by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: At many Masses these days, non-communicating participants approach the altar
at Communion time and receive a blessing when they cannot communicate. However,
some priests do not do this, saying it is not "in the rubrics." Is it all right
for priests to do this?
M.T., New South Wales, Australia
A: As far as I have been able to ascertain, this practice arose over the last
two decades or so, above all in English-speaking countries, such as Australia
and the United States, where Catholics form a significant minority amid a
basically Christian population.
Because of this, it is relatively common to have non-Catholics present at Mass,
for example, Protestant spouses of Catholics, catechumens, and other visitors.
This is especially true of weddings and funerals when the number of
non-Catholics is even larger.
Another common situation, which apparently gave rise to this practice, is the
increase in non-Catholic students at Catholic schools and colleges. At times,
about half the student body is unable to participate in Communion.
Situations such as these probably inspired the practice of inviting those unable
to receive Communion to approach the altar to receive a blessing so as not to
Certainly this blessing is not in the rubrics and there is no obligation to make
such an invitation. However, neither is there any prohibition and the practice
seems to have been tacitly accepted by many bishops who are aware of this
nascent custom and have even participated in giving such blessings.
As far as I know, no bishop has issued specific directives on this issue, nor
has the Holy See intervened although it is certainly aware of its existence.
The decision as to whether to adopt such a practice depends on the concrete
pastoral circumstances involved. As in all similar initiatives, due reflection
is required regarding the custom's pastoral utility and as to any possible
consequences that it may provoke in the short or long term, for example,
changing the way people perceive the act of receiving Communion. ZE05051027
* * *
Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants [05-24-2005]
Regarding our comments on blessings for non-communicants (see May 10), a reader
asked if my opinion contradicted the following observations made by Archbishop
Chaput of Denver, Colorado, in an article from 2003:
"As members of the community move forward to receive holy Communion during Mass,
parents will often bring their small children along. Over the years, it has
become a custom in many parishes for these children to receive a blessing. I
don't really know where this practice began, but it's worth some reflection.
"Usually the children in line will look up expectantly at the person
distributing holy Communion. The minister then responds by doing one of several
things: He or she may pat the child's head, or touch the head in a sign of
blessing, or mark the child's forehead with a sign of the cross. As warm and
well intentioned as the gesture may be, in the context of the liturgy, the
Communion procession really isn't the time for a blessing of children or adults
who are unable to receive Communion.
"There are times in the liturgical year when the laity assist in specific acts
of blessing, such as the blessing of throats or the distribution of ashes. These
are clearly indicated in the Book of Blessings. But extraordinary ministers of
holy Communion do not ordinarily have a commission to bless in the name of the
Church, as priests and deacons do. At this point in the liturgy, they have a
very specific function: to collaborate with the clergy in the distribution of
"As we'll explore in a later column, the blessing of the assembly properly
occurs at the end of the Mass. As the body of Christ, the assembly is blessed
together before we depart to live the fruits of the liturgy.
"What would be appropriate for children to do who accompany their parents in the
Communion procession, and adults who do not receive Communion?
"The Communion procession is an opportunity for parents to begin to teach their
children about the great gift of the Eucharist. First of all, children could
learn to give reverence to the Lord hidden under the forms of bread and wine.
Children can already learn from their parents, and others receiving holy
Communion, to give honor to the Lord by bowing reverently.
"Parents and catechists should start teaching the mystery of the Eucharist at an
early age. Children will soon begin to desire to receive holy Communion. This
earnest desire to receive our Lord sacramentally is traditionally called a
'spiritual communion.' Regrettably, we don't talk about spiritual communion as
we once did. But Thomas Aquinas, Alphonsus Liguori and many other great saints
strongly encouraged spiritual communion as a practice.
"Both children and adults can make a spiritual communion. They may come forward
with their arms crossed and bow before the Eucharist. Then the priest, deacon or
extraordinary minister could say to them kindly, 'Receive the Lord Jesus in your
heart.' This is not a blessing, but an invitation to worship, so no gestures are
"This spiritual communion would more authentically carry out the spirit of the
liturgy. Being faithful to the truths of the sacramental celebration allows all
of us, young and old, to enter more deeply into worship."
Does it contradict my previous article? All I can say, in typical Irish fashion
is, well, yes and no.
The previous question did not refer to my personal opinion regarding the
appropriateness of these blessings, but to whether they were permitted or not.
The essence of my answer to that question was that the issue was not clear from
a legal point of view and, barring an authoritative statement from the Holy See,
it depended on the local authorities to judge the opportunity of accepting or
rejecting this practice.
The admirable Archbishop Chaput has taken a characteristically lucid position on
the issue, and, while his article is not a formal liturgical norm, it both
clarifies the question for his archdiocese, and provides guidance to other
pastors weighing the pros and cons of this still nascent custom.
