Communion Service

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A liturgical service within which eucharistic bread reserved from a previous celebration is shared by a congregation when the Eucharist cannot be celebrated. A lay person normally presides. The Anglican communion speaks of "communion by extension." Many churches of the Reformation tradition use "Communion Service" for the celebration of the eucharist at Sunday worship and most do not allow communion outside the Eucharist.

The practice of sharing communion outside Mass can be traced to the second and third centuries. The remote origins lie in an "emergency" situation, sending eucharistic bread from the Sunday celebration to those who were absent (Justin, 1 Apol. 1, 67), and in a domestic setting, laity bringing it home for family communion during the week (Tertullian, Ad uxorem 2, 5; De oratione 19).

Communion outside the liturgy for the sick, imprisoned, and dying has remained common throughout history. However, from the ninth-century Carolingian reformation on only priests were allowed to perform this ministry. Domestic weekday communion declined with less frequent communion and the introduction of weekday Mass (beginning in the late fourth century), although desert monks (Basil, Letter 93) and other recluses continued the practice. We do not know what type of service took place, if any.

In the Christian East, both clergy and laity have shared presanctified bread at Evening Prayer in the Liturgy of the Presanctified on noneucharistic weekdays, especially during Lent. The Latin Church adopted this practice for Good Friday in the seventh and eighth centuries. From the thirteenth century on it was customary for only the priest to receive communion and this became law in the Missal of Pius V, not changing until the Holy Week reform of pius xii in 1955. The practice in both East and West has involved bringing the reserved Eucharist to the altar in procession at the end of the service, praying the Lord's Prayer, and then sharing communion.

In the Christian West, beginning in the ninth century, those not receiving communion on Sundays were sometimes dismissed with the priest's blessing, and communion then followed. This became common on Sunday communion days in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Monasteries and convents without a resident priest sometimes used similar prayer services for weekday communion from the reserved sacrament or associated it with the Liturgy of the Hours. A similar short service, usually penitential, was generally inserted into the Mass itself when laity were to receive and is found in the Missal of Pius V. As communion became more frequent after the Council of Trent, such a service was often held on weekdays apart from Mass or even immediately before or after Mass for the convenience of those who were unable to be at Mass or preferred not to be. It was also often customary in some parishes to distribute communion throughout the weekday Mass without any link to the Mass itself.

All these practices presume that some of the bread sanctified at Mass is kept back (reserved) for subsequent use. For the first millennium the Eucharist was normally reserved only for the communion of the sick and dying. Beginning in the eleventh century, partly for convenience and partly because of the growing distinction between the Eucharist as sacrifice and the Eucharist as sacrament, communion from the reserved sacrament became common at Mass as well. With the increased frequency of communion after the Council of Trent this became the rule rather than the exception, despite the preference expressed in the Missal of Pius V and in documents of Benedict XIV (1742) and Pius XII (Mediator Dei ). This preference was repeated in stronger language at Vatican II (SC 55), in GIRM 56h, and in Holy Communion and Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass 13, but the practice continues.

The current Communion Service differs from the tradition in allowing such a service on Sundays for a community, not just certain individuals. As liturgical ministries were increasingly reserved to the priest, especially from the ninth century on, communities without a priest generally used a devotional service on Sundays in place of the Eucharist; e.g., the rosary. Sometimes these services were more clearly liturgical; e.g., part of the Liturgy of the Hours or, in Europe and Latin America in modern times under Protestant influence, a scripture service. In 1965 lay eucharistic ministers were authorized in East Germany and a Communion Service began to be added to the scripture service when Eucharist could not be celebrated because of the shortage of priests. Permission for this was extended worldwide in 1967 and became increasingly common as a substitute for Sunday Eucharist. However, in much of the world the Communion Service is not possible because the Eucharist cannot be reserved, either because of infrequent visits by a priest or the climate.

The Congregation for Divine Worship's Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (1988), the U.S. bishops' Gathered in Steadfast Faith: Statement on Sunday Worship in the Absence of a Priest (1991), the Canadian bishops' Sunday Celebrations of the Word: Gathering in the Expectation of the Eucharist (1992), and similar documents gave reluctant approval to the practice of the Sunday Communion Service, warning against the danger of separating communion from Mass. The documents recommended Morning or Evening Prayer or a Liturgy of the Word when Sunday Eucharist cannot be celebrated and permitted a Communion Service to be added. They emphasized a particular concern that the Communion Service could be confused with the Mass or lead to a decreased appreciation of the Eucharist.

Although weekday Communion Services have a base in the tradition, the Sunday Communion Service apart from the celebration of Eucharist is a late twentieth-century development that is the consequence of the ordination discipline and a clergy shortage. Although the service provides a means of eucharistic participation and access, it is derivative and passive. Theological criticism, based on the importance of the assembly's celebration of Eucharist on the Lord's Day, calls attention to the practice obscuring the assembly's role, diminishing the link between ecclesial and eucharistic communion, deemphasizing the significance of the laity in the celebration of the eucharistic sacrifice and reducing their role to receiving communion, minimizing the roles and significance of both ordained and lay ministers (e.g., the priest as one who consecrates), and promoting an individualistic devotional spirituality. Bishops have warned against coming to accept this practice as common or adequate. Many critics suggest a residual clericalism: the Sunday Communion Service gives a higher priority to an exclusively male ordained priesthood than to communities celebrating Eucharist on Sunday. These critics point out that the Roman and U.S. documents highlight this priority by naming the service according to its leader, departing from the older tradition of naming a service according to its nature.

Bibliography: j. dallen, The Dilemma of Priestless Sundays (Chicago 1994). m. henchal, Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest (Washington DC 1992); w. marrevÉe, "Priestless MassesAt What Cost?" Église et Théologie 19 (1988) 207222;n. mitchell, Cult and Controversy: The Worship of the Eucharist outside Mass (New York 1982).

[j. dallen]

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Communion Service

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