ASK FATHER: Hands under a cloth during Communion

From a reader…


I have attended Mass in the Extraordinary Form fairly often in several US and UK cities over the past decade, and I was surprised to observe something new. An Institute of Christ the King church near me has recently attached a long white cloth to the communion rail. Normally it hangs down on the sanctuary side; the server comes and flips it over the top to cover the rail before communion, and then flips it back afterwards.

I have noticed that many communicants clutch this cloth, or fold their hands underneath it. At first I thought it might be a fail-safe for the server’s paten, if a Host fell; but not everyone holds it as if to catch anything, and unceremoniously flipping the cloth back afterwards would seem to negate that, anyway. I am perplexed, because it looks like an act of piety by the communicants but for no apparent symbolic purpose.

This is not my regular parish, and I am not sure whether the pastor has explained the cloth’s significance or instructed his parishioners to clutch it. Can you shed any light? Am I expected to do this, too, and if so, why?

This seems to be a case of old rubrical habits dying slowly.

In early centuries, where Holy Communion was still administered to the hands of the recipients (which wasn’t as common as some claim), men sometimes received directly on their hands, while women put their hands underneath a white cloth called a domenical or houseling cloth.

Those who advocate a wholesale return to the practices of the early Church (the liturgical archeologizing against which Ven. Pius XII warned) are often selective in what practices they wish to revive. In some places, both men and women used the houseling cloth.

When Holy Communion began to universally be distributed on the tongue, the use of the paten, directly under the chin of the recipient, became the norm. The Communion cloth was still employed, but rather than being held by two servers, it was more often attached directly to the altar rail.   It would be flipped over to the communicants side before Communion.  No mention is made rubrically of the faithful having to put their hands underneath the houseling cloth, though in many places this appears to be the custom.

Unless a host actually falls on the houseling cloth, the likelihood of any bit of the Sacred Host touching it is pretty slim, especially if the servers are doing their job well with the paten.

And you servers and you who train them… use that paten properly!   I have many times seen inattentive (poorly trained) servers fling the thing around.  It is for catching a Host and Its particles!   BE CAREFUL!

Okay… I’m back.

If it seems to you that the practice of the place you visit is to put one’s hands under the houseling cloth, feel free to comply with their custom. The communion cloth is both a symbolic and real means of emphasizing the tremendous value of the Sacrament.  The care with which the Eucharist is distributed to and received by the faithful should be an obviously hallmark of all our Catholic churches.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem said in his Catechetical Lectures,

“Tell me, if anyone gave you gold-dust, would you not take hold of it with every possible care, ensuring that you did not mislay any of it or sustain any loss?”

How much more care ought we to show when we are being given is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of the Son of God!

And let’s get rid of Communion in the hand.



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Question for you father and/or canonists: Even though communion in the hand was put in place via an indult, has it now by its practice for over 30 years attained the canonical status of custom, and would such status not allow an ordinary to now revoke such practice in his diocese?

  2. Robbie says:

    St. Martin of Tours in Louisville uses the communion cloth attached to the altar rail. Some place their hands beneath it while others don’t.

  3. Hans says:

    Would such a Communion cloth be the likely inspiration of this altar rail of two angels holding a (marble) cloth at Capella Spada, S. Girolamo della Carità in Rome? (Photo by Fernando López.)

  4. Netmilsmom says:

    Doesn’t Father Richard Heilman have one of these for his new Altar Rail?

  5. jhayes says:

    Question for you father and/or canonists: Even though communion in the hand was put in place via an indult, has it now by its practice for over 30 years attained the canonical status of custom, and would such status not allow an ordinary to now revoke such practice in his diocese?

    Although Communion in the hand was originally permitted (1969) by indult, it is now regulated by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which delegates to each national council of bishops the authority to determine, subject to the recognitio of the Holy See “the manner of receiving Holy Communion (cf. nos. 160, 283)”

    In the US, GIRM 160 provides:

    It is not permitted for the faithful to take the consecrated Bread or the sacred chalice by themselves and, still less, to hand them on from one to another among themselves. The norm established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling (Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum, March 25, 2004, no. 91).

    When receiving Holy Communion, the communicant bows his or her head before the Sacrament as a gesture of reverence and receives the Body of the Lord from the minister. The consecrated host may be received either on the tongue or in the hand, at the discretion of each communicant.

    The Roman Missal, Third Edition for use in the Dioceses of the United States of America was confirmed by decree of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments on March 26, 2010 (Prot. n. 1464/06/L). Proper adaptations for the United States were confirmed on July 24, 2010 (Prot. n. 577/10/L).

