QUAERITUR: Do priests consecrate everything on altar? Wherein Fr. Z rants.

From a reader:

Prior to the consecration, the altar servers are negligent in removing everything extraneous from the altar.  They have left the cruet of water on the altar, and more importantly, the carafe from which the wine was poured.  The priest continues on with the Mass (and consecration), all the while with the carafe and its remnants of wine on the altar.  My question is, has the wine in the carafe now been consecrated? 

I have asked two priests about this.  One says only that which the priest intends to be consecrated is consecrated, and even if the bread or wine were not on the altar but the priest intended them to be consecrated they would be.  The other said all bread and wine on the altar is consecrated, period.  I have searched online for definitive guidance from the Church, and while I am finding lots of non-specific stuff from folks who may or may not know, I have not found anything official.

Priests are to have the intention to consecrated the matter they know they want to consecrate.  The usual way to help with this intention, to help make it explicit, is to place the matter to be consecrated on the corporal which is spread on the altar.

The corporal is a square linen cloth placed on the altar upon the altar linens.  It is often treated with starch or other substances to make the surface smooth.  It is intended to delineate the place where the sacred vessels are placed and also, importantly, to catch any particles of the sacred Host that might fall, lest they be lost.  To that end, the corporal was always scraped with the paten at the time of the purification of vessels.  Also, it is folded into a smaller square "envelope", to hold within its folds any particles that weren’t caught up by the celebrant, lest they be lost… ne pereant.

That said, a priest can also have the moral intention to consecrate.  He knows beforehand what needs to be consecrated and then, even if it isn’t right in front of his face, when he consecrates, it is consecrated. 

But the corporal is the best way to keep this clear.  Priests should use corporals.

And corporals should not be left on altars between Masses, unless they are under a monstrance.

In Redemptionis Sacramentum 199 we also see the importance of using the corporal.  If vessels are to be purified even at the credence table (i.e., not on the altar) a corporal is to be used.

That said, a priest can have the intention to consecrate something not on the altar or not on the corporal.  We see this in these mega-Masses during, for example, Papal trips.   I don’t know what the effective range of a consecration, but to my mind… well… it would be better not to …. well… let’s just leave that alone.

The priest who made the comment about the intention (above) put it best.   The priest who said everything on the altar is consecrated, period, express the reality badly.  It may be that he personally has the intention to consecrated everything on the altar.  I don’t.  Nor to 99.99% of priests in the world, I think.  I consider it very imprudent to that that moral intention when saying Mass, precisely because containers which shouldn’t be consecrated may inadvertently be left on the altar.  Before launching into the consecratory section of the Eucharistic Prayer, the priest really ought to make a rapid check of what vessels are where so that he knows what needs to be consecrated and, in that moment, intend to consecrate them and them alone.

The old De defectibus, section on defects, which was part and parcel of the Roman priest’s knowledge for centuries is helpful in this regard.  There is a description of defects of intention.  My emphases and comments.

VII – Defect of intention

23. The intention of consecrating is required. Therefore there is no consecration in the following cases: when a priest does not intend to consecrate but only to make a pretense; when some hosts remain on the altar forgotten by the priest, or when some part of the wine or some host is hidden, since the priest intends to consecrate only what is on the corporal; [See what I mean?] when a priest has eleven hosts before him and intends to consecrate only ten, without determining which ten he means to consecrate. On the other hand, if he thinks there are ten, but intends to consecrate all that he has before him, then all will be consecrated. For that reason every priest should always have such an intention, namely the intention of consecrating all the hosts that have been Placed on the corporal before him for consecration.
24. If the priest thinks that he is holding one host but discovers after the Consecration that there were two hosts stuck together, he is to consume both when the time comes. If after receiving the Body and Blood, or even after the ablution, he finds other consecrated pieces, large or small, he is to consume them, because they belong to the same sacrifice.
25. If, however, a whole consecrated host is left, he is to put it into the tabernacle with the others that are there; if this cannot be done, he is to consume it.
26. It may be that the intention is not actual at the time of the Consecration because the priest lets his mind wander, yet is still virtual, [this is what I meant but a moral intention, above.  Here it is described as a "virtual" intention.] since he has come to the altar intending to do what the Church does. In this case the Sacrament is valid. A priest should be careful, however, to make his intention actual also. [That is what I meant about the priest, just before the consecration, making a quick review of what is to be consecrated.]

Since this is the most important this a priest does, and since it deals with the most important thing we have, perhaps deserves the most care and attention.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. MJ says:

    Wow, I’ve never seen a Mass where the cruets were left on the altar up to and past the point of the Consecration. That doesn’t sound right. I wonder if that has to do with the way the cruets are handled in the OF Mass (as compared to the EF Mass).

