|ROME, 31 JAN. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Our question is on the proper sense given, by the liturgy, to the
word "purification" in the rite of "purifying" the sacred vessels after
Communion. Why it is called "purification" since those vessels never
been more "pure" than when they contained the sacred Body and Blood of
Our Lord Jesus Christ?
V.M., Mexico City
A: This is one of those moments when the tyranny of language can reduce
us to desperation.
The dictionary suggests three possible meanings of the word
"purification" which derives from the late Latin "purificare," to
cleanse, from "purus" (pure) + "facere" (to make).
The three possible meanings are:
1) to free (something) of extraneous, contaminating, or debasing matter.
2) to free (a person, etc.) from sin or guilt.
3) to make clean, as in a ritual, esp. the churching of women after
The rite of purification is most closely associated with the third
acceptation of ritual cleansing, which does not necessarily imply a
state of moral impurity. Thus on Feb. 2 we also recall the ritual
purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary without implying any state of
impurity on her part.
The function of the rite is to assure that all fragments and traces of
Christ's Body and Blood are reverently consumed and the sacred vessels
are duly prepared for further use. This rite is also sometimes referred
to as the ablutions or ritual washing.
The linguistic difficulty that arises with the word "purification" would
probably end up being associated with any alternative. Even a common
expression such as the cleansing of the vessels (which is basically
synonymous to purification) raises the objection that the vessels were
somehow rendered unclean by the presence of the sacred species.
If we were to refer to the washing of the vessels the expression would
be inaccurate as some vessels, such as the paten, are not washed at all.
In the end we are probably better off retaining the venerable word
"purification" as any alternative will end up equally intractable.
* * *
Follow-up: How to Understand Purification [02-14-2006]
We received some very enlightening comments and questions after our
remarks on the rite of purification (Jan. 31).
Before embarking on this theme I wish to mark an oversight on my part
which a reader from Melbourne, Australia, kindly pointed out to me and
which obliges me to revise my former reply.
The reader wrote: "Regarding the question on First Communion from an
Extraordinary Minister you made no mention of the 2004 instruction 'Redemptionis
Sacramentum,' which has: '[87.] ... Moreover First Communion should
always be administered by a Priest and never outside the celebration of
Mass.' Does this change your answer of Jan. 31, that it is OK for an
extraordinary minister to administer the chalice at a first Communion?"
Well, it certainly strengthens my overall argument against the practice
which inspired the original column.
It is not totally clear if this text would specifically forbid an
extraordinary minister from administering the chalice after the child
has received the Body of Christ. I would opine that it does, because,
although Christ is received whole and entire under either species, if
Communion is given under both kinds then it is the whole rite that
encompasses the act of first Communion and not just the reception under
the species of bread.
An extraordinary minister could hold the chalice for the priest if
Communion under both kinds is given by intinction (by dipping the Host
into the Precious Blood).
Returning to purification, a Marquette, Michigan, reader asked: "Could
you describe the correct way vessels should be purified." We addressed
this topic in some detail in a follow-up on Feb. 8, 2005.
A priest from San Francisco commented: "Is it true that pouring an equal
amount, or more, of water into the chalice renders the consecrated wine
in the chalice unconsecrated? If this is so
and I would say that it must be because the sign of the sacrament is
wine, and not totally diluted wine
does this change the rules for purification? In other words, can what is
in the chalice, if it is no longer consecrated, be poured down an
ordinary sink, or does it need to be poured into the ground if not
It is true that Christ's sacramental presence would cease should excess
water (or even unconsecrated wine) be added to the Precious Blood. This
is in conformity with the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas as we mentioned
in another follow-up last July 5.
However, this is not a respectful way of treating the sacred species and
could even be considered as a sacrilegious act.
In conformity with liturgical norms, the Precious Blood must be consumed
in its proper state at the altar before the purification rites begin. If
the quantity is too much for the priest and deacon to consume
personally, the extraordinary ministers of holy Communion may assist in
doing so immediately after finishing their ministry.
As "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 107, says: "Furthermore all will
remember that once the distribution of Holy Communion during the
celebration of Mass has been completed, the prescriptions of the Roman
Missal are to be observed, and in particular, whatever may remain of the
Blood of Christ must be entirely and immediately consumed by the Priest
or by another minister, according to the norms."
Finally, another priest from Bishopton, Scotland, offered some
interesting observations on the word "purification" which I will share
with our readers. He wrote:
"On purification perhaps I can shed a little light as the answer given
is, I think, inadequate! The word is a challenging one at first but
perhaps this will help. In the ancient world the great division
recognized in culture (even pre-Christian) is the gap between the sacred
and the profane.
"This gap cannot be bridged easily or casually
the crossing of it is always marked and a special caste (e.g. priests)
was necessary for this. Objects too, if they were used in both spheres,
have to go through a process too
it's called purification.
"If your chalice (simply a word for cup in its original Latin form
is used for both sacred (Mass) and profane (drinking at a meal) uses
(and this was not uncommon in the earliest days of the church
our understanding of the Real Presence and associated devotions and
careful cleansing being a later part of our history) we must mark this.
Chalices were thereafter purified before their use in Mass (hence 'purus-facere')
but to mark their return to profane use they were also subject to a
the same one.
"This helps us understand why women were purified after childbirth. It
was not that they needed to be cleansed, but that they had been involved
in a sacred process
bearing children (the result of procreation
participating in God's work of creation); their moving back into the
mundane or secular ('profane,' if you like) had to be marked, hence
their 'churching.' This reminds us of the very positive and profoundly
spiritual nature of this process and rite. I hope this helps!"