Should lay eucharistic ministers distribute the eucharist at Masses where a priest is present, or should their ministry be “exceptional”, i.e., only when there is no priest or deacon present?

The term used for lay ministers of the eucharist is not “exceptional” but “extraordinary.” “Ordinary” is the Church’s term for someone who is ordained. For example, a bishop is often called an “ordinary” because he is the ordained spiritual leader of a diocese. “Extraordinary” means “outside ordination” referring to a minister who has not received the sacrament of Holy Orders.

Since 1973 bishops have been authorized to appoint non-ordained Catholics to distribute communion during the Mass. Lay ministers are also appointed to bring the eucharist to those who are sick or homebound. Dioceses vary in their practices but as a rule in the Church today extraordinary eucharistic ministers are recommended by the pastor based on need and formally approved by the bishop of the diocese.

Lay ministers of the eucharist have become part of the fabric of the Church’s life and are likely to become even more so, given the present shortage of ordained ministers. You mention that your parish is served by a full-time pastor and a part-time deacon. The amount of pastoral ministry that takes place in even a small parish is likely to be more than one pastor can handle adequately. Many pastors today are exhausted from the pastoral demands that their ministry entails. This is not likely to change in the near future. It’s likely, in fact, that the number of available priests will decrease and the responsibilities of pastoring will increase. The service of lay ministers of the eucharist helps ensure that the sick are adequately provided for and that the time of the Mass is not unduly lengthened.

You commented that it is sad that some children are receiving their First Holy Communion from a lay minister rather than a priest. I would respond that the significance of receiving First Holy Communion is not dependent upon whether or not the minister is ordained but in the fact that one is receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, the presence of the life-giving Lord. It’s exactly the same Body and Blood of Christ whatever the “official” status of the minister within the Church’s hierarchy. As pastor of a busy parish, I feel gratitude for those lay Catholics who have answered the call to take part in this ministry to make the presence of Christ more available to those who seek him.