QUAERITUR: Fragments – When does reverence become neurosis?

From a priest reader:

I’ve been a priest for ten years, and the celebration of the Holy Mass is still the high point of my day.
I’ve always been scrupulous about cleansing the sacred vessels after Holy Communion and the fragments of the Sacred Host on the paten.  I know that a Catholic is automatically excommunicated for throwing away the Sacred Species. I’m always afraid that if I don’t recheck and check again the paten after I’ve wiped it that I’ve missed a particle and that it will adhere to the pall when I put it over the paten and then be lost.  I’m also a little embarrassed about rechecking and checking the paten again "just in case."    When does reverence become neurosis, and when does excommunication actually come into play in the case of Eucharistic fragments? 

I don’t know when reverence becomes neurosis.  I know that I am very careful to make sure that my paten is clean, that I have scraped the corporal, that I have purified well the ciborium and chalice… and I move on.  If I see something that I think may be a fragment of a Host, I do something about it.  But then I don’t continue to look for things that may be there once I have done my best.

Also, you cannot incur the excommunication if you don’t commit the moral sin.  If you unintentionally miss a fragment, you have not done what is necessary to incur the censure.

It is good to have a solid discipline when dealing with purifying vessels and gathering the fragments, lest they be lost.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I think the Church would do well to re-evaluate her purification practices (or requirements) after being informed by science. This would look something like this:

    1. Rome, or some other intrepid bishop, commissions a scientific study where hosts are handled and transferred in a manner representative of that of Holy Mass.

    2. Particles and particulate residue are analyzed by competent technicians, and the results are compiled and submitted to Rome (or the bishop).

    3. Rome–or the bishop–then, in light of sacred tradition and due reverence, issues clarifications or amendments on the purification rituals to prevent this question from arising again.

    In these modern times, the microscopic is relevant and recognizable for it’s relationship to the macroscopic. To wit: a crime scene is dusted and recovered for the most minute particle of evidence, and that is generally accepted to be admissible for a conviction. Also, the hospital and the restaurant are held to microscopic standards of sanitation to prevent disease that, while unseen in its transitive form, is very visible and recognizable once it takes hold.

    So, I ask: with the aid of modern scientific processes, at what point does a particle of the host become unrecognizable as “bread” or “wine”, and how should that shape our ritual reverence and purification?

    I think it should have some bearing on our ritual reverence. After all, if we recognize those particles (say, under a microscope) as having come from the host matter, why should they not also be recognized as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ?

    Also, the Church’s teaching on abortion and contraception is informed, clarified, and advanced by scientific findings on a continuing basis. Why not here as well?

  2. benyanke says:

    Deo Gratias! I always love to hear about our faithful priests! Not to be cynical, but sometimes, it seems as if there aren’t that many of them left…

  3. DisturbedMary says:

    I’m a lay person but ever since I saw this video I’ve wondered if Communion in the hand is ever a good idea. Look at what happens to the tiny particles of the Eucharist here ….. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BiUqDa_Gzj0

  4. David1 says:

    I was attending Mass in France last month. A lay person was giving the communion when one host fell on the floor. She didn’t pick it up until she was, then put it in her pocket and when to tell the priest about it. My assumption is he told her to dispose of it. The same priest baptized my new nephew right after and all wondered if he really believed in what he was saying!
    What would have been the proper to deal with the host on the floor?

  5. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    I wonder if Father is Irish, since this sort of compulsive worry is, some say, more common among us. It’s the same worry that makes it impossible to be sure you turned off the stove when you’re on vacation. If it becomes troublesome to him, and I would suggest that by virtue of his writing here that it already has, the behaviour is greatly ameliorated by a serotonin specific reuptake inhibitor, such as Paxil or Prozac or Effexor. These are easily and discreetly available from your friendly neighborhood Internist or Family Doctor without a need for seeing a Psychiatrist, and would start to work over several weeks.

  6. Andrew says:

    Being somewhat of a scrupulous nature myself, I tend to think that once the priest has used due diligence, the lingering desire to re-check himself and to second guess himself is a product of a scrupulous mind. The way to distinguish scrupulous behavior from diligent behavior is that scrupulosity is coupled with doubt and anxiety. In Latin “scrupulus” is a small pebble caught in the shoe that irritates one’s foot. Scrupulosity is somewhat of a mental pebble irritating the mind. The Devil can use it to frustrate the faithful and to make it harder for them to fulfill their christian obligations. I deal with it by making a conscious, deliberate act of honoring Jesus by placing my confidence in Him.

  7. Choirmaster says:


    I cannot agree that the priest reader’s scrupulosity is disordered, and even less that it must be stifled by drugs (unless you suggest he has a bit of wine or beer to calm his heart).