  2. Anonymous Seminarian says:

    One more not insignificant reason for the priest to face ad orientem–fewer distractions from the most important matter at hand.

  3. Incaelo says:

    Well, if it is my parish priest (who only does OF Masses) who finds there is a cruet or something else still on the altar, we can just come back and remove those things that shouldn’t be there. I’ve never seen it happen, though.

  4. MJ says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of ad hoc removing items left on the altar that shouldn’t be there, it’s a matter of following standard rubrics as well as training the servers correctly. The priest shouldn’t have to remind the servers what should and shouldn’t be on the altar (as far as things that the servers are supposed handle, like the cruets).

    I’m a regular attendee of the EF Mass but month or so ago I attended an OF Mass for a baptism; in the communion line the lady in front of me knelt (no communion rail) to receive the Eucharist on her tongue (which was awesome, as I was planning on doing the same thing) and the server had no idea what to do with the paten…the look on his face was one of confused bewilderment, and the priest had to quickly whisper, “Hold it under her chin”.


  5. Random Friar says:

    I’ve celebrated Masses where there have been *huge* altars. Sometimes I’ve noticed that “Oh, there’s more species on the altar. In general, I always have the virtual or moral intention of consecrating everything on the altar. Even if there is no convenient place to put a cruet (e.g., a nursing home Mass, where I have a tiny table for an altar, and no credence table), I nevertheless move the cruet to another place in the space so that folks are not unnecessarily scandalized.

    I’ve known a priest, who, when concelebrating, said he explicitly intended to consecrate *that* particular chalice, for example, which I think is a a tad overboard, but I understand his reasoning, even if I disagree that such a thing is necessary.

    And like Fr. Z said, I wouldn’t want to get into the debate over how far we can consecrate matter. It would have to be a very odd special case to even think about it. I agreee with our fine host: put everything on the corporal (or corporal*s*, if you, like me, have a fair number of chalices at Sunday Mass).

  6. Bryan says:

    Which kind of, in my thought, begs the question as to whether anything should be placed on the mensa of the altar without it being first handed to an ordained cleric.

    I recall, in those ‘bad old days’ as a server, being cautioned by the good priest who trained us, that touching the surface of the altar during the Mass itself was the the sole privilege of the priest; anything that was needed to be there was given first to the priest (or transitional deacon), never directly placed there by our grubby hands. If you recalled, Father even carried in the Chalice…and it was a mark of his confidence if you were even entrusted to retrieve one of the priest’s unconsecrated hosts from the container for him to place it on the paten before he veiled it.

    I’m thinking with the blurring of lines between orders and the laity, the multitudes crowding into the sanctuary, the reordering of the altar into a ‘table of fellowship’, and lack of good conscientious training of servers, such happenings, while they may have happened in the past, are more common today?

    IMO…we really need to get back to considering that structure in the sanctuary as the altar of sacrifice rather than a big dining room table…and give it the honor it is truly due.

    (as in, fwiw, the frontal of the altar in my parish this last weekend was an american flag with the names of all the 9/11 victims printed on it…uh…I don’t recall that decoration as being proper, even in the copy of Art and Environment that I have…)

  7. pbewig says:

    When I attend daily Mass, the priest leaves cruets of water and wine at the end of the altar, as far from the corporal as possible, because there is no server to take them away after the offertory, and he doesn’t want to take the time to carry them away himself. There is usually some wine left in the cruet after he pours it into his chalice. The priest clearly has no intention to consecrate the wine in the cruet, and I have never felt any confusion as a result.


  8. AM says:

    Once (in my past) I attended a “house Mass” at which the priest consecrated wine in a two-thousand-year-old (or so…) ceramic drinking vessel, of Greek craft, provided for the occasion by the owner of the house.

    Unfortunately, it leaked slightly out onto the corporal… which even in those days caused me to wonder what to think. Fr. Celebrant proposed (on discovering this during the purification rite) that he had only intended to consecrate the wine which hadn’t leaked out of the poterion.


  9. PaterAugustinus says:

    First, to Bryan: yes, when I was trained by my spiritual father to serve at altar with him, I was definitely taught that I should never touch the altar, set anything on the altar, nor remove anything from the altar, unless for some exceptional reason I had been specifically instructed and blessed to do so. One of the priests at our monastery would even scold me if the train of my cassock brushed up against the altar dressings!

