Paper Towel Purificators

And More on the Faithful Taking the Host Directly

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ROME, JAN. 26, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our pastor has taken to using «high quality» paper towels instead of linen for purificators. This has some of the community very upset. Supposedly, the paper towels are burned once a week. At this point, the pastor is unwillingly to change this practice (both he and the priest responsible for the liturgy have been approached). Is this practice licit? It seems, at the very least, to be insulting to Our Lord and, at the worst, not only wrong, but sending an incorrect message as to the value of the Eucharist. — T.A., New York

A: Although the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) does not give detailed instructions regarding the composition of altar linens, it enunciates the general principle involved in No. 348: «Besides sacred vessels and sacred vestments for which some special material is prescribed, other furnishings that either are intended for strictly liturgical use or are in any other way admitted into a church should be worthy and suited to their particular purpose.»

It is debatable, to say the least, that paper towels are «worthy and suited» to the purpose of touching the Lord’s body or that they could be blessed according to the Church’s rites.

More detailed is the instruction «Redemptionis Sacramentum,» which touches on this subject in Nos. 57 and 120, to wit:

«[57.] It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration […] that there should always be an altar, vestments and sacred linens that are dignified, proper, and clean, in accordance with the norms.

«[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.»

This instruction clearly presupposes that the linens are made of suitable cloth. It also demonstrates the reverence and care which should be taken with all that comes into contact with the sacred species.

An article from the liturgy committee of the U.S. bishops’ conference, although it has less legal authority than the aforementioned documents, provides a remarkably concise synthesis of official decrees on this subject. Because of its clarity and utility, it merits quotation in full.

«In recent years the Secretariat for the Liturgy has received multiple inquiries concerning the care and cleansing of altar linens. The following article, approved by the Committee on the Liturgy at its March 19, 2001 meeting, is provided for the information of those charged with the care of altar linens.

«Whatever is set aside for use in the liturgy takes on a certain sacred character both by the blessing it receives and the sacred functions it fulfills. Thus, the cloths used at the altar in the course of the Eucharistic celebration should be treated with the care and respect due to those things used in the preparation and celebration of the sacred mysteries.

«This brief statement reflects on the importance of reverently caring for altar linens which, because of their use in the liturgy, are deserving of special respect. These linens should be ‘beautiful and finely made, though mere lavishness and ostentation must be avoided.’ Altar cloths, corporals, purificators, lavabo towels and palls should be made of absorbent cloth and never of paper.»

Altar linens are appropriately blessed according to the Order for the Blessing of Articles for Liturgical Use. The blessing of a number of such articles for liturgical use may take place ‘within Mass or in a separate celebration in which the faithful should take part.’

«Altar Cloths

«Just as the altar is a sign for us of Christ the living stone, altar cloths are used ‘out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the banquet that gives us his body and’ by their beauty and form they add to the dignity of the altar in much the same way that vestments solemnly ornament the priests and sacred ministers. Such cloths also serve a practical purpose, however, in absorbing whatever may be spilled of the Precious Blood or other sacramental elements. Thus the material of altar cloths should be absorbent and easily laundered.»

While there may be several altar cloths in the form of drapings or even frontals, their shape, size, and decoration should be in keeping with the design of the altar. Unless the altar cloths have been stained with the Precious Blood, it is not necessary that they be cleaned in the sacrarium. Care should be taken, however, that proper cleaning methods are used to preserve the beauty and life of the altar cloth. It is appropriate for those who care for sacred vessels, cloths and other instrumenta of the liturgy to accompany their work with prayer.


«Sacred vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord are always placed on top of a corporal.

«A corporal is spread by the deacon or another minister in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. When concelebrants receive the Eucharist from the altar, a corporal is placed beneath all chalices or patens. Finally, it is appropriate that a corporal be used on a side table, and placed beneath the sacred vessels which have been left to be purified after Mass.

«Because one of the purposes of the corporal is to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may be left at the conclusion of Mass, care should be taken that the transferral of consecrated hosts between sacred vessels should always be done over a corporal. The corporal should be white in color and of sufficient dimensions so that at least the main chalice and paten may be placed upon it completely. When necessary, more than one corporal may be used. The material of corporals should be absorbent and easily laundered.

«Any apparent particles of the consecrated bread which remain on the corporal after the distribution of Holy Communion should be consumed in the course of the purification of the sacred vessels.

«When corporals are cleansed they should first be rinsed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Corporals should be ironed in such a way that their distinctive manner of folding helps to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may remain at the conclusion of the Eucharistic celebration.


«Purificators are customarily brought to the altar with chalices and are used to wipe the Precious Blood from the lip of the chalice and to purify sacred vessels. They should be white in color. Whenever the Precious Blood is distributed from the chalice, poured into ancillary vessels or even accidentally spilled, purificators should be used to absorb the spill. The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered. The purificator should never be made of paper or any other disposable material.

