Adapted from a talk given to parish Ministers of Communion.
LUKE 7: 1-10
When he had finished all his words to the people, he entered Capernaum. A centurion there had a slave who was ill and about to die, and he was valuable to him. When he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and save the life of his slave. They approached Jesus and strongly urged him to come, saying, “He deserves to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation and he built the synagogue for us.” And Jesus went with them, but when he was only a short distance from the house, the centurion sent friends to tell him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof. Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him and, turning, said to the crowd following him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When the messengers returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.
Theologians are fond of petty arguments. Not least among these is the debate whether to use the term Eucharistic Minister for laypersons who distribute Holy Communion, or the more specific, but linguistically clumsy Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. We are not here today to engage or settle this debate. What we are here to do is focus on the common denominator of both of these terms: MINISTER.
No matter what we call it, the Church is very clear about those who distribute Communion at Mass and after Mass to the sick and homebound. They are ministers—not functionaries, not an extra set of helping hands—real life intermediaries for the Almighty: ones through whom God is working and coming to be with His people. Since this is the case it deserves constant reflection, constant prayer, and constant growth on our part in understanding what it is we do as Ministers of Communion. Hence we are here tonight. And I thank you for being here.
(Slightly relevant, self-deprecating anecdote omitted for sake of time/space. Please contact author if you’d like to know more about this middle-school peccadillo.)
Eucharistic Ministry, especially in an American liturgical setting is not an easy task. Well it’s easy to hand people hosts or hand them a chalice, but to do it well—to do it as a minister—requires a tremendous bit of preparation and focus. How many times have we perhaps felt like Holy Gumball Machines?—just dispensing the Lord to whomever waddles their way to us in the Communion conveyer belt. This mindset certainly cannot be what the Church asks of us when we are commissioned to be Ministers of Communion.
To address this problem I think we need to have a deeper appreciation of that most glorious and fateful moment when we, along with our brothers and sisters of the Church, receive Communion. If we take the (adapted) Centurion’s prayer seriously, Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof but only say the word and my soul shall be healed, we realize that our own reception is not a prerequisite for healing. For we are not a people whose faiths are idiosyncratic, but a people whose growth in the Lord is bound up with one another. That means even on those days when we feel called to refrain from receiving Eucharist we can learn something about ourselves and our role as ministers of Communion. When we sit in our pew, perhaps watching close friends or total strangers receive the Lord, we find ourselves being strangely strengthened, not given to despair or jealousy, but hope.
This goes just as well, and even more so, for days on which we do receive. During Confirmation class last year a local kid asked if we had any advice for how not to be judgmental or distracted during Communion. I told her what a priest once told me. He said, “If you’re the type of person that watches people during Communion—don’t stop being you. Keep watching. But when they receive communion, instead of saying, ‘Eww that dress is horrible,’ or ‘I know what they did last night,’ keep it simple. Say, ‘Amen.’ For we are all the Body of Christ; when one receives the Lord we all receive Him.”
I’m not sure how it affected that young person, but I know those words have continuously been an important guidepost for my Eucharistic Ministry. At those times when I am lost in the routine, saying this simple prayer with those who receive from me—AMEN—brings me back into the holiness of that encounter: two people, a whole church in fact, brought together by and through the Lord in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. I think we all need something like this—a mantra, a refrain—something that not only reminds of what we’re doing, but actually re-enters us into the heart of our ministry.
This “Amen,” this simple prayer of acknowledgment, forms the first part of our ministerial spirituality. It means we have taken seriously the call to “pray with” others, to acknowledge that something real and radical happens when others call upon God’s name and receive Him into their hearts. It mystifies us and prods us into the next step of ministry: praying for others, that they might grow deeper in love and in faith with the living God.