Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: It seems to me that every priest at the ablutions after Communion uses water only. But the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM] also provides for the ablutions to be done using wine and water. Why is it that overwhelmingly one method is preferred to the other? If someone is using both wine and water, how should that be done? — J.F., Adelaide, Australia
A: The GIRM says the following in No. 279:
“The sacred vessels are purified by the priest, the deacon, or an instituted acolyte after Communion or after Mass, insofar as possible at the credence table. The purification of the chalice is done with water alone or with wine and water, which is then drunk by whoever does the purification. The paten is usually wiped clean with the purificator. Care must be taken that whatever may remain of the Blood of Christ after the distribution of Communion is consumed immediately and completely at the altar.”
This practice is based on that of the extraordinary form in which purification with both wine and water was the norm.
The rubrics in the extraordinary-form missal foresee the following process:
“After Communion the priest puts any extra Hosts into the tabernacle and, taking the chalice, has a server pour in wine. He drinks it and says quietly:
“Grant, O Lord, (Quod ore súmpsimus) that what we have taken with our mouth, we may receive with a pure mind; and that from a temporal gift it may become for us an everlasting remedy.
“Wine and water are poured into the chalice over the priest’s fingers. As he dries them he says quietly:
“May Thy Body, O Lord, (Corpus tuum, Dómine) which I have received and Thy Blood which I have drunk, cleave to my inmost parts, and grant that no stain of sin remain in me; whom these pure and holy Sacraments have refreshed. Who livest and reignest world without end. Amen.
“He drinks the wine and water, cleans the chalice and veils it.”
The most ancient part of this rite is the first, the purification of the mouth (“ablutio oris”) in which the celebrant takes some wine so as to be sure that nothing of the sacred species remains in the mouth. In some Eastern liturgies the celebrant would also take a piece of blessed bread. There is evidence of this practice from at least the fourth century.
In some places it was also a custom among the faithful to drink some wine or water after receiving Communion. The reason for such care was because the Church still generally used leavened bread for the Eucharist which had to be chewed. There is evidence that traces of this custom survived in several areas of Europe until the early 20th century.
At first, the cleansing of the fingers and the chalice was done after the celebration but with no special rules or provisions. The first rules appear around the ninth century, and initially only water was used. We find the first mentions of the use of wine in monastic traditions of the 11th century. In some cases this developed into an elaborate ritual in which the chalice was purified three times.
At first, the hands or at least the fingers were washed in a vessel near the altar. The earliest evidence of washing the fingers over the chalice comes from a Dominican source of 1256. This source mentioned that, lacking a suitable vessel, it is better to wash the fingers with water over the chalice and then to drink this water along with the wine that had been previously used for cleansing the fingers. This document also makes one of the first mentions of the use of a cloth that would later become our purificator.
These customs gradually spread but did not become universal until fixed into law by the Roman Missal of St. Pius V in 1570.
So what about now? How should a priest purify with wine and water in the ordinary form?
I would suggest that it is done in the simplest of manners. At the moment of purification, place wine and then water into the chalice and then consume it. The proportions of wine and water depend on the celebrant. For practical purposes a well-diluted mix would probably be preferable, above all to avoid soiling the purificators.
The almost exclusive use of water has probably prevailed because of practice after the liturgical reforms. The advent of concelebrations and the more frequent distribution of Communion under both kinds mean that often there is more than one chalice to purify. There are also usually several ciboria, some of which need to be purified using water. All of this makes the use of both wine and water less practical, and so it is not surprising that the legitimate option of using both wine and water has fallen by the wayside.
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Follow-up: Homilies at Communion Services
In the wake of our Jan. 21 piece on lay preaching, a reader from Phoenix commented: “It seems like you feel obliged to follow what the Italians do in situations that are very different and in a different culture. Why are Italian bishops the ‘norm’ for anything, frankly? Bless you for your work, but let’s open the Church up! Thank you.”
I quoted broadly from Italian norms in my reply because the original question came from Italy. In order to show that norms are similar in other cultures I also cited norms from the Holy See and from a representative diocese in the United States.
This seemed sufficient to prove the point I was trying to make and in no way gave more weight to the Italian bishops over prelates from other nations.
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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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.