Altar Trays: The New Liturgical Abuse?

One of my pet hates is to see extra things placed on the altar.  I strongly believe that the altar should not be cluttered. While the altar is one of the principal symbols in a church, before being a symbol or a sacred object, it is a functional piece of furniture. It is meant to hold some things during the liturgy, but also there is a limit to what should be placed on it. As I do not have a regular parish assignment, I find myself celebrating in many different churches. My practice is to arrive before the start of the celebration and go down to the altar and clean as much stuff off it as I can before the celebration begins (missalettes, bulletins, sermon notes, glasses cases, huge unnecessary missal stands and my personal favorite, the pyx or canister containing the “priest’s hosts” that some sacristans leave on the altar so that they can easily put out a new priest’s host between Masses. As this is a container of bread usually lives on the altar during Mass, I imagine that the thin metal lid must be made of kryptonite to prevent the Consecration penetrating the pyx, and that although the bread inside has been on the altar for up to 20 Masses, it has remained unconsecrated until it has been put on the priest’s paten. Being the iconoclast that I am, I also take away the private priest’s paten for his special host, because God forbid that we follow number 321 of the GIRM which mandates that “the Eucharistic Bread …  be fashioned in such a way that the priest … truly able to break it into parts and distribute these to at least some of the faithful” and add the host to the individual pre-cut ones in a ciborium if one is being consecrated. Needless to say, if I was permanently in one parish I would lobby to buy bigger breads.)

Pedro Farnés, my mentor in things liturgical once wrote how on a theological level we can distinguish between three categories of objects placed on the altar: sacramental elements (bread and wine); festive elements (altar cloth and candles) and finally the functional elements microphone, corporals and missal.

Pedro Farnés Scherer, Construir y Adaptar las Iglesias: Orientaciones Doctrinales y Sugerencias Prácticas Sobre el Espacio Celebrativo, Según el Espíritu del Concilio VaticanoII (Barcelona: Editorial Regina, 1989), 54–60.

Lately, two photographs of solemn eucharistic celebrations caught my eye.  Both had trays being used on the altar to hold chalices. One was here on PrayTell in an account of the dedication of Christ Cathedral in Orange, CA. The other was an account of a eucharistic liturgy celebrated by Cardinal Nichols during a pilgrimage to Lourdes. 

Bishop Kevin W. Vann of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange says a prayer during the Christ Cathedral Solemn Mass of Dedication on Wednesday July 17, 2019, in Garden Grove. Over 2000 people attended the dedication. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Cardinal Nichols pictured at the International Mass celebrated at the Basilica of St Pius X Lourdes, 2019 
Photo: ©Marc Hanson, Diocese of Westminster

I know the practice is fairly widespread and have seen it on a number of occasions, although I don’t remember ever presiding over a celebration with trays on the altar. Obviously, the chalices have to be brought to the altar somehow or other.  And in no way am I in favor of not allowing people to receive from the chalice because it is awkward or requires some extra logistical work. There are precious few details on how the Eucharist should be celebrated in the Bible, but it is fairly clear that Jesus said that all should take and drink. I agree with the theological definition of the real presence and concomitance whereby Jesus is fully present (Body, Blood, Soul & Divinity) in either the eucharistic bread or cup, yet I believe that Communion under both Species is the way to go.

However, I am not sure whether I particularly like the practice of placing trays on the altar. Why are they there? Would it not be possible to bring them from the credence table on the tray and then place them on the surface of the altar cloth or corporal? Is this a case of falling into the old trap of minimizing work and destroying symbols?

I can find no mention of liturgical trays in the different liturgical documents. The word “tray” does not appear in the current English translation of the Roman Missal, in the Normsfor the Distribution and Reception of Holy Communion under Both Kinds in the Dioceses of the United States of Americaor in either volume 1 or 2 of LTP’s The Liturgy Documents collection. A Google Search for “liturgical tray” gives results either for patens, trays for the wine and water cruets or collection plates. Meyer•Vogelpohl Church Supply Store in Cincinnati, OH, my go-to destination for exotic liturgical supplies, does stock a few of these trays. But I cannot see them as being widely accepted.

My question for discussion is whether I am exaggerating (a tendency that many tell me I have), or is this a new liturgical abuse that is creeping in to our liturgies?