    From reading his essay, I think that he may be someone that is normally attentive to details, probably washes his hands often, uses extra soap in the dishwasher, and launders his garments on the extra-hot, heavy-soil settings. This is not a bad thing, and, as a priest, it is admirable that he has brought this logic to the alter.

    He must not be drugged into complacency. His question is valid, and he must seek his answers for the peace of his mind and for the good of the Church.

    There is an answer to his question, and that will cure him better than any medicinal remedy.

  8. Choirmaster says:

    My last comment should have used the word “diligence” instead of “scrupulosity”. After reading Andrew’s commend I realize that I had my definitions wrong!

  9. Michael in NoVA says:


    I would suggest that the priest may have OCD. A lot of people (including the media) focus on the compulsive part of it- the washing hands 5 times, hanging keys a certain way, inability to depart from a set order of accomplishing a task. However, the obsessive part of it can often be more debilitating. The obsessive thought just won’t go away. Even when you know something is done properly (ie, the paten has been carefully and reverently wiped clean), the thought of the possibility of having not done it properly emerges in the mind and won’t leave. The more you try to fight the thought, the more prominent it can become in your mind. Then compulsion can start to kick in, by repeatedly cleaning the paten.

    Someone who is very close to me (let’s name her Sarah) has OCD and this person does have to fight obsessions about moral matters, falling at times into a sort of scrupulosity. When this happens, Sarah has to remind herself that we must trust God’s mercy and that, as you mentioned, intent matters when it comes to sin. Sarah does benefit from having a good, orthodox Catholic psychotherapist who is part of a solid Catholic psychotherapy practice. Perhaps one is available in the area where the priest who wrote you is from.

    By all means, I hope that the priest who wrote you continues to reverently perform his duties towards the Holy Eucharist. However, something in his description of his concern reminds me of Sarah’s description of her obsessions before she started counseling.

  10. rakesvines says:

    Just like civil law, there is the reasonable man standard – I suppose. And there is a reason behind the rubrics so, as long as that is understood then one does not have to go nuts and become scrupulous. However, one needs to be careful with the liberties taken lest the congregation get scandalized.

    I was in a Baptism and the priest thought he was Seinfeld with all the spontenous comments that practically demystified the ceremony. I know the matter and form was still kept so, the child has been Baptized but the sense of the sacred is practically dismissed by such a causal attitude.

  11. Folks: You cannot possibly do any reasonable or fair analysis of the writer. You just plain can’t. So, don’t drill at this guy and think you have great insights into his psychological make up.

  12. wanda says:

    For Heaven’s sake. I commend and appreciate hearing from the writer how careful he is with the Precious Body and Blood of Christ. I only pray for more like him. In many places, we have become slovenly and real clods when it comes to a sense of the Sacred.

  13. Bryan says:

    I think it’s exemplary that the good Father is concerned about this and just as appreciative of the good Father Z’s observations and thoughts. Getting down to the microscopic level, though?

    For what it’s worth as a layman, I’m on the side of Wanda…

  14. Rob Cartusciello says:

    I appreciate carefulness, but scrupulousness is also a concern.

    As Aristotle said, one must strive for the virtuous mean between the extremes of laxity and scrupulousness.

    Psychological diagnoses, much less prescribing medication, is not appropriate given the small amount of information provided.

  15. Michael in NoVA says:

    Father Z,

    I agree that it is premature to diagnose the good priest’s psychological make-up (though I pretty well tried to in my earlier post). However, the bit of email that you posted verbatim included 2 or 3 instances of phrases or keywords that my very close friend “Sarah” uses as she describes life with OCD, which is why I reacted the way I did.

    My earlier point, which I did not make clearly at all, is that if this arises solely about the paten and the priest’s desire to cherish the Precious Body of our Lord, then there is likely nothing to be concerned about. However, if his concerns afflict the writer to the degree that they interfere with his ability to function both as a priest and as a man, he needs to talk with someone (preferably a strong priest/bishop with professional training) about it.

    [And I am glad that this line of commentary is now OVER.]

  16. Re: microscopic particles

    So the mission churches, far from running water and electricity, saying Mass in a tent, will need to acquire electron microscopes just to say Mass?

    Canon law’s idea of what is reasonable is very generous. The point when bread ceases to be recognizable bread is a pre-industrial, naked eye standard. It’s not about what’s going on with microscopic particles, or the least possible number of molecules that still contain all the ingredients of bread.

    Otherwise, we’d have to worry about the undigested particles in our intestines — and we don’t have to worry about that at all. Canon law is very very clear on that.

    Love God. Be devoted. But let the generosity of the Church’s law be enough. Don’t bind unnecessarily heavy burdens on other people or yourself, lest we all be tempted to despair. Beyond a certain point, let Jesus look out for His own Dignity and Majesty. He’s a big Boy.

