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The Preparation of the Gifts and the Altar, Part I

The preparation of the altar and the gifts in the Missal of Paul VI differs significantly in theology and in ceremony from the offertory elements of the Missal of John XXIII. Nevertheless, many, though not all, of the directives found in the former rubrics can help structure this part of Mass in a way which is both dignified and graceful. In so doing, the “traditional practice of the Roman Rite” mentioned in no. 42 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) can enrich today’s celebrations of the Novus Ordo.

After the conclusion to the prayers of the faithful, the celebrant sits and the deacon goes directly from the place where he offered the intentions to the credence table or to the altar. According to long-standing custom, the credence table will be placed to the celebrant’s right as he faces the altar (whether celebrating ad orientem or versus populum). The deacon is joined at the credence table by servers. If convenient, the deacon may bring the chalice from the credence table to the altar (GIRM 171b, 171e, 178), or he may wait at the altar for an instituted acolyte or other server to bring it to him there (GIRM 190). Customarily, the chalice is “vested,” that is, the chalice has with it a purificator, a paten with a host, a pall, a veil of the same material and color as the vestments of the day (or may be white, GIRM 118), and a burse containing a corporal. In the absence of a burse (which is not mentioned in the GIRM or in the Order for Mass, although its use is eminently practical), the corporal lays on the pall under the veil (See A. Mutel and P. Freeman, Cérémonial de la Sainte Messe, Artège, 110). When carrying the vested chalice, the deacon or server holds it by the node in his left hand, with his entire right hand resting flat on top of the veil (or burse) so that nothing falls. He carries it with the front of the veil (and the burse) facing outward—and he carries nothing else in his hands.

The deacon or the server places the chalice on the right hand corner of the altar, with the front of the veil facing the faithful. If there is a burse, a server may take it off the chalice, hold it open with both hands on either side of the burse so that the deacon can more easily retrieve the corporal (See Mutel and Freeman, 111). The deacon (or in his absence, a server) then unfolds the corporal in the middle of the altar such that its bottom edge will be an inch or two from the edge of the altar. With the folded corporal lying flat at the center of the altar, the deacon begins by unfolding a portion toward the left like a book, then to the right, then the top portion, and finally the bottom portion. The corporal is always unfolded and folded while it lays flat on the altar; it is never folded while held up in both hands over the altar. Alternatively, the deacon takes the burse and lays it flat on the altar with its opening facing to the right. With his left hand, he raises the flap of the burse, and with his right hand extracts the corporal from the burse and then proceeds to unfold the corporal as described above.

The deacon then turns to his right to the chalice, removes the veil, folds it, and places the folded veil (and the burse) in the hands of the server who brought the chalice or who accompanied him to the altar. He folds the veil while it lays flat on the altar; it is never folded while held in both hands above the altar. He places the pall (a roughly 6-inch rigid square that will cover the top of the chalice) near the top right corner of the corporal. He leaves the purificator draped over the chalice to the right side of the altar. The paten with the large host (and other hosts) can remain on the chalice and purificator, or it may be placed on the altar between the chalice and the corporal. (See Mutel and Freeman, 112)

A single additional chalice or ciborium is brought from the credence table to the altar by a server. The deacon places it on the corporal at the top right corner. If additional vessels are needed, beyond merely a single chalice or ciborium, additional corporals might be place on the altar, at first to the right hand side, either at the edge of the main corporal or at some distance from it, and then on the left hand side, away from the missal (See P. Elliott, Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite (Ignatius Press), 100). All the necessary corporals and purificators might be brought to the altar with the principal chalice either in a burse and/or under the chalice veil. Servers can bring additional vessels to the altar in a kind of procession, one behind the other, as the deacon places them in their proper locations, the chalices to his right side, the patens or ciboria to his left. The required purificators (which are used to wipe the rim of the chalice after the precious blood is received by the communicant) are placed near their corresponding chalices, along the edge of the corporal on which they rest. The additional chalices, ciboria, or patens already contain the elements in them which will be consecrated. Ciboria can be brought to the altar with their covers. During Mass, the deacon will have to attend to uncovering them and re-covering them at the proper time. However, the ciboria can also be brought to the altar without their covers, which remain at the credence table. Servers carry no more than one vessel in each hand. It may be preferable, especially with younger servers, for them to carry only one vessel in both hands.

Only after all the vessels are placed on the altar, a server brings the missal from the celebrant’s chair to the altar. Or, he may have brought it to the credence table first in order to place it on its stand or pillow and then proceed to take both to the altar once the preparation of the altar and the gifts is completed. The server brings the open missal (on its stand) to the altar and places it at an angle to the left of the main corporal, and insofar as is possible, off the corporal. The deacon or the server may turn the missal to the preparation of the gifts, if it is not already open to that page.

If there is no deacon assisting the priest for the celebration of Mass, an instituted acolyte or other server properly trained may take the role of the deacon described above. If there is no server suitable for these tasks available, perhaps because of age or stature, the priest himself should go to the altar at the conclusion of the prayers of the faithful to prepare the altar in the manner previously indicated. If there is no procession with the gifts, the celebrant goes directly from his chair to the altar after it has been prepared and bows to it upon arriving (Elliott, 102).

The next post will continue with a description of the postures and gestures involved in carrying out the prayers of preparation for the bread and wine. Many of the traditional practices of the Roman tradition can be helpful in making these gestures as graceful and as efficient as possible.

This is the ninth part of an ongoing series for Adoremus by Monsignor Caron on “Liturgical Traditions,” one that situates the Novus Ordo rites amidst the received liturgical observances, thereby helping us to understand today’s rites in their proper “hermeneutic of reform.” Read the previous parts of the “Liturgical Traditions” series by clicking here.

Monsignor Marc Caron

Monsignor Marc Caron

Monsignor Marc Caron is Professor of Liturgy at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts. He is a priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, having served there as a pastor and as director of the Office for Worship. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois. At St. John’s, he also serves as Director of Liturgy and as a formation advisor. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.