QUAERITUR: Of canonical digits and purifications

From a reader:

Our priest does a fantastic job of guarding his thumb and index fingers once he has touched the Host. I was wondering if this is a symbolic gesture, as I have never seen our Eucharistic Ministers or Deacon wash their hands? [The proper term is really “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”, not “Eucharistic Ministers”.] In my prideful / judgemental way I sometimes get a bit angry at their lack of reverence and I know I could be way off here. Thanks and God Bless.

So many people have been hurt and are hurting, friend.

Your description of what the priest is doing, by keeping his index and thumbs together, is consistent with what priests have been required by the rubrics to do during Mass after the consecration.  Priests are still, in the Extraordinary Form, required to keep index and thumbs pressed together at the “pads”, as it were, lest any recognizable particle that might have adhered to the fingers were to fall some place outside the corporal (the square linen cloth spread out on the altar on which the chalice and Hosts rest).  This is also why, after the consecration, the priest was to keep his hand as much as possible over the corporal.  This is also why it is good during Mass when the chalice is uncovered for the priest gently to rub his fingers and thumbs together over the chalice, for the sake of letting particles fall into the chalice rather than elsewhere.  It becomes habitual and it takes no effort or delay to do it.

These gestures are not required by the rubrics of the Novus Ordo.

It is a good thing to do anyway.

First, it makes sense.  Second, it’s what priests do.

Some will object that this practice seems fussy or even – gasp – scrupulous.

I respond saying that recognizable particles remain the Body and Blood, soul and divinity of the Lord.  I think the Eucharist deserves our care and attention.

On a number of occasions I have felt a particle remain on my fingers, pressed between the pads of my thumb and index.  This can occur more frequently when the hosts are dry or have edges that are rough or not well “sealed”.

I am a sinner, but when I come before the Lord for His judgment He won’t tell me I was careless with the Him during Mass.  Shame on those priests who are careless.

Fathers!  People see what you do when you are up there and what you don’t do.  Be careful with the Eucharist!  Purify vessels properly!  Don’t leave fragments all over everything!

I have had concerned sacristans show me patens for chalices that have particles left on them.  For the love of GOD!  Purify carefully!

In any event, about washing hands, let’s run with that for a moment or two.

The priest – in the older way of doing things – ought to wash his hands before vesting while saying the prayer “Da, Domine, virtutem manibus meis ad abstergendam omnem maculam immundam; ut sine pollutione mentis et corporis valeam tibi servire. … Give virtue to my hands, O Lord, that being cleansed from all stain I might serve you without impurity of mind and body.”  Alas, some sacristies don’t have sinks, much less sacraria!  Grrrr.  Then, during Mass, he purifies his fingers after preparing the “gifts”.  In the new rite he says simply, “Lava me ab iniquitate mea et a peccato meo munda me … Wash me of my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.” In the older rite he recites the Lavabo, from Psalm 26. In the older form of the Roman Rite he continues, as I mentioned above, to cleanse his fingers after the consecration. Finally, after Communion and during the ablutions when he is purifying the vessels he again purifies the tips of his fingers. During the course of the ablutions before wine and water are poured over his fingers held over the cup of the chalice, say says “Corpus Tuum, Domine,… May Your Body, O Lord, which I have received, and Your Blood which I have drunk, cleave to my inmost parts, and grant that no stain of sin may remain in me, who have been fed with this pure and holy Sacrament….”  Everything having to do with purification of the fingers, vessels and safeguarding of the Eucharist is to be performed with serious focus.

Regarding, however, the reverence of the priest – you can’t know for sure what he has in his heart or mind.  You can only see the outward reflection of his inward full, conscious and active participation, which, because he is the priest, should be exemplary.  

The priest should carefully instruct the deacon concerning purification of the vessels.  Sadly, the training that some permanent deacons received was … sub-optimal.  Diaconal programs are improving, but, there for a while…. damn!

And if there are Extraordinary Ministers, they should of course be instructed with extra care.

