Placement of Chalice Before the Mass
Date: March 6, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Are there any documents that support placing the chalice with a chalice veil and burse on the altar prior to Mass? The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) provides direction to have the chalice placed on the credence table, but perhaps it doesn’t foresee the use of a beautiful veil and burse in the Novus Ordo. What is the obligation here? -- G.P., Ann Arbor, Michigan
A: This question is not specifically dealt with in the documents, but I think we can provide an answer from what is available.
Our reader mentioned the GIRM, which says:
“118. Likewise these should be prepared: …. c) on the credence table: the chalice, corporal, purificator, and, if appropriate, the pall; the paten and, if needed, ciboria; bread for the Communion of the Priest who presides, the Deacon, the ministers, and the people; cruets containing the wine and the water, unless all of these are presented by the faithful in the procession at the Offertory; the vessel of water to be blessed, if the sprinkling of holy water takes place; the Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful; and whatever is needed for the washing of hands.
“It is a praiseworthy practice for the chalice to be covered with a veil, which may be either of the color of the day or white.”
Therefore, the chalice veil (and the burse) may be used, albeit on the credence table.
With respect to placing objects upon the altar GIRM No. 306 is also very clear:
“For only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the altar table: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium, if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal. In addition, arranged discreetly, there should be whatever may be needed to amplify the Priest’s voice.”
In light of the above, I think we can exclude placing the chalice with veil and burse upon the altar at the beginning of Mass. They may be briefly placed upon the altar during the presentation of gifts before the chalice is unveiled.
Likewise, if the purification of the chalice is carried out by the priest upon the altar, in the absence of a deacon or an instituted acolyte, then the chalice might be briefly veiled once more at the altar before being brought to the credence table.
The reason behind these norms flows from the effort to restore to the altar its role as the central symbol of Christ in the church building. This centrality had been obscured over time by the fact that, little by little, the entire celebration was carried out at the altar and, when, following the Council of Trent, it became normal to place the tabernacle upon the high altar.
In many ways this latter change was a positive development, especially in defending the doctrine of the Real Presence in the post-Tridentine years. In some cases, however, the construction of monumental tabernacles meant that the altar of sacrifice appeared as little more than a shelf supporting the place of reservation -- thus diminishing the altar’s traditional symbolism as representing Christ.
The post-conciliar reforms sought to distinguish the different moments of the celebration. Physically this was done by giving each element its own place in the sanctuary. Thus, the ambo was restored as the place for the Liturgy of the Word, and the freestanding altar was made the visible focus of the sanctuary, at least during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The tabernacle, although now separated from the altar, retained its prominence as the center of attention for public and private prayer outside of Mass. Thus, the GIRM affirms:
“296. The altar, on which is effected the Sacrifice of the Cross made present under sacramental signs, is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is convoked to participate in the Mass, and it is also the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist. […]
“298. It is desirable that in every church there be a fixed altar, since this more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Pt 2:4; cf. Eph 2:20). In other places set aside for sacred celebrations, the altar may be movable. An altar is said to be fixed if it is so constructed as to be attached to the floor and not removable; it is said to be movable if it can be displaced.
“299. The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar should usually be fixed and dedicated.”
The doctrine that the altar is Christ is found in several Fathers of the Church. For example, in his work “De Sacramentis,” St. Ambrose (339-397) presents it as something obvious saying, “For what is the altar but the type of the body of Christ?” (Book V, 7)
Consequentially, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the Christian altar is the symbol of Christ himself, present in the midst of the assembly of his faithful” (No. 1383).
Finally, this doctrine is underlined in the U.S. bishops’ conference document on church buildings, “Built of Living Stones”:
“56. At the Eucharist, the liturgical assembly celebrates the ritual sacrificial meal that recalls and makes present Christ's life, death, and resurrection, proclaiming ‘the death of the Lord until he comes.’ The altar is ‘the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes’ and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed. Since the Church teaches that ‘the altar is Christ,’ its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it ‘signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.’”
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