One often hears about the communion paten and how it protects the sacred particles. The optional use of the communion paten for a long time has been a source of distress to many, and one of the accusations is that it leads to irreverence against the Sacred Particles.
Bearing that in mind (not totally without merit), I found this article, written in 1917 quite interesting as it examines it from that perspective, espousing the opposite view. I, at least, somehow expected it to support the "protect and preserve the Particle" view, so it was quite surprising in that regard.
The Congregation of Rites would later rule in 1922 and 1929 that the use of the communion cloth was obligatory and could not simply be replaced by the paten. This remained in force until 1962 when the rubrics of the Missal only mentioned the paten and not the cloth, leading to a disagreement as to whether the cloth was mandatory any longer.
The issue of purification that the author raises is quite interesting: in all the Catholic (ordinary rite) churches I have visited, the communion paten has always been used. In India it was purified over the priest’s chalice or into the ciborium and here it is purified over the finger bowl.
Some of the author’s arguments may definitely seem to have flaws - for example, the handling of a paten - IMO he seemingly presumes it to be consecrated, and there is nothing that forbids the handling of unconsecrated patens. But nonethless, the article is very interesting.
Omnibus quidem Ecclesiae Catholicae sacramenta religiose sancteque tractandis magna ac diligens cura adhibenda est : sed praecipue in administrando ac suscipiendo Sanctissimae Eucharistiae Sacramento, quo nihil dignius, nihil sanctius et admirabilius habet Ecclesia Dei ; cum in eo contineatur praecipium tt maximum Dei donum, et ipsemet omnis gratiae et sanctitatis fons auctorque, Christus Dominus.
Rituale Romanum, Tit. IV, cap. I, n. I.
If all the sacraments, which were instituted by the Divine Redeemer, are holy beyond question, with what supreme care and reverence is the Blessed Eucharist especially to be administered and received! While ever insisting on this, the Church has varied her discipline in regard to the manner of administering Holy Communion. It is not our purpose to speak of Holy Communion under both Species. The early Christians received the Blessed Eucharist standing, as does the celebrant at present, the left hand supporting the right and constituting, as it were, a throne for the King of Kings, since the Sacred Particle was placed in the palm of the communicant, who conveyed it reverently to the mouth. This custom of placing the Sacred Species in the hand afforded Tertullian, Chrysostom, Ambrose, and others a forceful argument in urging Christians to keep their hands free from idolatry, murder, rapine, extortion, and other vices, since those hands must touch the Body of the Lord.
Men continued to receive the Body of Christ in the bare hand, while before the close of the sixth century women in some places covered the hand with a white cloth. This practice among women does not seem to have been ancient or universal. Confusion in this matter arose among historians owing to the twofold meaning of the word dominicale, the use of which by women was insisted on by the Fathers and various councils. Dominicale in most cases was a covering for the head which women, in keeping with the rule of the Apostle, were obliged to wear at divine service ("ad dominica"), but was misunderstood as signifying a napkin or veil with which the hand was covered in receiving Holy Communion.
The Greek Fathers are silent in regard to any custom of covering the hand in receiving Holy Communion, while the censure of the Trullan Synod would apparently apply to linen, as well as to other materials. This council, famous in history, which was held in Constantinople in 692, reprehends in canons 100 and 101 the custom which had sprung up of receiving the Sacred Particle, not with the hand, but on a disc or plate of gold or other costly material. The council insists that man, or his hand, is more precious than fine gold.
How long the custom of giving the Blessed Eucharist into the hands of communicants prevailed cannot be precisely determined. St. Gregory the Great (Dialogus III, c. 3.) asserts that Pope Agapetus (535-536) placed the Sacred Particle in the mouth of a certain dumb and lame man. The express mention of the Blessed Sacrament being placed in the mouth would indicate that the general practice was otherwise. A council held at Rouen, the date of which is placed at 650 by some, by others at about 880, strictly prohibited priests from placing the Eucharist in the hands of any person, male or female, prescribing that it be put in the mouth : "Nulli autem laico aut foeminae Eucharistiam in manibus ponant (presbyteri), sed tantum in os ejus." This rite of placing the Sacred Species on the tongue, which probably originated in a desire to protect the Blessed Sacrament from profane or superstitious uses, became in time the universal rule of the Church. It is impossible, however, to state with any degree of certainty when the rite of placing the Host on the tongue of communicants became general. It seems to have been practically so in the tenth century, though there are not wanting at a much later period isolated examples of the old regime.
