Q: There seems to be two interpretations of GIRM #162 which states, “ministers should not approach the altar before the Priest has received Communion.” In some parishes/dioceses the Extraordinary Ministers of Communion are allowed to enter the sanctuary and take an appropriate place near the altar. The celebrant, and deacon, give them Communion and then hand them the vessels from the altar. In other places the ministers may not come into the sanctuary until the celebrant, and deacons, have received Communion. Your thoughts?
A: Here’s the dossier I find:
During the Entrance Antiphon the ministers “approach the altar” (Order of Mass 1).
In the opening procession, the ministers genuflect before they “approach the altar” (274) or make a profound bow when they “reach the altar” (122) – the same verb in Latin translated slightly different ways in English.
But GIRM 49 says that the ministers reverence the altar when they arrive “at the sanctuary.”
A deacon sets the book of the gospels on the altar “when he reaches the altar” (GIRM 173). A reader does the same (195).
An instituted, vested reader “takes his own place in the sanctuary with the other ministers” (195).
During the course of the mass, ministers make a profound bow to the altar when they “enter the sanctuary” (Ceremonial of Bishops 72).
My conclusion from this is that the rubrics distinguish the expressions “approach the altar” and “enter the sanctuary.” A complicating factor is that we often confuse these expressions in conversation. Parents might say proudly to their child who serves mass, “It was great to see you up there on the altar,” when what they mean is “up there in the sanctuary.” I was recently asked, “May we put relics of saints on the altar?” Well, no, but you may put them in the sanctuary.
Consequently, I believe that GIRM 162 really means “approach the altar” and not “enter the sanctuary.” At daily mass, for example, a server may also double as a communion minister. The server is in the sanctuary, but does not approach the altar until the priest receives communion. As GIRM 195 points out, ministers are in the sanctuary throughout mass. There’s no problem with a communion minister being in the sanctuary, but there is a problem if the minister approaches the altar before the priest receives communion.
GIRM 162 does not explain itself, but the concern seems to be that communion ministers not appear as if they are concelebrants.
Every sanctuary is different. In some parishes, entering the sanctuary looks for all the world like approaching the altar. In those cases, the ministers would best refrain from entering until the priest receives. But where they can enter an area commonly associated with other non-ordained ministers, I say that they may enter the sanctuary, but not approach the altar until the priest receives communion.