Purifying the Vessels

The purification of the sacred vessels at Holy Mass is an action limited to bishops, priests, deacons, or instituted acolytes. There was, at one point here in the United States, a special indult that allowed for other lay people to purify also, but several years ago that indult expired and the Vatican declined to renew it. The fact that purification by lay people who are not acolytes continues to happen in some places is a liturgical abuse.

Well, how is the purification to be done? This is the big question – so it might seem, given the variety one sees “on the ground”: from the uncomfortably-hasty-and-shabby, to the painfully-long-and-scrupulous, and so many variations in-between. (I will leave out any elaboration on those situations where certain things really do not get purified at all…) I remember a bishop (RIP) who, during televised Masses of which he was the celebrant, would purify the chalice with his tongue and lips after he did the ablutions the normal way! I don’t know if he was scrupulous or was making a point.

But the point is this: If we believe that the Most Holy Eucharist, which we receive in Holy Communion, is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord, Jesus Christ, then it matters how we do “cleanup” after communion. It matters an awful lot. For that which we are purifying is what remains of his Real Presence, which is sacrosanct – our greatest treasure on this earth.

The problem is, there are not very detailed instructions on the proper method of purifying the sacred vessels in the modern Roman Missal. In fact, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal even gives one directive that, in my mind, is erroneous: it says that the paten should be wiped with a purificator (what will then happen with the particles of the host that adhere to the purificator?). Apart from certain details like that, it says very little about what to do. And the results are disastrous. I will not here indulge in “storytime”, but trust me, I could – to shocking effect.

Well, how can we learn what to do? There are a few principles that for me are key:

  1. Mature reflection on What it is that we are handling – the Body and Blood of Christ.
  2. Concern for details (Luke 16:10).
  3. A resolve not to rush through things or otherwise be shabby, even if one will be criticized by lay people, brother priests, or bishops as a result.
  4. Knowledge of the past.

The bottom line is: what is on the paten, in the ciborium, and/or in the chalice is the Body and Blood of Christ. Any and all particles or drops that remain must be consumed. To leave any remaining is to expose the Lord to sacrilege and possibly to give scandal. Let the manner in which we purify reflect this, the Church’s belief!

In the matter of purifying, we can learn a lot from the ancient form of the liturgy. I have referred to it in this post. And we can draw out conclusions from those old practices for our current situation.

Some examples:

Is the Precious Blood distributed to the faithful? This means that it now coats the entire inside of the chalice(s). The entire inside therefore needs to be purified – including the sides, all the way up to the rim, not just the very bottom of the inside!

There should, first of all, be a concern for what I have called “purificator purity“: it’s probably not a good idea to use the same purificator that was used repeatedly to wipe the rim of the chalice, to purify it, for it is tantamount to purifying the Precious Blood with the Precious Blood – to say nothing of the danger of transferring the Precious Blood to one’s fingers or to other surfaces. It is good to use a clean purificator instead.

But again, the Precious Blood now coats the entire inside of the chalice, even if you cannot see it. It only stands to reason. Therefore, water should be brought into contact with the entire inside during the purification. This is done by pouring in a generous amount, tipping the chalice slightly until the water comes up to the rim (which is safeguarded by the purificator), and then rotating it. Only in this way can we be sure that we have removed all of the Precious Blood.

With regard to the particles of the host, one of the challenges today is that we have kinds of unusually-shaped contraptions for holding the hosts. From stacking ciboria, to various sorts of shallow-bowl-like plates, to traditional pedestaled ciboria, there are all different shapes and sizes and surfaces. My general practice has been: what cannot be removed with the fingers (which are then purified with water), is to be removed with water. And sometimes it takes multiple rinses to get all the particles, particularly when there are a lot.

A consequence of all of this is that often there is a need for a larger quantity of water. Nowadays we are often dealing with the purification of multiple sacred vessels during or after a Mass, yet in so many parishes I see just the usual small cruet of water (sometimes half-emptied from the process of preparing the offertory and then washing the priest’s fingers…) – nowhere near enough water to purify the vessels properly and thoroughly.

I have dedicated a fair amount of space on this blog to the proper handling of the Eucharist – from how the faithful should receive (on the tongue) to how the chalice is prepared to how the linens are washed to, now, how the vessels are purified. Again, some of you (if you are still reading) are probably thinking that I’m crazy and obsessed……….. But then I talk to like-minded brother priests who share my angst about how the Blessed Sacrament is treated nowadays… I hear from faithful lay people who tell of their own sorrow at the abuses they see… And I think: someone needs to say something!

Perhaps some clergy who need to will read this post and reflect a bit on the proper method of purifying the sacred vessels. Who knows….perhaps I’ll also get some more fan mail! I hope for the former, not the latter!

O Sacrament most holy! O Sacrament divine! All praise and all thanksgiving be every moment thine!

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