I will have to leave aside that I don’t think that the non-ordained should handle sacred vessels with their bare hands, much less the Eucharist, unless absolutely necessary.  That’s the stuff of a different rant on another occasion.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    But Father, this all presumes that priests even have a role in the purification, which I can tell you that in my area, this is the exception rather than the rule. Hosts are collected and then returned to the tabernacle, whereas chalices are taken to the sacristy and the Precious Blood consumed by EMHC’s. The priest usually distributes communion and goes back to his chair while purification is done by EMHC’s.

    This, also, begs the point of why parishes are consecrating such a large amount of wine such that it takes multiple people to consume what’s left over.

  2. frbkelly says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z!
    One additional advantage of keeping custody of the canonical digits:
    When the priest elevates the chalice to full height, if he is keeping custody of the canonical digits, then the stem of the chalice will be gripped between the back of the index finger and the 2nd finger right at/below the node. In this manner, the chalice stays upright as he elevates without his having to adjust his grip at all. Otherwise, if he is holding the chalice in a full 4-fingered grip, and elevates to full height, the chalice tends to tip backwards with his hands unless he turns his wrists as well.

    As Fr. said, all of this is required by the rubrics of the older form of the Mass, but it is still a very good idea in the newer form. Not surprising, since the church has two millenia of practice behind even the smaller practical points of celebrating Mass.

  3. Tim says:

    Would it be correct for the EMs/deacons to also “keep custody of the digits and purify” after distributing the Host? Not required but suggested? And if they did this, would they have the altar server wash their digits (the same as the priest) over the ciborium?

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    I’ve never seen a sacristy without a sink (and it sounds rather awkward), but in that case, I suppose somebody ought to bring in a pitcher and wash basin. (And then I guess the sacrarium substitute would be pouring the water into the ground outside, like into a hole or a flowerbed?)

    But I guess people manage without sacristies in the classic “celebrate Mass while camping or on the battlefield” situation. It’s just a shame to have to do field expedients in a real church.

  5. jhayes says:

    would they have the altar server wash their digits (the same as the priest) over the ciborium?

    Some churches provide a bowl of water on the credence table so that EMHCs can purify their fingers of any particles that have clung to them. Presumably the particles are allowed to dissolve and the water is then poured down the sacrarium.

    chalices are taken to the sacristy and the Precious Blood consumed by EMHC’s. The priest usually distributes communion and goes back to his chair while purification is done by EMHC’s.

    At one time EHMCs could purify vessels but that Indult for the US expired and wasn’t renewed. They can clean them but only after a priest or deacon has purified them. EMHCs who distribute the Precious blood can consume the excess left in their own chalice but this may depend on what the bishop decides for their diocese.

  6. Tim says:

    By the way, my questions were completely serious…if the priest takes such good care to purify, it seems terribly out of place for everyone else not to.

  7. AA Cunningham says:

    [The proper term is really “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”, not “Eucharistic Ministers”.] Father Z

    Many thanks for posting that correction, Father. Many of the ordained also fail to distinguish between the two.

    From Redemptionis Sacramentum:

    1. The Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion

    [154.] As has already been recalled, “the only minister who can confect the Sacrament of the Eucharist in persona Christi is a validly ordained Priest”.[254] Hence the name “minister of the Eucharist” belongs properly to the Priest alone. Moreover, also by reason of their sacred Ordination, the ordinary ministers of Holy Communion are the Bishop, the Priest and the Deacon,[255] to whom it belongs therefore to administer Holy Communion to the lay members of Christ’s faithful during the celebration of Mass. In this way their ministerial office in the Church is fully and accurately brought to light, and the sign value of the Sacrament is made complete.

