Paper Towel Purificators

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Paper Towel Purificators

ROME, 26 JAN. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our pastor has taken to using "high quality" paper towels instead of linen for purificators. This has some of the community very upset. Supposedly, the paper towels are burned once a week. At this point, the pastor is unwillingly to change this practice (both he and the priest responsible for the liturgy have been approached). Is this practice licit? It seems, at the very least, to be insulting to Our Lord and, at the worst, not only wrong, but sending an incorrect message as to the value of the Eucharist. — T.A., New York

A: Although the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) does not give detailed instructions regarding the composition of altar linens, it enunciates the general principle involved in No. 348: "Besides sacred vessels and sacred vestments for which some special material is prescribed, other furnishings that either are intended for strictly liturgical use or are in any other way admitted into a church should be worthy and suited to their particular purpose."

It is debatable, to say the least, that paper towels are "worthy and suited" to the purpose of touching the Lord's body or that they could be blessed according to the Church's rites.

More detailed is the instruction "Redemptionis Sacramentum," which touches on this subject in Nos. 57 and 120, to wit:

"[57.] It is the right of the community of Christ's faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration […] that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper, and clean, in accordance with the norms.

"[120.] Let Pastors take care that the linens for the sacred table, especially those which will receive the sacred species, are always kept clean and that they are washed in the traditional way. It is praiseworthy for this to be done by pouring the water from the first washing, done by hand, into the church's sacrarium or into the ground in a suitable place. After this a second washing can be done in the usual way."

This instruction clearly presupposes that the linens are made of suitable cloth. It also demonstrates the reverence and care which should be taken with all that comes into contact with the sacred species.

An article from the liturgy committee of the U.S. bishops' conference, although it has less legal authority than the aforementioned documents, provides a remarkably concise synthesis of official decrees on this subject. Because of its clarity and utility, it merits quotation in full.

"In recent years the Secretariat for the Liturgy has received multiple inquiries concerning the care and cleansing of altar linens. The following article, approved by the Committee on the Liturgy at its March 19, 2001 meeting, is provided for the information of those charged with the care of altar linens.

"Whatever is set aside for use in the liturgy takes on a certain sacred character both by the blessing it receives and the sacred functions it fulfills. Thus, the cloths used at the altar in the course of the Eucharistic celebration should be treated with the care and respect due to those things used in the preparation and celebration of the sacred mysteries.

"This brief statement reflects on the importance of reverently caring for altar linens which, because of their use in the liturgy, are deserving of special respect. These linens should be 'beautiful and finely made, though mere lavishness and ostentation must be avoided.' Altar cloths, corporals, purificators, lavabo towels and palls should be made of absorbent cloth and never of paper."

Altar linens are appropriately blessed according to the Order for the Blessing of Articles for Liturgical Use. The blessing of a number of such articles for liturgical use may take place 'within Mass or in a separate celebration in which the faithful should take part.'

"Altar Cloths

"Just as the altar is a sign for us of Christ the living stone, altar cloths are used 'out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the banquet that gives us his body and' by their beauty and form they add to the dignity of the altar in much the same way that vestments solemnly ornament the priests and sacred ministers. Such cloths also serve a practical purpose, however, in absorbing whatever may be spilled of the Precious Blood or other sacramental elements. Thus the material of altar cloths should be absorbent and easily laundered."

While there may be several altar cloths in the form of drapings or even frontals, their shape, size, and decoration should be in keeping with the design of the altar. Unless the altar cloths have been stained with the Precious Blood, it is not necessary that they be cleaned in the sacrarium. Care should be taken, however, that proper cleaning methods are used to preserve the beauty and life of the altar cloth. It is appropriate for those who care for sacred vessels, cloths and other instrumenta of the liturgy to accompany their work with prayer.


"Sacred vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord are always placed on top of a corporal.

"A corporal is spread by the deacon or another minister in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. When concelebrants receive the Eucharist from the altar, a corporal is placed beneath all chalices or patens. Finally, it is appropriate that a corporal be used on a side table, and placed beneath the sacred vessels which have been left to be purified after Mass.

"Because one of the purposes of the corporal is to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may be left at the conclusion of Mass, care should be taken that the transferral of consecrated hosts between sacred vessels should always be done over a corporal. The corporal should be white in color and of sufficient dimensions so that at least the main chalice and paten may be placed upon it completely. When necessary, more than one corporal may be used. The material of corporals should be absorbent and easily laundered.

