of Justin, Origen, Cyprian, Augustine, and others, as well as from the most ancient Liturgies, that it was always the bishops and priests, and they alone, who appeared as the property constituted celebrants of the Eucharistic Mysteries, and that the deacons merely acted as assistants in these functions, while the faithful participated passively therein. When in the fourth century the abuse crept in of priests receiving Holy Communion at the hands of deacons, the First Council of Nicæa (325) issued a strict prohibition to the effect, that “they who offer the Holy Sacrifice shall not receive the Body of the Lord from the hands of those who have no such power of offering”, because such a practice is contrary to “rule and custom”. The sect of the Luciferians was founded by an apostate deacon named Hilary, and possessed neither bishops nor priests; wherefore St. Jerome concluded (Dial. adv. Lucifer., n. 21), that for want of celebrants they no longer retained the Eucharist. It is clear that the Church has always denied the laity the power to consecrate. When the Arians accused St. Athanasius (d. 373) of sacrilege, because supposedly at his bidding the consecrated Chalice had been destroyed during the Mass which was being celebrated by a certain Ischares, they had to withdraw their charges as wholly untenable when it was proved that Ischares had been invalidly ordained by a pseudo-bishop named Colluthos and, therefore, could neither validly consecrate nor offer the Holy Sacrifice.

(b) The minster of administration

The dogmatic interest which attaches to the minister of administration or distribution is not so great, for the reason that the Eucharist being a permanent sacrament, any communicant having the proper dispositions could receive it validly, whether he did so from the hand of a priest, or layman, or woman. Hence,the question is concerned, not with the validity, but with the liceity of administration. In this matter the Church alone has the right to decide, and her regulations regarding the Communion rite may vary according to the circumstances of the times. In general it is of Divine right, that the laity should as a rule receive only from the consecrated hand of the priest (cf. Trent, Sess. XIII, cap. viii). The practice of the laity giving themselves Holy Communion was formerly, and is today, allowed only in case of necessity. In ancient Christian times it was customary for the faithful to take the Blessed Sacrament to their homes and Communicate privately, a practice (Tertullian, Ad uxor., II, v), to which, even as late as the fourth century, St. Basil makes reference (Ep. xciii, ad Cæsariam). Up to the ninth century, it was usual for the priest to place the Sacred Host in the right hand of the recipient, who kissed it and then transferred it to his own mouth; women, from the fourth century onward, were required in this ceremony to have a cloth wrapped about their right hand. The Precious Blood was in early times received directly from the Chalice, but in Rome the practice, after the eighth century, was to receive it through a small tube (fistula); at present this is observed only in the pope’s Mass. The latter method of drinking the Chalice spread to other localities, in particular to the Cistercian monasteries, where the practice was partially continued into the eighteenth century.

Whereas the priest is both by Divine and ecclesiastical right the ordinary dispenser (minister ordinarius) of the sacrament, the deacon is by virtue of his order the extraordinary minister (minister extraordinarius), yet he may not administer the sacrament except ex delegatione, i.e. with the permission of the bishop or priest. As has already been mentioned above, the deacons were accustomed in the Early Church to take the Blessed Sacrament to those who were absent from Divine service, as well as to present the Chalice to the laity during the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries (cf. Cyprian, De lapsis, nn. 17, 25), and this practice was observed until Communion under both kinds was discontinued. In St. Thomas’ time (III:82:3), the deacons were allowed to administer only the Chalice to the laity, and in case of necessity the Sacred Host also, at the bidding of the bishop or priest. After the Communion of the laity under the species of wine had been abolished, the deacon’s powers were more and more restricted. According to a decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites (25 Feb., 1777), still in force, the deacon is to administer Holy Communion only in case of necessity and with the approval of his bishop or his pastor. (Cf. Funk, “Der Kommunionritus” in his “Kirchengeschichtl. Abhandlungen und Untersuchungen”, Paderborn, 1897, I, pp. 293 sqq.; see also “Theol. praktische Quartalschrift”, Linz, 1906, LIX, 95 sqq.)

Written by J. Pohle. Transcribed by Charles Sweeney, SJ.

The Catholic Encyclopedia, Volume V. Published 1909. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Nihil Obstat, May 1, 1909. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York