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LITURGY Q & A: Materials for Sacred Vessels

Fr. Edward McNamara Says Bishops’ Conferences Have Leeway

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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: According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 328, the sacred vessels should be composed of noble metals. No. 329, however, grants the power to the episcopal conferences to allow the use of other materials it historically or culturally considers noble, such as certain hardwoods. How does this regulation affect religious congregations of pontifical right who span multiple dioceses and episcopal conferences? Would the effect of the local episcopal conference and diocese’s decree differ for these congregations in fully private Mass among the religious, a semi-private Mass with outside visitors, and a fully public Mass? If a material is deemed noble under the GIRM, No. 329, by one episcopal conference and brought by the congregation into another conference which has not made the official ruling upon that material, may it still be used in good faith in any of the private/semi-private/public settings? In any of these cases, would the ability to determine noble materials for the whole of the congregation rest with the general superior of the order? — B.W., Lipa City, Philippines


A: This very precise question entails a larger one insofar as it addresses the role of bishops and above all bishops’ conferences in regulating the liturgy with respect to religious orders.

The GIRM presents the following summary of the competences of bishops’ conferences. There have been some recent modifications regarding translations which fall outside the scope of this question:

“386. The renewal of the Roman Missal carried out in our time in accordance with the decrees of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council has taken great care that all the faithful may display in the celebration of the Eucharist that full, conscious, and active participation that is required by the very nature of the Liturgy and to which the faithful, in virtue of their status as such, have a right and duty. However, in order that such a celebration may correspond all the more fully to the norms and the spirit of the Sacred Liturgy, certain further adaptations are set out in this Instruction and in the Order of Mass and entrusted to the judgment either of the Diocesan Bishop or of the Conferences of Bishops.

“387. The Diocesan Bishop, who is to be regarded as the High Priest of his flock, from whom the life in Christ of his faithful in some sense derives and upon whom it depends, must promote, regulate, and be vigilant over the liturgical life in his diocese. It is to him that in this Instruction is entrusted the regulating of the discipline of concelebration (cf. nos. 202, 374) and the establishing of norms regarding the function of serving the Priest at the altar (cf. no. 107), the distribution of Holy Communion under both kinds (cf. no. 283), and the construction and ordering of churches (cf. no. 291). It is above all for him, moreover, to nourish the spirit of the Sacred Liturgy in the Priests, Deacons, and faithful.

“388. Those adaptations spoken of below that necessitate a wider degree of coordination are to be decided, in accord with the norm of law, in the Conference of Bishops.

“389. It is the competence, in the first place, of the Conferences of Bishops to prepare and approve an edition of this Roman Missal in the authorized vernacular languages, so that, once their decisions have been accorded the recognitio of the Apostolic See, the edition may be used in the regions to which it pertains. The Roman Missal, whether in Latin or in legitimately approved vernacular translations, is to be published in its entirety.

“390. It is for the Conferences of Bishops to formulate the adaptations indicated in this General Instruction and in the Order of Mass and, once their decisions have been accorded the recognitio of the Apostolic See, to introduce them into the Missal itself. They are such as these:

«• the gestures and bodily posture of the faithful (cf. no. 43);

«• the gestures of veneration toward the altar and the Book of the Gospels (cf. no. 273);

«• the texts of the chants at the Entrance, at the Presentation of the Gifts, and at Communion (cf. nos. 48, 74, 87);

«• the readings from Sacred Scripture to be used in special circumstances (cf. no. 362);

«• the form of the gesture of peace (cf. no. 82);

«• the manner of receiving Holy Communion (cf. nos. 160, 283);

«• the materials for the altar and sacred furnishings, especially the sacred vessels, and also the materials, form, and color of the liturgical vestments (cf. nos. 301, 326, 329, 339, 342-346).

“It shall be permissible for Directories or pastoral Instructions that the Conferences of Bishops judge useful to be included, with the prior recognitio of the Apostolic See, in the Roman Missal at an appropriate place.

“391. It is for the same Conferences of Bishops to attend to the translations of the biblical texts that are used in the celebration of Mass, exercising special care in this. For it is out of the Sacred Scripture that the readings are read and are explained in the Homily and that Psalms are sung, and it is by the influence of Sacred Scripture and at its prompting that prayers, orations, and liturgical chants are fashioned in such a way that it is from Sacred Scripture that actions and signs derive their meaning.

«Language should be used that corresponds to the capacity for understanding of the faithful and is suitable for public proclamation, while maintaining those characteristics that are proper to the different ways of speaking used in the biblical books. …

“394. Each diocese should have its own Calendar and Proper of Masses. For its part, the Conference of Bishops should draw up a proper Calendar for the nation or, together with other Conferences, a Calendar for a wider territory, to be approved by the Apostolic See. In carrying out this task, to the greatest extent possible the Lord’s Day is to be preserved and safeguarded, as the primordial feast day, and hence other celebrations, unless they are truly of the greatest importance, should not have precedence over it. Care should likewise be taken that the liturgical year as revised by decree of the Second Vatican Council not be obscured by secondary elements.

“In the drawing up of the Calendar of a nation, the Rogation Days and Ember Days should be indicated (cf. no. 373), as well as the forms and texts for their celebration, and other special measures should also be kept in mind.

«It is appropriate that in publishing the Missal, celebrations proper to an entire nation or territory be inserted at the proper place among the celebrations of the General Calendar, while those proper to a region or diocese should have a place in a special appendix.

