ASK FATHER: “Custom” and liturgical abuses (e.g., glass chalices)

From a reader…


What constitutes a custom? My friend appealed to custom when saying that we are allowed to use glass chalices, but I don’t think that applies here. So when can argue for something from a custom?

Using glass chalices at Mass is an abuse, not a custom.

That said…

For a custom to have the force of law, there are several requirements.

1) The custom cannot be contrary to divine law (can. 24, 1).

2) It must be reasonable (can. 24, 2).

3) It must be introduced by a community capable of receiving a law (can. 25).

4) The community must have the intent of introducing a law (can. 25).

5) If it contradicts the current law, it must be observed for thirty continuous and uninterrupted years (can. 26).

The use of glass chalices at Mass does not seem to be contrary to divine law.

When we get to the second requirement, that it is reasonable to use glass chalices, we hesitate and ask: Is it truly reasonable to use glass?  Glass is fragile.  Glass is an exceedingly common material.  It is reasonable to use glass to hold the Precious Blood of Our Savior? Hmmmm.

Concerning the next three requirements, this supposed “custom” falls entirely flat.

Who is introducing this “custom”? The parish community, or the priest and parish leadership? A litmus test of whether a practice fits the bill as a legitimate custom is to ask,  “How would the community react if this were taken away?”  The more disturbed the community would be, the more likely we are that we’re dealing with a custom introduced by the community with the intention of introducing a customary law. Would the parish be up in arms if, next Sunday, the glass chalices were replaced with dignified gold chalices? I suspect not.

Moreover, has this practice gone on for thirty years? What has the local bishop said about it? The universal Church, through the Congregation for Sacraments and Divine Worship, clearly condemned the use of glass chalices at Mass. That seems to be a clear vote in the “no” category for the supposed reasonableness of this alleged custom.

Again, using glass chalices at Mass is an abuse, not a custom.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Charles E Flynn says:

    It has been a long time since glass has been an expensive and high-status material.

  2. Father P says:

    I think we have to remember that the point of the “30 year” rule is not to allow an abuse of the current law to become “custom” but to respect the customs already established and in practice for at least a generation which were legitimate when they were established but which have been made illegitimate.

  3. Nathan says:

    I appreciate the excellent application of canon law to liturgical innovation here. I would also hope people would take a look at the underlying logic of a particular instance of liturgical innovation before appealing to custom:

    –Does the practice add to the honor given Almighty God? Compare, for instance, the use of glass chalices with, say, exposing relics on or around the altar during Holy Mass. Is the aim of the use of glass chalices to honor God and His saints or (as one might suspect in the current struggle) to “bring God down to our level?”

    –Does the practice clarify the Church’s teaching for the edification of the celebrant, the ministers, or the faithful? Compare, for instance, the development of the numerous genuflections and Signs of the Cross in the TLM with the introduction of glass chalices.

    –Is the practice an organic reflection of the love of God on the part of the innovator? Can one really say, “I’m introducing the use of glass chalices because it reflects my love of Almighty God and His gift of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?” A comparison might be useful in the development of the second Confiteor as part of the rite of distribution of Holy Communion with such practices such as glass chalices.

    –Finally, one might want to ask if the innovation is consistent with the liturgical practices of the Roman Rite from time immemorial. One might honestly believe that a liturgical interpretive dance around the sanctuary adds to God’s honor, clarifies teaching, and reflects the love of God. I’m not sure it is consistent with liturgical praxis of the Roman Rite, though. (And, often, it is self-referential.)

    For custom to be legitimate, I would argue, it has to truly be aimed at increasing the piety of the Christians there and ultimately intended to fittingly demonstrate latria to Almighty God.

    In Christ,

  4. I can hear it now: “But Father…but Father…Jesus didn’t use a precious gold chalice, did he? Didn’t that arise out of a custom?

  5. pjsandstrom says:

    There is a real difference between ‘ordinary glass’ and lead-crystal. One of the sights to see in the treasury of the Cathedral at Sens, France is the whole collection of lead-crystal chalices and patens coming from the 16/17th century. There is a crystal chalice and paten from the 13th century on display in the treasure room of the Cloisters Museum on Manhattan Island, NYC. There is at least one lead crystal chalice and paten on display also at the Cluny Museum in Paris, France. These were and are treated as ‘precious objects’ and their formal use is respected.

  6. wolfeken says:

    The most popular example of a custom at a traditional Latin Mass is retaining the final Confiteor before communion and reciting the Prayers After Low Mass, both of which were tinkered with by John XXIII/Bugnini, with authorities stating these practices may still be used.

    Another example involves posture for the congregation at the TLM — some parishes in the U.S. remain kneeling for the Pater Noster at a High Mass; most stand. In France, for instance, the custom is to kneel only at limited times during the TLM, far fewer than in the U.S. Since the missal is silent on the congregation’s posture, this is a classic example of a custom.

    The bar is pretty high for customs following Trent. A lot of other “customs” are actually illicit/abuses.