The Church, ever mindful of the sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament, has never been wanting in guarding the same. From the very beginning precautions were taken to prevent the Sacred Particles from falling to the floor. Tertullian and other ancient writers mention the use of a plate or paten (scutella, tabella) in receiving the Blessed Eucharist. Modern liturgists, however, are of the opinion that this plate was employed by the faithful not at Holy Communion, but in carrying the Sacred Species to their homes. The tradition of the Roman Church points to the use of a linen cloth (not metal of any sort) at Holy Communion. The purpose of this cloth was to receive the Sacred Particles which might fall from the hand of the priest. The present regulations of the Church embody the Roman practice of old. The Missal requires that a linen cloth or white veil be extended before those who are to receive Holy Communion : "Interim minister ante eos extendit linteum, seu velum album." The Ritual insists on a clean linen cloth for this purpose: "et ante eos linteo mundo extenso." Neither is the Caeremoniale Episcoporum silent on this point, as it demands a white cloth ("mantile album") for Communion. Let us add in passing that the Pontificale in the rubrics for the ordination of a priest (singular form) speaks of a mappula to be used at the Communion of the newly ordained. Positive law then, as well as the usage of centuries, requires that the laity in receiving Holy Communion hold a linen cloth between themselves and the ministering priest. Custom tolerates a card or small square of linen, instead of a cloth, at altars where communions are not numerous or frequent.
But what is the precise purpose of this linen cloth or card? The Church nowhere expressly defines for us her intention in this matter. We must consequently resort to reasoning, if we would ascertain her purpose. It is certain that the linen cloth was introduced to catch the whole Host or a considerable part of it, were it to fall from the priest's hand. But was it intended likewise to receive under similar circumstances the minute and scarcely discernible particles that might become detached from the Host ?
We believe not, and for the following reasons. What does the Church prescribe in regard to the care of the communion cloth or card when not in actual use? Nothing, absolutely nothing. The cloth usually remains attached to the sanctuary railing, while the card is left on the credence table. This has ever been the custom in Rome and elsewhere. Not the slightest indication is found in any rubric, nor is there given by any liturgist a suggestion that the communion cloth or card should be purified no hint that the minute particles that may have lodged thereon are to be specially cared for. If the purpose of the cloth or card were to preserve these minute particles, the Church would have determined specifically the place and manner of caring for it.
Centuries have elapsed since this linen came into use. The practice of leaving it unpurified, attached to the sanctuary railing or on the credence table, is universal. The Church has never insisted on any special attention being shown it. Liturgists, authors, writers are equally silent on this matter, though they are most specific in regard to the reverence due to the Blessed Eucharist, and the diligent care necessary in administering the Sacred Species. Must we not conclude that the purpose of the communion cloth or card is not to receive atoms or minute particles that are barely visible? Accept the contrary opinion, and nothing is left except to accuse the Church (God forbid!) of irreverence toward the Adorable Body of Christ, as well as of inconsistency: of irreverence, since she would thus tolerate the loss of Sacred Species; of inconsistency, since she would, in the hypothesis, be solicitous of gathering on the card or cloth these minute particles, and then entertain no further thought of them. Granted that fragments from the consecrated Host do fall on the communion cloth, we contend, we must contend, that the Church does in this matter what is proper or fitting, and omits or does not do what is improper or unfitting. A rock of wisdom, a universal and wise teacher, she could not do otherwise. It is fitting that the Church should zealously care for the whole consecrated Host or any considerable portion of it: hence the linen cloth. It is unfitting that she should be over solicitous for dust-like atoms that are scarcely discernible; unfitting, we hold, not on account of the particles in themselves, since we believe with the Angelic Doctor tantum esse sub fragmento quantum toto tegitur, but because of the difficulty of distinguishing them and consequently of attributing to them proper adoration.
We do not deny that small particles from the consecrated Host may, or even do, fall on the communion cloth, but this is not a frequent occurrence, when the hosts are properly made and the fragments removed therefrom before they are placed in the ciborium. We do maintain that not any great number of the atoms found on the communion cloth are Sacred Species. Did you never see a dense column of atoms dancing in the sunbeams that penetrated the sanctuary ? Though not always visible they are always present. If not all, at least nearly all, the particles on the communion cloth come from the floor, the air, the clothing, the head ("ne dicam de naso et de ore") of the communicants. Who can distinguish the Sacred Species from this foreign matter? Shall we adore particles of dust and dandruff? The Church does not demand what is impossible or improper. How wise she is in not conceding adoration to doubtful or uncertain objects!
