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The Ordinary Experience of an Extraordinary Minister

Carrying the Blessed Sacrament to the elderly, sick, and home-bound has been for me a wonderful experience. As an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, each encounter with a communicant is at the same time ordinary and yet mysterious.

Ordinary because it does not include much fanfare. Simply, you knock on their door, enter in, maybe chat if they wish to, pray for a few moments, give them Communion, then continue on to the next place. No long procession, gaudy vestments, brass bells, or incense. On occasion, they may have a candle lit. For any spectators, this is not an extraordinary encounter.

Yet, without a doubt, the reality of mystery overshadows each encounter. Even if you know well the theology of the Holy Eucharist, and you may know the person who receives it, you can only be a witness here. You can only watch in awe as a soul receives Jesus in quiet, in private, in peace. This mystery, though before your very eyes, holds some deep truth and reality which is not yours to know.

The small vessel for carrying the Eucharist is called the Pyx and the little pouch it may fit into is called a Burse.

I have had in the last few years, a few opportunities to experience the ministry of bringing Holy Communion to the faithful. A few times, this involved going into various hospitals. More commonly, the parishes where I was on assignment would keep a list of home-bound parishioners and send out ministers once or twice a month for “home visits.” Finally, I have attended on occasion a daily Mass offered in assisted living homes.

Throughout these experiences, I have been blessed to meet dozens of faith-filled people. In the context of these visits, I am the minister and they are the recipient. Yet, when I leave, I find that I am affected. Their faith effects me. Here is a simply collection of such experiences and a reflection on what I have learned from their faith.

An anthology of holy communicants

M. is an elderly European woman who told us stories of post-war Germany, meeting her husband there, and immigrating to the Lehigh Valley. Her hospitality and warmth are only overshadowed by her piety in receiving the Eucharist. She is lonely and looks forward to visitors. Truly humble, she expressed her wish to please God. It hurt my heart a little to leave her home.

S. is a kind gentleman of Slovak heritage. A lot of other parishioners around are Slovak, many even cousins. S. lives in a retirement home, and his rooms are homely and comfortable. He is well familiar with prayer and shares that in his youth, he considered the priesthood. I get the sense that he might wish he had pursued it. In his age, he gets very tired, but he tries to pray the Liturgy of the Hours still. He receives the Sacrament as a model of humility, reminding me of a child at first Communion.

W. is a long retired doctor, living with his son's family. He speaks excitedly about his history, his knowledge, and books he has written. He stills wishes to be up and about, but his age and health keep him off his feet. He talks about his next book, though his son chides him that he must pick a better title so the publishers will accept it. W. doesn't speak much of religion, but he is happy as we pray and he eats the Bread of Life.

C. is mostly deaf. His son and I must speak loudly and often repeat questions to him. The conversation is mostly between the son- a regular lector at the parish- and I. C. waits patiently and smiles all the while. As we pray, he announces, “Amen” loudly and crosses himself reverently. He seems to me the picture of patience.

J. is an old retired priest. He lives with some of his family, who devotedly help take care of him. Though his memory is very slow and he cannot participate in conversation as actively as he would like, each word he says carries a real sense of pastoral kindness. It is strange to me that I should be the one to lead the prayers for this Communion service. Yet, the prayers are so ingrained, J. can say them with ease once begun. As I say to him, “The Body of Christ,” he is not indignant, ashamed, or humiliated. Rather, he is like any faithful Christian receiving the Lord: humble, devoted, and at peace.

K. lives with her daughter, who is a nurse. They have a beautiful little home in an area I would call semi-rural. She is a great conversationalist, often asking questions and pausing to listen. K.'s stamina limits her mobility, so she spends most of the day in a couple rooms only, especially the kitchen. I have to guess she loves this room best, because when I have visited, she usually offers some baked treats: cookies or cupcakes or kiffles. But on these visits, it is she who receives the greatest food. When she eats the Bread of Angels, she tends to cry softly for a few quiet moments. The mystery of this love is deeper than I could say.

Going to the homes of old married couples is a mysterious experience. Most of the time, one of them is more mobile, loquacious, and does most of the talking for both of them. Though not always, often one of the couple sits more quietly. The mystery of their devotion, the faithfulness of a man and woman maybe together for fifty years or so, permeates the atmosphere of their home. How a man can stay crazy about his wife; how she can love her man as he goes crazy: what a testament to the reality of love! And their love is reflected- in fact fulfilled- in that gift of Love Himself, the endless love of the Divine Gift.

Many communicants I have visited are Spanish-speaking only. I can read well enough to follow the rite, but my conversation skills are limited and juvenile. A great trend I notice is that Hispanic or Latino families live together very often. It has not been uncommon that while I came to visit an abuelo or abuela with Communion, the grown children or grand-children would be about. They might join to pray or simply watch or listen from a nearby room.

This was the case for Señora C. who did not speak a word of English. She did not seem terribly old, but she was weak and bed-ridden. As she accepted the Blessed Sacrament, she moved slowly and carefully. I imagine she knew some truth of the profound reality of peace and mercy beyond what I could.

My visits are to widows, to long-married couples, to old soldiers, to immigrants, to retired doctors and teachers, persons reticent or garrulous, to the weak, and to the ill; all to bring them the Body of Christ. My experience is not as a social worker or a counselor. I can not provide much earthly comfort beyond some company. I can not cure people of depression, of loneliness, of restlessness, or of ailments.

Yet, I experience an encounter of God with the human condition. I see redemption. I see consolation. I see love. I have learned this:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son...

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