    Secondly, I like the custom in the Byzantine Rite, where the priest physically points to the bread, and then to the chalice of wine, while consecrating. The meaning of the gesture, obviously, is to say that “This bread, right here, is what I’m intending to consecrate. And now, I’m consecrating the wine in this here chalice.” Of course, in the Byzantine Rite the Elements of the Sacrifice are prepared on the table of the Proskomide, and the cruets of wine and water, and the remnant of the Prosphora (i.e., the special loaf of bread from which the Lamb is cut) never come to the altar in the first place. Still, the thought is that there may be a crumb or a drop of wine somewhere on the altar by accident, and we want to avoid any ambiguity over whether they have been consecrated.

  10. Dave N. says:

    We see this in these mega-Masses during, for example, Papal trips. I don’t know what the effective range of a consecration, but to my mind… well… it would be better not to …. well… let’s just leave that alone.


  11. what an informative post and comments! i learned some new helpful things today!

  12. Henry Edwards says:

    We see this in these mega-Masses during, for example, Papal trips. I don’t know what the effective range of a consecration, but to my mind… well… it would be better not to . . .

    . . . stage these mega-Masses with unseemly massed hordes of apparent concelebrants?

  13. Andy Milam says:

    I certainly don’t want the combox to turn into a “what if…” thread, but I have what I think is a unique scenario.

    I assist at Mass as an MC. We have a neophyte deacon in the parish and once the gifts were presented to Father X (a visiting priest), I noticed that only the chalice (main chalice) and paten were on the corporal. The two extra chalices and the ciborium to be consecrated were off the corporal. I discreetly whispered to the good deacon durning the singing of the Sanctus (because as a good MC, I am in close proximity to the altar of sacrifice and the ministers) that he should position said vessels on the corporal at his earliest convience. Fr. X overheard and told the good deacon not to worry about it, because it didn’t matter.

    The question is, “How are we (the faithful) to take that?”

    After Mass, I approached Fr. X and he proceeded to dress me down for interfering with the “sacred action.” I responded that my role as MC charges me with making sure that everything related to the ceremony and liturgical action is as licit as possible. He told me that I was being scrupulous and that I should just not worry so much. I informed Fr. X that I would be speaking with Fr. Pastor and that I would pray for him.

    I take my role as MC VERY seriously and I don’t compromise when it comes to the rubrics. It is disingenious and it is unfair to the faithful that are worshipping at a Mass in which I am assisting in the capacity that I am assiting.

    As an aside, Fr. X got very angry with me for not removing the altar crucifix from the altar (He removed it himself when he approached the altar). You see, he is a short man and he feels that he cannot see the “people of faith” and they cannot see him. Blech…

  14. Denise says:

    Just want you to know that at our parish in the Diocese of Arlington, altar servers are instructed that they do not place anything on the altar. They hand it to the priest. Similarly, when Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are used, they do not take anything from the altar, but wait to be handed the ciborium or the chalice by a priest. The instructions that you received as an altar server are alive and well.

  15. Henry Edwards says:

    Andy, I’m with you, of course. But what is either priest or layman to think when they observe a big altar laden with rows of chalices and/or ciboria in the presence of a phalanx of bishops, e.g. at a Mass for the ordination and/or installation of a bishop? That a really, really big corporal has been procured especially for the occasion?

  16. I’m normally careful about placing what I intend to consecrate on the altar. When I was in seminary I read and adopted the suggestion that a priest’s habitual intention should be to ‘consecrate all valid and apt matter placed on the altar for consecration’. That means that I don’t worry about the wine in a cruet being left on the altar – because it was neither placed there for consecration, nor is is apt for consecration as it’s still in the cruet and not poured into a chalice. Likewise, on one or two occasions I have only consciously noticed a ciborium placed on the altar for consecration after the words of consecration. I’m confident that my habitual intention to ‘consecrate all valid and apt matter placed on the altar for consecration’ is sufficient. The hosts in the ciborium are certainly apt for consecration and were placed on the altar for that purpose.

  17. I meant to say that I’m normally careful about placing what I intend to consecrate on the CORPORAL. D’oh!

  18. And another reason why the EF and the “Defectibus…” should be and “enrichment” of the OF.
    Point well taken, Fr. Z.

  19. Bryan says:

    Diocese of Arlington…a beacon of sanity, and that close to DC, to boot.

    Good to know. And even better that it’s being upheld. I can tell you that in the Metuchen diocese…that’s not the case…

  20. dominic1955 says:

    In the case of big Masses (ordinations, Papal, etc.), that’s why we should just do what we used to do-only consecrate a chalice and a host. Why have the chaos of a hundred ciboria and all that when people can just assist as that Mass and receive Communion at some other Mass?

  21. Andy Milam says:

    Hi Henry,

    I absolutely agree with you. I think that the symbol that is a by product of such a sight is nothing more than confusing. How much is too much?

