On a Lapsed Symbol

DF: They won’t understand your intention.
DWF: But it’s not complicated. I just have a question. Questions are what academics do.
DF: But it’s a politicized issue, and people will think you’re advocating one thing or denying another thing.
DWF: But surely I can raise an observation.
DF: It’s your skin. Go ahead.
DWF: Well, all I said was it dawned on me one day that in the twenty years since I became a Catholic I’ve only seen the rite of purifying the vessels about half a dozen times.
DF: So you are agitating for a return to the Latin mass!
DWF: Where did you get that? I just made the observation that something that used to be a part of the rite has quietly disappeared.
DF: Not so quietly. Remember the headlines in 2006: “Extraordinary ministers of Eucharist barred from purifying vessels.”
DWF: Yes, and that was from the Catholic News Service, not even a blog site.
DF: Exactly. The U.S. Bishops asked for an indult in 2002 permitting extraordinary ministers to help purify the Communion cups and plates when there were not enough priests or deacons to do so.
DWF: Yes, and the indult expired and was not renewed. Is that synonymous with “barred?”
DF: Don’t you realize that the distribution of roles to ministers – even when appropriate – is always freighted?
DWF: I do, but I just have this question.
DF: Okay, okay. Ask it.
DWF: My point is, that I have hardly ever seen a priest or deacon purify a chalice at the altar …
DF: Ah, I see you’re using the new translation “chalice”.
DWF: Stop sidetracking. I was saying that I have rarely seen the chalice purified at the altar. All the chalices are taken by extraordinary ministers into the sacristy.
DF: That’s because a distinction was made between “purifying” and “cleansing.” I quote. “In accord with the Holy Father’s recent decision, as reported in Cardinal Arinze’s letter of October 12, 2006 (Prot. no. 468/05/L), an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion may not assist in the purification of sacred vessels. After the vessels have been purified, the extraordinary minister(s) of Holy Communion may cleanse and dry the vessels.”
DWF: I know. And I don’t think extraordinary ministers should be barred from doing that. They are clearly allowed to cleanse the vessels.
DF: So your question is what happened to the distinction between purifying and cleansing?
DWF: No, more accurately, my question is whether we should care that the distinction exists?
DF: Well, let’s explore your train of thought. Why might we care?
DWF: I recall once reading the story of British convert who said it began by the care with which he saw the vessels treated after communion.
DF: So you think that purifying the cup is a more important ritual action than receiving from the cup?
DWF: Ah, I see you’re using the old translation “cup.”
DF: Stop sidetracking. Isn’t the prayer over the bread and wine of primary importance, and the purification and cleansing of the vessels that hold the body and blood of secondary, or even tertiary importance?
DWF: Yes. I agree entirely. I’m only asking whether even secondary and tertiary symbols are important. No, more accurately, I’m not asking anything, I’m observing something.
DF: What?
DWF: That the symbol doesn’t happen anymore.
DF: Maye it happens in the sacristy.
DWF: Maybe. But if it does, it isn’t seen. Would you be happy with that?
DF: No.
DWF: And the clarification was that an extraordinary minister does not purify.
DF: So you are a rubrical legalist.
DWF: Stop sidetracking. We can have the discussion about the value of rubrics and liturgical legislation another day. Right now I’m asking a question of ritual symbolism.
DF: Which is?
DWF: Should some act of purification take place at the altar or credence table, before the vessels are cleansed in the sacristy?
DF: At our parish we have 4, 8, 16, 32 cups …
DWF: Stop exaggerating.
DF: Okay, but we have quite a few cups, and it would really needlessly delay the mass if they all had to be purified by Father at the altar. That’s how we struck on this practical solution.
DWF: So it was all about time? But I thought liturgists objected to making decisions about liturgical symbol on the basis of utility.
DF: Well (sputter), yes, that was a lesson taught by Guardini and Jungmann.
DWF: What if only one chalice was purified at the altar?
DF: You mean for nostalgia’s sake? Just to give that ol’ medieval feeling again?
DWF: No, it’s a hypothesis. Suppose it was Christian instinct to reverentially purify the chalice. Suppose we believed it inappropriate to simply jettison what our ancestors knew by instinct. Suppose we included a ritual of purification.
DF: That would make the people into be passive spectators.
DWF: True, they would be watching, and I suppose that’s the definition of “spectator.” And they would not have their hands in soap suds, if that’s your definition of “passive.”
DF: Now you’re being sarcastic.
DWF: Mea culpa. But I think there’s a better objection.
DF: You’re helping me out? What is it?
DWF: Is it acceptable to purify only one chalice while the rest are taken into the sacristy? That seems to put the word “just” into “just a symbol.”
DF: What do you mean?
DWF: There’s a difference between doing a real action symbolically, and doing a symbolic thing instead of the action. Is it inappropriate for the priest or deacon to only purify one “as just a symbol,” if he’s not purifying them all?
DF: But we already have an action like that in the mass. Father performs a fraction rite on one host, though he doesn’t do so on any others.
DWF: Now you’re helping me with an argument?
DF: Sorry. I got confused. What are we doing again?
DWF: We’re only observing that everyone talks about how liturgy forms, and symbol expresses. Once there was an act which was a part of the liturgical activity at the altar, and it has disappeared. And its disappearance was not the result of a conscious decision, it just sort of slipped in there, and for what appears to be utilitarian reasons, and then after the fact it became a politicized issue about power struggle. And I wanted to ask if we’re satisfied with that.
DF: So you don’t propose a solution?
DWF: I don’t know if there’s a problem to solve. I’m just observing.
DF: That’s the trouble with you.


