Understanding Our Church

A Treasury of Arkansas Writers Discussing the Catholic Faith

Allowing only priests to purify vessels is sign of reverence for Eucharist

Published: January 20, 2007

By Charlotte Miller
English Teacher, Mount St. Mary Academy

The announcement that extraordinary ministers of holy Communion (previously known as eucharistic ministers) will no longer purify Communion vessels has caused somewhat of a stir among the laity — perhaps among the ordained, also, but I am not privy to their responses.

It might be that we need to step back to think about what this decision means for the laity and ordained, as well as what it says about our reverence for the Eucharist. For the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, the decision means more than the fact that they will no longer wash the sacred vessels.

As an extraordinary minister, I can attest to the blessing of that time in the sacristy when the other extraordinary ministers and I quietly and prayerfully washed the vessels. The time and work were graced. Those who are extraordinary ministers understandably mourn the loss of this holy service.

Extraordinary ministers have been purifying the vessels only since 1984, and only in the United States. Prior to that time, only priests and deacons purified the vessels.

In the larger parishes, the decision also means that the sacred Blood will no longer be offered routinely. Pastors and deacons of those parishes simply cannot purify the vessels at Mass after Mass after Mass, as well as attend to greeting and connecting with parishioners. So, many are saddened by the loss of partaking in the cup of the Blood of Christ.

To share in a full image of the sacred meal begun at the Last Supper is indeed profound. It is understandable that people regret the change. On the other hand, this change is not really a change at all. Extraordinary ministers have been purifying the vessels only since 1984, and only in the United States.

Prior to that time, only priests and deacons purified the vessels. Also prior to that time, receiving Communion under both species was often the exception rather than the norm. Reception of Communion under both species is still rather rare in other parts of the world. The indult (Church permission) allowing non-ordained to purify the vessels was intended for those instances when there were not enough priests or deacons to perform the task.

Again, it was only the United States parishes that were given this option. Understandably, we became accustomed to the practice and now are reluctant to let go of it to conform to the pattern of the rest of the world and the regulation of Rome. But might we lay persons not consider this situation from an angle other than our own perceived loss?

Might we not see that we honor the Body and Blood of Jesus in a deeply symbolic way by allowing only the ordained to perform this ritual? By this action, we announce to the world that we do believe in the Real Presence and that we want to proclaim as dramatically as possible our most profound reverence for the Eucharist.

The Church is not, as some have suggested, “going backward.” Lay people are not, as others have suggested, being treated as unworthy — although I would posit that we certainly are unworthy, as are the ordained who will now have the privilege of completing this duty.

In fact, we all acknowledge our unworthiness at every Mass. It is my hope that we will be able to let go of any personal disappointment we might feel by seeing that this “change” may promote deeper reverence for the Body and Blood of Jesus.