  1. In our church we have a policy of one bread and one cup on the altar for the Eucharistic prayer. The paten is a very large one which contains a large host and eight silver bowls filled with hosts so the appearance is of simply one very large paten. As we have communion under both kinds the chalices prove a little more difficult with a very large consecration. We have only one chalice on the altar for the preparation of the gifts but two large glass carafes (much to the horror of some purists) that are then poured out into chalices which are brought to the altar at the communion rite. While some rubrical purists may baulk at the idea of using carafes it at least has the benefit of highlighting the theology of one bread and one cup. If anybody has any better suggestions I’d be delighted to hear. As for trays and packing altars with unnecessary clutter, yuk! Surely the liturgical action of the Eucharist should indicate the theology of all partaking in one bread one cup. I was surprised to see the trays on the altar at the dedication of the new cathedral. I suppose it’s marginally better than bringing down the reserved Sacrament from the tabernacle: “Look here’s one I prepared earlier.”

    1. During the preparation of the gifts, one could bring the filled chalices to the altar on a tray, place them on the corporal, and remove the tray to the credence table.

    2. It isn’t just purists who think using carafes is bad: it’s a liturgical abuse. Firstly, because only consecrated vessels made of precious metal are to be used for communion (GIRM 328) or of other *officially approved* ‘noble materials (GIRM 329). Secondly, because the rite specifically prescribes that the precious blood be held in a chalice. Thirdly, because pouring the precious blood out between multiple vessels post-consecration is both impious and offers a very high risk of desecration. If you want a one chalice policy: receive under one kind.

  2. Didn’t this mostly begin with the newest edition of the Roman Missal? Before then, we would have had 1 chalice and 1 large flagon on the altar (or multiple for large diocesan events). Then, right before the the Lamb of God, chalices would appear, perhaps on a tray, perhaps not. And if the tray remained, it would have been for just a few minutes (through the Agnus Dei), and then promptly disappear.

    New Roman Missal: Pre-filled chalices –> Tray with pre-filled chalices —> Trays on altar

  3. Hi Chuck

    I’m not sure if the issue with the pitcher is found in the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal (or its current English translation). The issue with pouring the consecrated wine is to be found in the CDW’s 2004 Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum. However, perhaps in some places they didn’t apply RS until the latest missal translation was released. In any case I don’t see liturgical trays mentioned in this document either. The relevant section of RS says:

    [105.] If one chalice is not sufficient for Communion to be distributed under both kinds to the Priest concelebrants or Christ’s faithful, there is no reason why the Priest celebrant should not use several chalices.For it is to be remembered that all Priests in celebrating Holy Mass are bound to receive Communion under both kinds. It is praiseworthy, by reason of the sign value, to use a main chalice of larger dimensions, together with smaller chalices.
    [106.] However, the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery. Never to be used for containing the Blood of the Lord are flagons, bowls, or other vessels that are not fully in accord with the established norms.

    1. What catches my attention is the line that says “all priests in celebrating Holy Mass are bound to receive Communion under both kinds” . Does this apply to the main Celebrant or also to the concelebrants ? The reason I ask is that in the past few years I’ve noticed at concelebrated Masses that very often the main Celebrant receives under both kinds while some of the concelebrants receive the consecrated host and not the chalice; they just retire to their seats. I think this is an abberation, as receiving under appearence of bread and wine pertains to the fulness of the sacrifice – especially for the priest……..
      James Connolly ofm cap

      1. James
        I believe that all concelebrants must receive from the chalice. In some big papal Masses (e.g. Benedict XVI’s Beatification Mass for Cardinal Newman in Birmingham), the concelebrants are obliged to receive by intinction. But if the priest does not recieve from the chalice at all, I think that means that he has not concelebrated properly (whether this makes it an invalid or illicit concelebration, I will leave to those who are more expert than I). The other thing that has to be taken into consideration is whether it is always good to concelebrate. You don’t really have a right to concelebrate, and shouldn’t when it is detrimental to the celebration and the general good of souls to do so.