  1. Coincidentally, our new pastor makes a point of purifying all the vessels (sometimes as many as 6 patens and 6 cups) at the altar. And he does it reverently, not hurriedly.

  2. Brilliant! Worthy of Shana Alexander and James Kilpatrick….

    My own “observations” is the relegating the “cleanup” to the laity, as was effectively done in many places for many places, did not seem to make for a great symbol.* But it became a shibboleth and, that happens, the symbolic value gets freighted with ideological baggage from both ends, as it were. At that point, people of sounder mind learn it’s not worth pursuing further either way until the ideologues have moved on to other shibboleths.

    * Bringing to mind the tart line by Mrs Linott in “The History Boys”: “History is a commentary on the various and continuing incapabilities of men. What is history? History is women following behind with the bucket.”

  3. In the spring of 1965 we had moved from homes on army posts to a city in Virginia where Kay and I were able to take the two youngest of our children with us to daily mass.

    At those celebrations close to the altar Kay found the act of washing the dishes to speak clearly to her life as mother and house wife. The every day acts in our lives were made holy signs to us all

    James F Thornton Jr

  4. +JMJ+

    DWF: […] Suppose we included a ritual of purification.

    DF: That would make the people into be passive spectators.

    DWF: True, they would be watching, and I suppose that’s the definition of “spectator.” And they would not have their hands in soap suds, if that’s your definition of “passive.”

    Are we “passive spectators” when the priest is receiving Communion? Are we “passive spectators” when he is censing the gifts on the altar, or washing his hands?

    1. The priest’s reception of Communion is part of a greater whole. As are the rituals at the Preparation of Gifts. People come to Communion. And they sing during that procession. They also bring gifts (or have them collected).

      No serious liturgist is concerned about the psalmist singing a verse as long as the people take their part and are encouraged in it.

  5. I have seen purification rites that spoke very beautifully, and I have seen ones that did not. It seems to me that the difference is one of bearing in the presider. Where the presider has been humbly and intently “washing the dishes” of Christ’s meal, I have been very deeply moved. When his body language has said that he is trying to show the assembly how very important the vessels are, I have been unimpressed. Honestly, after the Eucharist itself, the vessels seem a bit ho-hum!

    I have no problem with purification rites — in terms of pacing, they can provide a nice little down time to be filled with grateful silence or song — but if you are a presider, think hard about your body language, because it speaks.

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