Questions about liturgy: Position of Fingers After the Consecration

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

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(ZENIT News / Rome, 07.09.2024).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have seen some priests hold digits (thumb and index finger, specifically) together post consecration until the purification of the vessels. I have also seen priests wipe these fingers on the corporal and continue to not hold them together. Which is correct? — A.K., Dallas, Texas

A: Before the introduction of the present missal the rubrics stipulated that after the consecration the priest, when he was not holding the host, keep his thumb and index finger pressed together, at least until after he had purified his fingers.

The idea behind this rubric was to avoid dropping any tiny fragments that could be on his fingers.

The current missal has removed all mention of this and similar gestures, although it still inculcates keeping great respect toward fragments.

The practice is often carried out by priests who celebrate using both the current liturgy and the 1962 missal and are influenced by the latter.

There is some debate among priests as to the legitimacy of maintaining this practice in the current missal.

This is rooted in an official reply, published in Notitiae (1978, Page 301), which, in responding to a precise rubrical question, articulated the following principle:

“It must never be forgotten that the Missal of Pope Paul VI, from the year 1970, has taken the place of that which is improperly called ‘the Missal of St Pius V’ and that it has done this totally, whether with regard to texts or rubrics. Where the rubrics of the Missal of Paul VI say nothing or say little in specifics in some places, it is not therefore to be inferred that the old rite must be followed.”

Hence, we can say with some confidence that when a detailed rubric of the 1962 missal is omitted in the rite from 1970 onward, this omission is not casual.

This would generally mean that the earlier rite should not be retained. This is especially true for all those gestures and rites carried out by the ministers who should faithfully follow the current rites. It is not necessary for the former gesture to be specifically abrogated or forbidden to apply this general principle.

One could argue forever if the older gesture was or is more reverent toward the fragments or not. In the end we would only be expressing personal opinions. The fact is that the different gestures of each respective mode of celebrating the Roman rite are ritually and theologically coherent within themselves.

The reasons behind the change have not been clearly articulated by those who composed the new rite.

From what I have been able to glean here and there, some considered that this gesture placed too much stress on the moment of consecration and the Eucharistic transformation. Given that the Eucharistic Prayer would be proclaimed aloud in the vernacular, it was desired that the entire prayer could be evaluated in all its spiritual richness, which includes, but is broader than, just the moment of consecration.

Other new ritual elements such as concelebration, and the foreseeable introduction of Communion in the hand, could have made the priest’s gesture seem out of place.

Another remote cause may have been the results of mid-20th century scholarly debates regarding the nature of substance with respect to the Eucharistic transformation.

Some theologians moved away from a strictly neo-scholastic concept toward a simpler one closer to the earliest understanding of the concept of transubstantiation in the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. In this way, while the doctrine that Christ is fully present in all fragments of the Eucharistic species is retained, this presence is also tied to the appearance of bread and wine.

This would also be an application of the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae III pars q 77. In the corpus of the fourth article of this question, «Whether the sacramental species can be corrupted,» the Angelic Doctor affirms:

«An accident can be corrupted in another way, through the corruption of its subject, and in this way also they can be corrupted after consecration; for although the subject does not remain, still the being which they had in the subject does remain, which being is proper, and suited to the subject. And therefore, such being can be corrupted by a contrary agent, as the substance of the bread or wine was subject to corruption, and, moreover, was not corrupted except by a preceding alteration regarding the accidents.

«Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between each of the aforesaid corruptions; because, when the body and the blood of Christ succeed in this sacrament to the substance of the bread and wine, if there be such change on the part of the accidents as would not have sufficed for the corruption of the bread and wine, then the body and blood of Christ do not cease to be under this sacrament on account of such change, whether the change be on the part of the quality, as for instance, when the color or the savor of the bread or wine is slightly modified; or on the part of the quantity, as when the bread or the wine is divided into such parts as to keep in them the nature of bread or of wine.

“But if the change be so great that the substance of the bread or wine would have been corrupted, then Christ’s body and blood do not remain under this sacrament; and this either on the part of the qualities, as when the color, savor, and other qualities of the bread and wine are so altered as to be incompatible with the nature of bread or of wine; or else on the part of the quantity, as, for instance, if the bread be reduced to fine particles, or the wine divided into such tiny drops that the species of bread or wine no longer remain.»

Thus, Christ remains really present in small particles or fragments of a host as long as the accidents of the species of bread remain; and it is even possible to administer Communion to the sick, for instance, using very small pieces of hosts or even drops of Precious Blood.

According to this view, a fragment so small as to be practically microscopic or invisible would no longer contain the Real Presence. However, it is almost impossible to establish a dividing line when dealing with small but visible particles — and the Church has never wished to pronounce on this theme.

In part this is due to the objective difficulty and danger in making such a demarcation, but also to avoid giving any justification whatsoever for a lackadaisical manner of treating the sacred species.

Even when asked about this question in the 1960s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith merely recalled the necessity of observing due reverence for all fragments by carefully following all Church norms regarding the purification of sacred vessels and altar linens as well as the proper procedure for cleansing the area if a host should happen to fall to the floor.

We have moved some distance from the original question regarding keeping fingers joined. I hope, however, that this brief reflection may help to see that sometimes apparently simple rubrical changes are not the arbitrary whim of some isolated scholar but are often rooted in the Church’s continuous reflection on all the dimensions of the mystery of Christ.

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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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