A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Plexiglass Covering on Altar
ROME, 16 AUG. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: A certain parish uses cut-to-size plexiglass covers on both the free-standing altar and the high altar as a means of preserving the white altar cloths from wax, burn holes and other stains. The plexiglass completely covers the mensa and altar cloth on both. A corporal is unfolded on top of this plexiglass at the preparation of the gifts. Is the use of such a plexiglass cover on top of the altar cloth permissible? I thought that nothing that is not necessary for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is meant to be placed on top the altar. — C.B., Dearborn, Michigan. Q: Since the burse has fallen out of use, is it permissible to leave a corporal on the altar at all times or must it be taken to the sacristy after each celebration of the Eucharist? — H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts
A: The use of the altar cloth is addressed in No. 304 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
"Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."
From this it is fairly clear that the liturgical norms require a white cloth and not a plexiglass covering upon the altar for the celebration.
I suppose there is no great difficulty in placing plexiglass or other transparent materials in the area beneath wax candles, just as it is quite common to place another cloth over the altar cloth outside of the celebration so as to protect it from dust and insects.
Regarding the question on the corporal, it is true that the burse (a case to hold the folded corporal usually covered with cloth matching the liturgical color of the day and usually forming a set with the chalice veil) has fallen out of use in many places although the use of the veil at least is still recommended.
The dropping of the burse probably arose from the liturgical reform.
The previous liturgical practice had the celebrant bring the veiled chalice with him as he approached the altar and he himself took the corporal from the burse and unfolded it at the beginning of Mass.
The present liturgy no longer reserves this task to the priest but entrusts it to the deacon or acolyte at the moment of the preparation of the gifts as specified in GIRM, No. 73.
In the former liturgy the altar breads for consecration were often placed directly upon the corporal — hence the name "corporal" as it held Christ's body. Even though this practice is rare today, as hosts are usually placed in a ciborium, the corporal conserves its role as the most important of all the altar linens: All that is to be consecrated should be placed upon a corporal and some tiny fragments may yet fall upon the corporal during the fraction rite.
Likewise, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed or otherwise removed from the tabernacle it should always be laid upon a corporal.
In virtue of the special role of the corporal it is incorrect to habitually leave it upon the altar where it can be easily soiled. If the burse is not used it may be placed folded on top of the chalice pall.
The corporal should be unfolded carefully one section at a time and never shook open. It should be folded with equal care during the purification rites.
On some occasions, such as large concelebrations, extra corporals may be placed upon the altar before Mass, leaving just the corporal containing the principal chalice to be unfolded during the preparation of the gifts.
Alternatively, a single very large corporal is sometimes placed before Mass as it would be ungainly to unfold it during the preparation of gifts.
In all cases the corporals should be removed during or after Mass, conserved with care, and regularly washed using the procedures indicated in "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 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." ZE05081622
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Follow-up: Plexiglass Covering on Altar [08-30-2005]
Several questions arose regarding our commentaries on altar linens (see Aug. 16). An Indiana reader asked about the proper use and design of the altar linens.
The principle involved is formulated in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 351: "Every effort should be made to ensure that even as regards objects of lesser importance the canons of art be appropriately taken into account and that noble simplicity come together with elegance."
That said, there is little more in recent norms regarding the design, size and materials of these cloths. The constant use of the word "linen" in the norms indicates that it is the most appropriate material and that even if other quality fabrics are used they should share the same qualities as linen and should be white in color.
The corporal, which should always be used for Mass, is square in shape and is customarily folded into nine sections and thus stored flat. It is often stiffened with starch so as to open more readily and keep its shape longer.
There are no specified dimensions and it can come in several (reasonable) sizes, according to the number of vessels to be placed upon it. Some authors recommend that it be left unadorned although in many places a cross is worked into the center of the side near the celebrant or at the center of the square.
In these latter cases the corporal should be folded in such a way that the nobler side of the decoration is that upon which the sacred vessels will be placed.
The purificator is rectangular in shape and usually folded three times lengthwise. It may be adorned but not so much as to impede its function as a practical towel for purifying the sacred vessels. If not made of linen it should be of another white absorbent fabric. Its size may vary slightly depending on functionality, but 12 to 17 inches (31 to 43 centimeters) is a fairly good average.
The towels for the washing of hands should be practical, absorbent and sufficiently ample so as to allow this rite to be more than a mere finger dip. At the same time they should be clearly reserved for liturgical use and not have a domestic appearance.
Another reader, a deacon from Birmingham, England, inquired more specifically about the use and placement of the corporal.
He states: "Regarding the use of the corporal: you stated that, if the burse is not used, the corporal should be placed on the chalice pall for removal after Mass. But what if there is no chalice pall either, as is correct for most parishes? In the past, in clearing the altar after the Eucharistic liturgy, I have folded the corporal (carefully) and placed it on the credence table. There it remains until the next celebration or until it requires washing. Conversely, if the parish priest is to celebrate the next Mass alone, I have left the corporal exactly where it is as most priests of my acquaintance prefer not to 'mess around' with the corporal — incorrectly, in my humble opinion. But what is then the correct liturgical practice? Your quote from 'Redemptionis Sacramentum' does not appear to rule this out."
Although it is true that the pall is not obligatory, its function is above all to protect the contents of the chalice from dust and insects. It proves its usefulness almost everywhere during the summer months and always adds a touch of elegance to the chalice.
If the pall is not used the folded corporal can still be easily placed on top of the chalice for the next Mass although it may also be placed folded on the credence as you suggest.
It should not normally be left upon the altar, as the rite for the preparation of gifts (GIRM, 73) specifically foresees its unfolding, to wit: "First, the altar, the Lord's table, which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice (unless the chalice is prepared at the credence table)."
This task is usually entrusted to the deacon or acolyte. But if the priest celebrates alone with no ministers present it falls upon him to reverently open the corporal.
A related question comes from an Oregon reader: "I've just read your comments about the altar linens and want to be very sure that I understand. We have a young parish priest who, contrary to the practice of our pastor, does not place the small chalices, to be used for the congregation, on the corporal for the consecration of the wine. I have always thought that what is to be consecrated must be on the corporal, and now am not at all sure about that."
You are correct in assuming that the species to be consecrated must always be placed upon a corporal, and indeed, except during the distribution of Communion, the Sacred Species must always be placed upon a corporal.
As a sample I will quote just two texts of the GIRM but could cite many more. GIRM No. 142 describes the presentation of the chalice:
"[T]he priest stands at the side of the altar and pours wine and a little water into the chalice, saying quietly, 'Per huius aquae' (By the mystery of this water). He returns to the middle of the altar, takes the chalice with both hands, raises it a little, and says quietly, 'Benedictus es, Domine' (Blessed are you, Lord). Then he places the chalice on the corporal and covers it with a pall, as appropriate."
GIRM No. 118 considers the situation where, due to the number of vessels, purification is deferred until after Mass: "[I]t is also permitted, especially if there are several vessels to be purified, to leave them suitably covered on a corporal, either at the altar or at the credence table, and to purify them immediately after Mass following the dismissal of the people."
In short, the liturgical norms always foresee the use of a corporal for the placement of the Sacred Species. ZE05083020
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