One of the most important parts of Catholic health care ministry is the administration of Holy Communion. This much needed ministry and sacred charge is carried out by bishops, priests, and deacons who, by virtue of their ordination, serve as ordinary ministers of Holy Communion. It is also carried out by extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion who are commissioned to assist those ordinary ministers in certain circumstances. One circumstance in which the service of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion is both necessary and of great benefit is when Holy Communion is to be administered to women and men whose health is being care for in hospitals, other health care facilities, or private homes.
All Ministers of Holy Communion, whether ordinary or extraordinary, are capable of exercising that ministry either well or poorly. To exercise their ministry well, it is necessary that they acquire and develop particular virtues. By God’s grace and by their freely chosen actions, ministers of Holy Communion can grow in the virtues by which they readily and consistently do what is good, confirm their own good character, are built up in Christian holiness, and perform their ministry with excellence. With the help of Saint Thomas Aquinas, I would like to propose some of the virtues that best characterize excellent ministers of Holy Communion.
Reverence and Adoration
According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, adoration is an exterior act of the virtue of religion, by which human beings fittingly reverence God (Summa Theologiae II-II q.84, a.1). Adoration is an exterior act of religion, meaning it has to do with the bodily actions by which reverence for God is shown.
Of course, the reverence of human beings for God has to do, first and foremost, with the interior devotion of their hearts and minds. But since human beings are composed of both soul and body, the interior dispositions of their hearts and minds are both expressed and reinforced by bodily actions. So, for example, when faithful men and women make the sign of the cross to invoke the Triune God, or kneel down to express humility, or beat their breasts to demonstrate repentance, their outward actions both express and reinforce the devotion that is in the interiority of their hearts and minds.
Those physical, bodily acts of adoration have a special importance when it comes to showing reverence for the Eucharist. For, in the Eucharist, God the Son is really present in what appears to us as a physical substance. God comes to us in physicality of a sacrament that we can see and touch and taste. Our response to God must necessarily be physical. God shows us His invisible love through the visible bread and wine. We are to respond by showing the reverence of our invisible souls through the actions of our visible bodies.
Therefore, when excellent ministers of Holy Communion approach the tabernacle to obtain or repose the Blessed Sacrament, they genuflect or bow in adoration of their Eucharistic Lord. When they walk down the street or through a hospital or nursing home, they are continually aware of the read presence of Jesus Christ whom they reverently carry on their persons. They express that reverence through bodily acts of adoration: their careful handling of the Blessed Sacrament in their administration of Holy Communion, their protection of the Body and Blood of Christ from any mistreatment, their bodily manifestation of the joy and kindness of the Lord whose ministers they are privileged to be.
According to Saint Thomas, “Magnanimity by its very name denotes the stretching forth of the mind to great things,” and, “An act is simply and absolutely great when it consists in the best use of the greatest thing” (ST II-II q.129, a.1). What thing could be greater than the Sacrament in which the Incarnate God is really present? What better use could be made of that Blessed Sacrament than to administer it to God’s faithful people as Holy Communion?
Every virtue has to do with making the best use of something or acting in the best way toward someone. For example, temperance has to do with making the best use of food and drink, and justice is about treating other people in the best way. Sometimes the objects of virtuous actions are small things. A piece of chocolate can be the object of a temperate act; a dollar bill can be the object of a just act. Those actions can be great, however, due to the great virtue with which they are done. When they are done by souls infused with charity, they can even be acts of divine love.
Magnanimity, therefore, is not the greatest of the virtues. Charity is. Because the greatness of a person’s actions and character depend more on the virtue in that person’s soul than the action that person is performing. That is why Jesus said that the poor widow gave more than all the rest (Mk. 12:41-44).
Nevertheless, ministers of Holy Communion have chosen to do something truly great. They renew that magnanimous choice every time they exercise their ministry. By the grace of God, their hearts and minds “stretch forth” to the greatest of things.