Of Awkward Chalices and Liturgical Reform

This morning, celebrating Corpus Christi, we used as our principal chalice the ordination chalice of a recently deceased parishioner, who has been ordained to the priesthood just before the Second Vatican Council. It is an attractive chalice, in a late-50s/early 60s sort of way. The stem is fairly short and the bowl is wide and shallow. Administering communion, I found it somewhat awkward, since the shallowness of the cup kept me worried that the precious blood would slosh over the side as I handed it to the communicants. The short stem made passing it back and forth somewhat awkward as well.

We also used a late 19th century chalice given by the family who donated most of the money to build the church 132 years ago. It has a longer stem, with a deeper cup of fairly small diameter. Having used that chalice in the past, I found that, despite being almost the exact opposite of the other chalice in terms of proportions of stem and cup, it was equally difficult to use for communion, since the small, deep cup required the communicant to tilt the chalice up very high in order to receive.


Ordinarily when I am administering the cup I use the ordination chalice of our pastor, who was ordained in the mid-70s. This has a cup that is both wide and deep and is very easy to administer communion from.

All of this got me to thinking about the post-Conciliar liturgical reforms and how they have changed our liturgies in countless small ways. It struck me that the reason why some chalices, whether from the late 19th century or mid-20th century, are so difficult to use for communion of the assembly is that they were never meant to be used for that purpose, because the assembly never received from the cup. Given their original function of providing a receptacle for the consecration of the wine and a visual focus of devotion for the people during the elevation, they were quite well designed. But now that they also were to be used for giving communion, they were, if not unusable, at least somewhat awkward, an awkwardness that is not present when we use our usual chalices, which are clearly designed with the communion of the people in mind.

This awkwardness is probably worth the trouble, at least some of the time. On the feast of Corpus Christi—our “feast of title”—it seemed only fitting to use a historic chalice that had been used in the parish for over a century, as well as the chalice of a beloved parishioner whose absence is still keenly felt. But there is no denying the awkwardness, and the awareness it brings of how much our liturgy has changed in only a few decades. And I can’t say that I would be enthusiastic about using either of these chalices every Sunday, much less of obtaining newly-made chalices in either style.

What can be said of old chalices might be said of other elements of our liturgical patrimony. Much beautiful liturgical music of the past now fits somewhat awkwardly with the reformed liturgy: a lengthy choral Sanctus with a Benedictus split off from it as a second “movement” worked well when the canon was spoken silently under the music, but now introduces a laong and awkward pause in the liturgical action. Finely wrought vestments that were meant to be seen from the back while the priest stood at the altar were a useful point of focus when the priests back was what most people saw during most of the liturgy, but are less effective when the priest faces the assembly across the altar, as is typical in the post-Conciliar liturgy.

I do not think that any of this means that such chalices should be melted down, or that such music should be banished to the concert hall, or that such vestments should be thrown into a bonfire (as was rumored to have happened in my parish during the 1970s). But I do think that we need to reflect on how the reformed liturgy has its own logic and requirements and how we cannot cram it into a different logic simply for the sake of preserving our liturgical/artistic patrimony. At the same time, unlike some in both the “progressive” and “traditionalist” liturgical camps, I think the logic of the reformed liturgy is not entirely divorced from earlier liturgical forms, and that with some prudence and imagination we can find ways to preserve our patrimony for future generations. Thinking about how we use the liturgical “accessories” that the past has bequeathed to us can and should be the occasion for reflecting on our reformed liturgy and its relationship to all that has come before it.


  1. The first consideration for the evaluation of any liturgical vessel/book/vestment/church furnishing etc. must be whether the object in question is fit for purpose. A chalice that cannot be used to administer the Precious Blood can look very beautiful, but if it is badly designed from a practical and functional point of view, then it belongs more in a sacristy museum or in a display case in the parochial school than on the altar. I often lament the fact that for people who believe that Jesus is truly present Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity in the Eucharistic Species we are very reluctant to spend money on worthy vessels and liturgical appointments for our churches.

