QUAERITUR: plastic “catch” sheet on the altar

From a reader:

Is it permissible to put a sheet of plastic on the epistle side of
the altar at the TLM in order to catch wine and water spills?

There has been some disagreement about this in our Latin Mass community. References would be helpful, either from you or from your readers.

Wellllll…. I guess so.

The basic principle is that nothing which isn’t blessed and used directly for liturgical purposes shouldn’t be on the altar.  We could debate if a plastic sheet is used for a liturgical purpose or a laundry purpose.

When a priest says Mass on his own, he will sometimes set the lavabo dish and cruets on the altar.  The lavabo dish is designed to catch the water when the priest’s fingers are purified.

Sooooo…. I guess so.   I can understand why that would be a desire.   I do my own linens for my chapel.   I can also understand why a plastic sheet would be placed under candelabra for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.  Getting wax out of altar cloths isn’t easy.   Keeping candles trimmed and having the correct sized followers for the candles helps.  Also, don’t move them right away after they have been extinguished.

That said, I hate the plastic sheets and think they are tacky, but it seems to me that there might be a bit of wiggle room here, depending on the cadre available for preparation of altar linens.  These sheets do have a practical function.  So does a bookstand, and it is on the altar.   The stricture about not placing profane things on the altar seems to aim more at things like glasses cases, watches, etc.

We return, therefore, to the practical point of having a good sacristy team which could also work on altar linens.  And I will remind everyone of the great booklet by Angelus Press for altar linens.

Perhaps readers can chime in with references and observations.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I noticed today while I was at the communion rail the altar that’s used for the NO Mass has a square sheet of plexi glass is placed on the side of the altar where the cups and chalice is filled. It doesn’t look like there’s one for the TLM altar though.

  2. Elizabeth D says:

    At my parish there are custom cut pieces of (real) glass that go under the candles, at all times. Two pieces go lengthwise on the altar under the “Benedictine style” candles, and due to the strange sideways orientation of the altar in this particular church there is a different piece that goes crossways on the altar for the candelabra for adoration.

  3. Plastic and/or plexiglass=tacky.

  4. TheAcolyte says:

    Plexiglass is implictily not allowed on during Mass, as the altar linens must be exposed for symbolic and practical reasons.

    Also, if the acolytes have been properly trained, there should be very little danger of spilling water or wine on the altar cloth.

    While this is not the practice in the USA, in the British Commonwealth it was the custom at the Offertory to spread the Lavabo towel on the Epistle edge of the altar and place the cruets (and removed stoppers) on it. The celebrant then took the cruets himself. In the USA though, the custom is for the acolyte(s) to present the cruets.

    For the ablutions though, the cruets were always poured by the acolytes. In some cases (though frowned upon by rubricians), the celebrant can lower the chalice in front of the altar so a short statured acolyte could pour into the chalice without any danger of spilling.

    Finally, acolytes must remember that when pouring: 1) their wrists will pivot not just from front to back, but also side to side (which gives more height and somewhat greater control) and 2) they should catch the last drop with an upwards tilting motion (just as a waiter does when pouring coffee).

  5. TheAcolyte says:

    NB: as for the second to last paragraph, the celebrant may only do this for the second ablution, as the first must made with the chalice on the corporal (as it has not been purified yet).

  6. LaurenHoeds says:

    What exactly does it mean to say “for a liturgical purpose”? I went to a Mass once on the feast of Oscar Romero. The priest had put a picture of him in a little plastic frame and kept it on the altar while he said Mass.

  7. transitional deacon says:

    There’s a feast for Oscar Romero? Oh boy.

  8. jasoncpetty says:

    Liceity aside, I’ll bet the sacristan washing the altar cloth after the first Low Mass I served wished they’d had a plastic sheet. One tiny, stark, red circle told the tale of my having duffed it at the offertory.

  9. Andy Milam says:

    Fr. Z….

    That seems a little redundant to have plastic, no? Reason being isn’t the chalice veil left hanging over the side of the altar to do just what is described? While I realize that this is more ceremonial now, I was under the impression that the reason the veil was placed in the manner in which it was placed was for this very reason.

    Am I incorrect?

  10. TheAcolyte says:

    Andy, the chalice veil is folded and placed near the Epistle side altar card because it is not being used from the Offertory antiphon until the resembling of the chalice. It is not used to catch any drips, etc.

