Preparing the Corporal on the Altar

And More on Washing of the Hands

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ROME, MARCH 9, 2004 ( 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.

* * *

Follow-up: Washing of the Hands

Reacting to our Feb. 24 column, a priest from Maine stated his hope that «the practical value of the washing of hands would be more appreciated» in our modern germ-conscious society.

«I’ve asked the Eucharistic ministers to gather in the sacristy before the distribution of Holy Communion, especially in cold season, and wash their hands,» he writes.

While a practical practice of this type could be seen as an act of charity, I would hesitate to draw out a spiritual meaning of inner purification, which is the sense of the priest’s washing of hands.

There is also some practical washing of hands foreseen in the liturgy such as after distributing ashes, and after any rite that implies anointing.

Modern society is of course more acutely aware of hygienic questions, so simple acts of basic cleanliness may be appreciated and seen as an act of respect for the congregation, although without falling into exaggerations.

After all, in most cases one is far more likely to catch something at the office, or from hugging one’s own children and grandchildren, than by receiving Communion at Mass.

In this context, as another reader suggested, it is better for the priest, while distributing Communion, to avoid touching the head, while blessing young children or others who do not receive Communion as this practice may create some queasiness in those who are approaching, especially those who prefer to receive on the tongue.

At the same time it is probably going too far to expect the priest to refrain from shaking hands with those about him during the rite of peace, although there can be exceptions, as happened in Canada during the SARS epidemic, when several bishops recommended exchanging the sign of peace by means of a simple bow.

Another reader asks if the practice of purifying the fingers after distributing Comm
union has been abolished. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 278, says: «Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if necessary, wash them.»

Therefore the practice of purifying the fingers after distributing Communion is still in force although it is not always necessary to do so with water.

Although the GIRM speaks only of the priest the same principle hold true for other ministers of Communion and a vessel with fresh water and a purificator (the small linen cloth used for purifying sacred vessels after use) should be provided for them at the credence table or in another convenient place.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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