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