Handbook for Eucharistic Visitors
St Peter’s Episcopal Church
Port Royal, Virginia
The ways in which each of us becomes involved in the Church’s ministry as a Eucharistic Minister or Visitor vary. For some of us, there was an inner sense that “this is what I ought to do” – and we asked our Priest-in-Charge about becoming involved in this ministry. Others were asked by their Priest-in-Charge or Warden to fill a need in the parish.
Beyond the circumstance of how we begin our involvement in lay ministry is the reality that we have been called by God to do so. Jesus’ words to His first disciples apply to us as well: “You did not choose Me but I chose you.” [John 15:16] By our obedience to that call, and by our active involvement in the ministry to which He has called us, we are sharing in the ministry of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the
dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the
blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything
good that you may do his will, working in us that which is
pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory
forever and ever. Amen.
– Hebrews 13:20-21
As each has received a gift, employ it for one another,
as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks,
as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service,
as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies;
in order that in everything God may be glorified through
– 1 Peter 4:10-11
Lay Ministries in the Church: A Brief Overview 1
Lay Ministries in the Church witnessed tremendous growth following the liturgical renewal of Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church [1962-65] and the revision of our own Book of Common Prayer . What was once a new and innovative paradigm shift in the way the Church thinks about and does ministry has now become accepted and even commonplace in most American parishes and churches.
Yet the theology behind the raising up of lay ministers in the Church is actually nothing new because it is thoroughly Biblical and is rooted in our Christian tradition. St. Paul’s teaching concerning the Body of Christ [Romans 12:3-8; 1Corinthians 12-14; Ephesians 4:1-16] clearly outlines that all baptized Christians are called to specific and mutually complementary ministries within the Church.
In the Church there were to be no “spectators.” We are all called to serve. This is reflected in the teaching of the Prayer Book. The Catechism in the BCP [p.855] states: “The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” It then outlines the scope and focus of lay ministry: The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
From a Biblical and theological perspective, each and every baptized Christian being called and empowered for active ministry should be normative for the Church. “Lay ministry” is simply an expression of the Church’s overall ministry as the Body of Christ. As such, the ministries to which we are called are not “ours” but more properly Christ’s Own ministry in His Church through us.
1 For a fuller overview of the history of “Eucharistic ministers,” a good resource is Beth Wickenberg Ely’s A Manual for Lay Eucharistic Ministers, 3rd printing (1993) pp. 1-8.
Lay Ministries in Canon Law
The ministry of lay persons in the celebration and administration of the Holy Eucharist has certainly expanded in recent years. In the American Book of Common Prayer (1928), a lay person was allowed to read the Epistle [New Testament Lesson] and nothing else. Prior to the current lay ministry canons, specially licensed lay readers administered the chalice at the Eucharist and were known as "chalice bearers." No provision was made for the administration of the host by lay persons under any other circumstances. Nothing in the 1928 prayer book permitted lay persons to carry elements to persons unable to be present at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The rubrics in the “Service of Communion Under Special Circumstances” indicate that communion will be brought to the sick only by a bishop, priest, or deacon.
In the 2003 revision of the National Canons, the former canon which permitted the special licensing of those already licensed as lay readers to administer the chalice has been replaced by a comprehensive canon [Title III, Canon 4] dealing with the licensing of lay persons to perform a variety of ministries.
Title III, Canon 4, Section 6 & 7 clearly distinguishes Licensed ministers who “administer the Consecrated Elements at a Celebration of Holy Eucharist” [called Eucharistic Ministers] from those who “take the Consecrated Elements in a timely manner following a Celebration of Holy Eucharist to members of the congregation who, by reason of illness or infirmity, were unable to be present at the Celebration” [called Eucharistic Visitors]. Eucharistic Ministers are similar to the former Chalice Bearer. Both Eucharistic Ministers [administering the Chalice at the Eucharist] and Eucharistic Visitors [bringing the Sacrament to shut-ins] are “extraordinary ministries,” that is, they are not to take the place of the ministry of priests and deacons at Eucharist [Diocesan Canon XI.7.B].
