Purification issues

I think most people would agree that a priest standing at the middle of the altar, “scrubbing out the chalice” after the distribution of Communion, is not the most edifying sight. At the very least, it is a distraction to those who are trying to make their thanksgiving. The practice, of course, derives from the former Tridentine Rite, where the action of scrubbing out/drying/polishing/buffing with a purificator was not actually visible to the people because the priest had his back to them. (Ignore the movements of elbows concealed by the chasuble!)  It is legitimate to ask why this custom, picked up by ordinands by a form of osmosis, still persists today.

The anthropological argument against it would be that you don’t wash the dishes while your dinner guests are still sitting at the table: how much more true that should be for those who are guests at the Table of the Lord’s Supper! Others have even suggested that cleansing at the altar is a clerical act on the part of the priest, indicating that he alone has the “power” to carry out this function.

The current documents of the Church indicate a different set of priorities. Most people are unaware that there are several separate paragraphs in GIRM which refer to purification. (For purposes of clarity, I do not here consider brief treatment in other documents such as Redemptionis Sacramentum which do not add anything to what follows.)

GIRM 163 says:

If the vessels are purified at the altar, they are carried to the credence table by a minister. Nevertheless, it is also permitted, especially if there are several vessels to be purified, to leave them suitably covered on a corporal, either at the altar or at the credence table, and to purify them immediately after Mass following the dismissal of the people.

One could say that the important word is “If” the vessels are purified at the altar. This could contain an implication that this is not the preferred option. Rather more importantly, this paragraph indicates fairly strongly that if there are several vessels, as is often the case in parishes, it is better not to spend the time after Communion purifying them but to leave them until after the people have left.

GIRM 183 indicates the procedure when a deacon is assisting:

When the distribution of Communion is completed, [the deacon] carries the chalice and other sacred vessels to the credence table, where he purifies them and arranges them in the usual way while the priest returns to the chair. It is also permissible to leave the vessels that need to be purified, suitably covered, at the credence table on a corporal, and to purify them immediately after Mass following the dismissal of the people.

Here we note that purifying the vessels at the altar is no longer listed as an option (in which case, why should it be when there is no deacon?). The vessels should only be purified at the credence table. Once again, the option for purifying after the people have left is encouraged.

GIRM 247 gives guidance for concelebrations when a deacon is assisting:

[The deacon] then carries the chalice to the credence table and there he or a duly instituted acolyte purifies it, wipes it, and arranges it as usual (cf. no. 183).

Once again, no purifying at the altar. The introduction of the instituted acolyte here is something of a red herring. We don’t see these in normal parish life unless there is a seminarian present, or someone who left seminary after reaching that stage in his formation. Most bishops’ conferences have made it clear that they will not institute acolytes as a general practice so long as this genre of instituting is reserved to men only.

A fourth paragraph is GIRM 279, occurring in the section giving general norms for all forms of Mass:

The sacred vessels are purified by the priest, the deacon, or an instituted acolyte after Communion or after Mass, insofar as possible at the credence table.

Here the emphasis has shifted again. The option for leaving purification until after Mass is there, but it is quite clear that purification at the altar is being actively discouraged. Once again, we find instituted acolytes mentioned.

This paragraph also refutes the argument of those who claim that, even if purifying at the centre of the altar is not a good thing, it is acceptable to purify at the side of the altar. “Insofar as possible at the credence table” is pretty clear.

One of the issues that always needs to be borne in mind when discussing liturgical norms that originate in Rome is that the Eternal City is in a peculiar and unique situation. The people who live and work there have no idea what commissioned ministers of Communion look like, what they actually do, because there is no need for them in Rome: there are so many priests and other clerics always available that ministers of Communion are rendered unnecessary. The Roman experience is isolated from the remainder of the Church.

Therefore, there is no concept of the role and usefulness of ministers of Communion in everyday parish life. In many parishes, and for many years, purification has been done at the credence table, at a side altar, or in the sacristy, by lay ministers of Communion either while Mass is still in progress or after it is finished. The paragraphs quoted above all seem to be tending towards taking the process of purification out of the direct sightline of the people, but they have not considered the practicalities. A furore was caused by GIRM 2000, with its apparent stipulation that only priests, deacons or instituted acolytes could purify.

Rome also has little idea about multiple vessels for use at Communion. Where Communion under both kinds is given at all, it is normally for clergy only. Even then, they receive by intinction, even bishops. The number of vessels required is thereby drastically reduced.

