Question: Dear Father, I am an extraordinary minister of communion and regularly take communion to an aged care home. What should I do when a new patient arrives so as to ensure that they are properly disposed to receive Communion?
This is an important question since, as we all know, “Anyone conscious of a grave sin must receive the sacrament of Reconciliation before coming to communion” (CCC 1385).
Given that fewer and fewer Catholics are attending Mass regularly these days, it is likely that many people entering a nursing home are not regular Mass goers and have not been to confession for a long time.
What the extraordinary minister should not do is simply take communion to a new person on the list without finding out the state of their soul.
Among other reasons, the patient may very well know that he or she needs to go to confession before receiving Our Lord and if this is not made available, may receive Our Lord anyway even though they know they are not in the state of grace. What then should you do?
You should approach the matter with great tact and kindness and this ordinarily requires a little time and a relaxed atmosphere.
If you go to the home only once a week you might visit the new patient after distributing communion to the others, so that you can introduce yourself and sit down for a chat.
In the conversation you can say that you were given the patient’s name as being a Catholic and would be very happy to take him communion in the future.
You might then ask general questions to put the person at ease such as where he is from, what his family situation is, how long he has been a Catholic, where he went to school and church, whether he has been going to Mass and receiving communion regularly, etc.
If it is clear that he has not been practising the faith regularly, you can explain that in order to receive communion again it will be important to go to confession first and that you can arrange for a priest to come and visit him.
Most people will understand that to receive communion after a long time some form of reconciliation with God is necessary.
And of course if the patient has been attending Mass regularly, you can still ask if he would like to see a priest and go to confession and you can arrange for the priest to visit him.
At the end of the conversation it is good to say a few prayers with the patient and tell him you look forward to seeing him on your next visit.
Another situation the extraordinary minister may face is going to an aged care home for the first time and being given a list of patients who have received communion there in the past.
Can you assume that all the patients are properly disposed, in the state of grace, or should you first find out?
Here, as in a parish Mass, you can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that those who regularly receive communion are properly disposed and so you can take communion to them.
You do not need to speak privately with each one beforehand.
But since there may be some who are not in the state of grace, it would be good to visit each one personally at some stage, simply to introduce yourself, get to know them and have a pleasant chat with them.
They will generally be very appreciative of this conversation as it shows that you are not simply carrying out a duty of taking them communion but rather you care about them personally and want to get to know them.
In the course of this conversation you can easily find out the state of their soul.
As always, you can offer to have the priest go to visit them, whether or not they are in the state of grace.
After all, people in the state of grace may also want to chat with a priest and go to confession from time to time.
Since for the fact of being in an aged care home they are in their advanced years, they will tend to think more often of their eventual meeting with God and they will want to prepare well for it.
It is good to remember too that even faithful of the Orthodox Churches can be given communion in these circumstances if they ask for it (cf. Can. 844, §3).
But, as I wrote some years ago, the wishes of their respective priest should be taken into account (cf. Question Time 1, q. 62).