Liturgy of the Catholic Church

Liturgy and Para-Liturgical Celebrations

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Altar Cloths

And More on Media at Homilies

ROME, SEPT. 18, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Could you clarify why three cloths are used on the altar? We have a discussion ongoing in our parish where there are two schools of thought: Either this has a symbolic reference to the Trinity or, alternatively, has a symbolism linked to the shroud cloths of Christ. — A.F., Sheffield, England

A: The question of cloths on the altar is dealt with in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304, which states:

“Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color.”

Therefore, only one white cloth is obligatory in the present rite unlike the extraordinary form of the Roman rite (the Missal of John XXIII) which specifies three cloths, one of which covers the entire altar table and hangs down the sides almost to the floor. The other two cover at least the table or the stone containing the sacred relic.

The attribution of possible symbolic references for these cloths is not uniform and their history is often entangled. Sometimes in liturgy an object is first used for one reason, for example, covering a sacred object with a cloth as a sign of respect and care.

This was a fairly common practice in the ancient world and is not exclusive to Christianity or even to the specifically religious sphere. It was sometimes applied to civil objects such as symbols of authority or formal copies of imperial decrees.

During the Middle Ages many well-established liturgical customs were interpreted allegorically as bearing on some doctrinal aspect or representing some moment of the Redemption.

In this way some authors interpreted objects such as the altar cloths as representing the Lord’s shroud, others as the Trinity. Finally, the allegorical interpretation was sometimes reinforced by being incorporated into the design and decoration of the object itself.

The Church itself has usually refrained from granting official sanction to these allegorical interpretations. In some cases more than one interpretation might be legitimate and even useful for illustrating some particular doctrinal point. In other cases excessive use of allegory can even lead us to miss the main theological point, for example, in explaining the essentially sacrificial nature of the Mass.

Another cloth which may be used on the altar is the antependium, or frontal, which hangs down in front of the altar, usually reaching the ground.

In the Western tradition, it is white or some similar color although in some countries it follows the seasonal liturgical color. It may be adorned or embroidered according to local custom and culture. An antependium enhances the dignity of the altar and helps to clearly define the liturgical season.

Other practical cloths may also be placed on the altar such as an under-cloth and a dust cover which is placed over the altar cloth when not in use so as to keep it clean at all times.

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Follow-up: Slide Shows at Homilies

In response to our piece on slide shows during homilies (Sept. 4) a reader from Evansville, Indiana, mentioned a case which went beyond a presentation: “Once, our parish priest replaced the homily with a film. As you noted that images may remind people of television, this action by our priest reminded me of a movie theater. It was as if I were watching a movie that did not interest me. While the lights in the church were dimmed, I am sure others felt the same way and some of them may have even taken a short nap in the darkness.”

While the homily may not be the place for the use of such media as DVD’s and presentations, they can be most useful evangelization tools in other contexts such as catechesis and the continual Christian formation of adults. As another reader pointed out, such modern means are “easy to use, pleasant to view, and draw wonderfully focused lessons and applications. They are often prepared by religious sisters and are the fruit of a lifetime of professional communication in the classroom.”

If truly useful, it is even possible to use such means in the church, as it is not always possible or practical to convoke the people at other times or venues. For example, with adequate foresight the pastor could invite the faithful to remain a few minutes after Mass to view a video or presentation on some topic of pastoral or spiritual concern.

 



On Changing the Corporal

And More on Words at the Consecration

ROME, JULY 17, 2007 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) stipulate that the use of a new corporal on the altar at each Mass celebration is no longer needed? I see that a corporal is placed on the altar at some parishes for a week or more before changing it. I always thought the purpose of this cloth was to take proper care of any particles of Jesus’ body that might fall from the hands or ciborium or paten. If this is the case, then I think proper care should be taken of the cloth and crumbs at the end of each Mass, and not have it lie there for a week, just accumulating more particles or crumbs. With all the care that a priest might take, the host particles on the white cloth is not always noted — I have learned this from sacristan duties. — E.M., Bridgewater, Virginia

A: The corporal is a square piece of linen or other fine fabric sometimes starched so as to be fairly firm. It is customarily folded into nine sections and hence stored flat. A larger corporal or more than one corporal may be required for concelebrations and other solemn celebrations.

Before use, the corporal is usually left on top of the chalice and, while no longer obligatory, it may be kept in a flat, square case called a burse.

Before the present reform, hosts were placed directly upon the corporal and although this is rarely the case today, as our reader points out, it may gather any fragments that fall from the host during the celebration although these mostly fall into either the ciborium or chalice.

The GIRM mentions the corporal in several places, first of all in describing the preparation of the gifts, in No. 73: “[T]he Lord’s table, which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice.”

No. 118 says that the corporal should be on the credence table before Mass. Other indications require that a chalice or ciborium should be placed on a corporal whenever it is left on the altar or credence table for purification.

With respect to our reader’s queries, it would appear that in her parish they follow the bad habit of leaving the corporal unfolded upon the altar between Masses and even for days on end. The norms require that the corporal be unfolded during the presentation of gifts and properly folded again after Communion.

All the same, extra corporals may be placed on the altar before especially solemn Masses in which more sacred vessels are used than can fit on the corporal directly in front of the priest.

The GIRM does not require a new corporal for each Mass, it is sufficient for the corporal to be opened and folded with due care to avoid any mishaps. For this reason a corporal should be opened one section at a time while lying flat and never shook open.

A corporal is washed in the same manner as a purificator although less frequently. It is first soaked in water; this water is then poured either down a sacrarium or directly upon the earth. Afterward, the corporal may be washed in a normal fashion.

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Follow-up: When Words Over the Host Are Repeated

After our piece on repeating the words of consecration (July 3), some related questions came to light.

A reader from Los Angeles asked: “Our priest took the chalice in his hands and said the text of consecration of bread. But before the elevation, he realized his mistake, put down the chalice, and elevated the host. After that he took the chalice again in his hands and said the text of consecration of wine and elevated. At the end of Mass he told us (without apologizing) that this Mass was a valid Mass. Was it?”

From the information supplied, I would say that it was a valid Mass. The priest was clearly distracted. But the taking of the bread in his hands, while necessary for the authenticity of the rite by illustrating the meaning of the words “This is,” is not usually considered as absolutely essential to validity.

Otherwise, it becomes harder to justify that the priest validly consecrates all the breads and all the wine in other chalices, without any physical contact.

A Toronto reader asked: “An 84-year-old priest who has suffered lung injury, often when saying Mass for an assembled congregation loses his breath. Is it licit for him to say some parts of the canon silently to himself whenever he loses his breath?”

I am sure that the faithful are understanding and edified by the fidelity of this priest in persevering in his mission as long as he is physically able.

Although the canon is a public prayer and should normally be spoken in a clear voice, in cases such as these, it is sufficient for the priest to be able to hear himself speak. It would be illicit, however, to only mentally recite the Eucharistic Prayer without using the voice, and the consecration would be invalid if carried out in this manner.

Modern microphones can also help to amplify even a feeble voice.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.