“395. Finally, if the participation of the faithful and their spiritual welfare require variations and profounder adaptations in order for the sacred celebration to correspond with the culture and traditions of the different nations, then Conferences of Bishops may propose these to the Apostolic See in accordance with article 40 of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy for introduction with the Apostolic See’s consent, especially in the case of nations to whom the Gospel has been more recently proclaimed. The special norms handed down by means of the Instruction on the Roman Liturgy and Inculturation should be attentively observed. …”

The 2004 instruction from the Holy See, Redemptionis Sacramentum, has the following to say regarding the authority of diocesan bishops with respect to religious congregations and other groups:

“[23] The faithful ‘should cling to the Bishop as the Church does to Jesus Christ, and as Jesus Christ does to the Father, so that all may be in harmonious unity, and that they may abound to the glory of God.’ All, including members of Institutes of consecrated life and Societies of apostolic life as well as those of all ecclesial associations and movements of any kind, are subject to the authority of the diocesan Bishop in all liturgical matters, apart from rights that have been legitimately conceded. To the diocesan Bishop therefore falls the right and duty of overseeing and attending to Churches and oratories in his territory in regard to liturgical matters, and this is true also of those which are founded by members of the above-mentioned institutes or under their direction, provided that the faithful are accustomed to frequent them.”

What is true of norms issued by the diocesan bishop would equally apply to the norms issued by the bishops’ conference, indeed, more so if expressly approved by the Holy See.

The exception noted above of “rights legitimately conceded” would refer to a wide range of possibilities of particular privileges granted to religious orders. These can cover special faculties in the sacrament of reconciliation, a special liturgical calendar including the community’s saints and even a liturgical rite of its own such as the Dominican rite which can be used once more by the members of the Order of Preachers.

As we have seen above, Church law considers the materials for sacred vessels are adaptations “that necessitate a wider degree of coordination” and thus are decided by the particular law of the bishops’ conference. Once these adaptations receive the recognition of the Holy See, they become binding liturgical law within the national territory.

This matter would not be included under the jurisdiction of a religious superior. Nor would the character of the celebration (open to the faithful or exclusively for members of the congregation) make any difference to the application of the law as religious would not be exempt from the general law.

Notwithstanding this statement, and beyond any question of the liturgical authority of a bishop with respect to religious, the precise question remains if a sacred vessel which corresponds to the norms issued by one bishop’s conferences may be used in the territory of another conference which has not legislated.

An example of such a difference to sacred vessels would be that of the U.S. bishops and the Conference of England and Wales. The latter limit themselves to translating the Latin, making no adaptations:

“326. In the choice of materials for sacred furnishings, besides those which are traditional, others are acceptable if by contemporary standards they are considered to be noble, are durable, and are well suited for sacred use. The Conference of Bishops will be the judge on this matter (cf. No. 390).

“328. Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious thangold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside.

“329. In the judgement of the Conference of Bishops, after its decisions have received recognition of the Apostolic See, sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials that are precious according to the common estimation in each region, for example, ebony or other hard woods, provided that such materials are suited to sacred use. In such cases, preference is always to be given to materials that do not easily break or deteriorate. This applies to all vessels which hold the hosts, such as the paten, the ciborium, the pyx, themonstrance, and other things of this kind.”

The bishops of the United States on the other hand say:

“326. In choosing materials for sacred furnishings, besides those which are traditional, others are admissible that, according to the mentality of our own age, are considered to be noble and are durable, and well suited for sacred use. In the Dioceses of the United States of America these materials may include wood, stone, or metal which are solid and appropriate to the purpose for which they are employed.”

“327. Among the requisites for the celebration of Mass, the sacred vessels are held in special honor, and among these especially the chalice and paten, in which the bread and wine are offered and consecrated and from which they are consumed.

“328. Sacred vessels should be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, they should generally be gilded on the inside.

“329. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials which in the common estimation in each region are considered precious or noble, for example, ebony or other harder woods, provided that such materials are suitable for sacred use. In this case, preference is always to be given to materials that do not easily break or deteriorate. This applies to all vessels that are intended to hold the hosts, such as the paten, the ciborium, the pyx, the monstrance, and others of this kind.

“330. As regards chalices and other vessels that are intended to serve as receptacles for the Blood of the Lord, they are to have a bowl of material that does not absorb liquids. The base, on the other hand, may be made of other solid and worthy materials.”

Both of these texts should be read in the light of the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:

“[117.] Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. The Bishops’ Conferences have the faculty to decide whether it is appropriate, once their decisions have been given the recognitio by the Apostolic See, for sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as well. It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, so that honor will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided. Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate.”

For example, could a hardwood chalice with a gilded cup, in conformity with the norms of the United States, be used in England?

My estimation would be that it would be admissible as the U.S. bishops are basically legislating the examples offered in the original Latin, and the English bishops, while not legislating, do not exclude the use of the elements offered as examples. Since the two regions share broad cultural similarities there would usually be no discrepancy in appreciation of material such as fine hardwoods.

The legislating function of the bishops’ conference is usually to admit materials esteemed locally. The bishops’ conference usually knows best what non-traditional materials will be suitable, and a two-thirds majority is usually required for this form of legislation, as well as the approval of the Holy See.

These materials may not be appreciated in another cultural situation so, in most cases, unusual materials approved in one area should not be simply imported into another even if the bishops have not legislated.

Unsuitable materials such as those criticized in Redemptionis Sacramentum should be excluded from liturgical use.

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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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