ASK FATHER: Lay people purifying vessels at Mass

From a reader…

I recently attended a “school Mass” at a local Catholic school while I was substitute teaching for the day. I had the misfortune of happening upon a parish that uses about one extraordinary minister per member of the congregation. After Mass, the extraordinary ministers gathered around the credence table to purify their vessels (they had given the Eucharist under both species in about 5 Chalices and Ciboriums each) while the priest stood by at the altar not really doing much. Eventually the priest purified his chalice at the credence table (not the Altar!). This situation seemed dubious to me (not to say for some other portions of the Liturgy). Is that permissible?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) makes the matter pretty clear. GIRM 163, 270, and 271 indicate that the vessels are to be purified by the priest.   He can purify the vessels either at the altar or at the credence table.

If there is a deacon present at Mass, in accord with GIRM 183, he should purify the vessels at the credence table. It is also permissible simply to cover the vessels and purify them after Mass. That purification may be done by a priest, deacon, or, if no deacon is available, an instituted acolyte.  An instituted acolyte, not just anyone.  And an “instituted acolyte” is not someone who substitutes for the instituted acolyte, if you get my drift.

The Bishops in these USA had permission to experiment with allowing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (EMHCs) to purify the vessels. That permission was granted on March 22, 2002, for a period of three years.

That permission lapsed on March 22, 2005.

The bishops requested an extension of the permission, but no response was forthcoming.

They renewed the request in March 2006.

On 12 October 2006, we just missed the anniversary, Card. Arinze, then-Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments wrote to the bishops to tell them that their request for an extension had been denied.

Hence, it is no longer permissible for EMHC’s to purify vessels.

Purifying the sacred vessels is a priestly thing.

One of a priest’s most important duties is maintaining the worship of God in and for the Church. That includes maintaining the things needed for the Church’s worship.

Isn’t it interesting that some of the priests who most often spew about the “bad old days” of clericalism, and who want to just be “one of the guys”, Father Just-Call-Me-Bruce, are also the priests who don’t want to purify their sacred vessels?  This is part and parcel of their mentality that doling out priestly tasks to the laity is the way to “empower” the lay faithful, to get them to participate “actively”.   This is real clericalism, negatively understood.  That’s so condescending of those priests: “I’m going to let you do something that I do, because you are not enough on your own, as a baptized person.  Nope, I get to make you special.”

Priests should help the laity embrace the apostolates in the world to which God has called them and for which He has equipped them.  That’s what priests are for: we offer Sacrifice, we give sacraments and counsel and teach in the name of the Church so that lay people can fulfill their roles in the world the best they can.

A priest was once heard to mutter loudly in the sacristy, “I don’t know why Rome won’t let lay people purify the chalices! I’ve got so many better things to do with my time than ‘do the dishes.'” A lay woman who was helping out in the same sacristy turned to him and retorted, “Yeah, that’s beneath you as a priest. That’s lay people work, isn’t it? It’s not like I’ve got anything better to do with my time, like go pick up my mother-in-law from the nursing home and bring her back to the house for the day, cook breakfast for my family, help my children with their homework, pack my husband’s clothes for his business trip, and collect some food from the neighbor’s for the food shelf. I’m sure you’ve got much better things to do than me.”

Honestly.  Lay people face things that would make most priests curl up in a ball and suck their thumbs.   On the other hand, believe me, lay people don’t want to deal with some of the things that the diligent and faithful priest (hated by Satan) deals with.

We don’t do lay people any favors by blurring the distinctions of the priesthood of the ordained and of the baptized.

we also don’t do them any favors by hiding the Truth or soft-peddling it until it is meaningless.

We each have our roles. Vive la différence.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    This is a fantastic post! People need to go back and study I Corinthians 12. Each of us has a role. Just because those roles are different doesn’t make one more or less important than another. Trying to take a role that rightly belongs to another is both ineffective and ridiculous. Shirking one’s own rightful duties – even something as small as doing the dishes – is a sin.

  2. Genna says:

    At the parish nearest to my home, the priest just sits twiddling his thumbs while lay “ministers” purify the vessels. Mind you, he leaves the sanctuary at a rate of knots to glad-hand parishioners at the sign of peace. I never receive Holy Communion there.
    It is rather unnverving to see people swigging from the chalice, so the best thing to do is look down and pray. You guessed it, they are in their 60s and 70s as, unfortunately, are most of the congregation.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Actually, “sacred vessels of gold and silver” were often taken to symbolize all the people of the Church, as well as all the Jewish people. (Because when the people got taken to Babylon, the sacred vessels were taken too; and when the Lord brought the people back, He brought back His sacred vessels, too.)

    So the clergy take care of all the people in the Church, and they take care of purifying the sacred vessels, too. Seems pretty logical to me.

  4. CradleRevert says:

    You think this is bad… When I was a young, poorly-catechized altar boy (probably only about 11 years old at the time), we once had a priest who filled in for our regular priest one Sunday, and this priest didn’t purify the vessels AT ALL. He merely left them sitting on the altar, with some of the Precious Blood still in the chalice. After Mass, he left us altar boys to go proceed with the clean-up. From what I recall, we ended up dumping some of the Precious Blood down the drain because we didn’t know whether we were supposed to consume it. May God forgive us. Obviously, we didn’t know any better at the time, but knowing what I know now that memory haunts me.

  5. LeeF says:

    At a conservative parish where I attended daily Mass for years and often served as lector or server, and prior to the 2005 time when it was no longer permitted, the priest would often have myself or an EMHC purify the vessels. While I did not mind helping out and was more confident of my own ability to properly and reverently carry out the task than most EMHCs, I never felt comfortable with it. It is indeed a duty properly belonging to the clerical state. While in my current more liberal parish I have never seen anyone other than the priest or deacon purify the vessels, I could imagine a rare case of genuine necessity occurring where a layperson might be asked to do same. Emphasis on genuine and rare. Unfortunately we know that if reasonable liturgical exceptions are available, the liberal and lazy will take that inch and go a mile, just as with the widespread and common use of EMHCs.

  6. Royse87 says:

    I’ve always found it really interesting the important differences in our vocations. I was once talking to a priest friend who is much older than me about raising children and he had a lot of great questions. Just like I have questions about doing priestly things, he had questions about kids, wives and deploying to Afghanistan. Both are important vocations, both are very, very different.

  7. majuscule says:

    How timely!

    EMHCs at my church were all trained at different times. I got my training after Cardinal Arinze’s letter and we were told that the priest was to purify the vessels. Well, we “didn’t do it that way” and at that time I was rather timid and didn’t speak up. There were other reasons too complicated too get into here.

    Recently our newest EMHC, trained elsewhere, suggested we get together (maybe this Sunday) with one of the priests to work out a consistent procedure. (LOL I think this priest would be happy with doing away with EMHCs altogether!) Things are confusing because each of our three priests is different…one purifies all vessels. One wants the EMHC to purify their chalice and the other priest is so new to us and I’m not sure what he wants us to do.

    I’m printing this out!

  8. capchoirgirl says:

    I was an EMHC at my old parish (I had no idea that they weren’t a “thing to have”, now I know better!), and one EMHC was asked to clean the vessels after every Mass, in the sacristy. Not purify–“clean”. I only had to do it a few times but it always made me nervous. So glad my current parish doesn’t have EMHCs at all!

  9. jacobi says:

    It is a long established Catholic practice, confirmed by St Francis (12th century), that only anointed hands should touch the Sacred Species, and the sacred vessels. That would forbid laity, under normal circumstances, purifying and indeed handling directly the sacred vessels.

    The use of EMHCs, (or rather, lay distributers since they are not Ministers) was intended for exceptional circumstance but has now become routine, as at my local weekday Mass with say, 10 people present. This is wrong, in my view.

    Receiving by hand from either emHC or a priest also breaks this ancient custom.

    There is a simple answer. Return to the ancient customs of our Catholic forebears and receive from the anointed hands of a priest, or deacon, (or instituted acolyte, if appropriate ) and receive directly by mouth.

  10. incredulous says:

    I’d appreciate pastoral input on how to handle this. Our large parish only has one permanent priest, the pastor, associated with the church. We have 3 or 4 visiting priests who rotate through on vigil and Sundays.

    The chalice and priest ciborium are purified by the priest at the alter all the time. However, we usually have 4 or 5 empty ciboria that are carried by the EMHCs to the sacristy where they are purified by either the visiting priests if they are the celebrants or an EMHC if the Pastor is the celebrant and a Deacon does not serve with Father.

    Most of the time, the EMCH purifies the ciboria. I could just let the EMHC purify, stand back and not say anything, but if it’s against the current protocol, then I think I need to say something to Father as it seems disrespectful to Jesus after reading this. What do you recommend?

  11. Magpie says:

    Very good Father. I was horrified when I saw an EMHC do the purifying of the vessels at a Mass here in Ireland a few weeks ago. Of course, in the same church, the band of EMHC receive the Sacred Host at the same moment as the priest, gathered as they are around the altar. The abuses here are tremendous and nobody seems to know, notice, or care.

  12. colemanmd says:

    I found out while being a noon altar server that abuses were taking place and did what i could to stem the violence being done to our Lord.
    daily Mass at this Parish the laity were purifying the vessels following Mass and we were instructed to do this in the back sink and I overheard a few of the EMHC normally were dumping the remainder of the Precious Blood down a drain in the back following Mass, I was horrified and it was met with “why are you making a big deal about this we always do it this way”

    I gladly became the “bad” guy and put a stop to this while I was living in the area until I lost my Job, my home, nearly my marriage and my only son. this was in 2009 at Holy Family Cathedral in Orange CA.

  13. John Nolan says:

    ‘The moving waters at their priestlike task/Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores’. Thus Keats, certainly an agnostic, possibly an atheist.

    The first of the two prayers said by the priest at the Ablutions (Quod ore sumpsimus … ) was retained in the Novus Ordo.

  14. JARay says:

    We, here in Western Australia, do happen to have Instituted Acolytes. I happen to be one and I have been for 39 years. I knew then that we had the privilege of purifying the sacred vessels and that the EMHCs did not. I was not informed of the position in the USA but we did have a visiting priest from there who informed me that we did not have that privilege even though I was quite certain that we did. He did the purification so that was fine by me.

  15. Grateful to be Catholic says:

    Several years ago at a dinner I was at a table with a young priest from Chicago. He was complaining about how long it took to purify the vessels after Communion because there were so many. Recovering from my shock that he would complain about such a sacred duty, I asked why so many and he said because Communion has to be given under both Species. I demurred but he insisted that Vatican II required that because it said that the liturgy must always be celebrated in the most honorable way possible and that means everyone should receive under both Species. Where to begin? Was he taught this in the seminary? I was not able to quote Sacrosanctum concilium exactly, but I told him that the Council only allowed Communion under both Species as an exception on a few specified occasions, but he adamantly insisted on his position.

    I read SC in the late ’60s and I suspect the good father never read it. I know that the occasions for offering Communion under both Species have been expanded. In my geographic parish, where I rarely attend, it is a daily occurrence, which I am not sure is actually allowed. Is this idea that it is required very widespread?

  16. ChesterFrank says:

    The only chalice I ever see purified is the priests chalice, and that is usually purified by the priest. All of the others get put onto the little table . Is the little table the credence table? I will guess that those other chalices are likely purified after the Mass, and I would guess by the priest. I remember years ago after communion the priest would purify the chalice, place a cloth and board on top it, and then drape another cloth over them. What ever happened to that practice?

  17. Charles E Flynn says:


    To answer your first question: yes.

    To answer your second question: the same thing that happened to a lot of other reverent practices after the implementation of Vatican II.

  18. TitanTom says:

    A good “hod carrier” does not do the work of a good “brick layer.”

  19. The Cobbler says:

    “I remember years ago after communion the priest would purify the chalice, place a cloth and board on top it, and then drape another cloth over them. What ever happened to that practice?”
    I’ve been to places that still do that, or something like that, in the Novus Ordo. Not sure what’s on the books about it though.

  20. Grumpy Beggar says:

    In that grand tradition of , literally, WDTPS , grab hold of the Roman Missal and have a look at the prayer the priest prays as he drinks the ablution when purifying the vessels. It’s quite profound. I personally find that the prayer from our new translation of the Roman Missal moves me even a little more than the prayer from the previous version does. But I believe if you have a chance to read either one (or both), it subsequently becomes a lot clearer to the reader who should be purifying the vessels.

  21. majuscule says:

    “I remember years ago after communion the priest would purify the chalice, place a cloth and board on top it, and then drape another cloth over them. What ever happened to that practice?”

    That’s what’s done in our church (OF Mass). Well, maybe the final cloth (what is it called?) isn’t always draped over it–depends which priest we have.

