At the direction of Pope Benedict XVI, extraordinary ministers of holy Communion will no longer be permitted to assist in the purification of the sacred vessels at Masses in the United States.
In an Oct. 23 letter, Bishop William S. Skylstad, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, asked his fellow bishops to inform all pastors of the change, which was prompted by a letter from Cardinal Francis Arinze, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments.
The U.S. bishops had asked the Vatican to extend an indult -- or church permission -- in effect since 2002 allowing extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to help cleanse the Communion cups and plates when there were not enough priests or deacons to do so.
Bishop Skylstad, who heads the Diocese of Spokane, Wash., said Cardinal Arinze asked Pope Benedict about the matter during a June 9 audience, "and received a response in the negative."
Noting that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal "directs that the sacred vessels are to be purified by the priest, the deacon or an instituted acolyte," the cardinal said in his Oct. 12 letter that "it does not seem feasible, therefore, for the congregation to grant the requested indult from this directive in the general law of the Latin Church."
Although receiving Communion under both kinds is a "more complete" sign of the sacrament's meaning, Cardinal Arinze said, "Christ is fully present under each of the species."
"Communion under the species of the bread alone, as a consequence, makes it possible to receive all the fruit of eucharistic grace," he added.
Another "legitimate option" when "the high number of communicants may render it inadvisable for everyone to drink from the chalice" is intinction -- the practice of dipping the consecrated host into the consecrated wine -- "with reception on the tongue always and everywhere," the cardinal's letter said.
Along with the letters from Bishop Skylstad and Cardinal Arinze, bishops received a new resource prepared by the bishops' Committee on the Liturgy titled "Seven Questions on the Distribution of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds."
The committee document also suggested distribution of Communion by consecrated bread alone or by intinction when the number of communicants makes the purification of vessels by priests, deacons or instituted acolytes alone "pastorally problematic."
"Priests should also keep in mind potential risks associated with intinction, especially in the coming flu season," the document added.
The committee said extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may continue to "consume what remains of the precious blood from their chalice of distribution with permission of the diocesan bishop."
The document notes that the "extraordinary ministry" by which laypeople distribute Communion "was created exclusively for those instances where there are not enough ordinary ministers to distribute holy Communion, due to the consummate importance of assuring that the faithful have the opportunity to receive holy Communion at Mass, even when it is distributed under both species."
Ordinary ministers of Communion are priests and deacons, with instituted acolytes being permitted in the Roman Missal to help the priest or deacon "to purify and arrange the sacred vessels."
In the United States, instituted acolytes, who must be male, generally are seminarians preparing for priesthood.