Purifying Vessels Away From the Altar

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Purifying Vessels Away From the Altar

ROME, 25 JAN. 2005 (ZENIT)

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

Q: Is it proper for the priest to clean the Communion vessels outside the altar of celebration during Mass? Our parish priest, to save time, would move all the vessels/patens, etc., used for Communion to a table at the back of the sanctuary (away from the table of celebration), while the prayer after Communion is said and announcements take place. The cleaning is usually done by a concelebrating priest or deacon as the case may be. I feel this practice is disrespectful to the entire Eucharistic celebration; makes one feel like the vessels are just "dirty"' dishes. — J.N.M., Port Harcourt, Nigeria

A: The priest's mode of action is fundamentally correct and, except for one detail, in conformity with liturgical norms.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in No. 163, states the following about the purification of the sacred vessels:

"When the distribution of Communion is finished, the priest himself immediately and completely consumes at the altar any consecrated wine that happens to remain; as for any consecrated hosts that are left, he either consumes them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the reservation of the Eucharist.

"Upon returning to the altar, the priest collects any fragments that may remain. Then, standing at the altar or at the credence table, he purifies the paten or ciborium over the chalice then purifies the chalice, saying quietly, 'Quod ore sumpsimus' (Lord, may I receive), and dries the chalice with a purificator. If the vessels are purified at the altar, they are carried to the credence table by a minister. Nevertheless, it 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."

When a deacon is present, he normally does the purification, not on the altar however but at the credence table, as specified in No. 183:

"When the distribution of Communion is completed, the deacon returns to the altar with the priest and collects the fragments, if any remain, and then carries the chalice and other sacred vessels to the credence table, where he purifies them and arranges them in the usual way while the priest returns to the chair. It is also permissible to leave the vessels that need to be purified, suitably covered, at the credence table on a corporal and to purify them immediately after Mass following the dismissal of the people."

If no deacon is present, he may be substituted [for] by an instituted acolyte or by a concelebrating priest.

The basic reason for this norm is to reserve, as far as reasonably possible, the use of the altar for the realization of the Holy Sacrifice.

This is why the altar should preferably not be used until the offertory and the priest should preferably say the closing prayer from the chair although it is permissible to pray it at the altar.

The purification of the sacred vessels, while in no way reduced to being a merely practical exercise, could in some cases distract the faithful in making their thanksgiving during the sacred silence after Communion, especially if the number of vessels requiring purification is quite large.

The detail in which I believe that your priest is incorrect is that the purification appears to continue during the closing prayer.

All of the ministers should be at their proper places before the closing prayer and so the purification should be completed during the period of sacred silence following Communion.

If this is not possible, it is preferable to take the option offered by the missal to purify the sacred vessels immediately after Mass. ZE05012521

* * *

Follow-up: Purifying Vessels Away From the Altar [02-08-2005]

A surprising number of messages arrived requesting clarifications about the purification of sacred vessels (see Jan. 25). Since many of the missives contained similar questions, I will divide the answer into several subpoints.

A frequent request concerned the possibility of using the sacristy, instead of the credence table, to purify the vessels.

Although the liturgical books do not mention the sacristy, I believe that this possibility may be adopted in cases of necessity — for example, if space within the sanctuary is too small to cater for a credence table of sufficient dimensions, or if the vessels must be purified after Mass and there is little time between scheduled Masses.

When this is done, great care must be taken so as not to convert the sacristy into a washing room. A proper credence table, or one of the vesting cabinets, must be prepared to receive the vessels.

This table should be covered with a white linen cloth and supplied with corporal, purificators and water.

The ablutions should also be carried out in a climate of silence out of respect for the sacred species as well as to maintain the traditional silence observed in Catholic sacristies.

Another frequently asked question regarded who may purify. As mentioned in our former reply, this task falls to the deacon or, in his absence, the instituted acolyte, or, lacking both, the priest.

In normal circumstances, extraordinary ministers of Communion may not purify the sacred vessels at Mass.

However, the United States — and I believe, so far, only the United States — has received a temporary indult derogating from the general norms.

