A priest who begins to learn about the old Rituale Romanum, with its collection of Blessings, may be surprised to notice that no blessing is provided for purificators. There is a blessing for palls (the stiff square that goes on top of the chalice) and corporals (the square linen that goes under the chalice); in fact, this blessing is reserved to the Bishop. But no specific blessing for purificators.
When we consider the contemporary use of the purificator — I have written about this various times, but see especially THIS POST — this seeming omission may be rather glaring. In short, the purificator is habitually used to wipe the Precious Blood off of the chalice nowadays — but then, the same purificator, in some cases already soaked with Precious Blood, is then somehow used to “purify” the same chalice! In the post I linked, I adverted against this widespread and careless practice: it simply makes no sense to wipe out a chalice with a linen that has already been soiled, and presume that the chalice is thereby purified of all trace of the Precious Blood. Lord, have mercy.
A priest, however, who begins to study the old books more and even learns to celebrate the older form of the Mass, comes to realize that the reason why there was no specific blessing or consecration for purificators was because they were not used for the Precious Blood! The rim of the chalice was never wiped after communion; in fact, the purificator was only used once all trace of the Precious Blood had been removed from the chalice — simply to dry it. Also for this reason, in many places purificators would be re-used for several days at a time, to reduce the amount of “sacristy laundry” that needed doing. Re-using a purificator under these circumstances was in no way disrespectful, since it had never come in contact with the Blessed Sacrament — only with the water/wine that was used in the ablutions.
(Aside: Father Tim Finigan has written a helpful post about the ablutions HERE.)
Why, then, was the pall and corporal blessed? After all, these are not used for wiping up the Precious Blood…
Perhaps not, but they did come in direct contact with the Blessed Sacrament. In the older form of the Mass (what we now call the Extraordinary Form), the host to be consecrated was placed directly on the corporal and remained there until the rite of fracturing. Particles of the host could end up on the corporal as a result, and so the priest would use the paten to scrape the corporal after communion and so pick up any particles.
And because the priest did not wipe the rim of the chalice with the purificator after he received Holy Communion, but immediately placed the pall on it to shield it from dust or insects, it was possible that the underside of the pall could pick up a drop of the Precious Blood, if any had remained on the rim of the chalice. For this reason, many palls had a removable square of linen tacked with a few stitches onto its underside, which could periodically be removed and purified. Or, simpler palls — made all of linen and without decoration — could have the stiffened cardboard or plastic insert removed and so be purified and laundered.
Therefore, only the corporal and the pall came in direct contact with the Most Blessed Sacrament, so only these were blessed/consecrated. It did not make sense to bless or consecrate purificators, since they did not share this same finality.
Knowledge of this is helpful for any priest to handle the Blessed Sacrament properly and reverently now. Forgetting these things is what, in part, has led to the aberrations that we regularly see now — such as the deplorable practice of using soaked purificators to “purify”. In parishes where Holy Communion is distributed under both kinds in the modern rite, a clean purificator should be used for the purifications, so that the minister can indeed be morally certain that he has removed all trace of the Precious Blood. This moral certainty, as Fr. Finigan wrote about, is practically guaranteed by the old rubrics, whereas, as I have written, the new are so vague that one has to think things through much more to work out a system that affords the same certitude. And more than our own sense of certitude, the proper respect due to Christ, truly present in the Holy Eucharist.
Fortunately, the new rubrics do contain this important proviso, found in GIRM # 42, which teaches us effectively that where there are lacunae, we should look to what was done before:
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.
What we see in the old rubrics and in the old blessings is a coherent and complete system.