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.