«Because of their function, purificators regularly become stained with the Precious Blood. It is, therefore, essential that they should first be cleansed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Purificators should be ironed in such a way that they may be easily used for the wiping of the lip of the chalice.

«Lavabo Towels

«The Order of Mass calls for the washing of the hands (lavabo) of the priest celebrant in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. Since it is his hands and not only his fingers (as in the former Order of Mass) which are washed at the lavabo, the lavabo towel should be of adequate size and sufficiently absorbent for drying his hands. Neither the color nor the material of the lavabo towel is prescribed,
though efforts should be made to avoid the appearance of a ‘dish towel,’ ‘bath towel’ or other cloth with a purely secular use.

«Other Cloths

«Other cloths may also be used at Mass. A pall may be used to cover the chalice at Mass in order to protect the Precious Blood from insects or other foreign objects. In order that palls may be kept immaculately clean they should be made with removable covers of a worthy material which may be easily washed in the sacrarium and then laundered. Chalice veils either of the color of the day, or white may be fittingly used to cover the chalice before it is prepared and after it has been purified.

«Disposal of Worn Altar Linens

«Consistent with the disposal of all things blessed for use in the liturgy, it is appropriate that altar linens, which show signs of wear and can no longer be used, should normally be disposed of either by burial or burning.


«The manner in which we treat sacred things (even those of lesser significance than the chalice, paten, liturgical furnishings, etc.) fosters and expresses our openness to the graces God gives to his Church in every celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, by the diligent care of altar linens, the Church expresses her joy at the inestimable gifts she receives from Christ’s altar.»

This article demonstrates that the pastor errs in adopting paper towels, no matter what their quality, for use upon the altar. If he refuses to be persuaded, it might be necessary to take up the matter with the bishop.

* * *

Follow-up: When the Faithful Take the Host Directly

Related to our comments on the laity taking the host directly (Jan. 12), a lay extraordinary minister of Holy Communion from Manila, Philippines, presented a particular case: «Each weekend I distribute Communion among the sick in our parish. Occasionally, because of the absence of some of the sick, I end my rounds with an unconsumed, consecrated host or two. I am told that it is all right to consume the hosts myself. However, I want to know if self-communion is really allowed as a practice. At the moment, the only option is to make the long way back to return the hosts to the church.»

The rite for distributing the Eucharist to the sick in this kind of case does not foresee the extraordinary minister receiving Communion; nor does it foresee that hosts might be left over. An exception occurs when Communion to the sick is made under the species of wine; in that case, the minister always consumes the extra species after administering the sacrament.

The rite for Communion outside of Mass by an extraordinary minister, however, does make allowances for the minister to take Communion and for reservation in the tabernacle.

The reason for this difference is that the rite supposes that in the first case the minister to the sick has had ample opportunity to receive Communion from a sacred minister, whereas the second circumstance normally presupposes the absence of an ordained minister. It would be paradoxical in the latter situation that the only person inhibited from receiving the host would be the minister who is giving out Communion.

The fact that the second rite permits the «self-communion» of the extraordinary minister proves that its absence in the rite for the sick is based on practical and not theological grounds. There are probably some circumstances in which the extraordinary minister to the sick could receive Communion if it were the only opportunity to do so on a given weekday.

It must also be remembered, however, that one may receive Communion twice in a day only if the second time is at Mass. Viaticum is an exception to this rule (see canons 917 and 921.2 of the Code of Canon Law).

Therefore, I do not think that the minister consuming the extra hosts is the most apt solution.

I would suggest that the easiest and most practical solution to having one or two extra hosts is to administer two hosts to the last communicants. This may be done to the sick if they are able, or to one of those attending the sick. Receiving more than one host at the same time, or receiving half a host, in no way increases or diminishes the grace received and constitutes a single act of communion.

A reader from Ireland asked: «In our parish it is the practice that the ministers of Communion self-administer the chalice from the altar and the last minister brings the chalice to a side table for the members of the public who are celiac to self-administer the blood of Christ. Can you advise if this practice is acceptable?»

The short answer is no. Everybody except the priest should receive the Eucharist from a minister. Even the deacon should receive the host and the chalice from the priest, after the priest has made his communion.

In the case of those who are celiac, the minister should go to a suitable place and present the chalice to them one by one, saying, «The blood of Christ.» They may then take the chalice and reverently consume the species as this is not a case of self-communion but the most practical means of avoiding any loss of the Precious Blood. An acolyte with a Communion plate should be present, and the minister should have a purificator available in order to wipe the chalice rim.

* * *

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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