  11. Nora says:

    Keeping spill from getting out of hand is what the cere cloth is for. It is the wax or plastic coated cloth that goes on the altar first, followed by one that is the exact size on the mensa followed by the fair linen, which should hang to near the floor on each side. The occasional drop or two of wine is pretty easily spot cleaned out of the fair linen, without requiring that the whole thing be washed and ironed. Ours are 48″ x 173″ of 100% linen, so I am a fan of prompt spot cleaning.

  12. TheAcolyte says:

    Nora, actually, the cere-cloth is not used for that purpose: it has only one reason, it is placed under the three altar cloths to protect them against any remnant of the sacred chrism after the consecration of the altar.

    However, it was used in some places to protect the altar cloths against damp, as stone altars in churches that had no temperature-humidity controls (e.g., the stone cathedrals of Europe) could condensate thereby wetting the cloths.

    The use of three altar cloths actually exist for a practical reason: if the chalice with the Precious Blood were to accidentally be tipped over, three cloths would be sufficient to absorb the Precious Blood thereby preventing any accidental sacrilege.

  13. Msgr. F. Nave says:

    For Masses without a server I use a cruet set that has a matching tray and lavabo bowl. Seems to tastefully solve the problem!

  14. APX says:

    @Fr Z
    Getting wax out of altar cloths isn’t easy. 

    I found ice cubes, and scraping off the excess with non-sharp knife followed by gently going over a piece of cloth on top of the wax with a warm iron works well for getting melted crayon out of clothes. If you haven’t tried that before it might help.

  15. Dave N. says:

    Seems like a “slippery” slope. Why not just cover everything in plastic then and nothing will ever have to be washed? It also seems that if there is some very unfortunate accident with the Precious Blood there is even more likely a chance for sacrilege–rolling off the plastic on to other parts of the altar or even the floor.

  16. AnAmericanMother says:


    It’s as tacky as people who put cheap plastic slipcovers on their “good” furniture. Tacky belongs nowhere near the altar.

    As for the wax . . . put the linens in the freezer. It works quite well – the wax gets very brittle and just falls off. Any slight residue in the fibers ought to come right out with absorbent paper (sturdy paper towels, or blotting paper, or brown kraft paper) and an iron.

  17. vivaldi says:

    It is a hideous practice. I have been to a Novus Ordo Parish where a lay woman folds up the plastic and puts it away after Adoration. Just vile.

  18. BLB Oregon says:

    I’m voting as someone who does wash and iron altar linens. I understand that large altar cloths are not only tedious to wash and iron, but also not inexpensive to replace when they’ve been worn out by washing. Some also have lovely old lace which would be difficult or impossible to replace. You hate to have to wash that any more than necessary.

    Still, altar cloths, corporals and altar linens are not just any sheets of fabric. They are not a theatre prop to be protected against the realities of life, because the ritual of Mass is also profound reality. Therefore, linens for use at the altar are as dedicated to their purpose and as precious for being available to do it as was Veronica’s veil or the original Shroud itself. Their purpose is to catch the Precious Blood. If they are in a place where the Precious Blood might fall, they ought not be protected by plastic from doing what they are intended to do, even if that means leaving them prone to spills of ordinary water and wine.

    In contrast, I was taught growing up that if the linen being protected was over a part of the church furnishing not being used for Mass and will only have ordinary liquids ever falling on it, then it is OK to have a discrete sheet of plastic under candles or flower vases, just as you would over the carpets, to prevent water damage.

    Having said that, there is nothing that says that any wine that needs to be poured at the altar may not be poured into the chalice(s) with a purificator held so as to catch any spills. That’s what they’re for. Although they ought to be true fabric and not disposable, altar linens do not literally have to be made of linen or even natural fibers, either. If some purificators were made specifically for this purpose, out of a water-proof cloth , I don’t see a reason something like that couldn’t be on the altar over the area where wine was poured. If it got stained, it would be laundered with the other altar linens and disposed of respectfully when it was worn out. That would save having to launder the entire altar cloth. It wouldn’t have to be a stiff plastic thing, like in the old days. They have water-proof fabrics now that have a thickness and drape very much like cotton or linen. Maybe something like that could be found or made?

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