ROME, 17 JULY 2007 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father
Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum
Q: Does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) stipulate
that the use of a new corporal on the altar at each Mass celebration is
no longer needed? I see that a corporal is placed on the altar at some
parishes for a week or more before changing it. I always thought the
purpose of this cloth was to take proper care of any particles of Jesus'
body that might fall from the hands or ciborium or paten. If this is the
case, then I think proper care should be taken of the cloth and crumbs
at the end of each Mass, and not have it lie there for a week, just
accumulating more particles or crumbs. With all the care that a priest
might take, the host particles on the white cloth is not always noted —
I have learned this from sacristan duties. —
E.M., Bridgewater, Virginia
A: The corporal is a square piece of linen or other fine fabric
sometimes starched so as to be fairly firm. It is customarily folded
into nine sections and hence stored flat. A larger corporal or more than
one corporal may be required for concelebrations and other solemn
Before use, the corporal is usually left on top of the chalice and,
while no longer obligatory, it may be kept in a flat, square case called
Before the present reform, hosts were placed directly upon the corporal
and although this is rarely the case today, as our reader points out, it
may gather any fragments that fall from the host during the celebration
although these mostly fall into either the ciborium or chalice.
The GIRM mentions the corporal in several places, first of all in
describing the preparation of the gifts, in No. 73: "[T]he Lord's table,
which is the center of the whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared
by placing on it the corporal, purificator, Missal, and chalice."
No. 118 says that the corporal should be on the credence table before
Mass. Other indications require that a chalice or ciborium should be
placed on a corporal whenever it is left on the altar or credence table
With respect to our reader's queries, it would appear that in her parish
they follow the bad habit of leaving the corporal unfolded upon the
altar between Masses and even for days on end. The norms require that
the corporal be unfolded during the presentation of gifts and properly
folded again after Communion.
All the same, extra corporals may be placed on the altar before
especially solemn Masses in which more sacred vessels are used than can
fit on the corporal directly in front of the priest.
The GIRM does not require a new corporal for each Mass, it is sufficient
for the corporal to be opened and folded with due care to avoid any
mishaps. For this reason a corporal should be opened one section at a
time while lying flat and never shook open.
A corporal is washed in the same manner as a purificator although less
frequently. It is first soaked in water; this water is then poured
either down a sacrarium or directly upon the earth. Afterward, the
corporal may be washed in a normal fashion.
* * *
Follow-up: On Changing the Corporal [8-21-2007]
Several readers wrote for further clarifications regarding the proper
use of the corporal (July 17).
A deacon commented: "I often find particles remaining on the corporal
after Mass. This is a concern to me, because the corporal is left on the
altar, and then the book of the Gospels is placed on top of the corporal
... so I always clear any particles, some which can be substantial in
size, from the corporal before or after Mass. Your response to the
initial question on corporals indicates that the corporal may be folded
up, and set aside to be reused at a later Mass. Presumably, the corporal
would thus sit in a cabinet in the sacristy until the next Mass. But,
if, in fact, particles are remaining in the folded-up corporal, as is
often the case, it does not seem that a cabinet or other storage drawer
is the proper place to leave the Eucharist. Of course, it is better than
leaving the corporal on the altar ... but if the purpose of a corporal
is to 'catch' particles of the host, then why would we not treat those
particles with the same care as we do the particles which remain in the
vessels we purify?"
Any visible fragments remaining on the corporal should be removed and
placed in the chalice for purification. Yet, liturgical practice has
generally considered that the careful folding and opening of the
corporal is sufficient and that no disrespect is shown by carefully
keeping the corporal in the sacristy.
Until recently, however, between Masses the corporal used at the
Eucharistic celebration was enclosed in a special holder called a burse
out of respect and this custom may be maintained.
With respect to its care, Trimeloni's preconciliar 1,000-page compendium
of practical liturgical norms recommended a monthly wash for corporals —
and that at a time when hosts were placed directly upon the corporal
Another reader asked about the correct way of folding a corporal. Here I
defer to the indications provided by Monsignor (now Bishop) Peter J.
Elliott in his practical ceremonies manual:
"a. Take the corporal (from the burse, if used) with your right hand,
and place it flat at the center of the altar, still folded,
approximately 15 cm. (5 inches) from the edge of the altar, or further
if a large corporal is being unfolded.
"b. Unfold it, first to your left, then to your right, thus revealing
"c. Unfold the section farthest from you, away from yourself, thus
making six squares visible.
"d. Finally, unfold the crease that is nearest to you, towards yourself,
thus making all nine squares visible. Adjust the corporal so that it is
about 3 cm. (an inch) from the edge of the altar.
"If there is a cross embroidered on one of the outer center squares,
move the corporal around so that the cross is nearest to you.
"Although Hosts no longer rest directly on the corporal, it is still
useful in the event that fragments may fall on it at the fraction or
during the purifications, etc. Therefore, never flick a corporal open or
shake it open in midair. Such an action would also show a lack of
respect for the most sacred altar linen, which must always be used
wherever a Mass is celebrated.
"To fold a corporal, reverse the above steps. Therefore fold the front
three squares away from you, then fold the back three squares towards
you and finally bring the right square and the left square onto the
remaining central square to complete the process.
"If the corporal is brought to the altar in a burse, this may be placed
flat, traditionally on the left of the corporal, away from the place
where the missal rests. But it may be more conveniently placed on the
right of the corporal, or a server may take it back to the credence
table. When Mass is celebrated facing the altar, the empty burse
traditionally rests upright against a candlestick or gradine (altar
shelf), to the left of the corporal."