    Communion in the hand, standing, is now regulated by the Roman Missal and not by an Indult.

  6. jhayes says:

    The last sentence above is my comment and not apart of the quote from the GIRM.

  7. rbbadger says:

    I know that in those sui iuris churches which use the Byzantine Rite, there is a cloth help under the chin the communicants while communion is distributed to the faithful. In this case, the faithful also includes children and young infants!

    Most Roman Rite Catholics, including those who work in the Holy See, probably do not really appreciate just how scandalous our current liturgical situation is viewed by the Orthodox churches. While there are many significant barriers to union, such as disagreements among the Orthodox themselves over how primacy is to be exercised, the current states of the ordinary form of the Roman Rite is deeply scandalous to them.

  8. We have a cloth (Holy Trinity, Philadelphia). We were instructed to put our hands beneath it to prevent someone moving their hands around and knocking it from the priest’s hand.

  9. w0343009 says:

    Mother Angelica’s Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery uses it!

    I have seen the FSSP use it also.

  10. Supertradmum says:

    Several churches I attended in Europe had these altar railing cloths. I just automatically put my hands underneath, as it seemed “seemly” to do so.

    I suppose these churches always had them and still carry on the older tradition.

  11. Andrew_81 says:

    The use of the Mass paten at solemn Mass is quite old, but the use of the communion plate (the one with the handle) is of fairly recent usage. Mgr. Pope wrote a piece a while back with specifics, but it was not until 1929 that the communion plate was made mandatory and previously it was tolerated but not recommended. The plate was not meant to replace the cloth but to be used along with it. Of course, human nature and all, it effectively did.

    AFAIK, the cloth was a Roman practice but not strictly mandatory until the 1929 SRC decision, but I don’t have the books available right now.

    From my own personal experience, I’d recommend against putting your hands under the cloth: (1) it soils the cloth very quickly, (2) the cloth symbolizes an extension of the altar linens on the table of the altar which are not normally touched, (3) it causes the cloth to bunch oddly making it unlikely that a dropped host would be caught by the cloth but rather redirected unpredictably, (4) hands underneath means you’re already several more inches away from the rail and makes even more likely that a dropped host will fall outside of the sanctuary since now there’s a gap.

    Instead I’d recommend with a cloth on the rail that you place your hands flat against your body around waist level (your lap were you sitting) bellying up to the rail, putting the tongue way out with your head slightly back (to make Father’s job easier), saying nothing, retracting the time only after the host is really on your tongue, then leaving without any extraneous pious gestures (again for the sake of unity and practicality/time).

    Where I’ve seen this done I’ve rarely seen dropped hosts or problems.

    At the same point in time, best not to rock the boat if there’s already a custom which is not unreasonable.

  12. Bea says:

    I have (or had) a copy of an uncle’s First Communion Certificate.
    It must have been around the 1880’s.
    It pictured a boy holding the altar cloth below his chin as he received.
    It was the first time I ever saw the use of an altar cloth.
    I have since seen it pictured elsewhere, but in this particular town in Mexico, it must have been the norm at that time.
    It would seem to me to be a practical way of saving any of the Precious Species from falling to the floor and/or from slipping off the smooth surface of the gilded paten.
    I’ve really got to look and see if I still have that copy. It is a real keepsake.

  13. catholictrad says:

    The Institute of Christ the King in Kansas City also has the cloth. Thank you for educating me because I found nothing about this out in the Internet. Or I just couldn’t figure out what to call it!

    Andrew_81, I agree completely with “leaving without any extraneous pious gestures”! I’ve seen distribution tripped up many times by people who want to do their personal devotions at the altar rail rather than back at the pew. The same goes with confession. The confessional is not the place for spiritual direction, while 20 people wait in line.

  14. Mike says:

    “. . . putting the tongue way out with your head slightly back (to make Father’s job easier) . . .”

    Indeed: and eyes downcast, too. Alas, I still forget to do much of that. A Hail Mary now ascends on behalf of (and a virtual apology extends to) all priests and other Eucharistic ministers, both TLM and NO, who have done their best to administer the Host so as to maximize the chance of its remaining on the tongue of my bowed head.

  15. RJ Sciurus says:

    I too am at the Institute Oratory in Kansas City. We were instructed to place our hands under the cloth and raise it up but safely below the paten as something of a safety net for lack of a better expression. Salutem Rete?

