In 1973, when Pope Paul VI promulgated the document Immensae caritatis, I somehow do not think that he could have predicted how things would look some 38 years later. What he proposed as the exception for the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion has now seemingly become the standard.
The Pontiff listed some very specific circumstances under which EMHCs could be used:
In order, then, that the faithful who are in the state of grace and rightly and devoutly wish to share in the sacred meal may not be deprived of this sacramental aid and solace, Pope Paul VI has decided it opportune to authorize special ministers who will be empowered to give communion to themselves and others of the faithful, under the exact and specified conditions here listed.Interestingly enough, the document offers this interesting instruction:
I. Local Ordinaries possess the faculty enabling them to permit fit persons, each chosen by name as a special minister, in a given instance or for a set period or even permanently, to give communion to themselves and others of the faithful and to carry it to the sick residing at home:
a. whenever no priest, deacon, or acolyte is available;
b. whenever the same ministers are impeded from administering communion because of another pastoral ministry, ill-health, or old age;
c. whenever the number of faithful wishing to receive communion is so great that the celebration of Mass or the giving of communion outside Mass would take too long.
Because these faculties have been granted exclusively in favor of the spiritual good of the faithful and for cases of genuine need, let priests remember that such faculties do not release them from the obligation of giving the eucharist to the faithful who lawfully request it and especially of bringing and administering it to the sick.Here is the key phrase: cases of genuine need. What exactly constitues this "genuine need" though, seems to be a serious bone of contention. Some 24 years after Immensae Caritatis was promulgated, the Holy See issued a new document, Ecclesia de Mysterio, treating the subject in greater detail.
A non-ordained member of the faithful, in cases of true necessity, may be deputed by the diocesan bishop, using the appropriate form of blessing for these situations, to act as an extraordinary minister to distribute Holy Communion outside of liturgical celebrations ad actum vel ad tempus (acting or temporarily appointed) or for a more stable period. In exceptional cases or in unforeseen circumstances, the priest presiding at the liturgy may authorize such ad actum.(98)
2. Extraordinary ministers may distribute Holy Communion at eucharistic celebrations only when there are no ordained ministers present or when those ordained ministers present at a liturgical celebration are truly unable to distribute Holy Communion.(99) They may also exercise this function at eucharistic celebrations where there are particularly large numbers of the faithful and which would be excessively prolonged because of an insufficient number of ordained ministers to distribute Holy Communion. (100)
This function is supplementary and extraordinary (101) and must be exercised in accordance with the norm of law.
The language used in Ecclesia de Mysterio certainly clarifies Immensae Caritatis; however, even with this clarification, in 2004, the Venerable Pope John Paul II sought to further reinforce and clarify this matter with the promulgation of Redemptionis Sacramentum, one of his last major acts. According to Redemptionis Sacramentum:
[156.] This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not "special minister of Holy Communion" nor "extraordinary minister of the Eucharist" nor "special minister of the Eucharist", by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.Given all of these instructions and clarifications that the Holy See has given throughout the course of nearly four decades, one wonders how a parish can justify using an EMHC in a Sunday Mass with only 30 communicants and an able-bodied priest. I might add that Holy Communion under one Species is distributed. Have we become so dependent on EMHCs that it seems that the Mass cannot function without them?
[157.] If there is usually present a sufficient number of sacred ministers for the distribution of Holy Communion, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion may not be appointed. Indeed, in such circumstances, those who may have already been appointed to this ministry should not exercise it. The practice of those Priests is reprobated who, even though present at the celebration, abstain from distributing Communion and hand this function over to laypersons.258
[158.] Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged.259 This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.
I used to be an EMHC. I used to be very protective of this particular ministry until I sat down and read the documents. Granted, there are some instances when EMHC usage is justified, there are many times when we are simply not needed. Some 30 communicants does not justify having an EMHC, unless the parish is distributing both Species. But, even then, the parish does not need an EMHC because the priest can distribute solo via intinction, since EMHCs are not to use that particular mode for the distribution of Holy Communion.
Sometimes, when the Church seems to make a particular concession, we tend to make more of it than we really should. I do not believe that Pope Paul VI intended to make the usage of EMHCs a widespread and ordinary practice. Certainly, the subsequent documents promulgated by the Holy See seem to try to reign in the practice.
So, why does the problem persist, then? Some will attribute this to the "pastoral" approach. However, sometimes, the word "pastoral" has been thrown around so many times as a means of justifying liturgical abuse. In a Mass where there are 100 communicants, would it really be justified to use three EMHCs when Holy Communion is distributed under one species? I can understand having extra help during Ash Wednesday when Masses are literally overflowing; however, Masses like these are not the ordinary.
Others will attribute the problem to lack of liturgical catechesis on the part of both the clergy and the faithful. While the Church allows EMHCs, she does so with exceptions because the practice of the EMHC is extraordinary and not the norm. Perhaps when training both the clergy and the EMHCs, the documents should be read, reviewed and implemented.
I am not anti-EMHC. The point that I am trying to make is that we need to respect and follow the parameters that the Church has given us.