There is a lot that can be written about the corporal — the square piece of linen that is folded and unfolded in a very particular way, set beneath the chalice and paten during the celebration of Mass. In the older form of the Mass (Extraordinary Form), the host that is consecrated is placed directly on it; therefore, the corporal is even scraped with the paten after communion, to ensure that any particles of the host that may have remained are reverently collected and consumed. In the newer form of the Mass (Ordinary Form), the host is not placed directly on the corporal, but remains on the paten the whole time. Still, the corporal is important to catch any particles that may go astray — and that can happen.
The word “corporal”, of course, comes from the Latin “corpus” — “body”. The Body of Christ is placed upon it.
Today I would like to speak of one important detail connected with the corporal’s use: namely, exactly where it is placed upon the altar. Determining where to place it flows from considering not only its use but also certain other gestures during the Mass.
- Unfolding it right to the very edge of the altar is not a good idea — much less having it hang slightly off the edge. In this way, any particles that it may have on it could fall to the floor and be trampled. Or it could get snagged by a vestment as the priest moves around and pulled off entirely.
- Having it too far “in” (away from the edge) could result in its not fulfilling its proper function of possibly catching particles. For example, if it were a few inches in, and I were not careful when I received communion to lean that far over the altar in order to be right over the corporal, a particle could fall off the host onto the altar cloth instead of onto the corporal.
As usual, the old books provide sensible guidance. Here is what O’Connell says:
The corporal should be placed, if space permits, about an inch from the front edge of the table of the altar, so that the celebrant in turning during Mass will not catch the corner of it with the chasuble or maniple and so pull it out of place; and also so that when he lays his joined hands on the altar, he may not have the fingers resting on the corporal, which is forbidden. But the corporal should not be put farther back than this, as the celebrant is to place his hands on it when genuflecting between the consecration of the host and the purifications. (page 222)
This directive refers to some gestures that are not stipulated in the Ordinary Form of the Mass. The rubrics of the Ordinary Form/Novus Ordo don’t say anything, in fact, about where the priest is to place his hands when he holds onto the altar while genuflecting, for example. They also say nothing about joining one’s hands on the edge of the altar (as in the photo above); in general, just as it is silent on what do with one’s eyes, it is also largely silent about the hands.
That’s not to say that the priest may not use the particular hand gesture of joining his hands on the edge of the altar. There are two places in the Novus Ordo that correspond with when he would do that gesture in the older form: when he says the prayer “In spiritu humilitatis…” (With humble spirit…) before the lavabo (when he washes his hands during the offertory), and when he does the preparatory prayers for communion after fracturing and commingling the host.
For the “With humble spirit…” prayer, the rubric in the Missal simply says, “…the priest, bowing profoundly, says quietly…” (rubric # 26). Later, for his preparation before communion, the rubric in the Missal says, “…the priest, with hands joined, says quietly…” (rubric # 131).
Bowing profoundly in the one case and joining one’s hands in the other does not preclude bowing over the altar and joining one’s hands on the edge of it, according to the rubric of the older form of the Mass. In fact, this is a fitting thing to do, given the general vagueness of the rubrics in the newer form, and what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal itself directs in # 42:
Attention must therefore be paid to what is determined by this General Instruction and by the traditional practice of the Roman Rite and to what serves the common spiritual good of the People of God, rather than private inclination or arbitrary choice.
Knowledge of the older rubrics can bring our celebration of the modern rite into greater continuity with tradition.
Therefore, it is a good idea to ensure that the corporal is about an inch off the edge of the altar, so that when the priest joins his hands there (again, see photo above), they will not be on the corporal itself.