In certain churches here in Rome – such as St. Peter’s Basilica – it’s standard for the corporal to be starched so heavily and in such a way that it has a smooth and glossy finish on the side that faces upward when unfolded. (The corporal is the square linen cloth that is unfolded on the altar during the offertory and upon which are placed the chalice, paten, and ciboria.)
In fact, the first time I saw a corporal prepared in this way, I thought it was actually coated with paraffin wax or something – though I wasn’t sure how this could possibly be accomplished, especially since the reverse side is “normal”, i.e. not glossy. But another priest told me that it was just starch. All of the corporals in St. Peter’s are prepared this way by the sacristans there; I’ve seen it in a couple of other Roman churches; but I can’t recall if I’ve ever seen it outside of Rome. In any case, it’s one of those things that few people seem to know how to do anymore.
Why would you prepare a corporal in this way? The word “corporal” refers to the corpus that is placed upon it: the Body (and the Blood) of Christ in the Holy Eucharist. Especially in the older form of the Mass (the “old Latin Mass” or “Extraordinary Form”), this linen was relevant because the host was placed directly on it for the consecration. The corporal was therefore important for conserving fragments and particles of the consecrated host that might result from its handling and fractioning during Holy Mass. If it had a glossy/smooth finish, then it was even easier to see and reverently handle such fragments.
The corporal is still required today for the newer form of the Mass, even if the host is no longer placed directly upon it, but instead is left on the paten (the gold-plated circular metal disc). This is because – among other reasons – it is still possible for small particles of the host to end up on the corporal during the celebration of Mass. These visible particles of the Eucharist are no less the Body of Christ than the larger hosts that we receive at Holy Communion. So it is important that the utmost reverence and care be shown so as to avoid any loss of the Holy Eucharist.
Anyway, I think the preparation of the corporal in this way is a fine tradition that should not be lost. Especially in places where the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is celebrated. But how do you do it?
In my jet lag-induced (i.e. late nite) Google searches on the topic, the most I have been able to find is as follows (from one Italian discussion forum). I’ll have to try it out myself to see if it actually works.
The key is using old-fashioned powered laundry starch (the kind you have to dissolve and bring to a boil), which I have not seen since I was a young child. After doing a proper initial laundering of the corporal (according to the traditional rinsing methods), the starch solution is prepared. Apparently it involves a spoonful of starch per half cup of water. I read also that some nuns used to put a tiny amount of egg yolk in the mixture to help provide extra gloss to the finished product. Everything is dissolved, then brought to a boil. Immediately after boiling the mixture will apparently thicken and should be taken off the heat and let to cool until you can handle it without getting burned. At this point the corporal is soaked until it has thoroughly absorbed the starch mixture. Then it is wrung out. Finally, the corporal is laid out on a piece of glass. It is important to smooth it out so as to remove all air bubbles and wrinkles and so that it is as square as possible. Then it is left to dry. The side touching the glass is the side that will have the glossy finish (so make sure that you put the correct side down). Once it is dry it can be detached and then folded in the proper way.
Again, I’ve never tried this (but hope to at some point), so I’m not sure that this is all there is to it. Why am I posting this? (Has Fr. Jerabek gone nuts?) Because a lot of people arrive here via internet search, and as I said, this is the sort of traditional thing that should not go into oblivion. The care and detail with which we attend to the sacred liturgy and to the Holy Eucharist is care given to the Lord himself!