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How to Understand Purification

And More on Moms and First Communion

ROME, JAN. 31, 2006 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our question is on the proper sense given, by the liturgy, to the word “purification” in the rite of “purifying” the sacred vessels after Communion. Why it is called “purification” since those vessels never been more “pure” than when they contained the sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ? — V.M., Mexico City

A: This is one of those moments when the tyranny of language can reduce us to desperation.

The dictionary suggests three possible meanings of the word “purification” which derives from the late Latin “purificare,” to cleanse, from “purus” (pure) + “facere” (to make).

The three possible meanings are:

1) to free (something) of extraneous, contaminating, or debasing matter.

2) to free (a person, etc.) from sin or guilt.

3) to make clean, as in a ritual, esp. the churching of women after childbirth.

The rite of purification is most closely associated with the third acceptation of ritual cleansing, which does not necessarily imply a state of moral impurity. Thus on Feb. 2 we also recall the ritual purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary without implying any state of impurity on her part.

The function of the rite is to assure that all fragments and traces of Christ’s Body and Blood are reverently consumed and the sacred vessels are duly prepared for further use. This rite is also sometimes referred to as the ablutions or ritual washing.

The linguistic difficulty that arises with the word “purification” would probably end up being associated with any alternative. Even a common expression such as the cleansing of the vessels (which is basically synonymous to purification) raises the objection that the vessels were somehow rendered unclean by the presence of the sacred species.

If we were to refer to the washing of the vessels the expression would be inaccurate as some vessels, such as the paten, are not washed at all.

In the end we are probably better off retaining the venerable word “purification” as any alternative will end up equally intractable.

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Follow-ups: Moms Giving First Communion

I wish to clarify an aspect arising from our column on parents giving first Communion to children (Jan. 17).

A Denver reader, who is a formally mandated extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, asks: “Was the abuse incurred because the moms were appointed as ad hoc ministers? I am asking because … when my daughter made her first Communion, I served her the chalice. I assumed this was authorized and licit, was I wrong to do so?”

The abuse we mentioned erred on several counts, among which was the technically unnecessary appointing of ad hoc extraordinary ministers, but above all because we judged it as unsound pastoral practice.

Our reader’s case is different. Here, we are dealing with a properly authorized extraordinary minister who assisted the priest in administrating the chalice at a first Communion. In doing so he was carrying out his usual service and the fact that one of the children happened to be his daughter makes no difference from the legal point of view.

From a pastoral viewpoint, even if the parents are authorized extraordinary ministers, there may be situations when it is imprudent to specifically delegate them to administrate their children’s first Communion, especially if such singling out could easily lead to misunderstandings and resentment in other parents.

Such a procedure would also be illicit if this was done when the circumstances did not require the use of an extraordinary minister at all.

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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.

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