The Case in Phoenix

It has been pretty much the talk of the liturgical town that Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix, Arizona, is withdrawing permission to give communion under both forms to the laity except under certain limited conditions. Communion from the cup will no longer be offered in Phoenix on ordinary Sundays or weekdays.His decision is unusual for the great American West and puzzling on a number of levels. Many observers have wondered if Bishop Olmsted isa bellwether, a leader in liturgical trends. Will others surely follow in this path? Or, one might ask, is he merely copying the fashions in Rome without deep thought, whereas other bishops would think twice about restricting a well-established andbenign practice such as this.It helps to know some history.

The Second Vatican Council opened the door to a broader use of communion under both forms for the laity. It did so cautiously, because the measure was controversial at the time. Some of the fathers were adamantly opposed to it. They were persuaded to support the measure because the instances named in Sacrosanctum Concilium were few. Others favored a broader implementation. They were persuaded to vote for the measure because there would be the possibility of extending the practice through local permissions.

We've inherited in our documents the tension that existed at that time. A sort of "Yes, but" refrain runs through official literature on the subject. And, as everyone knows, there has been a rush lately to revisit and revive the minority opinions on almost everything the Council decided, especially in the area of liturgy.

Nevertheless, I think it is safe to say that on balance, since the Council, the Church has moved firmly in the direction of the fuller use of the sign by offering easier access to communion under both forms. In fact, it is a signal accomplishment that the 2002 General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM) actually broadened the permission and made it easier to achieve for the worldwide church.

The issue is an important one. The driving force behind the restoration of the cup to the laity is two-fold. The reason most often cited is the fullness of the sign. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has this to say:

281. Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it takes place under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clearer expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the connection between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Kingdom of the Father.

The second value implicit in this restored practice is ecumenisma central theme of the Council. Although not at the front of many Catholics consciousness in this connection, ecumenism is an important reason for movement in the direction of sharing the cup more broadly. By giving the cup to the laity, the Roman Catholic Church removed what had been a cause for reproach during the Reformation, and drew closer to Christians of both the East and the West who have long held communion under both forms as their normal practice. It was quite a neat move, actually. We never gave up Trent'saffirmation that one species is good enough, but we graciously moved toward visible unity with those who offered both.

Offering communion under both forms to the laity is not new. Rather, it is a return to the practice of the Catholic Church of the first millennium. As the Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of America (2002) notes:

From the first days of the Churchs celebration of the Eucharist, Holy Communion consisted of the reception of both species in fulfillment of the Lords command to take and eattake and drink. The distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful under both kinds was thus the norm for more than a millennium of Catholic liturgical practice. (no. 17).

So, whats going on in Phoenix in 2011? Based on the FAQs from the diocese [pdf], a whole basketful of rationales, some quite dubious, have been put forward to support this change.


The FAQs that the Diocese posted on their website claim, erroneously, that restricting the cup to certain specific occasions (thus prohibiting it on ordinary Sundays and weekdays) stems from recent changes in the GIRM (FAQ2).The GIRM, revised in 2002, has indeed been retranslated and recently re-released. The 2011 version rewords quite a bit of the 2002 text. But none of the items concerning Communion from the Cup have been changed in their substance. The text is on line. Anyone can read it. The provisions are the same.


The FAQs also mystifyingly state that the United States had a 25 year special permission to experiment with Holy Communion under both forms (FAQ13). This implies that the time is up, and the experiment failed.

Not so. Our national document was updated and confirmed by the Vatican in 2002. If anything, the success of the experiment is reflected in the relaxation of the rules in the GIRM 2002 to make it easier for bishops to grant permission to their pastors for sharing the cuprules that are replicated in the 2011 edition.The U.S. bishops Web site says that in 2006 Pope Benedict did not renew a special permission for the United States. But when a special permission is not renewed, the default setting is universal legislation, which brings us back to the GIRM 2011.


The FAQs also assert that the need to avoid obscuring the role of the priest and the deacon by excessive use of extraordinary (lay) ministers might in some circumstances constitute a reason for limiting the distribution of Holy Communion under both species. This is explained in the GIRM, paragraph 24. (FAQ12).

Here is GIRM 24:

24. These adaptations consist, for the most part, in the choice of certain rites or texts, that is, of the chants, readings, prayers, explanatory interventions, and gestures capable of responding better to the needs, the preparation, and the culture of the participants and which are entrusted to the Priest Celebrant. However, the Priest will remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.

If you can find the explanation here, you are doing better than I am.

Well, we could talk more about documents, but lets just leave it at that. The FAQs are lacking documentary evidence for why this move is either necessary or helpful at this time. Restricting the cup may be the personal preference of the bishop, but its not at all clear that this is something other bishops will want to do or that the pope and our official documents are demanding.


How about philosophical or practical grounds? In other words, can we tell whats at stake in Bishop Olmsted's decision by reading the explanations given in the FAQs? I do see several arguments being presented.

One is a least-common-denominator form of solidarity with countries that dont offer communion under both forms because of poverty.In response to this, however, I think we need to ask some hard questions. Like, should Phoenix turn off its air conditioners in solidarity with poor churches around the world that cant afford air conditioning. Or, should we refuse to accept priests from Africa and India to serve in American parishes when their own dioceses have a lower ratio of priests to people. I don't understand why communion under both forms is the place where sacrifices must be made so that we will feel closer to the poor of the world. How about if we fund the expansion of the practice in poorer communities?

Another is the danger of profanation. This seems to be a big concern, and the forms of it are even listed: careless treatment, spillage, swilling, etc. (FAQ4). Is the Eucharist being profaned in Phoenix? I have no evidence in support of this whatsoever. But just for argument's sake, lets say that it is. Wouldn't a better response be to take a moratorium for a specified period of time, during which catechesis and pastoral guidance could be offered as well as renewed training for all who minister Communion from the cup?

Strangely, whenever profanation is brought forward it seems that those who espouse it believe there is always risk of profaning the sacrament by offering the cup, no matter what measures are taken. Here is where I begin to smell a phony argument. If the risk of profanation is perennial for the Eucharist under the species of wine, it is also true for the Eucharist under the species of bread.

Finally, there is the specialness argument for having communion from the cup only on special occasions. The assumption is that it becomes mundane to have it all the time. The trouble with this argument is that it assigns a decorative function to communion from the cup that paradoxically trivializes it.

The Eucharistic signs aren't like flowers or brass instruments, something you add to the liturgy on festive occasions. The fullness of the sign in the Eucharist points to our redemption, not to the festivity of the day. Saving the cup for special days is also the same sort of argument given for having communion once a month in certain Protestant churchesnot a way of thinking that we want to replicate.

In short, from the information shared publicly to date, I do not think Bishop Olmsted has presented any kind of solid, credible case for his decision. In the absence of a good case, unfortunately, observers are free to speculate that this is a matter of fashion, of pleasing people in Rome, or part of a greater scheme of which the new translation of the Roman Missal is a part (Bishop Olmsted is a member of Vox Clara) of turning the clock back on what I daresay may be classed as organic liturgical developments which have occurred since the Council.

As the diocesan bishop, he certainly can decide what to do in his diocese, but the sheer exercise of power without persuasion is an ineffective means of governing. If other bishops are watching, I hope they realize that what they are seeing is a bad example.

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press). She is a contributing writer to Commonweal.

Also by this author
Welcome, Vietnam

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads