QUAERITUR: Purifying fingers after handling the Eucharist… not.

ablution cupFrom a reader:

I went to a well said Latin low Mass this morning. The celebrant and a deacon gave communion to the faithful. The celebrant followed the rubrics after communion to consume the sacred particles and rinse his fingers. However, the deacon just simply went back to his seat in the sanctuary. There could have been sacred particles on his fingers. In the old days I believe the sacred ministers of communion would have rinsed their fingers in the sacrarium in the sacristy.
The New Mass rubrics are so sloppy on this, but would you know if any minister of communion should also rinse his fingers as does the celebrant after communion in the EF Mass? What about keeping the index finger and thumb together until these have been rinsed.

First, let’s make a couple distinctions. It is okay for deacons to distribute Communion in the Extraordinary Form. Also, had the helper been a priest or a bishop, rather than a deacon, the question about purifying one’s fingers would be the same. This isn’t something about deacons. That said, in the past, permanent diaconate formation in some places has not always been very… thorough. I have met deacons, great and willing and good-hearted men, who knew very little about what was going on. I have met a few whose knowledge would put 90% of the priests I know to shame. Alas, the former group is larger than the later. I think the numbers are shifting in the right direction. But I said this wasn’t about deacons qua deacons.

The additional Minister of Communion ought to have purified his fingers. Even if he didn’t think he had any particles on his fingers, he should have purified his fingers. Why? But people (like you) are often very attentive to everything that happens – or doesn’t happen – in a sanctuary. Had he purified his fingers, you wouldn’t have been distracted by the fact that he did not and we should never have met.  Decide for yourself whether that last point is good or bad.

Now, let’s grant the fellow the benefit of the doubt: maybe he just forgot.  Though it is entirely possible the deacon just didn’t know to do this, perhaps he just forgot!

Don’t climb all over him. Don’t assume he doesn’t believe in the presence of the Lord in Eucharist, or that he is a secret Lutheran, blah blah blah. If the deacon does this regularly, however, perhaps a discreet mention of the fact to the priest some time down the line could clue Father in on a point which, on his own, he could let the deacon/other minister know about.

People have a learning curve when it comes to recovering all the details. Some were fortunate enough to absorb it by osmosis or by really good training. Others slowly pick it up.

Anyway, if someone doesn’t know what we are talking about, there ought to be a small cup of water, normally with a cover, next to the door of the tabernacle. It is called an “ablution cup”.

Someone should do a study, with a graph of course, of the presence of and use of an ablution cup against the rigid imposition of Communion in the hand.

When one handles the Blessed Sacrament, and one is not the celebrant at Mass who will purify his fingers in the normal course of events, you use that small cup and small linen towel, to make sure that no particle of the Eucharist has remained on your fingers.  The ablution cup could also be used for a Host which may need to be dissolved before putting the liquid down the sacrarium.  Then there’s the not-so-legendary-maniple-pin-transfixed-enormous-chalice-invading-spider

The Eucharist is not less the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form than it is in the Extraordinary.  But, alas, I have seen some shockingly relaxed practices concerning handling the Eucharist in some places. We would do well to recover traditional discipline in this matter, a discipline which leads not to soul-crushing anxiety or scrupulosity, but to reverence and awe at what we are privileged to do.

Furthermore, I think Communion in the hand should be abolished. So there!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Mike says:

    I know a priest–holy, devout, orthodox–who gives those who come up just for a blessing this: he makes the sign of the Cross on their foreheads with his thumb. This bothers me. Should I say something to him? [Hard to do that delicately. Perhaps it doesn’t occur to him that he then uses that – how to put it delicately – “make-up and/or greasy sweat-besmirched digit to distribute” something people consume. Anyway, hard to do that delicately.]

  2. Quanah says:

    I have never noticed the ablution cup, but I also never knew to look for it. I have noticed on many occasions though a bottle of hand sanitizer on the credence table that is dutifully used by Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. “If you haven’t got your health, then you haven’t got anything.”


  3. James Joseph says:


    I am aware that there is two-types of ‘unclean’. There is the type that is brought on by sin (particularly vile mortal sin) and also there is the type that is brought on by contact with the Divine.

    I don’t know if Catholics have every discussed this beyond the ocassional homily. I was of the understanding that this why the ordained do wash their hands after handling the Sacred, including the venerable vessels.

    I am probably wrong.

  4. James Joseph says:


    The hand-sanitizer thing drives me nuts! It sorta’ scandalises me, actually.

  5. Stephen Matthew says:

    I have never noticed an ablution cup, though I had considered such an item to be a useful precaution during a theoretical examination of this topic, but did not know it was ever a normative practice or had a name.

    Also, it is in my experience very rare for any of the clergy to purify their own fingers, and I have never seen a lay extraordinary minister do so. It is customary for servers to wash the hands of a bishop after communion (I have done this a couple times lately), but so far as I know this is only permitted for a bishop, but it would be nice if it were the norm for all distributing communion.

  6. Norah says:

    In my parish there is a small bowl of water on the credence table and the EMHCs wash their fingers in it before and after distributing Holy Communion.

    Mike, why would it bother you that a priest would make the sign of the Cross with his thumb? I do it all the time before the Gospel, as does father, and I bless my children with the sign of the Cross with my thumb on their foreheads.

