A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Table Wine for Mass

ROME, 27 JAN. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you please comment on the permissibility of using commercially available table wine for Mass? When the label clearly indicates "100% grape," this would seem to satisfy the requirements for validity. I ask the question because "altar wine" sells at a premium over table wine, and is generally not available without having to pay additional shipping charges. Having this option might appeal to pastors of poorer parishes who are looking for ways to trim parish expenses, and yet who are expected by the diocesan ordinary to offer the chalice to the laity at all Masses.  A.L., Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

A: The principles involved in the determination of proper matter are relatively simple. The most recent official declaration on this point stems from the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 50, which basically sums up earlier laws and the Code of Canon Law, No. 924:

"The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter."

Almost a century earlier the Catholic Encyclopedia gave basically the same doctrine but added more details, all of which are still relevant.

"Wine is one of the two elements absolutely necessary for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. For valid and licit consecration vinum de vite, i.e. the pure juice of the grape naturally and properly fermented, is to be used. Wine made out of raisins, provided that from its colour and taste it may be judged to be pure, may be used (Collect. S. C. de Prop. Fide, n. 705). It may be white or red, weak or strong, sweet or dry. Since the validity of the Holy Sacrifice, and the lawfulness of its celebration, require absolutely genuine wine, it becomes the serious obligation of the celebrant to procure only pure wines. And since wines are frequently so adulterated as to escape minute chemical analysis, it may be taken for granted that the safest way of procuring pure wine is to buy it not at second hand, but directly from a manufacturer who understands and conscientiously respects the great responsibility involved in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. If the wine is changed into vinegar, or is become putrid or corrupted, if it was pressed from grapes that were not fully ripe, or if it is mixed with such a quantity of water that it can hardly be called wine, its use is forbidden (Missale Rom., De Defectibus, tit. iv, 1). If the wine begins to turn into vinegar, or to become putrid, or if the unfermented juice is pressed from the grape, it would be a grievous offence to use it, but it is considered valid matter (ibid., 2). To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed (1) The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis); (2) the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole; (3) the addition must be made during the process of fermentation (S. Romana et Univ. Inquis., 5 August, 1896)."

Note that none of these documents speak about the obligation to use any officially denominated "Altar Wine" and indeed there is nothing special about official altar wine except that it is guaranteed to be nothing special.

If one could be equally certain that a cheaper table wine is 100% grape with no additions of other substances or of non-grape alcohol, then it would also be valid matter. To be certain, and before using it, one should inquire from the manufacturer regarding the process involved in making the wine so as to exclude any doubt whatsoever.

While any priest could make such an inquiry, it would be more prudent that it be done through the local ordinary who could then inform his clergy that, as well as official altar wines, such and such a brand of common table wine may also be considered as valid matter for the Eucharist.

* * *

Follow-up: Table Wine at Mass [2-10-2009]

Our Jan. 27 piece on proper altar wine generated a great deal of interest and further questions which we will attempt to deal with now.

A U.S. reader asked if wine from America's native muscat grapes are equally valid as European varieties. While no wine connoisseur, I believe that if this is a true grape, then the fact that it is native to America has no bearing on its validity. The first Christians always used whatever local varieties were available and this principle can be followed today.

Something similar can be said regarding the presence of minute traces of sulphites found in most modern wines as preservatives. As we explained in a follow-up on July 13, 2004, our opinion is that since the sulphites do not change the nature of the wine, their presence does not affect validity.

An Australian reader offered some further qualities of sacramental wine that were not included in our earlier reply. "It could also be noted that that the wine used for the liturgy should not be fortified, no wine-based spirits, and that it should be 'still' no champagne or spumante!"

I would only specify that "fortified wine" usually means the likes of port, Marsala and sherry. It is not the case mentioned in our previous column, when grape alcohol is added to weak wines in order to preserve them, provided that the alcohol level does not exceed 18%.

