QUAERITUR: Care of altar linens and the first rinsing by a priest

From a reader:

Father, I am in a quandary and I wonder if you would offer any advice on how to resolve it?
A couple of months ago I was asked to help with the laundering of altar linens as one of the 2 women who had been doing this is elderly and in poor health. I agreed- partly because as a convert of only just over a year in a tiny parish I felt I should do any useful task when asked and partly in private reparation for my past feminism which would have derided such a task as “traditional women’s work”.
The last time I laundered and ironed these I realised I had become muddled about folding them so I went to my computer to see if I could find any guidance. I found an article in the Catholic Encyclopedia which was helpful but towards the end I came across this:

“Before soiled corporals, palls, and purificators are given to nuns or lay persons to be laundried, bleached, mended or ironed, they must be first washed, then rinsed twice by a person in sacred orders (Cong.
Sac. Rit., 12 September, 1857). “

Now, I know that this is not done. Father leaves them on top of the chest of drawers which holds the clean ones; we put them in the washing bag and take them home to launder. It may be that this directive is no longer the case. Although, now I have read it, I can can see why this is the rule but this seems to preclude its being changed.
I find it very hard to know how to go about raising my anxiety with either the other person who shares the task or with the Priest, who is a visiting Priest as we do not have our own parish Priest. In many ways (although thankfully not all ways) it is a “liberal” diocese and I think I am getting a reputation for being rather too orthodox?/traditional? Not sure quite what words they would use. And I am such a recent Catholic I shrink from seeming to question the way things are done.
On the other hand, now that the possibility of my acting sacrilegiously has been raised, it is not possible just to continue without checking it out.

I wrote a review of an extremely useful resource for people doing altar linens from Angelus Press. HERE.

I don’t recall having seen any directive since after the post-Conciliar reforms went into force about that first rinsing of the linens.  However, I believe it to be a good practice and one that ought to be restored where it is not observed.

I think that the people taking care of the linens should ask the priest to do the first rinsing of them.

  • It takes but a moment.
  • It is a good practice.
  • It could remind the priest to be grateful to those doing the linens.
  • It shows respect for what the linens are used for.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Kurt Barragan says:

    Redemptionis sacramenum n. 120 describes briefly how the washing of the linens is to be carried out: “Let Pastors take care that the linens for the sacred table, especially those which will receive the sacred species, are always kept clean and that they are washed in the traditional way. It is praiseworthy for this to be done by pouring the water from the first washing, done by hand, into the church’s sacrarium or into the ground in a suitable place. After this a second washing can be done in the usual way.”

    There is also a document on care of altar linens from the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy.

  2. Papabile says:


    You stated: “I don’t recall having seen any directive since after the post-Conciliar reforms went into force about that first rinsing of the linens. However, I believe it to be a good practice and one that ought to be restored where it is not observed.”

    An honest question here. Unless the previous decision by the SCR had been abrogated/obrogated, or fallen into desuetude, what impact does any of the “post-Conciliar reforms” have on a decision of the SCR, as this and many other decisions are outside the scope of the liturgy or canon law?

  3. Papabile: I really don’t know and have often wondered about that.

    When we consider Universae Ecclesiae, for example, we know that the liturgical law set down in the 1962 Missal is to be observed notwithstanding changes made after 1962. Thus, no Communion in the hand, no altar girls, etc. But this issue of the linens is not something prescribed in the Missal itself.

    At the same time, you are right to wonder if something not specifically superseded or abrogated or reprobated would not still actually be in force. Hopefully a canonist will leap to our aid.

  4. Faith says:

    This question reminds me of a question I’ve always had. Once in a while, I’m asked to be the altar server. I have no training. Father tells me what to get and do as we come to it. Is there a preferred way as what to bring to Father first? I’ve actually thought of carrying everything over at once, since I know I could do it carefully, but I’ve never seen anyone do it, so I don’t. What’s first?

  5. MJ says:

    I know this isn’t the point of the thread, but I thought maybe it would be helpful to Faith. I guess my recommendation would be to see if your priest can get a man to serve. It’s best for altar servers to be men. Then you don’t have to worry about learning. :)

  6. Supertradmum says:

    I was a sacristan for years in two places and the priests never washed the linens first. In fact, the nuns from whom I learned how to do sacristy work, including the washing, starching, ironing, setting out of vestments, cards, etc., did the washing of the linens. The reason I know is that they would come into the sacristies, in these two chapels, and take the linens. However, I would help them wash and iron linens as well. Several priests said Masses in these chapels. I usually did the vestement putting away and set-up, altar take-down and set-up, some ironing, and polishing, etc. I assume the nuns used the sacrarium, but I never saw this happen. The years I am referring to would have been from 1963-1970.