  7. Paul M. says:

    Any still existing custom of using glass chalices has been expressly reprobated. Redemptionis Sacramentum ¶ 117 (“Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass . . . other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily.”). Accordingly, any such remaining practice is legally unreasonable and cannot obtain the force of law. Can. 24 § 2.

  8. Charlotte Allen says:

    What do you make of a Baccarat chalice? Here are some photos from the Internet:

    Now, Baccarat crystal is really expensive, and it’s also very beautiful. (I got six Baccarat tulip-shape wine glasses as wedding presents, and I guard them with my life). So it would seem to pass the test of being “fine.” And way out of the ordinary.

    The breakability remains a problem. Nonetheless, one web-page informed me that Louis-Philippe commissioned a Baccarat chalice in 1840. Were crystal chalices regarded by the Church as legitimate back then–or did Louis-Philippe get away with it because he was the king of France?

    [Today: Liturgical abuse.]

  9. Elizabeth D says:

    A practice that is reprobated, as this is according to Redemptionis Sacramentum, has no legitimacy no matter how much of a custom may have formed about it.

  10. sw85 says:

    As Elizabeth D has said, too, a custom cannot acquire the protection of law against the will of the lawgiver — else abuse would cease to be abuse once we squirrel it past its 30th birthday. As the use of glass chalices has been repeatedly reprobated, it’s clear that it’s against the mind of the Supreme Lawgiver, hence cannot become a contra legem custom.

  11. Warren says:

    Consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est. Custom without truth is simply error grown old.—Saint Cyprian of Carthage. Letter to Pompeius, 73/9.

  12. Muzhik says:

    In addition to the prohibition against using glass and other “easily breakable objects”, the prohibition extends to the use of wooden chalices and patens. Wood, by definition, is a “common” substance, regardless of the rarity of the species of wood. The exception would be to line the inside and the top of the chalice and paten (respectively) with gold, so that the Precious Body and Blood remain in contact with the valuable metal.

    (This issue came up back in college when someone in the art department donated a BEAUTIFUL set of hand-turned and worked wooden chalices, etc. to the parish associated with the college, since at the Last Supper Jesus would have used wooden dishware. The issue was resolved by the donor having a friend in the art dept. line the utensils. It had to be more than just gold foil, since it had to stand up to regular use and hand washing. It actually increased the beauty of the final objects because the gold added a marvelous shimmer to the contents that worked with the type and color of the outside wood.)

    I’m not certain if silver can be used, since silver does tarnish.

  13. Andrew says:

    Can. 24 §2 A custom which is contrary to or apart from canon law, cannot acquire the force of law unless it is reasonable; a custom which is expressly reprobated in the law is not reasonable.
    This applies also to the Church’s language: The Apostolic Constitution Veterum Sapientia states: “Usage of Latin has recently been contested in many quarters, and many are asking what the mind of the Apostolic See is in this matter. We have therefore decided to issue these timely directives contained in this document, so as to ensure that the long-standing and uninterrupted use of Latin be maintained and, where necessary, restored.”
    In view of that statement, any custom of neglecting the usage of Latin is “unreasonable” and can never obtain the force of law.

  14. Elizabeth D says:

    “since at the Last Supper Jesus would have used wooden dishware”

    Although this was the impression I got from _Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade_, the type of vessel used for wine at a passover feast in the 1st century was something dignified rather than common tableware. The chalice claimed to be the real one from the Last Supper is a carved onyx bowl shape that was later set into gold as a footed chalice.

  15. Gerard Plourde says:

    It is good to know the law in this regard. The conundrum arises when confronted with the situations outlined in the previous July 8 post wherein the questioner wrote the bishop of the diocese and received the response that the bishop had granted a dispensation and a comment by a follower of the blog (it may have been Supertradmum) who recounted that a former bishop of her diocese had family ties to a glassworks and maintained steadfastly that glass could be a precious material. Since a bishop is sovereign in his diocese, we must accept that the liklihood of correction of the abuse in these circumstances is highly unlikely and offer any anguish or suffering we experience up for the benefit of the souls in Purgatory.

  16. Mr. Screwtape says:

    Dear pjsandstrom,

    It is immemorial custom that Staten, Long, Roosevelt, Liberty, Ellis, and Governors have the identifier “Island” as part of their proper names. If I am not mistaken, only the United States Geological Survey may with impunity call the seat of New York County “Manhattan Island”.

    Thus endeth the rant.

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Gerard Plourde: It was me who said it, so you got the first two syllables right! :) I’ve heard from several people over the years that Archbishop Pilarczyk’s dad worked with glass. However, I’ve been looking for actual facts and quotes and have learned that his dad did toolmaking. So it’s still possible as a hobby or that there’s some older family connection or job; or maybe people just made it up. Heck, maybe the archbishop just liked glass a lot; and didn’t need to be raised to like it. Shrug.

    Anyway, here’s his official portrait, where he directed that his Latinist side be set forth. Oddly enough, because the seminary wasn’t exactly doing much Latin when he ran it or when he was Archbishop. A puzzling man, all in all.