According to the National Canons both Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistic Visitors are licensed by the Diocesan Bishop to engage in their ministries locally under the supervision of their parish’s Deacon or Priest (if there is no Deacon). The Canons also state that Diocesan bishops establish the qualifications, guidelines and requirements for the selection and training of these persons, who may be licensed to perform either or both of the functions permitted by the canon. In our diocese the selection and training of Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistic Visitors also takes place on the parish level.
As a Eucharistic Ministers and Visitors, our first and primary ministry is to the Lord Himself. The desire to serve others must grow out of an even deeper desire to serve Him and grow in our relationship to Him “in grace and in knowledge.” [2 Peter 3:18] Our devotion to our Lord opens us up to the suffering, pain and acute needs of others. Our ministry to others is an expression of Christ’s ministry to them; it is, in fact, one of the ways God touches others – through us.
The most important preparation for your ministry as a Eucharistic Minister or Visitor is faithfulness to your own relationship with God through prayer, Bible Study, the Sacraments, and fellowship with other Christians. To neglect your own spiritual life and relationship with the Lord for the sake of the ministries with which He has entrusted us is neither necessary nor helpful; it is, in fact, dangerous for ourselves and those whom we seek to serve. Worship of God must always precede work for Him: if we keep this priority straight we will safeguard this all-too-common pitfall.
Another pitfall is to become overly focused upon our own weakness and convince ourselves of our unworthiness to engage in Christian ministry. We all serve in our weakness and we do our work of ministry imperfectly. But in Christ Jesus, the Father has “made us worthy to stand before [Him],” and in His love we live and serve Him and others in His Name. No Christian is worthy to serve and minister in the Name of the All Holy Lord, but our Lord is worthy to be worshiped and served.
Look with mercy, O God our Father,
on all whose increasing years
bring them weakness, distress, or isolation.
Provide for them homes of dignity and peace;
give them understanding helpers,
and the willingness to accept help;
and, as their strength diminishes,
increase their faith and their assurance of your love.
This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.
-The Book of Common Prayer, p.830
Biblical Reflections & Background
The Call to Minister
The Church has a vocation to minister to those most in need in our society. In doing so we are following Jesus’ Own example as He forgave and welcomed into fellowship “the tax collectors and the harlots” – those marginalized and outcast in our society.
One of the most remarkable and enlightening passages in the Gospels concerns Jesus’ teaching about ministering to the poor, the sick and the needy: I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me… as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me. Matthew 25:35 – 36
The Eucharistic Visit: An Expression of the Communion of the Saints
As a Eucharistic Visitor you have the exciting opportunity for worship, prayer and fellowship; and the incomparable privilege of bringing the Blessed Sacrament to those “who for reasonable cause cannot be present at a public celebration of the Eucharist” [BCP p.396] because they are ill, home-bound, in a hospital or nursing home.
You will already have been nurtured and renewed through your participation at the Eucharist, and will be sent forth by the Church with the Blessed Sacrament. God will be using you as a “Christ-bearer” to connect those whom you are visiting with the larger corporate Body of Christ, not only in your church, but in the whole Communion of Saints, past, present, and future.
When we meet with a home-bound parishioner, we often think that we are “visiting from the Church” – and of course the sick person being visited is very aware of being “away from” and not part of the parish for Sunday Eucharist. But, from a theological standpoint, it is more correct to say that when you, as a Eucharistic Visitor meet with a home-bound parishioner, you [pl.] are the Church.
Jesus told His disciples that “when two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:19] The Eucharist Visit is, therefore, an expression of the Church, an occasion in which the Risen Lord Jesus is present among His people. Although the act of bringing the consecrated bread to a shut in is not a Eucharist, it is a time of prayer and worship and of receiving Christ in the Sacrament. Whatever is done and said during that visit will be “Church” for that person: you have the privilege of being one of the links that keep that shut-in connected to the larger parish family. Each Eucharist Visit is an expression of the reality of the “Communion of the Saints.”
