Plexiglass Covering on Altar

And More on Obedience to a Priest

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ROME, AUG. 16, 2005 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: A certain parish uses cut-to-size plexiglass covers on both the free-standing altar and the high altar as a means of preserving the white altar cloths from wax, burn holes and other stains. The plexiglass completely covers the mensa and altar cloth on both. A corporal is unfolded on top of this plexiglass at the preparation of the gifts. Is the use of such a plexiglass cover on top of the altar cloth permissible? I thought that nothing that is not necessary for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is meant to be placed on top the altar. — C.B., Dearborn, Michigan. Q: Since the burse has fallen out of use, is it permissible to leave a corporal on the altar at all times or must it be taken to the sacristy after each celebration of the Eucharist? — H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts

A: The use of the altar cloth is addressed in No. 304 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):

«Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color.»

From this it is fairly clear that the liturgical norms require a white cloth and not a plexiglass covering upon the altar for the celebration.

I suppose there is no great difficulty in placing plexiglass or other transparent materials in the area beneath wax candles, just as it is quite common to place another cloth over the altar cloth outside of the celebration so as to protect it from dust and insects.

Regarding the question on the corporal, it is true that the burse (a case to hold the folded corporal usually covered with cloth matching the liturgical color of the day and usually forming a set with the chalice veil) has fallen out of use in many places although the use of the veil at least is still recommended.

The dropping of the burse probably arose from the liturgical reform.

The previous liturgical practice had the celebrant bring the veiled chalice with him as he approached the altar and he himself took the corporal from the burse and unfolded it at the beginning of Mass.

The present liturgy no longer reserves this task to the priest but entrusts it to the deacon or acolyte at the moment of the preparation of the gifts as specified in GIRM, No. 73.

In the former liturgy the altar breads for consecration were often placed directly upon the corporal — hence the name «corporal» as it held Christ’s body. Even though this practice is rare today, as hosts are usually placed in a ciborium, the corporal conserves its role as the most important of all the altar linens: All that is to be consecrated should be placed upon a corporal and some tiny fragments may yet fall upon the corporal during the fraction rite.

Likewise, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed or otherwise removed from the tabernacle it should always be laid upon a corporal.

In virtue of the special role of the corporal it is incorrect to habitually leave it upon the altar where it can be easily soiled. If the burse is not used it may be placed folded on top of the chalice pall.

The corporal should be unfolded carefully one section at a time and never shook open. It should be folded with equal care during the purification rites.

On some occasions, such as large concelebrations, extra corporals may be placed upon the altar before Mass, leaving just the corporal containing the principal chalice to be unfolded during the preparation of the gifts.

Alternatively, a single very large corporal is sometimes placed before Mass as it would be ungainly to unfold it during the preparation of gifts.

In all cases the corporals should be removed during or after Mass, conserved with care, and regularly washed using the procedures indicated in «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» No. 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.»

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Follow-up: Obedience to a Priest

Several questions cropped up related to the question of the obedience due to the priest in liturgical matters (see July 19).

One reader asked: «In our local diocese the bishop has not implemented the changes found in the new General Instruction on the Roman Missal. When this document was promulgated should the changes have been put promptly into effect? What about religious orders within such a diocese? Is it a matter of ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do?’ While I understand the changes are not substantial, I am thinking about the instance when we are instructed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], to stand earlier. Is it within the bishop’s judgment as to when he puts these changes into effect so that proper instruction can happen?»

Other readers also asked about the obligation of religious toward the bishops in liturgical matters.

Our reader did not indicate her country of origin and this would make a difference to the reply. Although the Latin GIRM could have been applied immediately by any community, it would not normally become obligatory until the Holy See has given final recognition to the translation approved by the bishops’ conference and it is duly promulgated by the conference’s president.

In this, the U.S. bishops’ conference moved with alacrity and was the first to have a translation approved. Other English-speaking conferences have only recently finished this task and for them the new GIRM is yet a novelty in the parishes.

With respect to the bishop’s implementation of the document: Canon law sees this process as pertaining to the conference as a whole and not to individual bishops.

The bishop was involved, at the level of the conference, at all stages of the approval of the translation. Thus, no further decree of implementation is necessary from the bishop although nothing impedes his writing to the diocese informing of the changes to be made.

If he does not do so, then it simply falls upon each parish community to carry out the indications in the GIRM, which become obligatory from the date indicated in the official promulgation by the conference president.

With respect to the obedience owed to the bishop by a religious priest, «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» No. 176, states:

«The diocesan Bishop, ‘since he is the principal dispenser of the mysteries of God, is to strive constantly so that Christ’s faithful entrusted to his care may grow in grace through the celebration of the sacraments, and that they may know and live the Paschal Mystery.’ It is his responsibility, ‘within the limits of his competence, to issue norms on liturgical matters by which all are bound’ (See Canon 838,4).»

It would be beyond the scope of this reply to list all of the prerogatives of the bishop in liturgical matters. But the general principle is clear that all, including religious, are bound by universal norms and by those particular norms emanated by the bishop within his competence.

e religious orders may have special traditions and privileges granted by the Holy See which the bishop may not abridge.

There is, for example, the centuries-old privilege of the mendicant orders and the Jesuits to lift the excommunication annexed to the sin of abortion. But these peculiarities do not provide carte blanche to religious to ignore either universal norms or episcopal authority with respect to the liturgy.

Several readers asked if one is exempt from kneeling in those churches which have been constructed without kneelers.

From the point of view of the individual believer, he or she may kneel if able to do so but the lack of kneelers could well be considered as a legitimate impediment.

However, such a structure is not furnished according to the mind of the Church and the situation should be remedied as soon as possible. In fact, several U.S. bishops have mandated the installation or restoration of kneelers in churches where they were absent and we would hope this situation will be remedied everywhere as circumstances and finances permit. Any new church project should foresee the provision of kneelers.

A related question arose regarding the incision in the GIRM: «The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.» This means that the bishop may decide, for sound pastoral reasons, to exempt his flock from this practice. If he chooses to do so, the sense of the law appears to be that he establish a diocesanwide practice and not simply leave the question to the decision of each pastor with the consequent confusion that could arise with every change.

If the bishop decides to allow the people to stand after the Agnus Dei (a common practice outside of the United States), then this decision is binding on all. The bishop is free to exempt any parishes from norms he himself has issued and could permit them to follow the U.S. norms if kneeling after the Agnus Dei is a long tradition.

This period of community kneeling or standing lasts until Communion. As clarified by a letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship, after receiving Holy Communion each person may kneel, stand or sit as preferred. It is not required that the faithful remain standing until all present have received Communion.

An Arizona reader asked: «Under the authority of the local bishop, could there be consequences for a priest who does not implement the GIRM into his parish? If so, what sort of consequences?»

It really depends on the bishop himself and on the objective gravity of the case.

A priest might not implement the GIRM, for multiple reasons, ranging from ignorance through laziness all the way to obstinate disobedience.

A bishop first of all encourages priests and faithful to obey the Church’s norms based on supernatural faith.

In serious cases he may admonish a priest. Except in cases of grave defects that affect the dignity and even the validity of the liturgy, or of a general attitude of grave disobedience in other areas as well, it would be rare to move toward serious consequences such as suspension or removal.

In a perfect world, such cases would not arise. But, alas, we are not living in a perfect world.

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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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