Given that lay ministers of Communion had already been purifying sacred vessels for the better part of 30 years, USCCB sought and obtained an indult in 2001, lasting three years, permitting extraordinary ministers of Communion to assist with purification. The indult lapsed and was not renewed. The initial excuse given was the final illness and then death of John Paul II. In 2006, Cardinal Arinze of the Congregation for Divine Worship informed USCCB that Benedict XVI had declined the request for renewal.  After the lapse of the indult, the provisions of the USCCB’s Norms for the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds (2002) came into play, reiterating the provisions of GIRM 279. It is thought that the US is the only country to have such a document specifically forbidding lay minsters to purify sacred vessels. Nevertheless, in many parishes in the US, as elsewhere, the practice continued as before, and still continues today.

At the time of the furore there was much debate, and a spurious distinction between cleansing and purification was introduced by some. It was all right for ministers to cleanse the vessels; they just couldn’t purify them! This blithely ignored the fact that the terms of the indult stated quite clearly:

The faculty may be given by the diocesan Bishop to the priest celebrant to use the assistance, when necessary, even of extraordinary ministers in the cleansing [sic!] of sacred vessels after the distribution of Communion has been completed in the celebration of Mass.

The argument ran: only an ordained or instituted person can purify. When purification is completed, further washing can take place (e.g. with detergents), and this could be done by lay people. (Even then, Fr Edward McNamara, writing on Zenit in 2005, discouraged what he called excessive washing on the grounds that it could cause expensive damage to metal parts of the chalice.)

There is another point to raise: the entire prohibition on lay ministers cleansing or purifying ignores what routinely happens when a lay minister takes Communion under the form of wine to a sick or housebound person who cannot consume under the form of bread. The Blood of Christ is brought in a phial or other appropriate vessel, and it needs to be purified after use. The only person available to do that is de facto the minister, and in some dioceses ministers are given appropriate training for this. If they can do it on those occasions, why not after Communion at Mass?

The answer to that lies once again in Rome. Not only do the Romans not know what ministers of Communion look like at Mass because they have no experience of them, they also have little or no experience of lay ministers taking Communion to the sick and housebound, nor (probably) any understanding that some of those sick and housebound people can only receive under the form of wine.

In summary, one might state the following:

1. It does not look good when priests are busily buffing chalices with purificators. Therefore advising ministers to purify at least at the credence table, if not somewhere even less visible, seems very reasonable.

2. Restricting purifying to ordained or instituted ministers could be seen as another form of needless clericalism.

3. The current legislation takes no account of normal parish usage, where the number of chalices in use at a single weekend Mass can easily reach as many as eight to twelve if not more. During or at the end of a Mass, the time taken to purify this sort of number will be excessive if only priests and deacons can do it.

4. The fact is that in many places in the US people are either unaware of the legislation or, if they are aware of it, have taken a conscious decision to ignore it on pastoral grounds. In other countries, lay ministers have purified for 50 years or so, and there is no issue.


  1. I believe that this issue raises The whole matter of the limitations of liturgical proscriptions. The only person who can enforce the cleansing of vessels exclusively by deacons, instituted acolytes is the priest who has just completed the Mass. But he’s out in the commons/narthex or entrance greeting and exchanging pleasantries with the folks. Do you suppose he’s much interested in doing the dishes upon returning to the sacristy? Some of the Trads purify vessels at the altar with great ostentation so they can feel freer to greet the people after Mass without violating the purification restrictions. The rest of us are quite content to allow the sacristan to handle this task with grace and dignity. As St. John the XXIII once averred: the beginning of wisdom is knowing how much to overlook.
    As for instituted acolytes, is there law which prevents individual bishops to confer the duties of acolytes precisely for this purpose while calling upon the Holy See to cease restricting this order to males. This is long overdue. There is a similar restriction as regards the order of reader but notice how we readily overlooked that. I propose a new dicastery entrusted with calling for common sense in all Vatican regulations. They could begin their work by replacing the word dicastery with department or bureau.

  2. I prefer to purify at the credence table too, but I’ve always had a problem with the analogy of inviting people to a dinner party and then doing the dishes around them. During family dinners, we didn’t all leave the room while whoever was on dish duty washed dishes.

  3. What is particularly mind-boggling is when more time is spent at the altar purifying than the communion procession itself.

    1. It might be seen as something of a fulcrum-lever situation, because if one prioritizes having many communion stations/chalices to speed up the communion procession, then the purification will take longer . . . and vice-versa. That said, when I am visiting a place and sitting near the rear of the procession, I am grateful for an extended purification (I just don’t like clerics making more of a show of it than is appropriate – some do).

  4. “It does not look good” I disagree with that assertion. If it’s done efficiently and deftly, there is a comforting rhythm to it. I purify all the vessels at the altar 90% of the time. If you don’t have a routine and look like the Swedish Chef tossing linens and splashing around like you’ve never seen any of these items before, then sure, that is distracting.