The text of the indult (Prot. 1382/01/L) states: "In response to the request of His Excellency, the Most Reverend Joseph Fiorenza, Bishop of Galveston-Houston, President of the Conference of Bishops of the United States of America, made in a letter dated June 21, 2001, and in virtue of the faculties granted to this Congregation by the Supreme Pontiff, John Paul II, we grant that in the dioceses of this same Conference, for grave pastoral reasons, the faculty may be given by the diocesan Bishop to the priest celebrant to use the assistance, when necessary, even of extraordinary ministers in the cleansing of sacred vessels after the distribution of Communion has been completed in the celebration of Mass. This faculty is conceded for a period of three years as a dispensation from the norm of the 'Institutio Generalis,' 'edito typica tertia' of the Roman Missal."

The indult was effective from Holy Thursday of 2002 and, unless renewed or made permanent, will expire this March 28.

Thus, for the moment, within the confines of the United States or any other country that may have requested and obtained a similar indult, an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may assist in the purification for "grave pastoral reasons."

The expression "grave reasons" is not boilerplate, and the bishop and priest should weigh the circumstances heavily in deciding if this assistance is objectively necessary. If it is not, they should not call upon extraordinary ministers.

In most cases, an experienced minister can carry out this task combining dignity with alacrity. And most other countries seem to be getting by without any special indults, even those that also frequently distribute Communion under both species.

However, if the assistance of extraordinary ministers is deemed necessary, I think that this task should be assigned to no more than one or two at a time, to avoid the danger of sparking conversations around the credence table.

Also repeatedly requested was a description of the purification process, whether during or after Mass.

Before purification proper begins, it is necessary to gather any remaining fragments and consume any remaining Precious Blood. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 163, indicates: "When the distribution of Communion is finished, the priest himself immediately and completely consumes at the altar any consecrated wine that happens to remain; as for any consecrated hosts that are left, he either consumes them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the reservation of the Eucharist."

This task belongs to the deacon or priest although in the United States. "When more of the Precious Blood remains than was necessary for Communion, and if not consumed by the bishop or priest celebrant, 'the deacon immediately and reverently consumes at the altar all of the Blood of Christ which remains; he may be assisted, if needs dictate, by other deacons and priests.' When there are extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, they may consume what remains of the Precious Blood from their chalice of distribution with permission of the diocesan bishop."

With regard to this latter point it is necessary to recall the admonition of "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 102.

To wit: "The chalice should not be ministered to lay members of Christ's faithful where there is such a large number of communicants that it is difficult to gauge the amount of wine for the Eucharist and there is a danger that 'more than a reasonable quantity of the Blood of Christ remain to be consumed at the end of the celebration.' The same is true wherever access to the chalice would be difficult to arrange, or where such a large amount of wine would be required that its certain provenance and quality could only be known with difficulty, or wherever there is not an adequate number of sacred ministers or extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion with proper formation, or where a notable part of the people continues to prefer not to approach the chalice for various reasons, so that the sign of unity would in some sense be negated."

Either way, it is clear that all of the sacred species should be consumed before purification begins.

Continuing with GIRM, No. 163: "Upon returning to the altar, the priest collects (and consumes) any fragments that may remain."

The term "fragment" would seem to refer to larger parts easily taken up by the fingers and not to the tiny particles that remain upon the paten and in the ciborium.

"Then, standing at the altar or at the credence table, he purifies the paten or ciborium over the chalice then purifies the chalice..." This is usually done by placing the paten over the chalice at an angle so that the tiny fragments fall into it. If necessary, this process may be helped by moving the particles with the corner of a folded purificator or with the thumb, which in turn is rubbed over the chalice to loosen any particles that may have adhered. If necessary, especially in hot and humid climes, the fingers may also be purified with water.

The ciborium may be purified by hand in the same manner. But because of the large number of small particles in this vessel, it is often necessary to purify it directly with water. In this case, water is placed in the ciborium, gently swished to absorb all the particles and this water is then poured directly into the chalice. Extra chalices are likewise purified with water.

The minister then consumes the water containing the particles and should not pour it into the sacrarium.

The minister then dries the ciboria and the chalice or chalices with a purificator.

When this process is completed, and only then, may the sacred vessels be washed with other elements such as soap. This is usually unnecessary and should not be done on a daily basis except, perhaps, when many people partake of the same chalice. Excess washing can cause expensive damage to the metal parts of the chalice. ZE05020822

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