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Last Word - January 2009

A Liturgical Question

I used to write a regular column on liturgy and, even now, a liturgical question is sometimes posed to me. This column is not really intended to be a question and answer piece. That is done in other places in this magazine. But I thought this question was worth answering for our readers. The question was about the use of the corporal.

The corporal is a square piece of linen, typically about 15 inches square, starched so as to be somewhat stiff, and folded into nine sections. It is placed on the altar and unfolded, when the altar is prepared at the Preparation of the Gifts. The plate with the bread and chalice with the wine to be consecrated are placed on it. Sometimes when there are multiple chalices or additional ciboria for the hosts, additional corporals are unfolded on the altar or a much larger corporal is used. In the old Mass I grew up with, it was the practice to actually place the consecrated host on the corporal briefly and even now that may take place. The purpose of the corporal, we were always told, was to collect fragments of the consecrated bread, the Body of Christ, to prevent them from falling to the floor or getting lost on the altar cloth.

The corporal is, therefore, never spread out on the altar table like one would throw a sheet on a bed, but is always carefully unfolded when the altar is prepared and carefully re-folded after the Communion rite, so that any fragments remain within the folds of the cloth. The folds, obviously, need to point down, not up, if you know what I mean, so the fragments stay inside when the corporal is re-folded.

The questioner posed her question, because she was aware that the corporal is sometimes left on the altar, unfolded, for weeks on end. It happens, but it is an unfortunate bad. Even though it is not necessary to have a clean corporal at every Mass, it defeats the purpose of the corporal to be simply left open on the altar, where, if there are any particles of consecrated hosts present, they are simply left there unattended and subject to neglect.

Now, I know that it has been said that some priests in the past were unduly scrupulous about the most minute fragments of hosts and I do not wish to encourage scrupulosity. But, even if host fragments are not a problem, for whatever reason, there is a still the matter of reverence. The corporal is a mark of respect for the Eucharistic presence of the Lord, even if it never gathers a single consecrated crumb. It demonstrates the extra care and protection we give to the Eucharist and the reverence we ought to have for the Sacred Species. And such reverence, even if some would judge it unnecessary from a practical point of view, is a valuable witness in an age when we are easily tempted to take the Eucharist for granted and when informality characterizes even our most sacred rites.

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal