|ROME, 16 AUG. 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward
McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical
Q: A certain parish uses cut-to-size plexiglass covers on both the
free-standing altar and the high altar as a means of preserving the
white altar cloths from wax, burn holes and other stains. The plexiglass
completely covers the mensa and altar cloth on both. A corporal is
unfolded on top of this plexiglass at the preparation of the gifts. Is
the use of such a plexiglass cover on top of the altar cloth
permissible? I thought that nothing that is not necessary for the
offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is meant to be placed on top
— C.B., Dearborn, Michigan. Q: Since the burse has fallen out of
use, is it permissible to leave a corporal on the altar at all times or
must it be taken to the sacristy after each celebration of the
— H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts
A: The use of the altar cloth is addressed in No. 304 of the General
Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
"Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and
for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on
an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one
white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's
design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other
cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be
of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance
according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth
covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in
From this it is fairly clear that the liturgical norms require a white
cloth and not a plexiglass covering upon the altar for the celebration.
I suppose there is no great difficulty in placing plexiglass or other
transparent materials in the area beneath wax candles, just as it is
quite common to place another cloth over the altar cloth outside of the
celebration so as to protect it from dust and insects.
Regarding the question on the corporal, it is true that the burse (a
case to hold the folded corporal usually covered with cloth matching the
liturgical color of the day and usually forming a set with the chalice
veil) has fallen out of use in many places although the use of the veil
at least is still recommended.
The dropping of the burse probably arose from the liturgical reform.
The previous liturgical practice had the celebrant bring the veiled
chalice with him as he approached the altar and he himself took the
corporal from the burse and unfolded it at the beginning of Mass.
The present liturgy no longer reserves this task to the priest but
entrusts it to the deacon or acolyte at the moment of the preparation of
the gifts as specified in GIRM, No. 73.
In the former liturgy the altar breads for consecration were often
placed directly upon the corporal
hence the name "corporal" as it held Christ's body. Even though this
practice is rare today, as hosts are usually placed in a ciborium, the
corporal conserves its role as the most important of all the altar
linens: All that is to be consecrated should be placed upon a corporal
and some tiny fragments may yet fall upon the corporal during the
Likewise, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed or otherwise removed
from the tabernacle it should always be laid upon a corporal.
In virtue of the special role of the corporal it is incorrect to
habitually leave it upon the altar where it can be easily soiled. If the
burse is not used it may be placed folded on top of the chalice pall.
The corporal should be unfolded carefully one section at a time and
never shook open. It should be folded with equal care during the
On some occasions, such as large concelebrations, extra corporals may be
placed upon the altar before Mass, leaving just the corporal containing
the principal chalice to be unfolded during the preparation of the
Alternatively, a single very large corporal is sometimes placed before
Mass as it would be ungainly to unfold it during the preparation of
In all cases the corporals should be removed during or after Mass,
conserved with care, and regularly washed using the procedures indicated
in "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 120:
"Let Pastors take care that the linens for the sacred table, especially
those which will receive the sacred species, are always kept clean and
that they are washed in the traditional way. It is praiseworthy for this
to be done by pouring the water from the first washing, done by hand,
into the church's sacrarium or into the ground in a suitable place.
After this a second washing can be done in the usual way." ZE05081622
* * *
Follow-up: Plexiglass Covering on Altar [08-30-2005]
Several questions arose regarding our commentaries on altar linens (see
Aug. 16). An Indiana reader asked about the proper use and design of the
The principle involved is formulated in the General Instruction of the
Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 351: "Every effort should be made to ensure
that even as regards objects of lesser importance the canons of art be
appropriately taken into account and that noble simplicity come together
That said, there is little more in recent norms regarding the design,
size and materials of these cloths. The constant use of the word "linen"
in the norms indicates that it is the most appropriate material and that
even if other quality fabrics are used they should share the same
qualities as linen and should be white in color.
The corporal, which should always be used for Mass, is square in shape
and is customarily folded into nine sections and thus stored flat. It is
often stiffened with starch so as to open more readily and keep its
There are no specified dimensions and it can come in several
(reasonable) sizes, according to the number of vessels to be placed upon
it. Some authors recommend that it be left unadorned although in many
places a cross is worked into the center of the side near the celebrant
or at the center of the square.
In these latter cases the corporal should be folded in such a way that
the nobler side of the decoration is that upon which the sacred vessels
will be placed.
The purificator is rectangular in shape and usually folded three times
lengthwise. It may be adorned but not so much as to impede its function
as a practical towel for purifying the sacred vessels. If not made of
linen it should be of another white absorbent fabric. Its size may vary
slightly depending on functionality, but 12 to 17 inches (31 to 43
centimeters) is a fairly good average.
The towels for the washing of hands should be practical, absorbent and
sufficiently ample so as to allow this rite to be more than a mere
finger dip. At the same time they should be clearly reserved for
liturgical use and not have a domestic appearance.
Another reader, a deacon from Birmingham, England, inquired more
specifically about the use and placement of the corporal.
He states: "Regarding the use of the corporal: you stated that, if the
burse is not used, the corporal should be placed on the chalice pall for
removal after Mass. But what if there is no chalice pall either, as is
correct for most parishes? In the past, in clearing the altar after the
Eucharistic liturgy, I have folded the corporal (carefully) and placed
it on the credence table. There it remains until the next celebration or
until it requires washing. Conversely, if the parish priest is to
celebrate the next Mass alone, I have left the corporal exactly where it
is as most priests of my acquaintance prefer not to 'mess around' with
incorrectly, in my humble opinion. But what is then the correct
liturgical practice? Your quote from 'Redemptionis Sacramentum' does not
appear to rule this out."
Although it is true that the pall is not obligatory, its function is
above all to protect the contents of the chalice from dust and insects.
It proves its usefulness almost everywhere during the summer months and
always adds a touch of elegance to the chalice.
If the pall is not used the folded corporal can still be easily placed
on top of the chalice for the next Mass although it may also be placed
folded on the credence as you suggest.
It should not normally be left upon the altar, as the rite for the
preparation of gifts (GIRM, 73) specifically foresees its unfolding, to
wit: "First, the altar, the 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 (unless the chalice is
prepared at the credence table)."
This task is usually entrusted to the deacon or acolyte. But if the
priest celebrates alone with no ministers present it falls upon him to
reverently open the corporal.
A related question comes from an Oregon reader: "I've just read your
comments about the altar linens and want to be very sure that I
understand. We have a young parish priest who, contrary to the practice
of our pastor, does not place the small chalices, to be used for the
congregation, on the corporal for the consecration of the wine. I have
always thought that what is to be consecrated must be on the corporal,
and now am not at all sure about that."
You are correct in assuming that the species to be consecrated must
always be placed upon a corporal, and indeed, except during the
distribution of Communion, the Sacred Species must always be placed upon
As a sample I will quote just two texts of the GIRM but could cite many
more. GIRM No. 142 describes the presentation of the chalice:
"[T]he priest stands at the side of the altar and pours wine and a
little water into the chalice, saying quietly, 'Per huius aquae' (By the
mystery of this water). He returns to the middle of the altar, takes the
chalice with both hands, raises it a little, and says quietly, 'Benedictus
es, Domine' (Blessed are you, Lord). Then he places the chalice on the
corporal and covers it with a pall, as appropriate."
GIRM No. 118 considers the situation where, due to the number of
vessels, purification is deferred until after Mass: "[I]t 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."
In short, the liturgical norms always foresee the use of a corporal for
the placement of the Sacred Species. ZE05083020