  18. pjsandstrom says:

    I was noting the geographical (not the political/civil) location of the Cloisters Museum. It is a ‘branch’ of the Metropolitan Museum of Arts but is not in the same place, but rather in Fort Tryon Park on Washington Heights n the upper end of Manhattan Island. By the way, the crystal Chalice and Paten on display in the treasury is of a green tinted colour and it seems with its size for use on a contemporary/Medieval style ‘portable altar’ while traveling. For the most part the collection found at Sens, France is the ‘standard’ tulip shape usual in 16th/17th Century (and still used for many metal chalices still in the catalogs).

  19. Markus says:

    In my past experiences, working with parishes, people whom want a metal chalice seem to emphasize the sacrificial aspect of the Mass. They respect the teaching that the chalice holds The Blood of Christ.

    Those whom want glassware always appear to also promote that the altar is a table and the Mass as a “happy meal.”

  20. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Markus,

    Your observations concerning the two views of the Mass point up the mystery at the center. It is both the Unbloody Sacrifice that unites us to the bloody sacrifice of Calvary and a reception of the real food of the Sacred Species that gives us eternal life and fortifies us for the journey of life in Christ in this world. Every Mass celebrates the events of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter that make us the childen of God charged with the mission to live and spread the Kingdom of Heaven. The difficulty occurs when we emphasize one element of our worship to the exclusion of the other.

  21. Markus says:

    You are correct, but to what degree of emphasis? Historically, the emphasis shifts, from the vertical emphasis (individual piety, etc.) to the horizontal (social) emphasis. These were usually small shifts, depending upon social and economic conditions. The second half of the 20th century appears, to me, that the horizontal emphasis has gone to extremes. Perhaps it was due to destruction of WWII and the rise of Communism. The result, now, is an age of extremes with no middle.
    For instance, traditional Catholic charities appear to be going to extremes. Example, make one donation and one receives years of junk mail. I find it insulting that religious medals are included, pyshcologically halting one to dump it in the trash can. One the other extreme, one is told to house an illegal immigrant family. Go to a different parish, within a city, and you experience a different emphasis. And yet, Catholics and Christians are being crucified in the Middle East. Confusing? Rudderless? Perhaps. Just a view from the pew.

  22. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Markus,

    I think that the key point is to ensure that the dual nature of the mystery of the Mass be maintained. The fruits born of devout participation in the Mass and faithful recepetion of the Ssacred Species will manifest themselves in various ways as they always have. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Now the body is not a single part, but many…Now you are Christ’s body…Some people God has designated in the church to be, first apostles; second, prophets; third, teachers; then, mighty deeds; then, gifts of healing; assistance, administration, and varieties of tongues.”

    In this way parish must assess the needs of the particular territory and community it serves.

    I agree with your statement about the persecution of the Church. But Our Lord stated clearly that this would always be the case. It also occurs in more places than the Middle East. We need look no ffarther than China to see persecution officially carried out by a government. The condition we should fear is active endorsement and assitance by a government. That is a sure sign of the temptation of Satan to succumb to the blandishments of the world.

  23. pjsandstrom says:

    Back when the ‘elevation of the host’ was inserted during the Eucharistic Prayer’s Consecration texts — it was thought appropriate to ‘look at and see and adore’ the Body of Christ. It took another 100 years (more or less) for the chalice to be similarly ‘elevated’ for adoration — but the ‘look and seeing’ was not possible unless the chalice was clear (made of crystal glass). Those 16th/17th century ‘lead crystal chalices’ still on view at Sens, France were a way of responding to the desire ‘to look and see and adore’. At the very least it is a good argument for using ‘red wine’ for consecration at Mass.

  24. New Amsterdam says:

    One of the few goods from the Ancient West (i.e. the Roman World) prized in the Ancient East were Roman glassworks.
    One of the finest examples surviving to this day is the Lycurgus Cup, now in the British Museum:
    Of course, the glass chalices I’ve seen aren’t nearly as beautiful as that but if someone were to use a Christian version of such a cup/chalice, I don’t see how that could constitute a liturgical abuse.

  25. AlexanderAerarius says:

    I have a hard time getting worked up over glass chalices. It seems to me if you’re handling a vessel hard enough to break it, you’re handling it in a way that probably risks spilling even with gold.

  26. I would like to add that even if something silly became law simply by virtue of not being repudiated, that would not prevent a competent authority from issuing a new law to stop it, and such competent authority may well be obliged to do such a thing. The problem is that in many places, customs are treated as doctrines. When someone tries to stop the silliness, the response is, “But this is the way we do it here and it feels good.”

  27. frjim4321 says:

    All that being said many if not most gold-colored metallic implements used today are of a very low quality base metal with a thin laquer (not gold) applied. It seems absurd to forego use of a fine porcelain vessel – or fine crystal – for a very bad piece of work from a religious goods catalogue. If I had a Waterford set of vessels I would prefer its use to the catalogue set (Altviti, Ziegler). I’ve never heard a convincing argument to the contrary.

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