  2. Deacon Fritz,

    Can you clarify what you mean about handing the chalice to the communicants and passing it back and forth? The chalice in the foreground of your picture, for example, is of a type I’ve seen commonly used. The priest or deacon will hold it by the knob in the center with one hand and hold a purificator in the other for wiping the lip of the chalice between recipients of the precious blood. This set up makes the chalice fairly easy to maneuver, and when extending it to parishioners, most just steady it by holding the bottom of the chalice while they tilt it toward their lips. That is, it never leaves the priest’s hand. That set up also works fairly well for intinction, with the understanding that the parishioner will hold onto the Host for the priest or deacon administering the chalice to intinct for them and administer the sacrament on the tongue. The last congregation I was at before entering active duty military service, most of the congregation either received the host directly on the tongue or had the priest intinct the host and administer in the tongue. I realize, though, that high church Anglicans don’t have the most common practice.

    It occurs to me that I’m also more accustomed to seeing folks receive from the chalice while kneeling at an altar rail. I imagine if the person is standing, what I have described won’t work quite as neatly, as the minister of the chalice would have to hold the chalice much higher.

    1. @Shaughn Casey:

      Holding onto the chalice is actually dangerous. The Anglican practice of never letting go makes it extraordinarily difficult for the communicant to drink anything at all, because the minister’s muscles prevent the communicant from attaining the correct angle. Occasionally jerks when one or other party has “forced the issue” have resulted in spillages.

      Best recommended practice in many dioceses is to hand the chalice to the communicant and let go of it completely. In the case of an infirm person or a child, it is prudent to keep a hand near (under) the base of the chalice just in case, but still to let go of it.

      And if you are going to do what you are supposed to do with the purificator between each communicant, while the communicant is drinking (i.e. move to a fresh part of the purificator), then this simply cannot be done while holding on to the chalice.

      I agree with Fritz that the “balance” of many chalices does not aid the reception of Communion. Bases are frequently much too heavy, and that is because they are too narrow. The one depicted in Fritz’s photo looks as if it could be one of these. The common variety with a true stem and a roughly trapezoid angled cup, frequently made out of lighter, gold plated metal, are much easier to handle. Here’s an example: https://www.vanpoulles.co.uk/ProductView.ink?Row_ID=2386&pcode=2484&category=17&SubCategory=110&pcategory=Chalices,%20Patens%20@%20Ciboria&manufacturer=&subcategory=Chalices,%20Patens%20&%20Ciboria

      1. @Paul Inwood:


        In a lifetime of attending Anglican or Episcopal services, I can recall perhaps three spills, and not a single one of them was due to wrestling with the chalice. One was a moment of butterfingers at the altar. The other two were a priest getting a shoe caught in his alb and losing his balance. But never at the rail. Again, I can see both spills and sipping being potential issues of coordination when the person receives the chalice while standing, but it’s a complete non-issue if the person is kneeling, which is the most likely posture for reception when most of these larger chalices under discussion were made.

        Of course, intinction and / or use of a fistula obviate the problem entirely.

      2. @Shaughn Casey:
        While I know that hanging onto the chalice is the norm in Episcopal/Anglican churches, I’ve never seen it done in a Catholic church. If the communicant is standing, it is much, much safer to pass the chalice to him or her than it is to try and keep ahold of it.

  3. As we have been administering the chalice to the laity for some 500 years, as some tell me, I can share that I have used all kinds of chalices in my hears as a Deacon, and since we typically have our communicants kneel, there can be challenges, of course. When I first got bifocals back in the mid-80’s, my senior Pastor told me of his first experiences with bifocals and shoving the chalice up a communicant’s nose. That day I was so, so paranoid of repeating his foible, but praise Jesus, no issues.

    I prefer to let the communicant take the chalice themselves, but many refuse wishing to just tip it to take a small amount of the Precious Blood. I am very tall, so I haven’t had the issue, but once a very short person was administering the chalice in a “drive by” line and he tried in vain to reach my mouth with the chalice, and held it firmly, so I genuflected before the chalice to receive. Problem solved.