  17. Fr. Basil says:

    Since the Eucharistic Body and Blood of Christ exist under the appearances of bread and wine, if it doesn’t look like bread or wine to a prudent person with normal vision, it isn’t the Eucharist.

    Is that a good rule of thumb?

    Suburbanbanshee, you said a mouthful!

  18. Papabile says:

    Fr. Basil:

    to a certain extent, I understand what you are suggesting. But, for hundreds of years, there is clear evidence of the Latin right mandating the closure of the canonical digits, precisely for this reason. That was maintained rubrically even after Trent’s solemn definition….. never mind the purifications.

    Therefore, I would suggest that very small particles are something to be concerned about.

  19. poohbear says:

    I pray that all priests may be as concerned about and devoted to Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament as the questioner. God bless him.

  20. Unfortunately, being concerned about the fragments has become a “disorder”.
    I’m amazed, just stupefied, at times, how what was common practice (reverence towards the Blessed Sacrament, being careful about fragments and proper purification) is now looked upon as a ‘psychiatric disorder’.
    Our faith that teaches us to respect and adore the Most Blessed Sacrament is no disorder.
    You do the best that you can and leave the rest to God.
    And priests, especially, those entrusted with the care of the Most Blessed Sacrament, SHOULD be scrupulous, not in a disordered way, but in love, adoration, respect and devotion to the One Who makes Himself so vulnerable and accessible in this Most Wondrous Gift…His very Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

  21. dominic1955 says:

    That’s why we should just stick to the old way and ditch all the extra communion cups and bowl “ciboria” for the EMHC.

    I think it was St. Alphonsus Liguori who said to a priest who obsessed about purification that he should just purify how the Church instructs and leave it at that. In the past, this was very clear and there were few vessels to purify.

    That said, I see some priests who offer the TLM be (imo, so take it for what its worth) overly scrupulous in purifying. I mean, if you wipe the paten off with your finger, you do not have to go over it with an eagle eye gaze a couple times over-a particle is going to be pretty obvious. Scraping the corporal is not doing any good if you are really scraping it (especially if its frosted) as then you are going to start getting lint and other little white things that might end up looking like particles.

  22. chcrix says:

    “I don’t know when reverence becomes neurosis.”

    Perhaps when it becomes Pharisaical?

    Regarding the comments about modern testing, I expect that a well equipped modern forensic lab could ALWAYS detect traces of the sacrament no matter what the priest did. Being diligent and scrupulous is reverent and necessary. But God does not expect the literally impossible.

  23. Christine111 says:

    God bless this priest for bearing such concern to protect the Blessed Sacrament. If only more priests showed such concern.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen priests grab fistfuls of the consecrated Host and dole them out among communion bowls, and with those same hands (before the ablutions) distractedly wipe their noses or some other part of their body. It’s rather horrifying if you consider that particles very likely remain on their hands. This is by no means a rarity; I’ve attended plenty of Masses where I’ve seen this. Is it any wonder that 70% of Catholics don’t believe in transubstantiation, if they observe the Sacred Host being treated Sunday after Sunday in such a casual (and I daresay sacrilegious) manner? The Catholic Church is full of saints who’ve literally died in their efforts to protect the Blessed Sacrament from desecration. Considering how casually we treat the Eucharist now, I wonder how many we’d find willing to do the same today?

    Those quick to diagnose this priest with a disorder and write off his worries as a failure to trust in God’s mercy should consider one of the sins against the Holy Spirit, rarely discussed in modern pulpits: presumption of God’s mercy. Yes, God is full of mercy–but we can’t abuse that mercy by being negligent in our duties. If only more priests treated the Eucharist as it deserves to be treated, rather than the way it’s treated in most modern parishes today…

  24. ndmom says:

    We had a visiting priest who did, in fact, suffer from OCD. He would spend an inordinate amount of time checking and rechecking the paten and vessels. The poor altar boys weren’t quite sure what to do, as he kept summoning them to bring the vessels back one more time. It was very uncomfortable to watch. Every priest who celebrated Mass in our parish was diligent about particles, so it was obvious that this particular priest had a problem. Eventually, the pastor made sure that another priest always concelebrated with him, which took care of that issue.
    We invited him to our house for dinner (along with the pastor), and he made FIVE trips back to the front door from the driveway asking us to remember to pray for his mission.

  25. Holding the fingers in a certain way is reasonable as a precaution to deal with particles — but of course, the main reason to do that is because it treats the fingers as sacred and set apart.

    I mean, if Jesus kissed your cheek, would you wash and brush off your face right afterward? I think not. You’d treat your face like a holy relic!

    Did you ever have your mother ask you and your siblings how you dare to say nasty things with that mouth, when it’s just received the Eucharist a few minutes back, before Mass ended and you left church? It’s not because of particles!

    Not every practice is utilitarian. In fact, the utilitarian part is often the least reason to do something at Mass.

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