However, the fact remains that many bishops have made approving comments
regarding it and some have actually participated in such blessings. Thus the
legal issue at the heart of the original question remains doubtful. Indeed, as
one reader has helpfully informed me, the bishops' conference of England and
Wales has published a fairly authoritative statement on this issue, to wit:
"Even though some in the assembly may not receive 'sacramental' Communion, all
are united in some way by the Holy Spirit. The Traditional idea of spiritual
communion is an important one to remember and re-affirm. The invitation often
given at Mass to those who may not receive sacramental communion
for example, children before their first communion and adults who are not
to receive a 'blessing' at the moment of Communion emphasizes that a deep
spiritual communion is possible even when we do not share together the Sacrament
of the Body and blood of Christ" (the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England
and Wales, "Celebrating the Mass: A Pastoral Introduction," (Catholic Truth
Society, April 2005, In number 212, pg 95)."
I would note that the bishops here interpret the blessing itself as a kind of
spiritual communion and so the basic thrust of their thinking is the same as
that of Archbishop Chaput.
As the gauntlet has been hurled, so to speak, regarding my personal view, I
admit to sharing Archbishop Chaput's misgivings as to the appropriateness of
some practical aspects of imparting these blessings.
For example, since lay extraordinary ministers of Communion are not authorized
to give liturgical blessings, in situations where there are numerous
non-communicants the practice could result in a seeming paradox in which they
receive blessings from the ordinary ministers of Communion while the Catholic
faithful receive the sacred host from extraordinary ministers. Perhaps a lay
minister could pronounce a generic formula calling down God's blessing, but it
is rather short shrift compared to Communion.
I am also rather queasy about touching people on the head, while simultaneously
administrating the sacred host on the tongue of the next person in line.
My most serious hesitations, however, stem from a fear that, over time, the
practice of giving blessings to non-communicants could create a new perception
or mentality regarding Communion itself that makes it somehow equivalent to a
blessing, thus weakening the special value that Communion should have for
Catholics. This danger could be especially present in a school environment with
a high proportion of non-Catholics who receive only a blessing. On the other
hand, some priests have mentioned that it can lower the danger of sacrilegious
communions in predominantly Catholic schools as children and adolescents find it
easier to ask for a blessing than to stay (alone) in their pews.
Likewise, other priests have written to comment on the pastoral effectiveness of
being able to offer Catholics in irregular situations an alternative to not
approaching the Communion rail. One commented that one couple's receiving the
blessing awoke a hunger for the Eucharist which spurred them to regularize their
situation with the Church.
For the above situations I believe the archbishop's suggestion regarding
formation in spiritual communion, or that of the British bishops in interpreting
the invitation to receive a blessing as spiritual communion, are invaluable and
may be even more pastorally effective than a simple blessing per se. It may be
harder to apply, however, to non-Catholics.
This brings us to a related question of some members of the Legion of Mary in
California who generously offer their services as extraordinary ministers of
Communion in an assisted-living facility with a large proportion of
They ask: "We also know that, as extraordinary ministers of Communion, we cannot
bless anyone, but we do ask Jesus or God to bless them. What is the proper form
of blessing that we can offer our Protestant brethren? We customarily offer this
type of blessing in lieu of sharing Communion: 'May God Bless you and keep you
close to him.'
"Is it proper for extraordinary ministers to lay on hands or to make the sign of
the cross on the head, or over the head, of the person receiving the blessing?
Is it proper to anoint the head of the person receiving the blessing with holy
"We want to act properly in the full spirit of the Holy Father's call for
evangelization by the lay apostolates, without overstepping into ritual behavior
that is the proper domain of the consecrated priesthood."
From what has been said above I would suggest that you avoid ritual gestures
that might cause confusion, especially to the Catholics present. However, the
formulas provided for the extraordinary ministers of Communion in the ritual for
Communion outside of Mass could also be used in the presence of non-Catholics.
They usually have a third person plural formula such as "May the Lord bless us,
keep us from all evil and bring us to everlasting life."
If you wish to offer some spiritual activity to all present beyond the Communion
service, then, with the permission of the parish priest, you could offer some
acceptable common prayer once the Communion service has been finished
for example, praying an hour of the Divine Office, which is almost totally
scriptural, would be one possibility.
While liturgical law restricts to ordained ministers the imparting of liturgical
blessings, lay people are not forbidden from using similar gestures in
non-liturgical settings. For example, in some counties parents commonly make the
sign of the cross over and bless their children as they leave for school.
While on the subject of blessings, a deacon requested if "the deacon may use the
same formula as the presbyter and perform the same action of making the sign of
the cross over the person(s) to be blessed?"
The short answer is yes. The deacon may impart most of the same blessings as a
priest and uses the same liturgical gestures. If a priest is present however, he
should defer to him.