  4. Go to the kind of chalice used when it was shared by the congregation. Do a searcch for “Ardagh chalice”, an Irish chalice from about the 9th century, now in the National Museum in Dublin. Large enough for the numbers, with two handles for ease of passing to the next person. A practical design.

  5. I am not sure it is the same kind of thing Fritz writes about, but one element of architecture that has interested me for some time is what to do with niches in older churches that, during the pre-reformed era, functioned as altars for private masses, when (I’m told) more than one mass might be going on simultaneously in a single space. In the parish in which I grew up, there were such niches to the left and right of the sanctuary. One became the place where the tabernacle was positioned. The other, I think, became a Marian shrine.

    FWIW, our biggest danger of spilling seems to happen, not during the interchange of the cup with the communicants, but rather when the ministers of the cup traverse to their station at the beginning of communion. That involves descending some steps. We’ve built a railing along the side of our sanctuary (and also have a ramp suitable for wheelchairs), but most ministers prefer to walk down the steps in front, where there is no railing. Doing that with a cup of liquid sloshing around isn’t always a no-brainer, even for people whose balance isn’t impeded by health issues or age.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:

      Why not require them to use the ramp? That would seem to be a no-brainer.

      And of course don’t fill the chalices to the point where it becomes too risky.

  6. Has anyone ever wondered why chalices made of durable glass or crystal are not more commonly used? Could it have anything to do with the manner in which the consecration of the precious blood was minimized. After all, until recent decades there was only one chalice and it contained a very small amount for the priest himself to consume. He could always see that his cup contained the requisite matter for consecration even if no one else could or even needed to. For the past 40 years, however, communion under both forms has become commonplace including on Sundays. Why not a chalice containing sufficient wine to be seen from the assembly when the priest holds it above the altar at the consecration, and when held aloft at the Great Doxology, and just prior to the distribution of communion? By now, someone has remembered the relatively recent proscription ruling out chalices made even from durable glass except when the bishop conferences or even individual bishops may allow. I suggest that the proscription arises not from any real concern for fragility but because the rule makers include ritual minimalists. Years ago I was given a beautiful Waterford Crystal chalice on an ordination anniversary. It is sturdy and durable and truly beautiful to behold. It is more than worthy, in my judgment, to hold the Precious Blood of our Risen Lord. It has a double node and a long stem making it very easy to hold on to and pass to each communicant in turn.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      You may suggest, and your suggestion may be partly correct, but I seriously doubt it’s sufficiently correct, as it were. For example, as a countervailing consideration not at all driven by that: shattered glass becomes a basic safety hazard in any place where people may be walking, so it would seem basic hospitality would advise against it normally. That’s just an example.

      Of course, the consecration wasn’t very visible in most contexts until the last 50 years, so that it’s certainly true that visibility was not a consideration as such.

      I have to say, when I think of durable glass, I don’t think of Waterford or other relatively thin crystal. I think of things like Simon Pearce goblets, which became the type more commonly seen (when seen) in New England.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        To piggy back on Paul’s observations, yes the history of glass vessels goes back quite a long ways.

        In fact, Pope Zephyrinus (198-217) decreed the use of glass vessels. And the practice of using glass communion vessels hung on through the fourth century according to the Cambridge Medieval History (there’s a glass paten in the British Museum).

        I wrote about glass vessels here at Pray Tell, when a fourth century glass paten turned up in Andalusia and was lauded as the archeological find of the year. We should not think that using glass for communion vessels is some kind of recent invention. I personally think the anxiety about breakage is overblown, and can be obviated by using durable glass, which can be etched or carved and is still quite beautiful.


  7. I have noted in the past that communion cups seem to fall into two types in the reformed churches. The Church of England seemed to favour bucket like cups on short stems from the earliest examples (1549, I think, from Saint Mary Aldermary in the City of London) which resembled secular vessels. Many were quite small, until at the end of the seventeenth century rules obliged more people (people aspiring to public office, the universities, etc) to receive the Sacrament. Some cups from this period are enormous.