  22. Jayna says:

    “I don’t know what the effective range of a consecration”

    The thought of there being a “range” for consecration makes the priest sound like a cell tower. It amuses me.

  23. JimP says:

    I have a question that is tangentially related to the original question.

    In the parish which I recently joined due to a move, the wine is not poured from the carafe into the chalices prior to consecration, but afterwards, the Precious Blood is poured into the chalices by an EMHC.

    Obviously, in this case, the intent is to consecrate the wine in the carafe, but the practice seems to me to be wrong. Not only is the Precious Blood not in an appropriate vessel, but there is an attendant risk of spilling when it is poured into the chalices for distribution. If this is a proper practice, it seems that the celebrant should do the pouring, not an EMHC. Further, the carafe should now be properly purified, although I don’t know that it is.

    Am I seeing a problem where non exists, or is this actually wrong? If it’s wrong, what can be done? As far as I can tell, this is the practice of all the priests in the parish.

  24. frjim4321 says:

    Since we try to consecrate close to the number of hosts necessary for mass, occasionally when attendance is lower than expected, some hosts are transferred to a ceramic bowl on the credence table so that an excessive number of consecrated hosts are not in reservation. A few months ago an EM (who is not authorized to do so) told me after mass, “oh, Father, those hosts on the credence table, I put them in the ciborium in the tabernacle for you.” I was livid. How would you deal with a ciborium in the tabernacle in which you knew there were a fair number of unconsecrated hosts? This is a good reason for not authorizing poorly trained EM’s to go to the tabernacle. I did find a way to solve this problem, but it was a terrible thing and I never want to see it happen again.

  25. RichardT says:

    This is another thing that is made worse by Extraordinary Ministers. If we are having several of them at a Mass, that means several chalices, and so more risk of confusion as to what exactly the priest does intend to consecrate.

  26. JSBSJ says:

    I never ask questions on this forum, [This is a blog, actually.] but the question has raised one.

    I know a priest who was a concelebrant in a liturgy in a country where he did not know the language well. The mass was for a large group of people, and at the time of consecration there was left on the upper-right corner an altar – in the midst of other things – a ciborium (covered) that neither the priest moved to the corporal nor the altar servers removed. It looked like it was intended for the consecration but that in the chaos never made it to the corporal, and so the concelebrating priest considered what was in the ciborium at the words of consecration even though he had no idea what was in it. At the time for the communion, however, the main celebrant noticed the ciborium and waved it away. They dumped the “hosts” back into the unconsecrated box in the sacristy after the mass; the main celebrant claimed that he had not seen it on the altar and had no intention to consecrate it.

    As a concelebrant, is it best just to “unite your intention” to that of the main celebrant intending to consecrate what he wants to? What do we do about the hosts in the ciborium at the edge of the altar which the concelebrating priest was aware of and presumed was part of the celebration? Does the main celebrant’s intention win out when there is dueling intentions?

  27. MJ says:

    All these stories of confusion of what has been consecrated and what hasn’t are saddening…

    A widespread (I would hope for full!) return to the EF would alleviate this problem!

  28. Fr. W says:

    Many have learned the Tridentine Mass from the little booklet ‘Learning the Mass’ by Fr. Walter Schmitz. On page 55 of that booklet he describes the procedures for a Mass without a server. ‘the cruets, finger bowl, and towel may be prepared on a stand close to the altar at the Epistle side, or THEY MAY BE PLACED ON THE MENSA ITSELF.’

    You will also find the older moral theology books, that the expectation was VERY serious that the elements to be consecreated would be on the corporal.

    It seems very strange indeed for a priest to wander away from the altar at the offertory to prepare the chalice, etc. at some other table.

  29. vernonq says:

    As one or two others have commented, at a private Mass without a server the Priest would normally place the cruets etc at the Epistle end of the Mensa where they would remain during the Consecration. There are also some very small sanctuaries where it is impossible to have a separate credence and, even with a server, everything has to be placed on the Altar.

    Even if the Priest had the intention of consecrating all that was on the Altar, any wine left in the cruet would surely NOT be consecrated since, without the drop of water added to it it would not be ‘valid matter’ and therefore could not normally be consecrated.

    A return to the (EF) practice of not offering Holy Communion under both forms would reduce the clutter of chalices on the Altar (as well as the clutter of EMHCs!) and hence any confusion as to which are to be consecrated.

    Ensuring that any ciborium has a lid which the Priest deliberately removes prior to the Consecration makes sure that he has the positive intention of Consecrating the contents of that ciborium.

    The old adage to ‘keep it simple’ is very apt here. The fewer separate sacred vessels there are on the Altar the better they will fit on the corporal and the less likely it is that the Priest would fail to consecrate one by overlooking it.

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