There are, however, certain rubrics that pertain to the care of fragments of the Sacred Host. Thus in the Missal we read: "Accipit (celebrans) patenam, inspicit corporale, colligit fragmenta cum patena, si quae sint in eo : patenam quoque cum pollice et indice dexterae manus super calicem extergit et ipsos digitos, ne quid fragmentorum in eis remaneat." Note the words "inspicit corporale, colligit fragmenta, si quae sint in eo." The purifying of the corporal is not strictly speaking prescribed. The corporal is to be examined. If any particles are noticed, they must be gathered up with the paten. Fragments or particles of the Sacred Species, not starch or lint from the corporal, are to be put into the chalice. Excessive solicitude in looking for particles on the corporal is not necessary. It would open the way to scruples, were it required.
The paten, on the contrary, must be carefully purified, as well as the fingers that have been employed in so doing. In this there is nothing impossible, nothing unfitting. Recall that the paten is cleansed with the purificator after the Pater noster, immediately before the Host is placed upon it. There is question here consequently neither of extraneous matter nor so much of atoms from the circumference of the Host, but rather from the broken or divided Host which has rested on the paten. Small particles may have become detached from these rough edges.
Again, a rubric of the Missal says : "Si Particulae positae erant super corporale, extergit (celebrans) illud cum patena, et si quae in eo fuerint fragmenta, in calicem immittit." Another rubric, similar to the above, but referring to large Hosts, is as follows : "Si vero adsint Hostiae consecratae super corporale positae pro alio tempore conservandae, facta prius genuflectione, reponit eas in vas ad hoc ordinatum, et diligenter advertit, ne aliquod fragmentum, quantumcumque minimum, remaneat super corporale; quod si fuerit, accurate reponit in calicem." Here too there is no room for scruples or anxiety. We are not commanded to search for particles. Consecrated Hosts, large or small, have rested on the corporal. It is possible that some fragments may have become detached. If this be the case, they must be cared for. There is no uncertainty or doubt as to the nature of these particles.
One other rubric of the Missal has some bearing on the subject before us: "Si Hostia consecrata, vel aliqua ejus particula dilabatur, et locus ubi cecidit mundetur et aliquantulum abradatur, et pulvis seu abrasio hujusmodi in sacrarium immittitur. Si cediderit extra corporale in mappam, seu alio quovis modo in aliquod linteum, mappa vel linteum hujusmodi diligenter lavetur et lotio ipsa in sacrarium effundatur." This rubric cannot refer to minute particles. The particles in question must be large enough to be seen and handled, since they are to be picked up reverently.
All the rubrics quoted may be easily observed, and in their observance we are not exposed to the danger of false adoration. Here too we are dealing with positive prescriptions. The case is far different from that of the communion cloth. Let us add moreover that any cloth, other than the corporal, on which a notable particle fall, as stated above, must be washed. You will look in vain for any similar regulation relating specifically to the communion cloth or card. But does not the rubric quoted refer to any cloth and hence also to the communion cloth or card on which the Sacred Species may fall? It does, according to many liturgists, while others are of the contrary opinion. Be this as it may, the rubric leaves untouched the question of minute, dust-like, scarcely discernible particles.
Basing our judgment then on the Missal, Ritual, and Ceremonial of Bishops, on the almost universal practice of not purifying the communion card (not to speak of the cloth), on the improprieties that arise from the purification of the same, on the silence of the Church and liturgical writers, we are convinced that the purpose of the communion cloth or card is not to preserve minute particles of the Sacred Species, but merely to receive the whole Host or any considerable portion thereof, should it fall from the hands of the celebrant. But are we not guilty of profanation, when we know that such minute particles of the Sacred Species have fallen, and we do nothing? Let it suffice to be in the company of Ambrose, Chrysostom, Gregory, Thomas, and other saints, who leave these atoms to the custody of angels, since it is morally impossible for priests to care for them. Recall with Quarti : "Saepius a Deo permitti ex malitia vel negligentia humana irreverenter tractari Eucharistiae sacramentum ; quae tamen injuriae in diem ultionis a Deo reservantur puniendae, et in majorem Christi gloriam convertendae : sed dicimus, ubi non se immiscet malitia hominum eas praecaveri ab angelis."
