Preparing the Corporal on the Altar

Author: ZENIT


Preparing the Corporal on the Altar


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: In my parish church the "altar servers," usually children or teen-agers, have been instructed to prepare the altar for the offering, right after the recitation of the Creed. They unfold the corporal on the altar, and place the ciboria and chalice there. They also position the Sacramentary on the altar. They then escort the presiding priest to receive the wine and main ciborium from the offertory procession.

My questions are: 1) The task of preparing the altar — does it properly belong to the deacon or priest? Or, in the absence of a deacon, can it be done by Eucharistic ministers rather than by altar servers? 2) Should the water be brought in the offertory procession along with the wine and bread, or it is not necessary/proper to do so? 3) The presidential chair is directly behind the altar. Whenever the ministers or altar servers must walk across between the altar and the presiding priest sitting or standing by the chair, should they bow to the altar or to the priest? The same question goes when the presider is at the altar, and one must cross between the chair and the priest at the altar: To whom or what do they bow? — D.M., Toronto

A: I will try to answer your questions in the order in which you ask them.

The rite of offertory is described, among other places, in No. 139 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). It states: "When the Prayer of the Faithful is completed, all sit, and the Offertory chant begins (cf. above, no. 74). An acolyte or other lay minister arranges the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the Missal upon the altar."

Therefore, the practice you describe is correct insofar as it does form part of the server's office to arrange the elements used for the celebration upon the altar. Extra ciboria not used in the offertory procession may also be brought, although it is desirable that all the hosts to be consecrated be brought in the procession by the faithful.

However, the moment of this preparation described in your question is incorrect. This preparation should not begin until after the Prayers of the Faithful which concludes the Liturgy of the Word and which are obligatory on a Sunday.

Liturgically it is best that the altar not be used until the Liturgy of the Eucharist begins.

This requires good coordination between priest, deacon and servers in order to bring everything to the altar with alacrity while respecting proper decorum.

Special care should be taken in instructing the servers in preparing the corporal (a piece of square linen upon which the chalice, paten and ciboria are placed during Mass; any vessel containing the sacred species must be placed upon a corporal).

The corporal is still frequently kept in a burse and laid on top of the chalice. It is usually folded three times each way so as to form nine equal squares and should always be opened while lying flat and never shook open.

In earlier times the corporal's function was to prevent the loss of even minuscule fragments of the consecrated host which was frequently laid directly upon the corporal itself (a rare occurrence today) and for this reason only ordained ministers were allowed to touch the corporal.

In general the preparation of the altar should be reserved to older servers or adult ministers. The need for special care, as well as the weight of the books and the height of the altar, makes it very difficult for children to handle this task.

As to your second question, GIRM 72 says: "At the Preparation of the Gifts, the bread and the wine with water are brought to the altar, the same elements that Christ took into his hands." GIRM 73, which deals more specifically of the procession, says only: "It is praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and carried to the altar."

Thus, although the custom of bringing the water together with the wine in the offertory procession is not specifically mentioned, it is in fact the most common practice. Usually the cruets — the vessels used for the water and wine — come in matching sets so as to facilitate their being carried in the procession.

Finally your question about bows raises some practical questions that can sometimes only be answered "in situ" according to the concrete situation of the presbytery.

A bow is made to the altar whenever passing in front of it, except when in a procession.

The Ceremonial of Bishops indicates that bows should be made to the bishop whenever servers or other ministers approach or leave him in the course of their functions, or when passing in front of him during ceremonies.

Although these norms do not apply to priests, it is a common custom to imitate them in the Mass celebrated by the priest.

As there are few precise guidelines regarding this aspect of liturgy, we have to put our trust in a general sense of decorum united to a dose of common sense.

As far as possible it is probably best to avoid creating the dilemma in the first place, by having servers, readers and any other ministers pass in front of the altar rather than between altar and chair.

However, should this not be possible, at least during the Liturgy of the Word, the most logical practice would appear to be to bow toward the priest.

Once the Liturgy of the Eucharist has begun, especially after the Prayer over the Gifts, servers avoid passing behind the celebrant. Also, movements should be limited to the strictly necessary, or to those foreseen by the liturgy such as the incensation of the Eucharist at the consecration.

If these movements are necessary, as can sometimes happen in concelebrations, it is probably better to avoid any bows whatsoever so as not to call attention to the servers. ZE04030921

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Follow-up: Preparing the Corporal for the Altar [03-23-2004]

Thanks to the acute observation of a deacon from Florida I would like to refine my response regarding the correctness of an acolyte preparing the altar (March 9).

While I correctly quoted No. 139 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, I should have added that these functions are carried out only in the absence of a deacon. As stated in GIRM No. 178, if the deacon is present at Mass he "prepares the altar, assisted by the acolyte, but it is the deacon's place to take care of the sacred vessels himself" (see also GIRM, No. 190).

Correspondents from Australia and the United States questioned the propriety of bringing water along with the wine in the procession of the gifts, arguing that water is God's gift to us and is not, properly speaking, the "work of human hands."

While the argument is interesting I think that perhaps it goes too far in fine-tuning a practical rubric which, while echoing an ancient practice, in its present form is of relatively recent origin and from which we cannot draw too many theological conclusions.

Even so, there is clear evidence that in ancient times many natural gifts, such as grapes and even live birds, as well as other material objects such as oil, candles and precious vessels were brought in the offertory alongside the bread and wine intended for the sacrifice.

The practice of also bringing the water intended for the chalice is recorded as part of the offertory rites of seventh-century papal Masses.

In modern papal Masses, water is always brought alongside the wine in the offertory procession.

Likewise, water must always be added to the wine before pronouncing the prayer that offers it as "work of human hands."

Thus, while in overall agreement with our correspondents' principle that active participation is carried out "by accompanying the gift bearers, rather than having many people carry a surplus number of vessels," and recognizing that there is no obligation to bring water along with the wine in the procession, I personally see no practical or theological reason why it should be excluded.

Regarding another aspect of the March 9 column, a priest from Boston wrote: "In this parish, the tabernacle is in the sanctuary directly behind the altar, about four strides away. There is room to move between the altar and the tabernacle — in fact, to get to the pulpit from the presider's chair, one must walk between altar and tabernacle. My question is: Do I bow to the altar or to the tabernacle when I cross the sanctuary? The current practice is to bow to the tabernacle."

As we mentioned previously, in general the tabernacle does not receive special attention during the celebration of Mass.

GIRM, No. 132, may help us. It states: "During the singing of the Alleluia or other chant, ... with hands joined, he [the priest] bows profoundly before the altar and quietly says, 'Munda cor meum' (Almighty God, cleanse my heart ...)."

The GIRM also specifies that after the bow the priest takes the Book of the Gospels if it has been laid on the altar at the beginning of Mass. Likewise, a bow would be made by a deacon before he takes up the Book of the Gospels (see GIRM, No. 175).

On the other hand, if the Book of the Gospels has not been laid on the altar the deacon goes directly from the chair to the ambo after receiving the priest's blessing, without pausing before the altar.

These directions would indicate that the correct posture in the situation described by our reader is to bow toward the altar even though the tabernacle is behind.

Based on the description given of the parish, however, I would say that, unless the Book of the Gospels is laid upon the altar, it would be liturgically preferable to make this bow in front of the altar, hence simultaneously facing both altar and tabernacle. This may mean taking a less direct route from the chair to the ambo. But it is usually more elegant and would be preferred even if there were no tabernacle present in the sanctuary. ZE04032321

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