Altar Society – This group assists with the washing, ironing and care of the sacred linens used at Mass and Baptisms.
Contact: Nena Brennan, 703-541-5151 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Secretariat for the Liturgy
The Care and Cleansing of Altar Linens
In recent years the Secretariat for the Liturgy has received multiple inquiries concerning the care and cleansing of altar linens. The following article, approved by the Committee on the Liturgy at its March 19, 2001 meeting, is provided for the information of those charged with the care of altar linens.
Whatever is set aside for use in the liturgy takes on a certain sacred character both by the blessing it receives and the sacred functions it fulfills. Thus, the cloths used at the altar in the course of the Eucharistic celebration should be treated with the care and respect due to those things used in the preparation and celebration of the sacred mysteries.
This brief statement reflects on the importance of reverently caring for altar lines which, because of their use in the liturgy, are deserving of special respect. These linens should be “beautiful and finely made, though mere lavishness and ostentation must be avoided.” Altar cloths, corporals, purificators, lavabo towels and palls should be made of absorbent cloth and never of paper.
Altar lines are appropriately blessed according to the Order for the Blessing of Articles for Liturgical Use. The blessing of a number of such articles for liturgical use may take place “within Mass or in a separate celebration in which the faithful should take part.”
Just as the altar is a sign for us of Christ the living stone, altar cloths are used “out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and the banquet that gives us his body and blood.” By their beauty and form they add to the dignity of the altar in much the same way that vestments solemnly ornament the priests and sacred ministers. Such cloths also serve a practical purpose, however, in absorbing whatever may be spilled of the Precious Blood or other sacramental elements. Thus the material of altar cloths should be absorbent an easily laundered.
While there may be several altar cloths in the form of drapings or even frontals, their shape, size, and decoration should be in keeping with the design of the altar. Unless the altar cloths have been stained with the Precious Blood, it is not necessary that they be cleaned in the sacrarium. Care should be taken, however, that proper cleaning methods are used to preserve the beauty and life of the altar cloth. It is appropriate for those who care for sacred vessels, cloths and other instrumenta of the liturgy to accompany their work with prayer.
Sacred vessels containing the Body and Blood of the Lord are always placed on top of a corporal.
A corporal is spread by priest in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar. When the celebrant receives the Eucharist from the altar, a corporal is placed beneath all chalices or patens. Finally, it is appropriate that a corporal be used on a side table, and placed beneath the sacred vessels which have been left to be purified after Mass.
Because one of the purposes of the corporal is to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may be left at the conclusion of Mass, care should be taken that the transferral of consecrated hosts between sacred vessels should always be done over a corporal. The corporal should be white in color and of sufficient dimensions so that at least the main chalice and paten may be placed upon it completely. When necessary, more than one corporal may be used. The material of corporals should be absorbent and easily laundered.
Any apparent particles of the consecrated hosts which remain on the corporal after the distribution of Holy Communion should be consumed in the course of the purification of the sacred vessels.
When corporals are cleansed they should first be rinsed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Corporals should be ironed in such a way that their distinctive manner of folding helps to contain whatever small particles of the consecrated host may remain at the conclusion of the Eucharistic celebration.
Purificators are customarily brought to the altar with chalices and are used to wipe the precious Blood from the lip of the chalice and to purify sacred vessels. They should be white in color. Whenever the Precious Blood is distributed from the chalice, poured into ancillary vessels or even accidentally spilled, purificators should be used to absorb the spill. The material of purificators should be absorbent and easily laundered. The purificator should never be made of paper or any other disposable material.
Because of their function, purificators regularly become stained with the Precious Blood. It is, therefore, essential that they should first be cleansed in a sacrarium and only afterwards washed with laundry soaps in the customary manner. Purificators should be ironed in such a way that they may be easily used for the wiping of the lip of the chalice.
The Order of Mass calls for the washing of the hands (lavabo) of the priest celebrant in the course of the preparation of the gifts and the altar.
Other cloths may also be used at Mass. An amice is a rectangular piece of cloth with religious symbols and two cords, one affixed to each front corner. It originated as a neck scarf, which was still its form and function in the first century. People sometimes also pulled it up to use it as a head covering. It became a vestment in the eighth century. Today, it is mainly in use in the Roman Catholic Church.
The manner in which we treat sacred things (even those of lesser significance than the chalice, paten, liturgical furnishings, etc.) fosters and expresses our openness to the graces God gives to his Church in every celebration of the Eucharist. Thus, by the diligent care of altar lines, the Church expresses her joy at the inestimable gifts she receives from Christ’s altar.