Nov 15, 2006

Purifying Sacred Vessels

Online Edition – November 2006
Vol. XII, No. 8

US Must Observe General Law on Purifying Sacred Vessels After Mass

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

Permission for the US bishops to extend the practice of allowing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to purify sacred vessels after Mass has been officially denied by the Holy See, so that the practice of the Church in the United States will conform to the general law of the Latin Church.

In an October 12 letter to Bishop William Skylstad, president of the US bishops’ conference, Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, reported that Pope Benedict declined the US bishops’ request to extend the indult that permitted this practice. Cardinal Arinze’s letter was sent to all bishops on October 23, along with “Seven Questions on the Distribution of Holy Communion Under Both Kinds”, prepared by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL).

Although the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) states that the ritual purification of sacred vessels used at Mass must be done by a priest or deacon, or a formally instituted acolyte, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had obtained special permission (or “indult”) to allow non-ordained “extraordinary ministers” to perform that role. The indult was granted by the Congregation for Divine Worship on March 22, 2002, for a period of three years. The official letter granting the indult said, in part,

…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, editio typica tertia of the Roman Missal.

When the indult expired in March 2005, the USCCB requested an extension; however, at that time Pope John Paul II was near death, and the election of Pope Benedict XVI took place less than a month later, and no action was taken on the expired indult. In March, the USCCB repeated the request.

Cardinal Arinze’s letter explained that he had consulted the Holy Father in June, and that the request was denied.

What is Purification?
Advocates of the practice of purification of sacred vessels by extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion believe this facilitates offering Communion in both species (the consecrated bread and wine) when the congregation is large.

But the practice also blurs the distinction between “ordinary ministers” (priests, deacons) and “extraordinary ministers” (lay people). For example, the Guide for Ministers of Communion published in 1999 by Liturgy Training Publications of Chicago directed that “ministers should gather in the sacristy or other appropriate place after Mass and consume what is left.… Ministers may also be asked to help clean and put away the vessels for the next liturgy” (p 21). This Guide makes no distinction between ordinary and extraordinary ministers; and ritual cleansing of the sacred vessels — purification — is not even mentioned, apparently conflated with ordinary “washing up”.

However, the ritual purification of the vessels that contained the Blessed Sacrament is not the same as the final washing, which may be done by anyone. Purifying involves rinsing the vessels with water, consuming the water containing the traces of the Blessed Sacrament with a prayer, then drying the vessel with the linen purificator — which is also ritually rinsed (and the water poured in the sacrarium) before regular laundering.

The procedure for purifying the vessels is briefly described in the GIRM:

GIRM 163 … 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.

270. The priest purifies the chalice at the credence table or at the altar. If the chalice is purified at the altar, it may be carried to the credence table by the minister or may again be placed on the altar at the side.

271. After the purification of the chalice, the priest should observe some moments of silence, after which he says the prayer after Communion.

Communion for Crowds: One Species or Intinction
Redemptionis Sacramentum, the disciplinary instruction issued in March 2004, stated that the chalice should not be offered if the crowd is very large:

RS 102. The chalice should not be administered to lay members of Christ’s faithful where there is such a large number of communicants1 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 remains to be consumed at the end of the celebration”.2 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.

If Communion in both kinds is offered in these circumstances, it may be administered by intinction, as Cardinal Arinze’s letter noted:

Intinction with reception on the tongue always and everywhere remains a legitimate option, by virtue of the general liturgical law of the Roman Rite.

Cardinal Arinze’s letter also emphasized the importance of conveying Church teaching that Christ is fully present in each of the species:

Catechesis of the people is important regarding the teaching of the Council of Trent that Christ is fully present under each of the species. Communion under the species of the bread alone, as a consequence, makes it possible to receive all the fruit of Eucharistic grace. “For pastoral reasons”, therefore, “this manner of receiving Communion has been legitimately established as the most common form in the Latin rite”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 1390)

The current US regulations are in the USCCB Norms for the Celebration and Reception of Holy Communion in Both Kinds, accessible on the USCCB web site.


1 Cf. S. Congregation for Divine Worship, Instruction, Sacramentali Communione, 29 June 1970: AAS 62 (1970) p. 665; Instruction, Liturgicae instaurationes, n. 6a: AAS 62 (1970) p. 699.

2 Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis [GIRM] n. 285a.



Helen Hull Hitchcock

Helen Hull Hitchcock (1939-2014) was editor of the <em>Adoremus Bulletin</em>, which she co-founded. She was also the founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She published many articles and essays in a wide range of Catholic journals, and authored and edited <em>The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God</em> (Ignatius Press 1992), a collection of essays on issues involved in translation. She contributed essays to several books, including <em>Spiritual Journeys</em>, a book of “conversion stories” (Daughters of St. Paul). Helen lectured in the US and abroad, and appeared frequently on radio and television, representing Catholic teaching on issues affecting Catholic women, families, and Catholic faith and worship.