Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: A few years ago the Vatican issued a directive regarding the materials that were appropriate for use in chalices. In short, metal was sanctioned and breakable materials (including crystal and ceramic) are prohibited. However, most parishes I’ve visited use glass or ceramic cups for use by extraordinary Eucharistic ministers when distributing the Precious Blood, while the priest uses a metal cup. This seems to be contradictory, or at least inconsistent. Some priests I’ve spoken to are hopeful that this rule will be relaxed or changed. One priest lamented the cost of a crystal chalice that he once preferred to use but now cannot. And Our Lord in all likelihood used a cup made of pottery at the Last Supper, so it seems odd that the type of cup our Lord likely used and found worthy, the Church now does not. Is there any discussion about changing this rule? — M.P., Indianapolis, Indiana
A: We answered a similar question in our very first column in 2003. At that time, although I replied that glass and ceramic chalices should not be used due to their breakability, I suggested that the law at the time was not totally clear. This issue was later resolved by the 2005 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, which confirmed the overall negative judgment:
“[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.”
In this case the word “reprobated” means that contrary customs cannot obtain the force of law even if the practice is long-standing.
Some bishops’ conferences have made use of the faculty offered by the liturgical books to the material of sacred vessels in more detail.
Thus the U.S. version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:
“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.
“331. For the Consecration of hosts, a large paten may fittingly be used, on which is placed the bread both for the Priest and the Deacon and also for the other ministers and for the faithful.
“332. As regards the form of the sacred vessels, it is for the artist to fashion them in a manner that is more particularly in keeping with the customs of each region, provided the individual vessels are suitable for their intended liturgical use and are clearly distinguishable from vessels intended for everyday use.
“333. As for the blessing of sacred vessels, the rites prescribed in the liturgical books should be followed.
“334. The practice should be kept of building in the sacristy a sacrarium into which is poured the water from the washing of sacred vessels and linens (cf. no. 280).”
This is the law as it stands. There has been some recent debate regarding the possibility of new techniques that produce glasses and ceramics that are as hard, indeed harder, than metals and hard woods. If these techniques are verified, then I think the question could be reopened. The prohibitions regarding glass and ceramics refer above all to such vessels being brittle, easily chipped, shatter if dropped, and are practically impossible to repair.
The question does not refer to inherent worthiness, as fine artistic glass and ceramics can be held in great esteem and be truly valuable. It is also true that sacred vessels made of glass were used in the past times.
I would, however, disagree that churches use unapproved vessels for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. The vessels are to hold the Lord, and they should all be worthy of him no matter what minister administers the sacrament.
Nobody knows for certain what vessel Christ used for the Last Supper. It is highly unlikely to have been of precious materials, but that is beside the point. The Church’s rites evolve. The original institution of the Eucharist gives the fundamental elements, but these are naturally embellished with time and transformed into rites in which Christians desire to give their best in worshiping God.
It is emblematic perhaps that in the year 303, at the beginning of Emperor Diocletian’s final persecution of Christians, a delegation of Roman government officials visits the church in Cirta in Numidia (present-day Constantine in Algeria), and requests books and other church property. They made the following inventory:
“Two gold chalices, six silver chalices, six silver urns, a silver cooking-pot, seven silver lamps, two wafer-holders, seven short bronze candle-sticks with their own lights, eleven bronze lamps with their own chains, 82 women’s tunics, 38 capes, 16 men’s tunics, 13 pairs of men’s shoes, 47 pairs of women’s shoes, and 19 peasant clasps. Upon closer inspection, another silver lamp and a silver box appear, and also four large jars and six barrels from the dining room, as well as one large codex.”
If this relatively obscure church during a time of persecution desired to possess and use such vessels for a clandestine celebration, it should not surprise us that the Church still seeks to offer Christ its best in later and freer times.
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