    ‘High’ church Anglicans in the seventeenth century went back to more medieval designs, as did the adherents of the catholic revival in the nineteenth century.

    In the Church of Scotland there seems to have been another type of cup, resembling the ‘Tazza’ with a wide and shallower bowl on a stem and base. These are found also in the Channel Islands which were influenced by contemporary French Protestant practice rather than by mainland CE usage.

    Other reformed groups preferred large beakers. In both these cases the cup was passed by the communicants from hand to hand, whereas in the C. of E. the Minister ‘administered’ the cup.

    There still seems to be resistance among many to sharing the Precious Blood at all. Thomas O’Loughlin in his recent book on the Eucharist has some interesting things to say about this.

    The comment about the Ardagh Chalice is interesting. I have seen chalices made on this model in recent years and they seem to me to be both convenient and safe.


  8. I actually can’t remember the last time I saw a glass knocked over and shatter, though for small children it might be a more common phenomenon. The Waterford chalice I referred to is of sturdy construction, unlike the many other fragile goblets they manufacture. Mayer Vogelpohl in Cincinnati distribute some even more durable glass chalices. Somebody must be buying and using them. I say more power to them.

  9. Regarding glass vessels: there can be something beautiful about the deep red liquid in a clear cup. But I also think that the advantages of seeing the Eucharistic elements can be overstated. It’s not as though the transubstantiation is visible – nothing really to see there. And if your church offers the cup to the people, they can see the element as they raise the cup to their lips.

    The deeper problem I have is that, when clear glass vessels are placed upon the altar, the priest is announcing to the congregation (whether it is intended or not), “I place myself above and outside the laws of the church.” I know there are many folks who think that is an admirable or even prophetic stance to take. I confess I find it more than a bit problematic.

    1. @Jim Pauwels:
      I think that white wine is the common usage in the Catholic Church. Certainly that is my experience over fifty years, in the UK, France, Italy and Spain at least. When I was an anglican we used red, and that, I am told, is the Orthodox custom, at least in Russia (red communion linen too).

      The use of white wine avoids accidental confusion with the Precious Blood, present in substance, not in accident.


  10. We use glass chalices so people can see what is in the chalice. When the chalice is solid precious metal, the only one to see the wine/Precious Blood is the presider. If the congregation is a highly visual people…youth for example…let them see what it is that is poured out for them and for many.

  11. I find it a little disheartening when American Catholics construe church law as if it followed the pattern of English common law. The latter believes in a one size fits all, whereas the former knows law cant fit all situations and must be applied within particular contexts. Suppose a 75 year old priest had long since memorized the texts of the EP’s according to the 1973 translation. And suppose he did that so he can fervently address these prayers to God in the midst of his people. He doesn’t see the good that can be served by gazing at the new missal struggling to read its many oddities in a truly prayerful way. Does continuing to pray the memorized texts make him a law breaker giving bad example to his flock? I think not. Of course if you’re in a parish where everyone has a missalette and someone announces “we will be using EP III this morning”, that’s another kettle of fish.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      Actually, while church law can accommodate non-compliance, the culture of church law is that it generally remains non-compliance – the non-compliance is not given the status of a standing or normative permitted exception to the norm. Whereas it’s the Anglospheric tic to try to turn the non-compliance into a normatively if narrowly (facts and circumstances) defined permitted exception. It’s the Anglospheric itch to justify and persuade, not a Roman one. Spare the itch.

      For example, church law doesn’t command the impossible. But, on the other hand, it also doesn’t justify bringing a whole train of other things along with impossibility.

    2. @Jack Feehily:

      “He doesn’t see the good that can be served by gazing at the new missal struggling to read its many oddities in a truly prayerful way. Does continuing to pray the memorized texts make him a law breaker giving bad example to his flock? I think not.”

      Fr. Jack, I am sorry but on this we don’t agree.

      People have genuine conscience qualms about the new translation – I respect that. But what right do public ministers have to draw others (like the entire gathered assembly) into one’s dissent?

