Observations: Reverence in Ministry

I’ve just about had it with Eucharistic ministers. Yesterday, as I stood at the altar consuming the Precious Blood, a Eucharistic minister reached in front of me and leaned under the upturned cup to grab a ciborium. She had not yet received from the cup, and evidently did not intend to, for she spun around and stomped off toward the center aisle, where she, as they say, ministered.

This happened at the same church where I once saw a Eucharistic minister hold a full ciborium in her left hand while, with her right, she partook of the cup. And where I saw a Eucharistic minister wave to her children during the consecration. And where an usher-turned-Eucharistic minister regularly waves the host before your eyes before giving it to you. And so on, ad (nearly) desecratum.

The pity of it is, this church is not unusual. At thousands of churches across the country, people undereducated to the realities of the Mass are “rewarded” with designation as Eucharistic ministers. It doesn’t take much — just answer the ad in the bulletin. Training? Chanceries have wonderful programs, and lots of little booklets, and their Liturgical Coordinators or Pastoral Ministry Assistants (Liturgy) will tell you all about them.

How people get to be Eucharistic ministers is as much a mystery as what they think they are doing. Some years ago I was assigned to a military training base for 8 weeks as an instructor. I’d been a minister and lector at my previous assignment, so the chaplain was happy to have extra help, particularly since he was the only Catholic chaplain fully functioning; of the other two, one was on leave, and one had a broken leg.

Masses were very full that summer. One hot day, we actually had to move the celebration outside, to the chapel steps, while the recruits sat on the front lawn. The Mass pro­ceeded as usual. Two ciboria of hosts were brought up dur­ing the offertory procession, but shortly thereafter one of the Eucharistic ministers appeared at the chapel door, behind the priests, with two more ciboria. He plopped them down on the altar, and the priest uncovered them and arranged them with the other two.

The minister took his seat, next to me. “Where did you get them?” I asked.

“In the tabernacle,” he replied.

“Was the tabernacle locked?”

“Yes,” he said.

“Then those ciboria have consecrated hosts,” I told him.

“What,” he asked, “does ‘consecrated’ mean?”

I explained that consecrated meant that the hosts were already Jesus, and the boy started to go for the altar, probably to remove his two ciboria until communion time, which is when he had been told to bring them out. I told him — in fact, I probably ordered him — to sit, and explained that Jesus knew what he was doing much better than we did, and not to worry about it.

But I still can’t get it out of my head that I was seated at the altar next to a Eucharistic minister, duly processed, certified, medallioned and recognized, who did not see the dif­ference between the offertory and the consecration of the Mass, and who did not know what “consecrated” meant.

He is not alone. And because of that, the wonderful theology which calls for the ministers of the Mass to be present throughout, and not to drop in ex-rectory for com­munion time, is lost to uneducated and undereducated well- meaning people who have no one to blame but their pastors.

Without formation and education, ministerial horror stories will continue to abound. Is a mandatory parish-wide or diocese-wide annual or semi-annual workshop too much to ask? How about correspondence courses for the far-flung territories? Would the parish, or the diocese, pay for a weekend retreat for its lay ministers? Would every pastor next weekend please sit at the back of the church through every Mass and see just exactly what is going on?

Maybe then we won’t have to suffer through Eucharistic ministers processing with pocketbooks, Eucharistic ministers chatting outside church before going on to sick calls with the sacrament, Eucharistic ministers wiping their mouths with their hands after consuming the Precious Blood, Eucharistic ministers gesturing to children while holding the Host.

If the Church expects to depend more and more on lay ministers, it had better start training them, lest they drive away the need.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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