I have attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form fairly often in several US and UK cities over the past decade, and I was surprised to observe something new. An Institute of Christ the King church near me has recently attached a long white cloth to the communion rail. Normally it hangs down on the sanctuary side; the server comes and flips it over the top to cover the rail before communion, and then flips it back afterwards.
I have noticed that many communicants clutch this cloth, or fold their hands underneath it. At first I thought it might be a fail-safe for the server’s paten, if a Host fell; but not everyone holds it as if to catch anything, and unceremoniously flipping the cloth back afterwards would seem to negate that, anyway. I am perplexed, because it looks like an act of piety by the communicants but for no apparent symbolic purpose.
This is not my regular parish, and I am not sure whether the pastor has explained the cloth’s significance or instructed his parishioners to clutch it. Can you shed any light? Am I expected to do this, too, and if so, why?
This seems to be a case of old rubrical habits dying slowly.
In early centuries, where Holy Communion was still administered to the hands of the recipients (which wasn’t as common as some claim), men sometimes received directly on their hands, while women put their hands underneath a white cloth called a domenical or houseling cloth.
Those who advocate a wholesale return to the practices of the early Church (the liturgical archeologizing against which Ven. Pius XII warned) are often selective in what practices they wish to revive. In some places, both men and women used the houseling cloth.
When Holy Communion began to universally be distributed on the tongue, the use of the paten, directly under the chin of the recipient, became the norm. The Communion cloth was still employed, but rather than being held by two servers, it was more often attached directly to the altar rail. It would be flipped over to the communicants side before Communion. No mention is made rubrically of the faithful having to put their hands underneath the houseling cloth, though in many places this appears to be the custom.
Unless a host actually falls on the houseling cloth, the likelihood of any bit of the Sacred Host touching it is pretty slim, especially if the servers are doing their job well with the paten.
And you servers and you who train them… use that paten properly! I have many times seen inattentive (poorly trained) servers fling the thing around. It is for catching a Host and Its particles! BE CAREFUL!
Okay… I’m back.
If it seems to you that the practice of the place you visit is to put one’s hands under the houseling cloth, feel free to comply with their custom. The communion cloth is both a symbolic and real means of emphasizing the tremendous value of the Sacrament. The care with which the Eucharist is distributed to and received by the faithful should be an obviously hallmark of all our Catholic churches.
St. Cyril of Jerusalem said in his Catechetical Lectures,
“Tell me, if anyone gave you gold-dust, would you not take hold of it with every possible care, ensuring that you did not mislay any of it or sustain any loss?”
How much more care ought we to show when we are being given is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God!
And let’s get rid of Communion in the hand.
GO TO CONFESSION!