Finally, a lay woman from Canada asks: "At the opening of the Mass and its
closing we are blessed by the priest. I have traditionally blessed myself
following reception of the Eucharistic species. However, I recently read that
this is inappropriate in that it interferes with the unifying theme of the
initial and closing blessings by the priest. What is the meaning of blessing
oneself after reception of Eucharist? And, what is considered appropriate at
this time in our Church's history?"
Strictly speaking, the priest does not bless us at the beginning of Mass;
rather, we all make the sign of the cross together as a sign of faith. The only
proper blessing is that at the end of Mass which is a concluding blessing before
the faithful are sent forth to continue their Christian mission in the world.
Your custom of crossing yourself (also sometimes called blessing oneself) after
receiving Communion is simply an act of private devotion and an expression of
faith in what one has received. It does no harm whatsoever to the symbolism of
the Mass and probably does you a lot of spiritual good. ZE05052423
* * *
Follow-up: Blessings for Non-communicants, Continued [06-07-2005]
The theme of blessings for non-communicants (see May 10 and
24) has struck
a chord, albeit a sometimes dissonant one, in many readers. For this reason I
will revisit the theme once more.
(Before embarking, however, I would like to thank the kind reader who made me
realize that I pertain to the ranks of the grammatically challenged by confusing
the first and third person plural in my previous follow-up.)
One reader proposed that accepting the possibility of this blessing of
non-communicants went against the principle that "liturgical documents are
prohibitive of all that they do not prescribe."
While in no means in favor of liturgical inventiveness, I do not believe this to
be a valid principle in interpreting liturgical law.
Liturgical norms have several levels ranging from the Divine decree (such as the
essential elements of the sacraments) to precepts descriptive of prevalent
customs, the latter constituting the vast majority of liturgical norms.
The different levels do not lessen their value as true laws, which require
obedience. But they are usually content to set out a general scheme with no
desire to rigidly set every gesture to the exclusion of all others.
For example, in a recent controversy regarding some bishop's forbidding the
faithful to kneel after Communion until everybody had received, the Holy See
stated: "The ... prescription of the 'Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani,' no.
43, is intended, on the one hand, to ensure within broad limits a certain
uniformity of posture within the congregation for the various parts of the
celebration of Holy Mass, and on the other, to not regulate posture rigidly in
such a way that those who wish to kneel or sit would no longer be free."
The same could be said about other acts of private fervor such as making a sign
of the cross after receiving Communion.
Since much liturgical law is grounded in custom, canonists generally admit that,
according to canons 23-28, some ecclesial communities have the capacity to
introduce customs that either interpret the law, or fill a vacuum or silence
regarding the law.
Many, but not all, liturgical canonists deny that a community may establish a
custom contrary to the law. They also discuss the relative capacity of the
diocese or the bishops' conference to introduce customs in liturgical matters.
Even admitting the ability of these entities to introduce customs, since Church
law already has official mechanisms for adapting the liturgy to local needs,
these should be respected so as to avoid any cause of doubt or unnecessary
Historically, the use of customs that either interpret the law or establish
practices to adapt to situations or conditions not expressly covered by the law,
Even in the far more minutely regulated liturgy before the Second Vatican
Council there where many particular customs that responded to concrete pastoral
needs. For example, in the Baltic country of Latvia, the Catholic minority
hemmed in on one side by a branch of Lutheranism that conserved many Catholic
trappings and on the other by the Russian Orthodox
developed a strong tradition of congregational singing not foreseen in the
rubrics and quite different from the liturgical practice of neighboring
Lithuania, where Catholics constituted the majority.
On the other hand, several other readers did express a fear that the
introduction of the blessing for those not receiving Communion breached the
general liturgical norm that "Therefore, absolutely no other person, not even a
priest, may add, remove or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority"
("Sacrosanctum Concilium," No. 22).
Here we are on different terrain. Even if we were to accept that the blessing
offered to non-communicants could be established as a legitimate custom that
responds to new pastoral demands, not foreseen in the law itself, it is clear
that it is not incumbent on the individual priest to introduce a novel rite into
the Communion procession.
Finally, even if we were to accept the (still hypothetical) legitimacy of this
custom, I would be personally hesitant to generalize its use beyond those areas
where it has proved a useful pastoral solution to specific problems for
relatively small groups.
I also see no pastoral advantage in using it for children before their first
Communion. A child who observes parents and siblings approaching the altar
should have a greater sense of hope and desire to be able to participate just as
As we mentioned before, a blessing in this case could even weaken the awareness
of the greatness and uniqueness of holy Communion. It can also cause pastoral
problems insofar as it is an easy custom to introduce but, once in, very
difficult to renege upon, due to parental sensitivity. ZE05060729