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Use of the Corporal

Meant to Collect Fragments or Drops of Consecrated Species

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In the seminary I was taught that the corporal is meant to catch any pieces or drops of the Precious Body and Blood which might go astray on the altar. I was also taught that valid consecration of the bread and wine did not depend on whether they were situated upon the corporal. The odd other priest that I meet takes no special care of the corporal because he believes that its function is only to make valid the consecrated species that rest upon the corporal. Some even leave the corporal opened upon the altar from day to day, and at least one that I know of uses various colored corporals according to the colors of the liturgical season. Related to this subject is the use of the corporal within the tabernacle, below the monstrance, and upon the credence table. Are there other occasions when it should or should not be used? Your clarifications upon the use and care of the corporal would be greatly appreciated. — S.W., Ucluelet, British Columbia
A: The corporal is a square piece of linen or other fine fabric sometimes starched so as to be fairly firm. It is customarily folded into nine sections and hence stored flat. A larger corporal or more than one corporal might be required for concelebrations and other solemn celebrations.
Before use, the corporal is usually left on top of the chalice and, while no longer obligatory, it may be kept in a flat, square case called a burse.
Before the present reform, hosts were placed directly upon the corporal and although this is rarely the case today, as our reader points out, it might gather fragments that fall from the host during the celebration, although these mostly fall into either the ciborium or chalice or paten.
However, any visible fragments remaining on the corporal should be removed and placed in the chalice for purification. Yet, liturgical practice has generally considered that the careful folding and opening of the corporal is sufficient and that no disrespect is shown by carefully keeping the corporal in the sacristy.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) mentions the corporal in several places, first of all in describing the preparation of the gifts, in No. 73: “[T]he Lord’s table, which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice.”
No. 118 says that the corporal should be on the credence table before Mass. Other indications require that a chalice or ciborium should be placed on a corporal whenever it is left on the altar or credence table for purification.
It is also used whenever the Eucharist is placed upon the altar or some other worthy place. Thus a corporal is always used under the monstrance or ciborium.
With respect to our reader’s queries, it is indeed a bad habit in some places of leaving the corporal unfolded upon the altar between Masses and even for days on end. The norms require that the corporal be unfolded during the presentation of gifts and properly folded again after communion.
All the same, extra corporals may be placed on the altar before solemn Masses in which more sacred vessels are used than can fit on the corporal directly in front of the priest.
The GIRM does not require a new corporal for each Mass; it is sufficient for the corporal to be opened and folded with due care to avoid any mishaps. For this reason a corporal should be opened one section at a time while lying flat and never shook open.
A corporal is washed in the same manner as a purificator although less frequently. It is first soaked in water; this water is then poured either down a sacrarium or directly upon the earth. Afterward, the corporal may be washed in a normal fashion. Trimeloni’s preconciliar 1,000-page compendium of practical liturgical norms recommended a monthly wash for corporals — and that at a time when hosts were placed directly upon the corporal itself.
With respect as to how a corporal is folded, I defer to the indications provided by Monsignor (now Bishop) Peter J. Elliott in his practical ceremonies manual:
“a. Take the corporal (from the burse, if used) with your right hand, and place it flat at the center of the altar, still folded, approximately 15 cm. (5 inches) from the edge of the altar, or further if a large corporal is being unfolded.
“b. Unfold it, first to your left, then to your right, thus revealing three squares.
“c. Unfold the section farthest from you, away from yourself, thus making six squares visible.
“d. Finally, unfold the crease that is nearest to you, towards yourself, thus making all nine squares visible. Adjust the corporal so that it is about 3 cm. (an inch) from the edge of the altar.
“If there is a cross embroidered on one of the outer center squares, move the corporal around so that the cross is nearest to you.
“Although Hosts no longer rest directly on the corporal, it is still useful in the event that fragments may fall on it at the fraction or during the purifications, etc. Therefore, never flick a corporal open or shake it open in midair. Such an action would also show a lack of respect for the most sacred altar linen, which must always be used wherever a Mass is celebrated.
“To fold a corporal, reverse the above steps. Therefore fold the front three squares away from you, then fold the back three squares towards you and finally bring the right square and the left square onto the remaining central square to complete the process.
“If the corporal is brought to the altar in a burse, this may be placed flat, traditionally on the left of the corporal, away from the place where the missal rests. But it may be more conveniently placed on the right of the corporal, or a server may take it back to the credence table. When Mass is celebrated facing the altar, the empty burse traditionally rests upright against a candlestick or gradine (altar shelf), to the left of the corporal.”
As our reader says, the presence of the chalice or ciborium upon the corporal is not an absolute necessity for validity. However, it was common in earlier times, and is not unknown today, that newly ordained priests will make a general intention regarding the consecration of what is upon the corporal. The purpose of such a general intention is to avoid doubts about what has been consecrated and what has not; for example, if a sacristan inadvertently left some hosts upon the altar. Today, given that often priests have to consecrate several vessels it is sometimes recommended that they intend to consecrate whatever has been placed upon the altar for consecration. This avoids doubt if the priest forgets to place a ciborium upon the corporal or it was hidden behind the missal.
This precautionary intention, however, does not remove the general law that all that is brought to the altar for consecration should be placed upon a corporal.
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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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