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Purification by a Deacon at Credence Table

Date: July 3, 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.

Question: It is a custom in many dioceses in the United States for the celebrant to sit down after the distribution of Communion, while the deacon purifies the sacred vessels at the altar. Yet there is a note from the USCCB newsletter indicating that, if the vessels are purified during Mass at the altar (if not done at the credence table), then the deacon cannot purify them at the altar (see Page 15 of the attached document). In places where it is the custom for the vessels to be purified during Mass – and this is usually at daily Mass with smaller congregations – I usually purify at the altar while the deacon is at my side, who then hands the vessels to the servers and dresses the chalice with the veil, etc. Do you have any thoughts? -- G.S., Denver, Colorado 

Answer: It must be said that the position of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's newsletter correctly interprets the universal norms as found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). 

GIRM, No. 163, which describes Mass without a deacon, says the following:

“When the distribution of Communion is finished, the priest himself immediately and completely consumes at the altar any consecrated wine that happens to remain; as for any consecrated hosts that are left, he either consumes them at the altar or carries them to the place designated for the reservation of the Eucharist.

“Upon returning to the altar, the priest collects any fragments that may remain. Then, standing at the altar or at the credence table, he purifies the paten or ciborium over the chalice, then purifies the chalice, saying quietly: Quod ore sumpsimus (Lord, may I receive), and dries the chalice with a purificator. 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.”

Thus, the purification by the priest may be carried out either at the altar or at the credence table, immediately following communion or after Mass is over.

When a deacon is present, however, GIRM, No. 183, says:

“When the distribution of Communion is over, the Deacon returns to the altar with the Priest, collects the fragments, should any remain, and then carries the chalice and other sacred vessels to the credence table, where he purifies them and arranges them as usual, while the Priest returns to the chair. Nevertheless, it is also permitted to leave vessels needing to be purified on a corporal, suitably covered, on the credence table, and to purify them immediately after Mass, following the Dismissal of the people.”

There are two questions involved: Where does the purification take place? And who should do the purification?

Although the above norms allow for the possibility of the priest purifying the sacred vessels upon the altar, there would appear to be a preference for purification at the credence table either after communion or after Mass.

The overall intention would seem to be that the rites of purification should be as brief and unobtrusive as possible. Therefore, in such situations where the priest has only to purify one or two vessels such as the chalice and paten, doing so at the altar is probably the briefest route. However, if there is a deacon, the norm is clear that he should always use the credence table.

This is a deliberate change with respect to the previous norm in the 1970s missal in which the equivalent rubric to GIRM 163 foresaw that the deacon purified at one side of the altar. This often meant drawing attention to the purification by opening up a new corporal and moving the vessels, first to the side for purification, and then to the credence table. The new norm simplifies the process so that the time after communion can be primarily dedicated to silence and prayer.

Second, who should do the purification? Again, the norms are clear. If there is a deacon, it falls to him to carry out this function so that the priest can immediately proceed to the chair and lead the faithful in silent thanksgiving.

If there is no deacon, but an instituted acolyte has served the Mass or assisted in the distribution of Communion, then in the light of GIRM 192 it would be incumbent on this acolyte to purify the sacred vessels at the credence table.

Only in the absence of either deacon or instituted acolyte should the priest purify the sacred vessels whether at the altar or at the credence table.

Hence, both the custom of the deacon purifying at the altar or of the priest purifying in the presence of a deacon does not correspond to the general norms of the Church and should be changed to conform to the universal norms.

The above norms, however, are geared toward normal situations and churches. There may be occasional exceptions based on the reality of concrete circumstances. For example, if a priest and deacon had to celebrate in a small chapel lacking a suitable credence table, the deacon could purify on the altar. Likewise, if a priest and deacon were to celebrate in places where there may be no chair, such as some altars of the Roman catacombs, he could opt to purify the vessels himself as space is limited.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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