For the better part of two years, there has been an interesting discussion brewing in the Catholic Answers Forums regarding the appropriateness and licitness of imparting a blessing in lieu of distributing Holy Communion. Back in August 2008, two forum members submitted a letter to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments asking if such action was permissible.
The CDWDS issued this response on November 22, 2008 (Protocol No. 930/08/L):
1. The liturgical blessing of the Holy Mass is properly given to each and to all at the conclusion of the Mass, just a few moments subsequent to the distribution of Holy Communion.
2. Lay people, within the context of Holy Mass, are unable to confer blessings. These blessings, rather, are the competence of the priest (cf. Ecclesia de Mysterio, Notitiae 34 (15 Aug. 1997), art. 6, § 2; Canon 1169, § 2; and Roman Ritual De Benedictionibus (1985), n. 18).
3. Furthermore, the laying on of a hand or hands — which has its own sacramental significance, inappropriate here — by those distributing Holy Communion, in substitution for its reception, is to be explicitly discouraged.
4. The Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio n. 84, “forbids any pastor, for whatever reason to pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry”. To be feared is that any form of blessing in substitution for communion would give the impression that the divorced and remarried have been returned, in some sense, to the status of Catholics in good standing.
5. In a similar way, for others who are not to be admitted to Holy Communion in accord with the norm of law, the Church’s discipline has already made clear that they should not approach Holy Communion nor receive a blessing. This would include non-Catholics and those envisaged in can. 915 (i.e., those under the penalty of excommunication or interdict, and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin).
While the CDWDS indicated that they were studying the matter, their response bears a lot of weight here because they have given guidelines as to how to best proceed in these cases.
Sadly, this practice has spread like wildfire throughout the United States. In a well-intended, but, misguided attempt at inclusivity, folks who are not yet eligible to receive Holy Communion either because they are not yet Catholic or have a particular issue, are invited and encouraged to come forward during the time reserved for the distribution of Holy Communion to receive a blessing as a substitute. This particular "ritual" appears nowhere in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, let alone the Roman Missal, nor does it show up in Redemptionis Sacramentum.
When the celebrant holds the Sacred Host over either the paten or the chalice, he recites this inviation: "Behold, the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb" (taken from the coming revised Roman Missal). The invitation is to come forward to receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, not a blessing. This is not to say that the Church is being exclusive in this matter nor unwelcoming to those who cannot receive Holy Communion for whatever circumstance. We form a line to receive Someone, Jesus Christ, in his full Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, not something, a blessing.
The blessing, actually, is the most inclusive part of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass because everyone can receive it. One does not have to be Catholic, let alone Christian, to receive this blessing. But, it should be imparted at its proper place, the end of the Holy Sacrifice, as the response from the CDWDS indicates.
The CDWDS states that such blessings are explicitly discouraged. It is not that the CDWDS is trying to be uncharitable towards those who cannot receive Holy Commuion. However, as stated before, such a ritual appears nowhere in the approved liturgical books of the Church. In fact, a person, on his own authority, cannot invent a ritual and insert into the Mass. According to Sacrosanctum Concilium:
Therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the Liturgy on his own authority.
Redemptionis Sacramentum reaffirms this statement when it notes that:
[11.] The Mystery of the Eucharist "is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured".27 On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free rein to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved,28 and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today.
Some on the Catholic Answers Forums, particularly in the Liturgy and Sacraments division, have argued that the bishop can grant permission for these blessings to occur. However, proponents of this stance might have forgotten one huge detail. According to the GIRM:
387. The Diocesan Bishop, who is to be regarded as the high priest of his flock, and from whom the life in Christ of the faithful under his care in a certain sense derives and upon whom it depends,148 must promote, regulate, and be vigilant over the liturgical life in his diocese. It is to him that in this Instruction is entrusted the regulating of the discipline of concelebration (cf. above, nos. 202, 374) and the establishing of norms regarding the function of serving the priest at the altar (cf. above, no. 107), the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds (cf. above, no. 283), and the construction and ordering of churches (cf. above, no. 291). With him lies responsibility above all for fostering the spirit of the Sacred Liturgy in the priests, deacons, and faithful.These are the responsibitlities of the bishop. Now, in the event that a bishop may want to address a particular issue such as adding something to the GIRM in the form of an adaptation, then, the competency shifts from the bishop to the national episcopal conference to which he belongs (in our case, it would fall to the USCCB). According to the GIRM:
390. It is up to the Conferences of Bishops to decide on the adaptations indicated in this General Instruction and in the Order of Mass and, once their decisions have been accorded the recognitio of the Apostolic See, to introduce them into the Missal itself. These adaptations include
Directories or pastoral instructions that the Conferences of Bishops judge useful may, with the prior recognitio of the Apostolic See, be included in the Roman Missal at an appropriate place.
- The gestures and posture of the faithful (cf. no. 43 above);
- The gestures of veneration toward the altar and the Book of the Gospels (cf. no. 273 above);
- The texts of the chants at the entrance, at the presentation of the gifts, and at Communion (cf. nos. 48, 74, 87 above);
- The readings from Sacred Scripture to be used in special circumstances (cf. no. 362 above);
- The form of the gesture of peace (cf. no. 82 above);
- The manner of receiving Holy Communion (cf. nos. 160, 283 above);
- The materials for the altar and sacred furnishings, especially the sacred vessels, and also the materials, form, and color of the liturgical vestments (cf. nos. 301, 326, 329, 339, 342-346 above).
A bishop, or bishops, may propose something in the form of an adapation of the GIRM to the USCCB, but, 2/3 of the Latin-Rite bishops must approve it in order for the change to be submitted to Rome for the necessary recognitio from the CDWDS. At this point, the CDWDS could grant or deny the recognitio.
There are others who have made the argument that this practice is one of pastoral necessity. However, the term "pastoral" has been used on not a few occasions to justify questionable liturgical practices. "Pastoral", as I see it, does not necessarily mean that one has "carte blanche" to do with the liturgy as he or she pleases. While certainly sensitivities can and should be taken into account, these should be used to help people understand the Church's reasonsings why things can or cannot be done, rather than make adjustments on one's own authority.
The proper solution to this situation revolves around giving the faithful the appropriate catechesis on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and why the Church restricts Holy Communion only to those who are properly disposed to receive this most august Sacrament. It is not about discriminating against certain segments. It is about the integrity of the rites. Furthermore, a truly pastoral approach, in this case, would include encouraging those who cannot receive Holy Communion to make a spiritual communion. They remain in their pews during Communion time and, either kneeling or sitting down, as Jesus to come into their hearts spiritually and to strengthen them until such time as they will one day receive Him in Holy Communion. This is a practice that many of the saints have advocated down through the centuries and something that the Church has taught for generations. Sadly, it is something that is rarely heard of today.
Another question arises where children are concerned. Granted, small children should not be left alone in the pews. However, if we teach children that getting a blessing is a substitute for receiving Holy Communion, then, we are not really teaching them the importance of why we are forming a line in the first place. What one prudent pastor has done in South Texas is to have the children reverence the Holy Sacrament by either a bow of the head or some other small act. Thus, the children are taught that they are forming a line to come into the presence of Jesus while their parents are awaiting to receive Him. Now, that is a truly pastoral approach.