    This reflection also overlooks the need for the priest celebrant and any other ministers of the Host to purify their own fingers. Especially as reception on the tongue becomes more and more common, especially among younger people, I want to purify my fingers in a dignified way before returning to the chair and, later, greeting people. And if cleansing vessels ‘looks bad,’ squirting a blob of purell and vigorously rubbing it in looks bad AND smells bad–distraction upon distraction.

    Carefully purifying the vessels in the full sight of the assembly has a salutary effect on the faithful, taking care to wash the special vessels that held the special Presence. How often do we drink from gold-plated goblets? It’s ok for special moments to be different. Purifying the vessels almost never, in my experience, extends a Sunday Mass. Always if there is a choir or cantor the Communion song (and possibly the “meditation song” following) are still going by the time I make it back to the chair, and yes, this includes Masses with a dozen chalices. I also tend to think there is an upper limit on the size of congregation for which it is prudent to offer a multitude of Chalices…the more cups the larger the margin of error for consecrating the right amount, and then who consumes the remainder? Multiple chalices of remainder?

    If it is a daily Mass without music, the 90 seconds it takes to purify the vessels immediately after the distribution is a welcome respite of silence before the final prayer, and may be the only extended moment of silence in the whole liturgy, and for that reason, precious.

    1. It is perfectly possible to purify one’s fingers in a bowl of water allocated for the purpose at the credence table, which is what I see many presiders doing (less often, at the side of the altar).

      As for who consumes what is left in multiple chalices, the simple answer is the multiple ministers of communion who administer those chalices Not an issue.

      It is possible that the musicians are extending the music precisely to cover the amount of time you take to purify the vessels. In any event, there shouldn’t be a meditation song following the Communion song (cf. GIRM 88 + 164, etc: “A sacred silence may now be observed for some time, or a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation”).

    2. Thank you so much for your comments, Fr. Waugh. At my parish, following recent arrival of a new pastor, the Priest now normally performs the purification. Prior to this, the purification was performed by several ministers of Communion, not the Priest or Deacon. That process was very distracting as folks might be moving about in different directions, sometimes appearing very confused! When the Priest performs the purification, I find the entire process so very reverent and meaningful. I value the few extra moments of silence (if the choir has finished singing). I am so grateful my parish has instituted the process of purification by the celebrant. It is a blessing to me.

  5. The purification of the vessels is not a ritual action and should not be subject to rules that assume it is a ritual action; nor should it be done at the altar.

  6. This article is a great example of how one evil prompts another and another until the whole thing is a mess. There is a reason for the careful purification of the vessels: they have contained God under the species of bread and wine. At least in the Western tradition, the awareness of this grew to a point that the rubrics provided for a thorough restoration of the vessels to their pre-consecration cleanness, yet in such a way that the Most Holy Sacrament was treated with the utmost reverence possible, at the anointed hands of the priest who alone should handle them.

    1. That’s been my understanding…what’s of edification to the people is being able to see that these things are done with due diligence. Still should be done efficiently and without undue prolongation, but there is a purpose.

  7. What I have seen at one parish were I serve as the keyboardist is a second song for the purification of the vessels. They usually choose a Taize style piece….once when I was present we sang the refrain 17 times.

  8. So the practice in our place of the extraordinary ministers taking the vessels to the sacristy for purification and rejoining the congregation at the end of the silence at the same time that other ministers are given their pyxes and sent out to take communion to the housebound and sick – I take it that it is unlawful here in the UK.
    The positive is that the celebrant sits in silent prayer with the people while there is no distracting activity going on.
    The sending out of the ministers with their pyxes is a massive positive too as it joins our housebound to our celebration.

  9. Even referring to the ablution act as “doing the dishes in front of the guests” diminishes the importance of the act. It is there as a teaching moment. If there is no evangelical work in the mass, there sure as heck-fire won’t be any in the “mission field”.
    I know some get downright upset when they keep getting hit with “Lex orandi, lex credendi…” but we say it for a reason. These parts of the mass are there for a reason. When the proper minister performs the proper action, the people are edified, and the ontology of the “meal” is allowed to shine forth.
    Remember that the laws of the old temple were there to prepare us for the reality of the Mass.

  10. Geez – to quote above:
    “There is a reason for the careful purification of the vessels: they have contained God under the species of bread and wine. At least in the Western tradition, the awareness of this grew to a point that the rubrics provided for a thorough restoration of the vessels to their pre-consecration cleanness, yet in such a way that the Most Holy Sacrament was treated with the utmost reverence possible, at the anointed hands of the priest who alone should handle them.”

    That quote demonstrates how one outdated understanding leads to another and another until one describes as coming from God HIMSELF.

