This post describes the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful. It will examine the gestures associated with the eventual reposition of the Blessed Sacrament, and purification of the vessels used in communion. It concludes with a description of the postures involved in praying the post-communion prayer either at the chair or at the altar. Even though the present Roman Missal provides any number of alternate approaches to these complex actions, the traditional practice of the Roman rite is helpful in making all these gestures as dignified as possible.
Distribution of Communion
Traditionally, the Host is always ministered using the right hand, the left hand holding the ciborium at the node. Similarly, the chalice is presented to the communicant in the minister’s right hand, with a purificator in the left in order to wipe the rim of the chalice after every communicant who receives the Precious Blood. After giving Communion under both species to the deacon, the celebrant, holding either the ciborium or paten in the left hand, then gives communion to the ministers in the sanctuary and then to the faithful.
Whenever the ministers in the sanctuary present themselves in a straight line, the celebrant traditionally begins giving communion by moving from left to right. When distributing communion to the faithful who approach in a kind of procession, the celebrant remains stationary in one place, preferably standing in the sanctuary or at least on its lowest step to do so. Each host is grasped by the celebrant between the index finger and thumb of the right hand. As he gives communion, the celebrant may rub his fingers over the ciborium or paten to cleanse them of any particles which may adhere (See General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), 278).
The Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum (93) recommends that the use of the chin paten for the communion of the faithful be retained. In that case, a server holding a paten in the right hand stands to the right of the celebrant distributing Holy Communion. The server holds the paten under the chin of the person receiving on the tongue, and under the hands of the person receiving in the hand. If the celebrant is distributing Communion to two lines of the faithful in alternation, it is often more convenient to have two servers with patens assisting him, each one standing on either side of the celebrant.
Once the communion of the faithful is over, any Precious Blood which remains is consumed by the celebrant while he stands at the altar, facing any side of the altar. Any hosts may be brought directly to the tabernacle for reservation or may more conveniently be combined into one vessel over a corporal at the altar. This single vessel is then brought to the tabernacle. After placing the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, the celebrant or deacon genuflects, and then closes and locks its door.
Purification of the Vessels
The celebrant, assisted by the deacon or an instituted acolyte, may then proceed to the purification of the vessels. (It is permissible to purify the vessels after Mass, leaving them suitably covered and placed on a corporal at the credence table (GIRM, 183).) At the altar or at the credence table, a minister assists the celebrant in the purification with wine and water, or simply water (GIRM, 279). If wine is used first, the celebrant, standing at the center of the altar for example, holds the chalice by the node in his right hand over the corporal while a minister pours the wine. (The same could take place over a corporal on the credence table.) Then, holding the purificator or a purified paten in his left hand under his chin, the celebrant consumes the wine. Next, as the celebrant holds the cup of the chalice with the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of both hands, and the index and thumbs over the bowl of the chalice while standing at the right side of the altar, a minister pours a little wine and a larger amount of water over the fingers into the chalice.
The celebrant returns to the middle of the altar, puts the chalice down, shakes some drops of water onto the paten, and wipes his fingers on the purificator. Then holding the purificator in his left hand, he takes the chalice by the node with the fingers of his right hand and consumes the ablution. He then wipes the chalice with the purificator using the extended fingers of his right hand while holding the chalice by the node with the fingers of his left hand. Having dried the interior of the chalice and putting it down on the corporal, he then uses the same purificator to wipe the paten dry. He spreads the purificator open over the chalice, places the paten on top as at the beginning of Mass, then the pall, and moves the chalice off the corporal to the right.
Moving the corporal away from the missal to the right, he folds it, reversing the order he used in opening it: folding the bottom portion up first, then the top, then the right-hand portion, followed finally by the left-hand portion. He places the corporal on top of the pall, covered by a veil. The front of the veil should touch the altar and face the assembly, regardless of the orientation of the celebrant.
Alternately, the celebrant may place the corporal in a burse by laying the burse flat on the altar at the center, with its opening to the right. With his left hand he opens the burse by lifting the top portion, and with the opening of the burse pointing right, he inserts the corporal with the right hand, positioning the edge of the fold of the corporal to the left side. He then places the burse on top of the veiled chalice, with its opening facing away from the assembly. A deacon or a server then removes the veiled chalice from the altar to the credence table by carrying it his left hand, the long side of the veil facing forward, with the fingers of his right hand joined resting on top of the veil (or burse).
If multiple patens or ciboria were used for the distribution of Holy Communion, they can be purified with water at the altar, especially if they are few in number. Water poured into ciboria or patens with a raised edge should then be poured into a chalice to drink. (Ciboria or patens are not designed as drinking vessels.) Ciboria were traditionally purified only with water since they never held wine. Auxiliary chalices could be purified with a little wine and water or with water alone at the altar, especially if they are few, or at the credence table if they are more numerous.
Numerous auxiliary vessels for communion can more easily be purified on corporals placed at the credence table. They are brought to the credence table by the ministers who used them during the Mass for the distribution of communion. (Unpurified vessels are not traditionally carried by servers.) One can begin by pouring water into one ciboria and then pouring the ablution into each successive ciboria, then into each successive chalice and consuming the ablution only once from the last chalice to be purified. The vessels can be wiped by the minister(s) doing the purifying or by one of the servers as the ablutions are consumed. Depending on their number, the auxiliary chalices can be placed in a line behind the principal chalice. Ciboria with their covers can be placed to either side of the chalice, beginning on the right side.
It is also possible for the celebrant to purify the principal chalice and paten at the altar, while the deacon or instituted acolyte simultaneously purifies auxiliary chalices and ciboria at the credence table. In that case, it is best to utilize two sets of cruets so that the purifications can truly be carried out simultaneously in the manner described above.
The missal can be brought near the chair if the post-communion prayer is to be said at the chair. The missal, open to the appropriate page, is carried with the missal open. If the post-communion prayer is to be said at the altar, the deacon or a server repositions the missal, open to the appropriate page on its stand or pillow, in the middle of the altar, parallel to the edge of the altar, and several inches away from the edge of the altar in order to leave room for the celebrant and deacon to kiss the altar at the conclusion of Mass. When the celebrant elects to pray the post-communion prayer at the altar, he leaves the chair and goes to the altar with his hands joined.
Standing at the chair or at the altar, the priest prays the post-communion prayer. If he prays at the chair, a server stands directly in front of him (unless it is necessary for the server to stand slightly to the celebrant’s left), holding the missal with both hands at the bottom of each page. The server remains there through the blessing and dismissal, in the event that the celebrant wishes to use a solemn blessing or a blessing over the people, or wishes to sing the blessing or the dismissal. The celebrant faces the assembly and holds his hands joined when saying, “Let us pray.” The celebrant holds his hands in the orans position during the post-communion prayer until its conclusion, at which point he joins his hands. If the chair is arranged perpendicular to the altar, the celebrant would stand in the direction of the altar when praying the post-communion prayer.
In the next post, this series will examine the requirements of the concluding rites. These are very brief and relatively simple. Nonetheless, the traditional practice of the Roman rite can also provide some direction to this part of the Mass.
Monsignor Marc Caron is Professor of Liturgy at St. John's Seminary, Brighton, Massachusetts. He is a priest of the Diocese of Portland, Maine, having served there as a pastor and as director of the Office for Worship. He received his licentiate degree from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and is currently a doctoral student at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, Mundelein, Illinois. At St. John’s, he also serves as Director of Liturgy and as a formation advisor. He is the author of a number of articles which have appeared in The Jurist, Worship, Catechumenate, and in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review.