  7. pforrester says:

    I was told that once the Precious Blood dries it is no longer Jesus. Therefore for years our parish put the purificators straight into a duffel bag. No soaking or rinsing. Then the laundress picked them up once a week and washed them, pouring the first rinse water into her garden.

    Shortly after I was trained as a sacristan I instituted tubs of water to soak the purificators before pouring the water into the sacrarium. I would rinse in the sacrarium a second time. Wring out and let air dry. These were then laundered. Despite this, the head sacristan told me that she was told by a priest that dried Precious blood does not need this treatment. Is this correct?

  8. Speravi says:

    I would recommend feeling out whether your pastor would be open to doing the first rinse (some might react violently to such a suggestion, so be careful). If you don’t think he would be open to it, then I would recommend soaking them yourself and pouring the water outside into your garden or under a bush or something. If the priest is not open to doing the first rinsing, and someone like you doesn’t do this, then someone else is just going to throw them directly into their washing machine. Technically, if the particles of the host and the precious blood cease exhibit the properties of bread or wine (accidents), then they cease to be the Body and Blood. However, especially in the Ordinary Form, it is possible that there are actual particles of the host stuck to one of the purificators ( in the TLM, the corporal). That is why we soak them, after they have been soaked for some time, it is most probable that any particles will break down and it will cease being the Body and Blood. At the same time, to get too scrupulous, you’ll drive yourself crazy. If you take what precautions you can, then there is no profanation. Even if a particle were lost through a true accident (not through negligence or irreverence), it would not harm Christ, who is impassible according to his divinity and whose humanity suffered because of sin; and a true accident, contrary to your intention and in spite of being careful, is no sin.

  9. heway says:

    In the 60’s I spent some time at Madonna House in Combermere, Ontario. The Baroness Catherine was still alive, though living in a hermitage (poustinia). When doing altar linens we soaked them first in cold water and then disposed of the water on the ground – no sacraium.
    They were heavilly starched and hung outside to dry. Ironing was always done on the wrong side -to eliminate that shiny finish and display the linen thread count. As you pointed out, the bottom comes up and covers the cross embroidery. I am glad to hear that there is now a booklet which I shall purchase for some of the newer, younger caretakers of the sanctuary. Our diocesan vocation director knows exactly how they should be cared for. Our little church was his first parish and I was delighted to find that he had been taught by his aunts, religious women. The only place that I could find good info on the care of altar linens was on an Anglican site.

  10. James Joseph says:

    I actually knew this already. I think an old priest told me something about it. The memory could be failing me.

    I just assumed I was mistaken all of this time because nobody else ever knew it.

    It feels good to be vindicated.

  11. Tim Ferguson says:

    weighing in as a canonist, I have to first admit my ignorance – I am not aware of any legislation that has overturned the 1857 decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites. If there is none, a solid case could be made for the decree no longer having effect because of desuetude – a custom contrary to the law having arisen and this state of affairs being tolerated by the legitimate authorities without correction (Redemptionis Sacramentum being the latest in a series of liturgical legislation that fails to instruct that the liturgical linens be first rinsed twice by a man in Sacred Orders). Observance of this practice, even if no longer required by the law, would certainly be laudable.

    I’m reminded of two conversations I had with priests in the past. One priest was grumbling after Redemptionis Sacramentum came out, complaining that he was now required to “do the dishes” after Mass when he had many more important things to do and this could be done by a layperson. A wise woman in the sacristy at the time, overhearing his complaints, said to me later, “Doesn’t he think that laypeople also have important things to do?”

    A second, earlier conversation, with a great priest I knew in college, was on the topic of the priest as “maintainer of the cult.” Fr. Dolan was stating that, with all the focus on the priest as community leader, or counselor, or business manager, priests did not reflect nearly enough on their role as the keeper of the sanctuary, preserver of the traditions of worship. He said, “Perhaps priests should skip a few meetings and instead spend some time mopping the sanctuary, polishing the candlesticks and handwashing the linens. It might help instill a bit of humility, too.”

  12. hawkeye says:

    I remember a few years ago working with a newly ordained priest preparing a Mass for an Archbishop. When Mass was over he asked me to collect all the sacred linens, hang them to dry, place them in a clean plastic bag when they were dry, and then return them to him. I asked him if he wanted me to do the first washing in the prescribed way, and he said he would take care of it. I jokingly asked him if he didn’t trust me to do it properly. I guess he was just following the proper protocols for the first washing of the linens. I think he is the only one I know of who does this. He probably doesn’t do it anymore as he is in a very liberal parish where the lay people do pretty much everything including purifying the the sacred vessels after Mass.

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