    Yep, clericalism, ontological change, etc. while diminishing the presence of God in the gathered community, scripture, and the altar. We already know how this type of outdated understanding has negatively impacted the people of God. Eucharist is an action; not an object.

    1. That’s an awfully condescending assessment of this matter. The purification ritual exists because the Eucharist is more than just an action; it is Christ Himself. Ergo the ritual itself is a lot more than just scrubbing the dishes after Thanksgiving dinner.

      Roping together all perceived traditionalist practices and theological interpretations with clericalism does a great disservice to the very real problem of the latter. It’s just as bad when priests flagrantly disregard the rubrics of the mass as if its their own personal plaything and they know better than everyone else (which can be applied to many aspects of church life).

  11. Sorry, did not *rope all perceived traditionalist practices and theological interpretations with clericalism* – that is your opinion but it fails to reflect what I stated.
    Allow me to highlight – ……”at the anointed hands of the priest who alone should handle them”…. again, this is one understanding that is narrow, fails to reflect church history or tradition; and acts as if the Tridentine Rite is the only rite. Ignores the reality that the people of God *handle* the body/blood all the time as Eucharistic ministers or pastoral ministers to the sick, etc. Talk about cherry picking liturgical history of the Western Rite.
    Please re-read what Paul Inwood has posted – in fact, the rubrics can allow for purifying after the celebration (so much for priests who flagrantly disregard the rubrics….you appear to miss the point of Mr. Inwood’s article and the fact that there are multiple ways of handling purification. Some rubrics can be read that it should NOT be done at the altar or that there are other ministers to handle this (not the presider/priest).
    You appear to skip over most of the points of Mr. Inwood’s article e.g. for 30+ years lay ministers have been doing purification – condescending? Yes, but by whom?

    1. Bill, who are you responding to? I never denied that there are multiple ways of doing the purifications, as Mr. Inwood has enlightened us (“flagrantly disregard the rubrics” was meant more broadly). But just as I tire when rad trads insist that the existence of altar girls is the end of the world, I really tire when progressives cry fowl when some communities choose the more traditional options that are explicitly allowed, such as [a priest] purifying at the altar. And I’m sorry, but you can’t claim that the rubrics can be read to forbid that because they explicitly allow it in GIRM 163! Is that always the best manner to purity vessels? Probably not, but it’s allowed in the same way “Alleluia, Sing To Jesus” can replace the entrance propers.

      On the subject of pastoral ministers purifying after ministering to the sick, that’s because the Ordinary Minister of the Eucharist (priest or deacon) isn’t present to do it himself (GIRM 162). It’s the same reason why laypeople don’t usually baptize (though literally ANYONE could validly do so per Cn 861.2), or why I wouldn’t try to resuscitate someone having a heart attack in an emergency room full of doctors. Just because someone “can” doesn’t mean they’re always the best person for the job.

      1. And I’m sorry, but you can’t claim that the rubrics can be read to forbid that because they explicitly allow it in GIRM 163!

        But you can claim that the rubrics say that as far as possible you should use the credence table, not the altar (GIRM 279)! One of the points of my piece was precisely that the different incarnations of the rubrics in GIRM concerning purification contain contradictions.

  12. There is an interesting “Documentorum explanatio” published in Notitiae, the semi-official journal of the Congregation for Divine Worship, in 1978 (p 593-94), which concerned the “purification of sacred vessel.” One part of the answer referred to the (former) GIRM no. 147 (now no. 192) regarding an acolyte purifying the vessels. The published response is “Quae de sacerdote, de diacono et de acolytho dicuntur, valent etiam pro ministro extraordinario qui legitime Communionem distribuit …” (What is said about the priest, and acolyte, also holds for an extraordinary minister who distributes Communion legitimately …). I have found it odd that I’ve not seen this response explicitly negated in Notitiae, but canonists are hard pressed to try to find exactly what “clarification” Cardinal Arinze was referring to in his 2006 letter to the U.S. bishops which did not allow extraordinary ministers to continue what they had been doing since 1978. Normally new canons and legislation allow greater freedom rather than restrict what had been legitimately permitted. Maybe others have found texts that I’ve been unable to locate!

  13. In our large parish, we have 8 communion stations = 16 cups, 8 bowls and the priest chalice. We simply place all of them on the credence table on a wooden tray and cover with a white cloth. After Mass, the tray is taken to the sacristy where the vessels are purified, washed and prepared for the next liturgy. Simple. Been doing it since 1990. The ministers are trained well and take their duties as seriously as the clergy.
    This isn’t Rome, thank God. It’s the real world…….

    1. What is a “priest chalice”? Don’t tell me that the president drinks from a cup different from the people! That’s a denial of the very core of what the Eucharist is trying to create!

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