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Hallo again to all.

Some time ago we were aghast to learn, at a dear friend's deathbed, that his parish priest had not been to visit him in hospice, not even for a brief hallo. And certainly not last rites. He died without receiving 'proper' communion, but we are confident that, guided by his wife's bedside prayers, God saw to his needs regardless of how neglectful his priest may have been. We never learned if the priest had been too busy, too forgetful, too fearful, or too ignorant to realize that this was one of his most important duties. Or maybe he was just lazy.

Many loaves, no fishesDistribution of a valuable and limited item for which there is large demand has been a problem since the dawn of time. It's true that consecrated elements are not a commodity like cocaine or caviar or black truffles, but since the supply and demand characteristics of communion wafers are similar to that of black truffles or Erythroxylum, it is reasonable to assume that human behaviours resulting from their rarity will be similar.

Rationing, smuggling, licensing, hoarding, legislating. It's all been tried.

Just today we read on the website of a certain parish 'If you are housebound and unable to attend church, we are able to offer Home Communion once a month.' Another parish in another country, led by a priest that we know and respect, offers monthly communion services (led by the priest) at local retirement villages. We know that many priests would be delighted to bring communion to the homebound, the hospitalized, and the incapacitated. Alas, no matter how well-meaning they might be, any priest in a successful parish has far too busy a calendar for there to be much time for home communion.

This problem of people wanting communion more often than it can reasonably be administered is not new. Tertullian (who died in the third century AD) wrote 'accepto corpore Domini et reservato, utrumque salvum est, et participatio sacramenti et executio officii', which (roughly translated) says that one can accept the body of Christ and then save it to eat at another time. The Catholic Encyclopedia, citing St Basil, notes 'It was clearly also permitted to Christians, especially in the time of persecution, to keep the Blessed Sacrament in their own possession that they might receive it privately.' St Basil died in the fourth century AD. In the fifth century, a Council of Toledo denounced those who did not immediately consume the elements when they received them from the priest at the altar.

Black truffles are in short supply because they are rare. Consecrated eucharistic species, like cocaine, are not rare; access is limited not by the supply (a priest can consecrate any amount of bread, even a trainload), but by the means of distribution. Communion offered by a priest in a church is easy to distribute: those able to stand and walk come forward; the priest carries the elements to those few who cannot. Communion offered in homes and hospitals is so much harder to distribute. Given this difficulty, even the offer of home communion once a month is generous.

Most parishes that we know try to solve this problem by having members of the congregation, lay people, distribute and administer reserved communion. We've seen them called Home Communion Ministers, Lay Eucharistic Visitors, Lay Eucharistic Ministers, Eucharistic Assistants, and other terms we can't remember. We once knew a faithful home communion person named Mabel, and we heard someone once refer to 'the Mabels of the congregation' when he couldn't remember the proper term.

While there is strong disagreement as to who, exactly, is allowed to consecrate bread and wine or to preside over a service of communion, we've not noticed any arguments at all about the people who heroically take these consecrated and reserved elements to the sick and homebound. All these lay persons need is a license from the bishop, access to suitable transportation, and they're ready to work.

One loaf, one chaliceIn our home parish, just before the post communion prayer every week, the president hands a small case of reserved elements to the person ready to deliver it, and says 'In His name, and in the name of this congregation, we send you forth bearing these holy gifts that those to whom you go may share with us in the communion of Christ's body and blood.' Yet, oddly, we've never called the church and asked for home communion even when recuperating from major surgery. We're not sure why, but it has something to do with the chasm between our two worlds of church and home, and with the deep sense of separation from the Body of Christ that we feel when home convalescing.

Yesterday, though, we noticed this statement on the website of St John the Evangelist in Leamington, Ontario:

Home Communion Ministers are a team of licensed parishioners, who are sent forth by the parish to take communion to our brothers and sisters who are shut-in, in their own homes. The Home Communion Minister leaves church following their own participation in communion on Sunday morning, therefore, as worship is still continuing, it is in effect bringing church to the shut-in, and reinforcing that they are still an important and valuable part of the life of the church.

That seems to us to be the best way we've ever seen of providing that vital link between home communion and corporate communion: it extends the corporate service into the home. We're sufficiently delighted at this simple but radical idea that we'll forgive them the use of a .com (commercial) domain name for their website. And we'd probably hand the lay visitor an offering envelope on his or her way out.

See you next week.

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Last updated: 22 August 2010

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