Table Wine for Mass

And More on Celebrating Extra Masses

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ROME, JAN. 27, 2009 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you please comment on the permissibility of using commercially available table wine for Mass? When the label clearly indicates «100% grape,» this would seem to satisfy the requirements for validity. I ask the question because «altar wine» sells at a premium over table wine, and is generally not available without having to pay additional shipping charges. Having this option might appeal to pastors of poorer parishes who are looking for ways to trim parish expenses, and yet who are expected by the diocesan ordinary to offer the chalice to the laity at all Masses. — A.L., Gallitzin, Pennsylvania

A: The principles involved in the determination of proper matter are relatively simple. The most recent official declaration on this point stems from the instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» No. 50, which basically sums up earlier laws and the Code of Canon Law, No. 924:

«The wine that is used in the most sacred celebration of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must be natural, from the fruit of the grape, pure and incorrupt, not mixed with other substances. During the celebration itself, a small quantity of water is to be mixed with it. Great care should be taken so that the wine intended for the celebration of the Eucharist is well conserved and has not soured. It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter.»

Almost a century earlier the Catholic Encyclopedia gave basically the same doctrine but added more details, all of which are still relevant.

«Wine is one of the two elements absolutely necessary for the sacrifice of the Eucharist. For valid and licit consecration vinum de vite, i.e. the pure juice of the grape naturally and properly fermented, is to be used. Wine made out of raisins, provided that from its colour and taste it may be judged to be pure, may be used (Collect. S. C. de Prop. Fide, n. 705). It may be white or red, weak or strong, sweet or dry. Since the validity of the Holy Sacrifice, and the lawfulness of its celebration, require absolutely genuine wine, it becomes the serious obligation of the celebrant to procure only pure wines. And since wines are frequently so adulterated as to escape minute chemical analysis, it may be taken for granted that the safest way of procuring pure wine is to buy it not at second hand, but directly from a manufacturer who understands and conscientiously respects the great responsibility involved in the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. If the wine is changed into vinegar, or is become putrid or corrupted, if it was pressed from grapes that were not fully ripe, or if it is mixed with such a quantity of water that it can hardly be called wine, its use is forbidden (Missale Rom., De Defectibus, tit. iv, 1). If the wine begins to turn into vinegar, or to become putrid, or if the unfermented juice is pressed from the grape, it would be a grievous offence to use it, but it is considered valid matter (ibid., 2). To conserve weak and feeble wines, and in order to keep them from souring or spoiling during transportation, a small quantity of spirits of wine (grape brandy or alcohol) may be added, provided the following conditions are observed (1) The added spirit (alcohol) must have been distilled from the grape (ex genimime vitis); (2) the quantity of alcohol added, together with that which the wine contained naturally after fermentation, must not exceed eighteen per cent of the whole; (3) the addition must be made during the process of fermentation (S. Romana et Univ. Inquis., 5 August, 1896).»

Note that none of these documents speak about the obligation to use any officially denominated «Altar Wine» and indeed there is nothing special about official altar wine except that it is guaranteed to be nothing special.

If one could be equally certain that a cheaper table wine is 100% grape with no additions of other substances or of non-grape alcohol, then it would also be valid matter. To be certain, and before using it, one should inquire from the manufacturer regarding the process involved in making the wine so as to exclude any doubt whatsoever.

While any priest could make such an inquiry, it would be more prudent that it be done through the local ordinary who could then inform his clergy that, as well as official altar wines, such and such a brand of common table wine may also be considered as valid matter for the Eucharist.

* * *

Follow-up: Concelebrating at Additional Masses

Pursuant to our comments on concelebrated Masses (see Jan. 13), a priest from Honduras wrote the following: «Quid agerem? I have a large parish in Honduras and I celebrate three parish Masses on Sunday, and should I have to go to one in an aldea [village], four. On weekdays, I celebrate one Mass, and at times I have a funeral, and also have to visit an aldea,‘ and hence would celebrate three Masses. Am I in violation? On one day, I have to go to the cathedral to concelebrate the bishop’s ordination anniversary, plus the morning Mass in the parish, plus the patron feast of an aldea which celebrates Cristo de Esquipulas, with baptisms and first Communions. I fear that should someone die, I would have to celebrate the funeral Mass, too. Here in Honduras, only the wealthy can afford embalming, and hence the rank and file have to be buried within 24 hours. Some advice, please, so that my soul is not in jeopardy!»

Our correspondent is evidently a hardworking zealous priest who is at the same time striving to celebrate the liturgy according to Church norms.

This is an important quality, as not all priests clearly perceive that we are administrators and not the owners of the sacred gifts received at ordination. In other words, we may not dispose of them according to our will, or according to our criteria of what is «pastorally suitable,» but must perform our service according to the mind of the Church.

In limiting the number of Masses that a priest may celebrate, the Church does not desire to limit the possibility of grace. Rather, it widens its consideration beyond immediate pastoral concerns to take into account deeper values such as the sacred nature of the Mass itself — which could easily be obscured by an exhausted priest going through the motions for the sixth time in one day.

In this sense the Church’s restrictions are themselves pastoral, as she cares for the spiritual and physical well-being of the shepherd himself as well as safeguarding the faithful’s right to a reverent celebration of the sacred mysteries.

What should be done by our correspondent? First of all, he should consult the bishop regarding the specific canonical norms applicable in the diocese. Not a few countries and dioceses with grave pastoral situations such as those described have been granted permission to go beyond the canonical restrictions and allow for the celebration of four Masses on Sunday and three daily.

Second, although the Mass is the high point of Catholic worship, the Church has liturgical possibilities other than the Mass. I have many priest friends from Latin American dioceses and am aware of the great pastoral needs. (For example, I have a Brazilian friend with a parish of 90,000 souls and another in Mexico with 25 small towns under his care.) These priests try to rotate as best they can the number of Masses allowed them and then use the other possibilities such as the Celebration of the Word with Holy Communion.

In the case of funerals, which by their very nature cannot be programmed, the Church has the possibility of a funeral liturgy without Mass. Thus, if one has already ce
lebrated all possible Masses and a funeral turns up, one can celebrate the funeral and burial rites while offering to celebrate a Mass for the family at the nearest possible date.

God does not depend on our schedules to distribute his mercy as all time is in his hands. Certainly it is necessary to educate the faithful in this and explain that the priest is also subject to obedience and that the scarcity of clergy precludes the satisfaction of all possible desires.

* * *

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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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