    2. Oh yes, my memory is going. RS. Years later it’s all blurring together. Thanks for the gentle correction.

      Agreed, it doesn’t say anything about trays. But from my (obviously-fading) memory, that’s when I saw them appear for the first time. Which was part of your question, no? I never saw a tray on the altar before 2004. Thus the “new” liturgical abuse. 15 years in the making.

    3. Maybe for the rubricists and the hyper-scrupulous, a read of Ordo Romanus Primus would be salutary (or a shock!).

      Just seen Paul Inwood’s point about tidy and accident-free pouring. It is hard to understand why this should be such an issue, when over many years I have seen priests tipping large quantities of consecrated ‘hosts’ into ciboria with abandon.


  4. Yes, RS is the culprit, and has resulted in altars routinely looking like sideboards, stuffed with trophies, instead of the altar of sacrifice and the table for the meal. It’s really undignified, and tasteless. The trays merely compound the problem.

    The people who drafted para 106 clearly had no knowledge of liturgical history, as well as a conservative agenda. The paragraph was not even in response to accidents that had taken place. Years of careful pouring by deacons and others into chalices brought to the altar at the time of Communion were ignored in what seemed to be a kind of SCDW panic.

    Actually, I believe the agenda was something different. The fact is that people other than the priest were doing the pouring — that is what some of those in SCDW (thankfully no longer working there) did not approve of. Replacing the provisions of para 106 is well overdue.

    1. Every time I read of an alleged “conservative agenda,” I wonder if the same author would ever write of an alleged “liberal agenda.”

      Trays are obviously a bad idea. That said, the real issue here is the impracticality of Communion under both kinds at certain mega-Masses.

      Having extraordinary ministers (the only kind of “extraordinary” some seem to celebrate, but I digress) flood the altar at the Agnus Dei, pouring into multiple chalices from a flagon or other vessel, never instilled in me the remotest sense of, “Oh we’re drinking from one cup, what terrific theology!”.

      It installed instead a deep disdain for the seemingly interminable prolongation of the rite and the dreary multiplication of invocations for the Agnus Dei.

      So my vote would be: never a tray in sight! And don’t insist that Communion under both kinds be offered at every Mass.

      1. My sense is that if the people aren’t receiving from the Cup, the clergy probably shouldn’t either. The Last Supper mandate reads pretty clear to me. That said, the problem isn’t mega-Mass as much as it is the lack of vision to put people (sacristans) in charge of things so they do get done, and done with grace.

        “geez, let’s just eliminate the cup and EMs”

        And from there, a short step to “Let’s tell the laity to stay home. They make too much of a mess.”

  5. I’ve often celebrated with chalices on a tray on the altar. This is the practice for Sunday Masses both at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and at the parish where I served as associate before returning to studies. At my current usual weekend assistance parish, the chalices are brought over on a tray by the servers and then unloaded. I’ve got to be honest: I don’t see what the rite of the unloading of the tray adds to the Mass. If we’re to be technical about the rite never mentioning a tray, neither does it mention the unloading of trays. I agree with not letting the altar get cluttered, but a suitable tray shouldn’t look like clutter, as it would be covered by chalices. I’d agree that a tray with such high sides that it obscured the chalices, or so ornate that it drew attention to itself, would be problematic, but I’ve never seen that.

    1. FWIW, nos. 142 and 151 of the GIRM provide that chalice(s) be placed on the corporal, as with the paten(s) with the Eucharistic bread.

      1. In both those paragraphs, the word “chalice” is singular. It’s a perfectly (linguistically) legitimate translation of the Latin to translate “calix” as “a chalice” rather than “the chalice” (even though the official English translation does the latter). This allows the text to make sense in a context where there is more than one chalice. The official English translation just doesn’t make sense in that context. I prefer to re-translate the Latin rather than change it by pluralizing. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having more than one chalice on the corporal (and it is, in fact, my preference, when they all fit), but the paragraphs you cite don’t demand it.

  6. A small, barely visible tray is not worth worrying about; we have bigger fish to fry. While I thank God for Vatican II leading to more generous, expansive use of symbols, there is a creeping clericalism based on a belief that our folks are so stupid that they would be confused by having 7 chalices on the altar. If that were true, our catechesis, or lack thereof, is to blame.

  7. Thank you, Paul – nothing like the facts. And your point is only underlined by the next response – geez, let’s just eliminate the cup and EMs.