    [155.] In addition to the ordinary ministers there is the formally instituted acolyte, who by virtue of his institution is an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion even outside the celebration of Mass. If, moreover, reasons of real necessity prompt it, another lay member of Christ’s faithful may also be delegated by the diocesan Bishop, in accordance with the norm of law,[256] for one occasion or for a specified time, and an appropriate formula of blessing may be used for the occasion. This act of appointment, however, does not necessarily take a liturgical form, nor, if it does take a liturgical form, should it resemble sacred Ordination in any way. Finally, in special cases of an unforeseen nature, permission can be given for a single occasion by the Priest who presides at the celebration of the Eucharist.[257]

    [156.] This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not “special minister of Holy Communion” nor “extraordinary minister of the Eucharist” nor “special minister of the Eucharist”, by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.

    Suburbanbanshee, Father Z wrote about the sacrarium in May of 2012.

  8. Jeannie_C says:

    And this is exactly why EMHCs should not be giving blessings to non-communicants, tracing the sign of the cross on foreheads, dipping fingers back into the ciborium. Having EMHCs in the first place is a whole other issue of course.

  9. HobokenZephyr says:

    [The proper term is really “Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion”, not “Eucharistic Ministers”.] Father Z

    We generally refer to them as Extraordinary MONSTERS of Holy Communion and try to limit their number to 1 or less for the choir loft, but then we’re Unreconstructed Ossified Manualists I guess.

  10. William says:

    I live in the Diocese of Superior in Wisconsin, and the Sacrarium at my church is in the ladies room. And I am not kidding.

  11. Legisperitus says:

    When I see a priest conscientiously handling the Eucharist, I imagine him thinking that any one of those little particles could represent his own soul, and that Our Lord will care for his soul as scrupulously as the priest cares for the least of those particles, lest it should fall into the abyss.

  12. acardnal says:

    Wow! The ladies room?! Wow!

    Well, in my geographic parish, there is NO sacrarium! There is a plumbing fixture to connect a sacrarium to though. Unbelievable. I don’t blame the current pastor but it needs to be fixed!

  13. Panterina says:

    I used to be a EMHC. With our former pastor, there was a small bowl of water and a purifier next to the tabernacle so that we could purify our digits before we returned to our pews. I also noticed that Father kept his fingers together also during the NO Mass. Maybe he has always done that, but I didn’t notice until he started celebrating the EF Mass. I think it’s one of the positive results of Summorum Pontificum: You’re more likely to see the “best practices” of the EF cross over to the NO, rather than the abuses of the NO pollute the EF. I cannot but admire Pope Benedict’s wisdom in this matter. Anyway, since it was obvious how careful Father was with his own hands, it made a world of sense for us EMHC to do the same.

    Now we have a new pastor. Last week I was mandated for one Mass to serve as EMHC. Sadly, I noticed no bowl of water and purifier. When returning to my pew, I examined my fingertips to ensure that no particle was attached to it. But I’ll mention it to Father: As long as we use EMHC, let’s make sure that they can perform this extraordinary function with the required reverence due to our Lord.

  14. JARay says:

    I have mentioned it before but I am one of those strange beings, an Instituted Acolyte. I have always followed what I have seen the priests doing over the many, many years; and after handling the Blessed Sacrament I always keep my index finger and thumb together until I cleanse the sacred vessels after Holy Communion. My understanding is that we Acolytes do have the privilege of cleansing the sacred vessels although the Extra-ordinary Ministers do not.

  15. Susan the Short says:

    In a former parish in another town, the sacristy had been converted into a side chapel, with the tabernacle behind bars like a prison cell.

    There was one sink in said chapel/sacristy….right outside the loo.

    Yes, that one sink was where one’s potty hands were washed, where the sacred vessels were purified by the old ladies of the altar guild, where flowers were trimmed and arranged……and presumably where the sacred species were dumped.

    BTW, having transformed the sacristy into a tiny 12 seat chapel, the priests then used the confessional to vest…..and to store the fake tower bells, the audio equipment etc. I tried to confess in there once. The priest had to shuffle a bunch of vestments around to provide us with seats. No kneeler, no partition.

    The fruits of Environment and Art in Catholic Worship. Ugh.

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