The virtues that characterize excellent ministers of Holy Communion was the subject of our last reflection. We considered the virtue of religion, by which human beings render fitting reverence to God, and also adoration, an exterior act of religion by which human beings show reverence to God with their bodies. We also considered the virtue of magnanimity, according to which men and women undertake great deeds. With the help of Saint Thomas Aquinas, let us now consider two additional virtues by which ministers of Holy Communion readily and consistently do what is good, confirm their good character, are built up in Christian holiness, and perform their ministry with excellence.
Humility might seem like the opposite of magnanimity and, in a certain way, it is. According to Saint Thomas, when a good thing is difficult to accomplish, it is by the virtue of magnanimity that a person overcomes the feeling of despair that tempts him to give up on accomplishing the good thing. It is by the virtue of humility that a person overcomes the feeling of hope that tempts him to go after the good thing that he cannot rightly accomplish. It is by magnanimity that one pursues the difficult good that is rightly pursued. It is by humility that one withdraws from a difficult good that cannot rightly be pursued
How might this apply to the administration of Holy Communion? We have seen that the virtue of magnanimity inclines the minister of Holy Communion to undertake the great deed of feeding God’s faithful people with God’s very self in the sacrament of the body and blood of Jesus Christ. One might easily shrink from such a lofty task, not so much because it is hard to do, but because one might feel unworthy of doing it. The virtue of magnanimity enables one overcome such feelings of inadequacy and undertake this great task, confident that, with the Church’s ordination or commissioning, even a lowly sinner can carry out this sacred charge. But in addition to the magnanimity that spurs them on, excellent ministers of Holy Communion also need the humility that holds them back.
Saint Thomas says, “Humility, considered as a special virtue, regards chiefly the subjection of man to God” (Summa Theologiae II-II q.161 a.1 ad 5). Humility means subjecting oneself to God and holding back from claiming for oneself what belongs to God. That was the sin of Adan and Eve. They grasped for the fruit of knowledge in defiance of God. Jesus, by contrast, “Did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself” (Phil. 2:6-7).
Ministers of Holy Communion imitate the humility of Jesus when they understand their ministry as a participation in what God does for His people. Jesus says, “My Father gives you the true bread from heaven” (Jn. 6:32). When human beings, ordained or commissioned by the Church, administer Holy Communion, they participate in an act of God, who feeds His people with the true bread from heaven: the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus Christ. The human ministers of that divine gift exercise their ministry with excellence when they exercise humility. Ministers of Holy Communion undertake a great deed. They do it well when they humbly recognize that it is God, first and foremost, who does it.
Saint Thomas lists circumspection as one of the integral parts of prudence. He follows Aristotle in defining prudence as “right reason applied to action” (ST II-II q.47 a.2). The prudent person is able to make true practical judgments translate into good moral actions. In order to do that, she must be circumspect. She must carefully consider the circumstances in which she finds herself. “It belongs to circumspection,” Saint Thomas says, “to consider what is suitable to the end in view of the circumstances” (ST II-II q.49 a.7 ad 3).
When Holy Communion is administered during Mass, the circumstances are fairly predictable and circumspection might not be such an essential virtue. However, when Holy Communion is administered in a health care setting, the circumstances are much less predictable and can vary greatly between one potential recipient of Holy Communion and the next. The man in bed 1 may have had a successful surgery and be optimistic about long term recovery, while the woman in bed 2 may have exhausted her medical options and be preparing to go to hospice. The one may be a daily communicant; the other may have been away from the Church for 50 years. The excellent minister of Holy Communion never presumes. Rather, he is sensitive to the diverse sets of circumstances that he encounters and responds with circumspect care, bearing the presence of Christ in the best way to every unique person to whom he ministers.