Understanding Ourselves and Others
As a person providing pastoral care, it is important to take time to examine your own attitudes and feelings about those you are visiting prior to the meeting. Persons may be ill, disabled or facing death. We are all growing older and closer to our own deaths. However, at times we are reluctant to visit hospitals or nursing homes because of fears about confronting our own limitations and mortality. By being conscious of our own fear or anxiety, we can offer it to God and find strength for the work we are given to do. Bear in mind that a person who has a disability is a person just like everyone else. We each have our own disabilities; in some of us they are more readily visible than in others. But God knows and accepts all our disabilities and loves each of us.
Many of those unable to come to the regular church service may be under stress due to health matters. They may be in pain, feeling anxiety about their future and in need of personal support. As a Eucharistic Visitor, try to understand what it is like to suffer as the other does, while at the same time maintaining the abiding faith that Jesus Christ is already and always at work in that person’s life. This does not mean trying to convince the other person or “cheer them up” so much as faithfully maintaining one’s own attitude of faith and hope in God as we listen and empathize.
Practical Ways of Communicating God’s Loving Care
Words alone do not communicate adequately God’s love for the people we are visiting: our actions and attitudes speak volumes about the comfort and hope offered in the Gospel and the Blessed Sacrament. Some of the ways in which we communicate our Faith are very practical. For example:
• Get on their “eye level.” If the person you are visiting is bed-bound or sitting in a low chair, don’t stay standing: sit. Standing over someone “communicates” that you want to leave soon, or that you are, in a sense, superior to him or her.
• “Be there” with the person. Listen and wait. Give them time to express themselves, or be silent. Your presence with them is very comforting and meaningful to them. Theologians speak in terms of the “sacrament” of being there with persons. Our attention and loving ministry to the people we visit reminds them how much God loves them and continues to be present in their lives through the Holy Spirit. Our words, our actions and our prayers should all communicate God’s loving Presence in their time of weakness and need.
• Enough time should be allocated to conduct the Communion Service and to listen to the person’s immediate concerns. Eucharistic Visits will vary in length, but should neither be rushed nor overly protracted.
• Remind them of their ministry: to pray for the needs of others, to uphold the clergy, vestry and other ministries of the Church. Ask them to pray for you and the ministries of the Church; tell them of other specific needs so that they may intercede for family, neighbors and friends. This is not mere “talk,” or “giving them something to do: it is a powerful ministry in the Church.
• Communicate your parish’s clergy need to know if there is a particular need or issue that you encounter: an expressed desire for Confession and Absolution; signs of depression and sense of hopelessness; something observed that appears to require nursing care or medical attention; a family issue that is problematic or potentially so. As a Eucharistic Visitor it is not appropriate to engage in counseling or become involved in medical issues.
The Nuts & Bolts of the Eucharistic Ministry
Equipment and Materials
Each Eucharistic Visitor should have available:
• The home communion kit in which the priest will place the consecrated bread and wine from the Eucharist
• Sufficient copies of the service entitled “Communion for the Sick & Shut-Ins: Form to be used by Eucharistic Visitors” so that everyone present can
have one. You may also leave a copy for someone if they ask to keep it.
• Lectionary readings for the day
Your priest will be able to assist you in obtaining any equipment and material needed.
First Things First
During the Eucharist, uphold the person(s) in prayer to whom you will be privileged to bear the Body and Blood of the Lord. Pray that you may be an able and compassionate Eucharistic Visitor.
Your priest will give you the names of one or more persons to whom you will carry the Holy Communion after the Eucharist. If visiting an individual for the first time, be certain to obtain appropriate background information which will help meet the pastoral needs of the individual and make your visit more effective. You should be aware of other family members in the home, if the individual can answer the telephone or not, special interests or past involvement with the church, any special needs for assistance, or other advice or comments your priest may provide.
[At the Eucharist just before the dismissal you may go to the altar to be
commissioned by the clergy to take the Communion to a specific person
immediately after dismissal.]
In addition to the communion kit, you will need to take [a Bible or lectionary and] sufficient copies of the Rite and current church bulletins, so that one of each may be left at each person’s home or bedside.