Surely the Church must do all that is morally possible to preserve the Sacred Particles. But cannot this be better effected by substituting for the communion cloth a metal disc or paten? Thus will the priest be enabled more readily to discern and to care for the Sacred Particles. Does not this argument rest on a false supposition, namely that the purpose of the plate or disc is that the fragments may be more easily seen and preserved? The purpose of the communion plate can be none other than that of the communion cloth, and this is not to receive minute particles. The plate is passed from one to another, either by the communicants themselves or by the server. By what right do they touch it, if it contain Sacred Particles? It is brought close to the person; many communicants are in the habit of kissing it; particles from various sources settle upon it. Yes, we are ready to grant that the eye may more easily detect particles on a burnished or gilded surface than on a linen cloth, but is it easier to discern which of those particles are Sacred Species and which are not?
You will admit nevertheless that precious metal is more fitting for the purpose than linen. Even the Church requires that in Solemn Masses and in Masses celebrated by certain prelates, the celebrants paten be held by the deacon or assistant before cleric or lay communicants. Let us answer that the Church is satisfied with a linen corporal, on which the Adorable Body of Christ rests for a considerable portion of the Mass.
Communicants are not allowed to touch the paten much less to kiss it. The communion cloth or card is used together with the paten. The paten consequently is employed for solemnity and not out of necessity. It is not necessarily Held under the chin of the communicant. It suffices to hold it under the celebrant's 'hand. Lastly the rubrics do not pre- scribe that the paten be purified after having been thus used.
But if I prefer the plate may I not use it? Several years ago the following query was put to the Sacred Congregation of Rites: "An in ministranda fidelibus Sacra Communio liceat loco tobalearum uti tabellis ex metallo, vel hujusmodi usus tolerari possit in his dioecesibus in quibus fuit introductus?" Under date of 20 March, 1875, the Sacred Congregation answered: "Non esse interloquendum : nihilominus significetur per epistolam Rmo. D. Episcopo Alexandriae non esse improbandum usum tobalearum linearum." Thus far has Rome gone and no farther. The plate is tolerated, but not recommended. The Congregation is careful to state that the use of the plate may not be imposed upon us. Furthermore, a search for the above decree in the Authentic Collection of the Decrees of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, issued in 1898, will prove fruitless. Nevertheless the decree of 1875 retains what little force it had when issued. Thus the Cardinal Vicar of Rome in his official instructions in 1904 for the canonical visitation of the city says: "The communion plate is barely tolerated ('E appeno tollerato il piattino metallico)," but it must be highly polished and kept in a case.
The Sacred Congregation of Rites was not asked in regard to the purification or custody of the communion plate. What will the priest, who still wishes to use it, do with the particles that he finds upon it? There is no law obliging him to put them into the chalice. Is he free to do so? Realize what this implies, realize the worship due to the Blessed Sacrament, realize what these fragments or particles are and whence most of them come, and explain, if you can, any liberty or option in this matter. To put these particles into the chalice and consume them is irreverent and nauseous. To purify the communion plate into the ciborium would beget additional difficulties on which we need not dwell.
If, in conclusion, you still desire to use the communion plate, do not put it in the tabernacle or otherwise treat it as you would a vessel which contains the Blessed Sacrament. Do not purify it into the chalice or ciborium. This the rubrics do not allow, and there are other grave reasons for not so doing. At most it may be purified into the glass of water, which serves for cleansing the priest's fingers, and the contents of which are later poured into the sacrarium. Ita scrupulosis tranquillitas. Finally, is there any well founded reason for not using a communion cloth? The Church is satisfied with it, prescribes it in fact. Ask communicants if it is not a distraction at a solemn moment to be obliged to pass the card to their neighbor. Ask them if it is not a greater annoyance to have the server, while holding it, stare into their face. Where, moreover, is your authority for permitting the server to hold it? The rubrics are ample for all occasions. Why then introduce regulations of our own making?
A. B. MEEHAN.
I should add that some of the items in these costumes, for dressing boys up like prelates and little clerics, were forbidden by the Sacred Congregation of Rites
An praeter vestes liturgicas quae competunt vel conceduntur clericis, scilicet vestem talarem nigram, vel rubram, superpelliceum seu cottam . . . liceat istis pueris, qui clericos supplent, induere alia indumenta liturgica, videlicet albam pro superpelliceo seu cottam? cingulum? birettum rubrum? mozettam rubram vel alius colons? chirotecas?
Resp. Negative (S. C. 9 Julii 1859 Petrocoren. ad 2).
Published in August, 2007