    1. That is not what the response said. He simply stated that it might be more appropriate to distribute under the Body alone at mega liturgies, parish liturgy doesn’t seem affected by his comment. There is nothing mentioned about not using extraordinary ministers for the distribution of the Body of Christ. Answer your detractors instead of dismissing them out of hand. geez…

  8. A small, barely visible tray is not that important; we have bigger fish to fry. I am grateful for Vatican’s leading to more generous and more visible use of symbols, but a creeping clericalism seems to think our folks are so ignorant that 7 chalices on the altar will confuse them about “sharing one cup.” If this is true, our catecatches is, lack thereof, is at fault.

  9. I find this post baffling for a number of reasons.
    1. As a previous comment pointed out a barely visible tray as a major liturgical abuse is odd. Yes, the chalices and ciboria are supposed to be on corporals. But when many parishes leave corporals on the altar for God knows how long with Eucharistic particles and stains from the Precious Blood. Especially given that GIRM 118 c. states that the corporal should be on the credence table before Mass and GIRM n. 73 further elaborates that the corporal should be set out at the beginning of the preparation of the altar. It seems that the later is a much graver abuse but no one seems to care.
    2. Quoting GIRM 321 which states that a large host should be used to better symbolize “One Bread” but that pastoral reasons can be used to do otherwise. Thus, to do otherwise is allowed even one does not like just as “conservatives” may not like the larger hosts but it is nonetheless preferred and allowed. Yet, RS is denigrated by the author other commentators yet it is much more explicit in its directives and thus cannot be worked around without going against the document.
    3. While I have heard people complain about more traditional pastors who begin to make changes to liturgy and sacred furnishings in their parish. Yet the author of this post openly admits that he goes to various parishes and changes the way Mass is celebrated while not even being the pastor which actually comes with certain rights regarding the liturgical norms in his parish. If a visiting “traditional” priest showed up using a Missal stand, wearing a fiddleback, using a small celebrant’s host and toting an ornate “priest’s chalice” people would flip and begin citing violations of local custom.

    1. Pete
      I think you are treating me a little unfairly. And I am sorry if the post “baffled” you. However please let me know how I “denigrate” RS? It isn’t even mentioned in the post itself and I simply provide a quote from it as a point of information to facilitate the discussion in one of the later comments.

      Regarding my own liturgical practice, Removing a page with the prayers of the faithful from two weeks ago or last weeks Mass intentions or cleaning other random stuff from the altar hardly constitutes changing the way Mass is celebrated in that parish. Otherwise not using a missal stand (I actually see the missal better when it is flat on the altar) or putting the individual “priest’s host” into the same recipient that is being used for everyone else hardly count as changing the parish liturgy. Yes perhaps removing the pyx of unconsecrated hosts from the altar might be a little bigger, but I’m afraid that is an issue of conscience on my part. I bend over backwards to maintain a liturgical stability when I am filling in for someone else. But I’m afraid that I consider arriving a little early speaking with the sacristan , lector, music ministers before Mass, and checking that the sanctuary is in order before Mass is a responsibility that comes with presiding. Then when Mass is over I put nearly everything back where it was (although I do leave the plethora of papers dealing with earlier liturgies that adorn the altar on the sacristy counter). I hope you can agree that every priest presides in a slightly different manner and each has a different ars celebrandi, and that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

      1. I apologize, it was a different commentor who named RS a culprit. I sincerely apologize for my mischaracterization and rescind that part of my critique.
        As to my third point, I was not stating that I think you were doing anything wrong. I am just always frustrated by the fact that in my experience, more “liberal” visiting priests are given more freedom to do what they please. But a newly ordained priest comes in with a chalice that was a gift from his parent (his parents!!!) and celebrates Mass with a “tighter” orans. Then people’s critiques fly out claiming his is undermining what the pastor has built. Essentially, my complaint is that on this blog (not Fr. Neil) commentors especially have a gripe against every young priest and how he celebrates Mass. I simply see a double standard. Had a young “traditional” priest done something similar at a parish to what you do when visiting people would have been upset. Maybe I am wrong, but my own experience in a parish I attended awhile back tells me otherwise.

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