Why we offer both kinds of Communion

Deacon Agnoli

By Deacon Frank Agnoli

The recent article, “Phoenix Diocese to adopt new norms for Communion cup,” might have raised a number of questions: Is the Diocese of Phoenix really following Church law in this matter? If so, are we doing something wrong by continuing to offer Communion under both kinds as the norm?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) begins by listing those occasions when Communion under both species is permitted: special cases mentioned in the ritual books (such as the couple at their wedding), concelebrating priests, assisting deacons and other ministers at Mass, members of a religious community at their conventual Mass, seminarians, and persons on a retreat or attending a spiritual or pastoral gathering. The GIRM then states that the diocesan bishop may expand this list and allow pastors to share Communion under both species when “appropriate” (GIRM #283).

So, does the Bishop of Phoenix have the authority to determine under what conditions Communion under both kinds will be offered in his diocese? Yes. Does that have any effect on what we do here? No.

The norm for our diocese has been, and remains, the offering of Communion under both kinds at every Mass — unless there is a sound reason not to do so.  Why do we take this approach? Because a careful reading of the Church’s documents reveals that what is “appropriate” is actually quite broad.


The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that the mere observation of liturgical laws, while necessary, is not sufficient (#11). The minimum is not good enough. Rather, Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people (1 Pet. 2:9; cf. 2:4-5), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else (#14)…. In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community (#21).

In order to foster this kind of participation, we need to let the sacramental symbols speak in all their fullness. Baptism by pouring water is still baptism; but the meaning of the sacrament is more clearly communicated by immersion. Anointing is still valid with a thumb dipped in oil; but pouring oil speaks more clearly of God’s lavish love. A small host alone is still Communion; but substantial bread and access to the chalice make it clear that we are at the Lamb’s Banquet… that we partake in the bread of life and cup of salvation, and are willing to drink of the cup of suffering along with Christ. Theology is one thing; ritual that touches us to the core of our beings is another. Liturgy is about the body, not just the head.

This is the context for all further liturgical development and legislation; any interpretation of subsequent law must keep these overarching principles in mind. We are now on the third edition of the Missal and of its General Instruction (GIRM) after Vatican II. The Church’s view on Communion under both species has certainly evolved.

Based on paragraph 55 of the Constitution, all three editions of the GIRM have emphasized that Communion under both species is a more full form of what Communion stands for: our union with Christ and one another, our participation in the paschal mystery, an image of that eschatological banquet in which we will share at the end of time.  As the current GIRM states, “this clearer form of the sacramental sign offers a particular opportunity for understanding more deeply the mystery in which the faithful participate” (#14).

So, when is it “appropriate” to offer Communion under both kinds? According to the Constitution and the GIRM, it is appropriate when it promotes the full participation and understanding of the faithful; and Communion under both forms by its very nature promotes that kind of full and conscious participation because it more clearly communicates what the sacrament is all about!

When is it not appropriate? The GIRM (#283) states that Communion should not be distributed under the form of wine if (a) the people have not been well-catechized (for example, they need to know the teaching on concomitance, that Christ is fully present under either form), (b) there is danger of profanation, or (c) the rite is too difficult to carry out (for example, because of an extraordinarily large crowd or too few ministers). The U.S. norms for Communion add another reason: “the need to avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon as the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion by an excessive use of extraordinary ministers” (US Norms #24).

If these reasons truly exist, then there would be cause to impose restrictions on the use of Communion under both kinds in specific places. But is that really the case? I can’t speak for Phoenix, but it is fair to say that in our diocese they do not; and when they do (for example, when we have had crowds or venues that made it too difficult to carry out the rite or increased the risk of spillage), we have made the decision to withhold the chalice on that occasion.

Are Catholics here really ignorant of the Church’s teaching? Is there a danger of someone purposefully seeking to show disrespect to the Eucharist (which is what “profanation” means)? If so, then the local pastor should exercise due discretion; but those are not reasons to limit access to Communion under both forms across our diocese.

Is it really true that people can’t tell the difference between priests/deacons and lay ministers, so much so that the “unique ministry” of the ordained is somehow threatened by having lay persons help with the Communion rite? The question of “excessive” use of extraordinary ministers of Communion is not about numbers. Yes, it is never appropriate to multiply ministers just to give people “something to do” — or to use extraordinary ministers when enough ordinary ministers are present. However, if a certain number of ministers are needed to allow for the rite to be celebrated smoothly and reverently, whether Communion is distributed under the form of wine or not, then, by definition, their use is not “excessive.”

The article offered other reasons for restricting access to the chalice. But is it really true that solidarity with the poor requires us to abstain from the chalice? If so, we should also abstain from Communion under the form of bread (after all, people are starving) or, better, sell our gold vessels to help them. Is it really true that disunity results because not all partake of Communion under the form of wine?  Does unity require uniformity? If so, does the fact that not all may commune (according to Church law), not all are able to commune (for example, those with celiac disease), or not all choose to do so mean that we should also withhold Communion under the form of bread from everyone?

Across 2,000 years, the Church’s way of celebrating Communion has changed. Most recently, the Church has returned the chalice to the laity and consistently expanded the opportunities for Com­munion under both kinds. The intent of this expansion therefore seems to be to encourage those not yet offering Communion under both kinds to do so, not to have those already taking full advantage of the permission given to move in the opposite direction.

(Deacon Frank Agnoli is director of liturgy for the Diocese of Davenport).

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on