Our Australian correspondent also commented that if price is not an issue, kosher wines from Jewish stores are guaranteed as valid for Mass.

Another reader, an abstainer from alcohol, suggested the generalized use of mustum (grape juice that is only minimally fermented) instead of wine. The reader wrote:

"I have also read papal documents explaining that the essential substance is 'grape,' not 'alcohol.' Although alcohol content of recognized altar wines are low, drinking and driving gives the wrong message to the people (both communicant and otherwise), regardless of sacramental and liturgical changes in substance and meanings. Catholics frequently drive to and from Mass, when receiving the chalice.

"Therefore, it concerns me that you fail to mention the legitimacy of using mustum, especially in cases where the priest celebrant is a self-proclaimed alcoholic. Having identified and sampled mustum which is acceptable for the chalice, I find that it fulfills the sacramental and liturgical purposes far more completely than the fermented varieties. However, I can understand why the chemically changed wine (the fermented version) is today regarded as the acceptable standard.

"Mustum is not freshly available all year round in every parish, and at its best it is highly volatile.  It requires very careful storage and handling, which would be impractical in most cases. However, I would like to stress that (1) fermentation is actually a process of chemical corruption of the grape juice (attempts to say otherwise can undermine the theology of transubstantiation because the science proves it), and (2) I know that the administration of alcoholic liquor from the chalice is pastorally and symbolically suspect (it fails to give good moral example).

"Therefore, with new technologies becoming more widely available for packaging, refrigerating and dispensing pure pressed grape juices (Tetra Paks, thermal insulators and so forth), I think the Church would be wise to stay awake and sober about the virtue and legitimacy of using unfermented mustum as an altar wine. The word 'wine' has not always been synonymous with 'booze'; it has also meant a deliciously flavored taste."

While respecting our reader's decision to refrain from alcohol, I beg to differ regarding both the interpretation of papal documents and the use of mustum.

First, the Church has always understood the proper matter of the sacrament to be wine (an alcoholic beverage), and not simple grape juice. When conceding the use of mustum in extraordinary circumstances, the Church stressed that it is at the limit of validity. Therefore I do not believe that this concession justifies extrapolating the case in order to recommend its general use.

Also, the nature of the chemical process of fermentation has absolutely nothing to do with transubstantiation, which occurs to the final product, not to the process.

Second, I would respectfully disagree with expressions such as "administration of alcoholic liquor from the chalice" as well as linking the idea of "drinking and driving" with receiving Communion under the species of wine. We should always treat with respect, indeed adoration, what has become Christ's precious blood and is no longer simple wine. It is true that the accident of alcohol would certainly have an adverse effect if taken in large quantities, but we must give priority to faith in what the wine has become. From the point of view of faith I fail to see how consuming the sacred species could be construed as giving a bad moral example.

Even from the material point of view our correspondent's argument is untenable. It is a good thing to abstain from alcohol as a spiritual sacrifice; indeed, it is a meritorious act. It is not obligatory, however, and Catholic doctrine has always held a generally positive outlook toward material things when used with moderation. In other words, if Catholics may imbibe moderate quantities of alcohol with a clear conscience, much more may they partake of Christ's precious blood.

Finally, a reader from Washington state asked: "For the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, our church asked parishioners to 'bring your favorite bottle of wine' to be used as sacramental wine. Later, a flier was put out saying that 'as we enjoy the different flavors of the wines in coming weeks we would remember our diversity.' Doesn't this send the wrong message? Is this even allowed?"

From all that we had said about the care required in establishing the suitability of sacramental wine, it goes without saying that this is a very bad idea, and there is no small risk of compromising the validity of the sacrament, at least on some occasions. I would recommend that our correspondent inform the local bishop of what has occurred.

Even if there were no risk of invalidity, I can only wonder at the pastoral logic behind such an initiative. How could the quintessential sacrament of unity with God and our fellows be sequestered into becoming a vehicle for remembering our diversity?
 

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