      In my personal view, it can be spiritually admirable to keep one’s dissent private – to swallow one’s dissent for purposes of public worship and act as the church’s minister in the way that the church would wish its ministers to act. If the elderly priest is able to read the new missal, it would be better if he would use the prayer that the church has promulgated, and quite literally offer it up.

      But we weren’t speaking of translation problems; we were speaking of using Eucharistic vessels which the church authorities have told us repeatedly not to use. Why would someone go ahead and use them anyway? The reason given in this conversation, or at least implied, is because the celebrant prefers transparent vessels so that the worshiping assembly can see the Eucharistic elements. I understand that preference (although, as I mentioned in a prior comment, I’m not as excited by it as some other folks are), but I think the church’s wishes as reflect in its liturgical guidelines should supersede the presider’s private preference. Just my view.

      (If the vessels were given as a gift, it might seem churlish to tell the gift-giver, “Sorry, I can’t accept these because the church doesn’t want me to use them.” Like the tie one’s in-laws give one for Father’s Day, it’s more polite just to thank them nicely, hang it on the tie rack, and never wear it. )

      1. @Jim Pauwels:

        I would add another layer of pastoral consideration: priests come, priests go, the congregation remains to mop up. Each priest brings his personal beliefs and preferences with him. But he should also be mindful of how the congregation may experience the change, and consider how much of a cliff-shift he wishes to leave as a pastoral legacy. Obviously, many minor things don’t rise to this level but it can also happen at the small level. Such as a new pastor coming in reasonably expecting that X, Y or Z happens, and people end up being surprised (and the new pastor in turn) because, well, the preceding pastor did A, G, or Q instead. While there’s a certain measure of this that is human and inevitable, there’s is also some practical *pastoral* wisdom in trying to reduce the likelihood of unnecessary friction of this type.

      2. @Jim Pauwels:

        It may be possible now to say that “the Church doesn’t want me to use them” in accordance with GIRM 328, but from 1969 to 2002 GIRM 290, the direct predecessor of that paragraph, said something rather different: any appropriate and worthy material could be used for sacred vessels.

        The problem is how to explain why what was once permitted is no longer allowed, without pointing to the retrogressive ideology of the revisers of MR III in SCDWDS. In my estimation, it can’t be done, particularly as in many other instances of liturgical law the situation is the reverse: what was at one time forbidden is now permitted.

      3. @Paul Inwood:
        Well, just think of the years 1549, 1552, 1553/4 and finally 1559. Imagined how bewilded the poor vicar of Bray and others were, Mr. Inwood!

        We have made progress since death is no longer a strong possibility for lack of conformity for the liturgical demands of those respective years.

  12. About #19 and #25:
    I don’t think I’m quite as scandalized as Jim Pauwels over pastors who continue to use glass Communion vessels, but I do think they’ve made a poor choice of hill to die on. The authorities’ requirement of metal vessels, which don’t shatter, is at least defensible; their English missal texts are a much bigger and more arrogant imposition.
    What really bothered me about the new proscription of glass and ceramic vessels in “Redemptionis Sacramentum” was that their use was “reprobated,” as if it were deliberate irreverence to the presence of the Lord. Many of those vessels were specially commissioned, lovingly produced, or quite beautiful (or all three), and were, as Paul Inwood points out, not in violation of existing rules. “Reprobated”! To me, that was just plain rude.

    1. @Paul R. Schwankl:

      Paul R Schwankl many thanks. I don’t know that I’m scandalized. But it causes the eyes to roll.

      And I agree with you about rudeness. Or at least coldness. I don’t know if it’s possible to actually convey brotherly love in a legal document, but maybe they can try a little harder than that? 🙂

  13. At 75, death approaches inexorably. I hope that when the Lord chooses to call me home I will still be praying faithfully to Him in language that both reflects the faith of the church and is comprehensible to his priestly people…..and still raising before His visage sacred vessels of noble craftsmanship.

  14. Perhaps the review of Liturgiam authenticam can be broadened to include Redemptionis sacramentum. Both are baleful products of CDWDS during its nadir.

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