Liturgy: Are Glass Chalices OK for Mass?

Author: ZENIT



ROME, 16 SEPT. 2003 (ZENIT).

With this column ZENIT is launching a feature on common questions about liturgical norms and the proper way to celebrate the Mass. The questions are answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum….

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[This reply was given prior to publication of Redemptionis Sacramentum, 23 April 2004, which reprobated the use, in celebration of Mass, of "common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily" (117).]

Q: May a celebrant at Mass use a glass chalice when consecrating the wine?

A: From the historical point of view, glass chalices were known in antiquity up to about the time of St. Gregory the Great (died 604), although most Christians preferred gold and silver vessels, even in time of persecution.

The most relevant document regarding this theme are numbers 328-332 of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) whose adapted English version recently received approval from the Holy See and is now in force in the dioceses of the United States.

No. 328 states clearly: "Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal." Liturgical law, however, allows the bishops' conference to propose other esteemed materials for use in sacred vessels.

The U.S. bishops have allowed for the use of other solid materials "that, according to the common estimation in each region, are precious, for example, ebony or other hard woods," but, "provided that such materials are suited to sacred use and do not easily break or deteriorate."

No. 330 has an added proviso that chalices and other vessels destined to serve as receptacles for the blood of Christ should have bowls of nonabsorbent material. These norms are topped off by No. 332, which gives some leeway to artistic taste with respect to the outward form of the sacred vessels, "provided each vessel is suited to the intended liturgical use and is clearly distinguishable from those intended for everyday use."

So, can a priest celebrate with a glass chalice? The above-mentioned norms don't allow for a crystal clear response as they do not specify very much at all. Glass is not widely regarded as a precious material; it generally seems more like a household product. Then again, a glass chalice might recall, for some parishioners, the pleasures of cognac.

Some cut crystals, however, especially if artistically and uniquely fashioned with liturgical motifs, might pass the quality test. It is certainly not porous and does not easily deteriorate. But most glass is easily breakable.

A rule of thumb in deciding if a material is suitably strong for use as a chalice could be called the "clumsy server test." What happens if a server hits the rim of the chalice with a cruet? If the result is splinters, then the material should go to the rejection pile.

On the basis of these considerations I would say that in most cases glass is unsuitable material for use as a chalice, but the latitude provided in liturgical law does not allow for an outright prohibition. ZE03091624

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Follow-up: Glass chalices [from 30 Sept 2003]

Several readers have written in response to my opinion regarding the use of a glass chalice. Although my tendency as an Irishman is to be more ironic than irenic, I would like to thank the readers for their interest and also say that I claim neither omniscience, nor infallibility. And while always striving to base my replies on official Church documents, I will be happy to redress any eventual oversights.

This said, I would point out that the reply was narrowly tailored to the norms regarding the proper materials for chalices and did not refer to the use of glass in other liturgical contexts such as cruets and lavabos.

An Australian reader takes me to task for lack of clarity in saying that due to the breakability of glass, I should have given a clear no. Although I love being able to give yes and no answers I respectfully disagree that in this case the relevant norms allow for such a position.

Although I believe that the law excludes almost all glass chalices, it does not give any guidelines as to the definition of "not easily breakable." Glass comes in many degrees of breakability and some heavy cut crystals can take quite a bit of knocking.

Certainly no glass chalice will survive falling on the floor, but even a metal chalice can be rendered unworthy of liturgical use by such treatment, so I do not consider this a viable test.

Even such heavy crystals are not without problems. They are often hard to drink and pour from, can be difficult to purify and, once damaged, cannot be repaired or used again. But since these difficulties are not directly addressed by the law (unless that is what is meant by "become unsuitable") they do not affect the question of legitimate, as distinct from practical, use.

Experience shows that, if used at all, these rare chalices are usually used by just one priest who takes good care lest they suffer damage, this again is an argument against their practicality for common use.

Another correspondent suggests that, in virtue of the rules of reception by the Church and established tradition, the widespread use of glass over the last 30 years constitutes "1) [That the] Church as a whole has accepted the use of glass as suitable for use. ... 2) Since the use if over five years, it can be considered a valid tradition of the Church which by canon law and liturgical law make it a completely valid and licit option for Mass."

I would first question the reality of the widespread use of glass in the whole Church. While hardly a globetrotter, I have visited about eight countries, including the United States, over the last few years without ever being offered a glass chalice.

Even if it were true that glass is widely used, the fact that glass, while not specifically mentioned, does not fulfill the conditions for proper materials according to liturgical law by either the new or old GIRM, would prevent its consideration as a legitimate custom as specified in Canons 23-29 of the code.

If this were true then, logically, many widespread abuses could be considered "valid traditions" in spite of their being repeatedly reproved by legitimate authority…. ZE03093022  

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