  16. Gerard Plourde says:

    A comment made on my Senior retreat in high school in 1971 (admittedly from the “communion in the hand”) school resonates in my mind every time I receive. “In your hands is not a what but a Who.” No matter what the mechanics (on the tongue or in the hand) this awareness is essential.

  17. Josemaria says:

    Father, if I may ask, how did you know all this?

    The depth of the history of liturgical practice and symbolism is astounding. I would love a recommendation on history of the Roman Rite.

  18. majuscule says:

    I’ve attended a monthly Mass celebrated by a priest from the Institute of Christ the King (but not at one of their Oratories). There is no altar rail at that church so they use a row of kneelers with the white cloth. And the server uses the communion plate with the handle.

  19. Darren says:

    I first saw this cloth (attached to the rail) at Mater Ecclesiae in Berlin, NJ. St. John the Baptist in Allentown uses a form of with the alter boys hold like in the photo above as they have no rail but put a few prie dieu kneelers up for Communion. Fr. Woodrow there learned from Fr. Pasley at Mater Ecclesiae. I asked my parents who remember Masses pre Vatican II and they never saw them. We are from Jersey City, NJ. I have not seen its use at the Holy Rosary Mass in Jersey City (haven’t been back yet since they moved it around the corner to St. Anthony’s). I wonder if it is a regional thing? Maybe some bishops in the past made calls on this?

    Berlin is closer to Philadelphia and Jersey City is across the river from NYC.

  20. Gerard Plourde says:


    I don’t remember the cloth in Philadelphia (St. Madeline Sophie, now closed) Pre-Vatican II either. The communion plate was all we had.

  21. Mike Morrow says:

    I was an altar boy at a parish in Arkansas for several years before post-Vatican II liturgical collapse. I never saw such a cloth on the communion rails at any Catholic church in those days.

    The first time I saw it used was at the 14 September 2007 Mass coincident with the effective date of Summorum Pontificum at the OLAM Shine in Hanceville, AL. I immediately understood its purpose, and why some were placing their hands under it. I thought it was a pleasing sign of reverence that must then obviously pre-date Vatican II innovation.

  22. gheg says:

    I remember this cloth being used at my parish in the early 1960s, and disappearing later in the same decade.

  23. jbas says:

    Priests cover our hands when giving a solemn Eucharistic Benediction. Isaiah saw the seraphim covering themselves as he received his purifying “communion”. The Communion cloth seems to fit well into this tradition.

  24. Andrew_81 says:


    While the pious practices of a person penchant can hold up the line or otherwise be distracting, I’ve more than once seen a communicant nearly knock the ciborium out of the priest’s hand by making the sign of the Cross immediately after receiving. One of these times several hosts came out landing on the plate, floor, and the vestments. A true nightmare. There was no cloth because there was no rail, just a pair of prie-dieu.

    Often serving Mass, I’ve also seen in places where there’s a cloth and hands go under several times where a dropped host go on the nave side of the rail because the person was belly-up to the rail (hence a gap into which a host can fall) and the bunching of the cloth caused the host to fall away from the sanctuary. In every case had the hands been flat against the lap and the person up against the rail I am sure the host would have fallen either on the flat cloth, or into the sanctuary where it would be easier to deal with. Hence my advice.

  25. Eric says:

    Our parish uses one. We were instructed to put our hands underneath and make a “table” with the cloth in case the host was dropped and missed the paten.
    The “table” is to be made by putting both hands in a “stick ’em up” (his exact words, I think) (Thumb up, index finger extended)configuration with the thumbs against the chest a few inches below the chin and hands slightly wider apart than one’s head.

    I do it every time. Few others do.

  26. Urget_nos says:

    ‘Matters Liturgical’, Wuest, 1956
    #143. The Communion-Cloth. …
    (c) A communion-cloth shall be spread before the faithful when receiving Communion. This is prescribed in the Missal (M.R.: RITUS, x,6), by the Ritual (R.R: v, v, II AD1), and by the Ceremonial (C.E.: II, c. XXIX, N.3). The binding force of this rubric has been reaffirmed by the Congregation of the Sacraments in its Instruction of March 26, 1929…
    (d) The communion-cloth is not to be held or handled by the communicants. It is merely draped over the rail, so that it covers at least the top of the rail. To catch any fragments that may fall from the Host, the communicants are to use the communion-plate, as explained in n. 109 f.

    [Notes: a) there is a newer version of ‘Matters Liturgical’ by Wuest than I can lay my hands on, and b) these instructions (from 1956) reflect the version of the Missal in use before the 1962 Missal of St. John XXIII.]

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