  22. Geoffrey says:

    “Hence, it is no longer permissible for EMHC’s to purify vessels”.

    I do not think the parishes in my diocese ever received this memo from way back in 2006! About a year ago I became a deputed (non-instituted) acolyte / extraordinary minister of Holy Communion and sacristan at my parish, which sometimes requires me to purify and cleanse the sacred vessels after Mass. I always try to do this in a prayerful and reverent way.

    I have asked my bishop if he would institute me as an acolyte and he said yes… I am just waiting for the details to be worked out! Saint Tarcisius, Martyr of the Eucharist and Patron of Acolytes, pray for us!

  23. KateD says:

    Being ignorant, I never quite know what to do when Jesus is just left sitting there and set aside on the little table… we just keep kneeling until the vessels are purified or removed. Thank you for posting the GIRM perhaps it will help.

  24. Imrahil says:

    Adding a piece of clericalist flavor (but in my view of a true clericalism), I’d add that while the laity role and the clergy role are distinct, the clergy role is objectively higher and more honorable.

    (It’s a banality, but: this does not mean the laity role would be dishonorable or negligible. Egalitarianism is wrong.

    As E.M. v. Kuehnelt-Leddihn, a great opponent of egalitarianism, put it: Some are worth more than others, but everyone is worth something; everyone is indispensable.)


    In fact, I don’t think the problem with “I’ve got so many better things to do with my time than ‘do the dishes.’” is disrespect for the laity’s jobs. It’s something else. If the priest thinks his job is to counsel, comfort and threaten people, preach the Faith and use his skills as a trained theologian in the process, all the while keeping an institution (the parish) running as a manager, then it might be objectively said he has got better things to do than “do the dishes”. And, of course, that is indeed his job.

    Only it is his secondary job.

    His first job is offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    Which is a holy thing – taking “holy” in the sense it was used before mankind ever thought of connecting the word to morality. It is also a holy thing (in the same sense) to purify the sacred vessels, because it is the Holy Of Holies that is contained within them.

    But of course that requires a respect for the ancient ideas about cult. “Cultic” must not be considered merely a term of abuse. We are there to worship God; everything else is secondary. By coincidence, it is a lot more fun to worship God than to be preached morality.


    As for the general topic, I’d think of one exception: if there is distribution of the Chalice (and I’m not saying we should discuss here whether there should be ;-) ), and if less people Received under the Species of Wine than expected (they intincted, Received u. t. S. o. Bread alone, or did not Communicate at all), it makes sense to let the EMHCs do part of the purifying w.r.t. drinking the remaining Species. It is to be avoided to get drunk from the Sacred Species, and the priest might still need to drive a car afterwards.

  25. John Nolan says:

    The use of a chalice veil (in the colour of the day or simply white) is recommended in the OF but is not obligatory. The burse (which holds the folded corporal) and the pall (which prevents impurities from falling into the chalice) serve eminently practical purposes. The relative neglect of these items in recent years is a result of: 1. The practice of consecrating multiple chalices for Communion in both kinds. In many cases this makes the altar resemble nothing so much as a table set for a school prize-giving. 2. An exaggerated literalism which is a feature of the OF as usually celebrated. When seated at table it is not usual to place the coaster on top of the wine-glass.

    I once watched a priest interrupt the Eucharistic Prayer for five minutes while he struggled to remove a fly from the Precious Blood. To suggest he might have used a pall would no doubt have appalled him.

    I notice it is still used in St Peter’s, removed and replaced by the deacon.

  26. Grumpy Beggar says:

    (Not at home at the moment, so can’t verify every word , but here is the prayer as per an online sample version of the New Translation of the Roman Missal)

    30. T hen the Priest purifies the paten over the chalice and also the chalice itself. The chalice, paten, corporal and purificator are taken by the minister to the credence table or left on the altar.
    While he carries out the purification, the Priest says quietly:

    What has passed our lips as food, O Lord,
    may we possess in purity of heart,
    that what has been given to us in time
    may be our healing for eternity.

    31. A sacred silence may be observed for a while.

  27. mysticalrose says:

    “Honestly. Lay people face things that would make most priests curl up in a ball and suck their thumbs. ”

    Best. Line. Ehvur.

    The Church works so much better when we all do our own jobs. I don’t need to be on the altar. The priest doesn’t need to be changing diapers. Everyone to their own post!

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