"Any apparent particles of the consecrated bread which remain on the corporal after the distribution of Holy Communion should be consumed in the course of the purification of the sacred vessels.

"When corporals are cleansed they should first be rinsed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Corporals should be ironed in such a way that their distinctive manner of folding helps to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may remain at the conclusion of the Eucharistic celebration.


"Purificators are customarily brought to the altar with chalices and are used to wipe the Precious Blood from the lip of the chalice and to purify sacred vessels. They should be white in color. Whenever the Precious Blood is distributed from the chalice, poured into ancillary vessels or even accidentally spilled, purificators should be used to absorb the spill. The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered. The purificator should never be made of paper or any other disposable material.

"Because of their function, purificators regularly become stained with the Precious Blood. It is, therefore, essential that they should first be cleansed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Purificators should be ironed in such a way that they may be easily used for the wiping of the lip of the chalice.

"Lavabo Towels

"The Order of Mass calls for the washing of the hands (lavabo) of the priest celebrant in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. Since it is his hands and not only his fingers (as in the former Order of Mass) which are washed at the lavabo, the lavabo towel should be of adequate size and sufficiently absorbent for drying his hands. Neither the color nor the material of the lavabo towel is prescribed, though efforts should be made to avoid the appearance of a 'dish towel,' 'bath towel' or other cloth with a purely secular use.

"Other Cloths

"Other cloths may also be used at Mass. A pall may be used to cover the chalice at Mass in order to protect the Precious Blood from insects or other foreign objects. In order that palls may be kept immaculately clean they should be made with removable covers of a worthy material which may be easily washed in the sacrarium and then laundered. Chalice veils either of the color of the day, or white may be fittingly used to cover the chalice before it is prepared and after it has been purified.

"Disposal of Worn Altar Linens

"Consistent with the disposal of all things blessed for use in the liturgy, it is appropriate that altar linens, which show signs of wear and can no longer be used, should normally be disposed of either by burial or burning.


"The manner in which we treat sacred things (even those of lesser significance than the chalice, paten, liturgical furnishings, etc.) fosters and expresses our openness to the graces God gives to his Church in every celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, by the diligent care of altar linens, the Church expresses her joy at the inestimable gifts she receives from Christ's altar."

This article demonstrates that the pastor errs in adopting paper towels, no matter what their quality, for use upon the altar. If he refuses to be persuaded, it might be necessary to take up the matter with the bishop.

* * *

Follow-up: Paper Towel Purificators [2-9-2010]

Commenting on our Jan. 26 piece on paper-towel purificators, a priest remarks: "Paper towels are clearly not suitable for use at the liturgy. Thinking as a celebrant who has no community helpers to take care of stained linen, I suspect that the priests are either trying to be efficient or economical. The reason for purificators being white is not explained. The stains never seem to leave linen and turn dirty brown if bleach is used — thus requiring new purchases of 'linens.' On the one hand, the instruction says 'suitable cloth' and on the other, it says 'linen.' Can we presume to use cotton cloth? I used to do this in the military due to saying Mass on a jeep in the desert. The cotton lasted longer and was easy to take care of. Now that I am bi-ritual, I find Eastern churches more practical. We use beautiful red purificators in keeping with Precious Blood stains. It is more practical and has never been an issue for washing. Made of cotton or linen, they work better. I now use them for the Roman Mass and no one has yet objected."

Certain norms grow out of traditions, and the Roman tradition is to use white purificators. This color might have been first used because it happened to be available. Even though the red purificators might be deemed more practical, I believe that we should follow the norms proper to each liturgical tradition and avoid mixing.

With respect to the material, it was once required that purificators be made of pure white linen or hemp, and cotton was forbidden. As we saw in our previous column, the present norms simply say that "The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered." And this opens the door to cotton and other suitable textiles.

The reason behind this change is probably also practical. Modern manufacturing techniques and the advent of new artificial fibres have sometimes converted pure linen into an expensive luxury. Also, with the widespread distribution of Communion under both species in most U.S. parishes, the use of purificators has grown exponentially, along with the inevitable increase in laundry requirements.

With respect to folding and ironing the purificator, the indications of the century-old Catholic Encyclopedia are still of practical value: "The Purificator is used for cleansing the chalice [and the ciborium ndr]. Its size is not prescribed by the rubrics. It is usually twelve to eighteen inches long, and nine or ten inches wide. It is folded in three layers so that when placed on the chalice beneath the paten its width is about three inches. A small cross may be worked in it at its centre to distinguish it from the little finger-towels used at the lavabo, although this is not prescribed."  

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field