  7. Southern Baron says:

    How many just have a pump bottle of Purel?

  8. Mike says:

    Yes, but have you also been just touching the Sacred Host?

  9. Mike says:

    He actually touches their forehead. It’s reverent, in its intention, of course.

  10. Joseph-Mary says:

    Our novus ordo parish recently began to have that small bowl of water and a towel by the tabernacle and I did not realize it was called an ablution bowl. I always close my eyes after communion so I do not pay attention to what the priest is doing but now I know and do not have to see it!!!

  11. david andrew says:

    We have an “ablution cup” next to the tabernacle, and our deacon (who serves in both rites!) always uses it after reposing the Blessed Sacrament after assisting in distribution.

    Our Pastor is also very aware of the use of this cup when necessary.

    Unfortunately, for every deacon and priest like ours, there are likely a double-dozen who no doubt poo-poo this kind of “crumb theology”. More’s the pity.

  12. TNCath says:

    Our ablution cup disappeared from next to our Tabernacle about 8 years ago. In fact, our pastor rarely even goes to the Tabernacle anymore. That he “delegates” to one of the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.

  13. AnnAsher says:

    I am also scandalized by the hand sanitizer use !
    I’ve not considered this matter until now with regards to the armies of emhc’s. I’ve avoided NO as much as possible for going on 3 years. In starting to joyfully forget some of the scarier aspects. Now that I read this article, and am aware, I’m quite disturbed. I have never seen an ablution cup nor have I ever seen an emhc cleanse their fingers into a sacrarium. I’ve been a worshipper in military and civilian chapels, in CA, NC, MO and Germany. All I’ve ever seen is emhc distribute communion and go directly back to their pew. Do not pass through sacristy do not cleanse fingers do not collect 200 indulgences.

  14. mibethda says:

    On a related note, over the years I have received communion from priests on a number of occasions who apparently applied cologne or aftershave lotion prior to Mass and either did not wash their hands or did not adequately do so. Even the brief touching of the Host imparts a distinct taste to the Host which is distracting at the least.

  15. I was sacristan for over 9 years in our parish from age 14 ongoing (NO masses in the parish). We had at both churches ablution cups which looked like a petri dish with double height and a purificatorium to be placed on the cap of the ablution cup which was to be replaced when the normal chalice purificatorium was replaced to be washed.

    But it depended strongly on the EMHC if he used the ablution cup or not. Not as a generel rule but as significant statistical number you could say, the more senior the EMHC was, the more they used the ablution cup.

    The senior EMHCs were trained by the parish priest, the junior ones were trained on diocesan seminar.

  16. pinoytraddie says:

    Communion in the Hand:For Priests Only!

  17. eyeclinic says:

    To paraphrase a line from Apocalypse Now:
    “I love the smell(and taste) of Purel in the morning(Mass).”

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  19. I placed an ablution cup, with a purificator, on each of my parishes’ altars. Why on the altar? So that the extraordinary ministers can use it. They are pretty consistent about it.

  20. Deacon Don says:

    My comments are for the “New Mass” whose rubrics are not as sloppy as one might think.

    In our parish the “ablution bowl” sits right beside our tabernacle, and yes the priest who handles the transfer uses it, but my question becomes, “Who purified the sacred vessels?”

    “183. When the distribution of Communion is over, the Deacon returns to the altar
    with the Priest, collects the fragments, should any remain, and then carries the chalice
    and other sacred vessels to the credence table, where he purifies them and arranges them
    as usual, while the Priest returns to the chair.”

    “278. Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction
    or after the Communion of the faithful, the Priest should wipe his fingers over the paten
    or, if necessary, wash them. Likewise, he should also gather any fragments that may have
    fallen outside the paten.”

    Far too often we witness “Mass without a Deacon with a Deacon” and the faithful get all turned around about what they are witnessing … looking for and enshrining things that are simply not there … and then writing to blogs about it .., is it really important that my left thumb be placed on top of my right thumb when I am standing?

    Yes … I ALWAYS purify my fingers before and after … but the action, taking place quietly at the credence table while I purify the vessels (during which “the Priest returns to the chair”), is so small that I doubt if any of the faithful even notices it … but in my heart I believe God does.

    “Mass without a Deacon with a Deacon” … is it a small wonder we constantly claim that so many Permanent Deacons don’t know the rubrics? Too often it is what you are told to do, and not what you are supposed to be doing.

  21. Mike says:

    Thank, Father. I agree. Part of the humanity of the Church, really. Which Our Lord gave everything to redeem.

  22. Mary Jane says:

    “Furthermore, I think Communion in the hand should be abolished. So there!”

    Yes! I’ll add EMHCs to that.

  23. Kieninger says:

    My parish has an ablution cup next to the tabernacle, which is directly behind the altar where it belongs. The altar server pours water over my fingers into the chalice, so I only use the ablution cup when the deacon is purifying the vessels. I am not sure whether the EEM’s should be purifying their fingers in this ablution cup after they have returned from distributing the Holy Eucharist, or whether I should put another cup on the credence table for their use. In other words, is the ablution cup next to the tabernacle meant only for priests and deacons or may the EEM’s use it?

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