Dementia and holy Communion / How often should a deacon preach?

Q: My father is 86 years old and was raised in the Catholic Church. He was considered an intellectual and earned his Ph.D. in philosophy. He became a nonpracticing Catholic and in fact rejected the church, although he had a thirst for justice and continued to treasure the church’s teachings on human rights.

Now he has dementia and has begun to join me at Sunday Mass. Last week, he followed me up to Communion and received the Eucharist. I feel conflicted and am unsure as to whether I should encourage him to do this. Please advise. (Peachtree City, Georgia)

By Fr. Kenneth Doyle

A: I would let your father take the lead; if he is inclined to take Communion, he is entitled to do so. Let me offer some background.
In the present-day Latin-rite Catholic Church, one must have the use of reason to receive holy Communion. (Eastern-rite Catholics are given Communion as infants, and this was also true in the early centuries in the Roman rite.)

In 1995, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published a document titled “Guidelines for the Celebration of the Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” which included the following statement: “The criterion for reception of holy Communion is the same for persons with developmental and mental disabilities as for all persons, namely, that the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food, even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally.”

Quickly that same document goes on to note that “cases of doubt should be resolved in favor of the right of the baptized person to receive the sacrament.” Since it likely is difficult to ascertain exactly what your father comprehends, I would award him the benefit of the doubt and encourage him to take Communion, if that is what he wants.

(Nor would I “grill” him on just what he understands the Eucharist to be; after all, how does it hurt anyone for him to be receiving reverently?)

If, on the other hand — and I have seen this on a couple of occasions in nursing homes — someone were to take the host in and out of their mouth repeatedly and not consume it, I would not offer that person Communion again and would simply give a blessing instead.

Q: My question has to do with the role of a deacon. Our own parish deacon had been preaching at our weekend Masses once a month, but lately that has crept up to twice a month. Recently he preached the homily at Masses on Easter Sunday and also on the following Sunday, which happened to be first Communion in our parish.

Our priest-pastor is young and, as far as I know, healthy. Is it normal for a deacon to play such a large role so frequently, especially on such important occasions? (City of origin withheld)  

A: There is no exact guideline as to the frequency of a deacon’s preaching. That having been said, I think that your concern stands on good ground. Deacons are authorized to preach by the church’s Code of Canon Law; Canon 764 says that “presbyters (priests) and deacons possess the faculty of preaching everywhere.”

And while that canon expresses no preference or priority, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (which is the official liturgical “rule book” of the church) clearly does. Section 66 states that “the homily should ordinarily be given by the priest celebrant himself or be entrusted by him to a concelebrating priest, or from time to time and, if appropriate, to the deacon.”

To your question, for a deacon to preach regularly two Sundays a month, in my mind, runs counter to this provision. (I also think, although there’s no rule on this, that parishioners expect to hear from — and deserve to hear from — their pastor for such major celebrations as Easter and first Communion.)

Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at askfatherdoyle@gmail.com and 30 Columbia Circle Dr., Albany, NY 12203.

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