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More on Purification of Vessels

Date: July 10, 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: This is a follow-up to the question-and-answer last week regarding deacons purifying vessels at the altar or credence table. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 183, was referenced in your response. I wonder if the 2004 instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum could also inform the answer, though I know it pre-dates the GIRM. It offers more precision and clarity in handling this question vs. the GIRM. The GIRM 183 references that a deacon purifies the vessels at the credence table, but the priest can do it at the altar. Redemptionis Sacramentum, No. 119, says, "The Priest, once he has returned to the altar after the distribution of Communion, standing at the altar or at the credence table, purifies the paten or ciborium over the chalice, then purifies the chalice in accordance with the prescriptions of the Missal and wipes the chalice with the purificator. Where a Deacon is present, he returns with the Priest to the altar and purifies the vessels. It is permissible, however, especially if there are several vessels to be purified, to leave them, covered as may be appropriate, on a corporal on the altar or on the credence table, and for them to be purified by the Priest or Deacon immediately after Mass once the people have been dismissed. Moreover, a duly instituted acolyte assists the Priest or Deacon in purifying and arranging the sacred vessels either at the altar or the credence table. In the absence of a Deacon, a duly instituted acolyte carries the sacred vessels to the credence table and there purifies, wipes and arranges them in the usual way." This instruction allows for a deacon to purify at the altar. One argument I've heard about doing so at the credence table is to avoid a distraction during this time with purifying many vessels, but there are those who propose the purifying, done reverently, is a beautiful witness to the reality of our Lord’s presence with each drop of Blood and fragment of the consecrated Host. I don't know that the GIRM accounts for the possibility of minimal vessels at the altar vs. situations where several are used. At my parish, there is typically the paten, chalice and ciborium. Another argument is ensuring a distinction of the ministry of the priest and of the deacon. That should be evident in the various ways they function at Mass, most significantly the priest is praying the prayers of consecration while the deacon is on his knees. – G.P., Ann Arbor, Michigan

Answer: In my original answer, I was aware of what the 2004 instruction says but decided to leave aside any mention of this as I felt it would confuse the issue.

First, some clarification regarding dates: The GIRM was first promulgated in 2000, before the publication of the missal, and then definitively issued with some modifications when the missal was published in 2002 and with some minor corrections in 2006. It thus predates Redemptionis Sacramentum, which is from 2004, so this document takes its cue from the GIRM.

Second, it is necessary to understand the legal nature of the two documents. The GIRM is the higher or basic law and the reference point for other documents.

An instruction is not a new law but rather a regulatory document that explains and details how the law is to be applied in certain circumstances. It cannot, however, change the basic law. If the legislator wishes to change a basic law such as the GIRM, he must either issue a new law that replaces the old law in its entirety or issue a decree which permanently modifies a specific article.

Thus, I do not believe it is correct to deduce that Redemptionis Sacramentum allows the deacon to purify at the altar -- for the simple reason that it lacks the authority to modify the GIRM.

Also, the instruction presumes the text of the GIRM. While it adds some details regarding the purification in a succinct text, it remains silent on what is already clear in the GIRM and requires no further explanation.

I believe that it is very clear that the GIRM’s specification of the deacon’s purification at the credence table, and the overall preference of using the credence table for the purification, even by the priest, is quite deliberate.

The 2002 GIRM removed all mention of the norm in the 1975 GIRM, No. 120, that the purification is carried out “at the side of the altar,” and added new instructions regarding using the credence table in most cases.

I believe that the time after communion is best used for prayer, reflection, and thanksgiving. While the purification rites should be done with care and reverence, I think it unnecessary to use them to emphasize out faith in Christ’s real presence, which is more than satisfactorily manifested in far more significant rites during the body of the celebration such as showing the host and chalice at the consecration and proclaiming the “Lamb of God.”

Likewise, the Mass is not primarily centered on the doctrine of the real presence but on the realization of the most holy sacrifice. The real presence is, of course, essential, but Christ is present in the sacred species above all in view of the realization of the sacrifice; the redemptive sacrifice is the center of the faith. Having received Communion, we should place all of our attention on the reality of having had the privilege of participating in the sacrifice.

There are other moments, such as during Eucharistic adoration, in which we worthily exalt the substantial presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

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