When taking communion to an ill or shut in person, remember that you are not performing a “mini-Mass.” Rather, you are bringing the Sacrament to be shared with a fellow disciple as members of the Body of Christ. The only service authorized to be used is the “Communion for the Sick & Shut-Ins:Form to be used by Eucharistic Visitors.” It is important to carefully follow the rubrics. It provides for the Eucharistic Visitors to use the Propers of the day: the Collect and the Gospel of the day.
After the Gospel, the Eucharistic Visitor should tell the person(s) being visited about the sermon which was preached during Eucharist.
Prayers may be offered briefly for the Church, the World, and the concerns of those present.
After the Confession of Sin, a special form of absolution is to be said by a lay person [see “Communion for the Sick & Shut-Ins: Form to be used by Eucharistic Visitors].
Remember that you are a guest of the person you are visiting, whether in the home or the hospital. You are representing the Church, clergy and congregation and your actions (as well as apparel) should reflect the dignity of the ministry to which you have been called.
Upon arrival, introductions should be made to the home bound or hospitalized person and others present including the statement, “I’m here to bring you Communion from the Eucharist at ________ church.” This sets the tone for the visit and already designates this Communion as an expression of the Christian community’s one Eucharistic action. Inquire about any physical limitations, swallowing difficulties or needs.
Invite others present to join in the service. All baptized Christians are welcome to receive. Hosts may be broken to accommodate more than the planned number of communicants.
Conduct the service in a reverent manner. Do not stand or sit with your back to the Blessed Sacrament.
The most important point is to take your time so that you can be fully present to God and the other person.
After the last Communion, consume the remaining Hosts and wine. You may want to pause to reflect privately for a few moments on what you have just done, on how God is using you, and to give thanks for this opportunity to serve Christ in your brothers and sisters.
Return the Communion Kit to St Peter’s and leave it in the sacristy.
On the sacristy desk, you will find a red book that contains the record of services at St Peter’s. Note in the book that you have held this service, noting the date, place, and number of people who received communion. Sign the book in the far right column.
Report back to your priest on your Eucharistic visits and make special note of any needs or pastoral concerns that came to your attention during these visits. Although you visit as a representative of the congregation bearing Christ’s Body and Blood, you are also your priest’s eyes and ears. Sharing your pastoral conversations and observations during your visit with the clergy is very important to their ministries as well. Do not discuss the person’s health with others.
If there a special need or concern which should be taken care of, the clergy should be made aware of this as soon as possible. The visit is considered “complete” only when this communication is made.
Frequently Asked Questions
Experienced Eucharistic Visitors can recount any number of unexpected circumstances that they have encountered during their ministry. The following questions and answers may help you be prepared for some of these situations:
What if no one is at home?
This problem can be avoided by calling ahead and setting up a time that you will be visiting. This will depend on when the Eucharist is ended and on the schedule of the family being visited.
Do I leave for my visit immediately after the Eucharist has ended, or can I attend Christian Education and/or the coffee hour before I leave Church?
Taking communion from the Church’s Eucharist means bringing the person who is “shut in” into the corporate body of Christ and the parish by your actions, and as such should be as close to the end of the service as possible. Discuss this with your priest.
Upon arriving at the home, hospital or nursing home, I do not have enough hosts for the people present. What is the correct way to handle this situation?
First, ask if everyone would like to take part in receiving communion. Next, if there are more people than hosts it is acceptable to break the hosts in half. Be careful not to crumble them into small pieces.
If the person I am visiting has difficulty in swallowing, how is Communion administered?
It depends upon the severity of the swallowing difficulty. Even a small piece of host can cause choking, blockage on the airway or aspiration pneumonia for someone with a swallowing difficulty (dysphagia). In a home setting, a family member should be consulted. In an institutional setting, the Nurse-in-Charge or Medication Nurse should be asked regarding any swallowing restrictions.
If the person being visited is able to swallow, it is acceptable to place just a small piece of the Host in their mouth.
The information in this handbook has been adapted from Handbook for Eucharistic Ministers and Eucharistc Visitors, developed by The Episcopal Diocese of Albany, New York.