Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist versus the Extraordinary Form of the Mass

Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist versus the Extraordinary Form of the Mass

Original Article By Andrew Parrish
August 31, 2017

In fields such as theology, even words drawn from the vernacular, as opposed to custom-minted Latin terms, have a certain necessary precision in their meaning. An example of such a common word, generally meaning something specific, is “extraordinary.” In Catholic teaching, this word has the same definition as it does at large, only with slightly more dogmatic emphasis: An “extraordinary” thing is a thing, compared to the “ordinary”, that is in some way beyond, unusual, additional.

Thus, for example, there are “extraordinary means of care” in Catholic bioethics. The means of care which are “extraordinary” are those which meet certain conditions of difficulty, expense, etc. relative to the circumstances and prognosis of a patient, placing them beyond the “ordinary” which all human dignity demands as rightful, and freeing them to be the subject of a conscientious decision about suitability. They are unusual means of care, something extravagant or experimental. The “extraordinary” is here just that.

There is also the “extraordinary Magisterium”, placed in conjunction with the “Ordinary Magisterium.” The extraordinary magisterium is an infallible pronouncement of the Pope, an exercise of his authority in the fullness of its power. It is outwardly similar in form to the ordinary magisterium, the “other” pronouncements of the Pope, but by its meeting certain rigidly defined conditions, it rises above the “ordinary” category and is placed in a more well-defined way under the special protection of infallibility. Thus, in this case we see an additional possibility in the meaning of “extraordinary” in Catholic theology: the sense that an extraordinary thing is not just different but above, of an exceptional dignity and weight.

It is curious, then, that of the two most commonly met uses of the word “extraordinary”, neither quite seems to follow the general rule. The first is the Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. In the living memory of most Catholics, an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist is nothing of the kind. They are, in fact, quite “Ordinary” ministers; one will have statistically received the Body and/or Blood of Christ far more often from a layperson than from a priest. There are physically more of them: sometimes at a ratio of ten or twelve to one. The provision for this office is made in cases of necessity, when it is difficult or impossible for a priest to administer Communion without help: these are the “extraordinary” circumstances being referred to. The technical meaning is here preserved, but the practice empties it of its significance: Extraordinary Ministers are not extraordinary.

The second is the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite”, or the Latin Mass. While “Extraordinary” in this case could have the additional meaning, as noted above, of “solemn” or “special”, it still means “unusual” as well, and this is odd. For, from a disinterested historical perspective, the Extraordinary Form is certainly the ordinary way Mass was said. Here, then, we have almost the opposite issue: where previously that which is Extraordinary has practically become ordinary, here that which was very recently ordinary is now called Extraordinary.

The Extraordinary Form of the Mass, in the decades after Vatican II, was rarely offered and unusual. A gradual reinsertion of this form into the general life of the Church culminated with Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, which recommended that the two Masses of the Latin rite be given equal status: any priest who wished to celebrate either, or any laypeople who wished to attend either, were to do so freely. Considering that there is no longer anything unusual about the celebration of the old form, Pope Benedict’s use of the term “extraordinary” to refer to it now seems to mean “special” or “significant”. If this is not a desired conclusion, it may be asked: what function does the phrase “Extraordinary Form” now serve? Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist ought to be exceptional, technically speaking, but they are common; the Extraordinary Form of the Mass ought to be common, according to the documents, and yet it remains unusual. For clarity’s sake, if nothing else, these two opposite misuses of the word should be brought into closer observance of its accepted meaning.

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