ASK FATHER: Loosey goosey excuses for liturgical abuses

From a reader…


I went to a another parish ___ since I was out of town. The chalices were made of glass. I wrote the Bishop of the Diocese of ___ expressing my concern of the abuse and I was told that the Bishop gave a dispensation because it was an expensive gift in memory of someone as part of a fundraising to build the Church. Is there a dispensation for this type of thing? The other thing I saw and asked about was the fact that a lay person was cleaning the sacred vessels. I was told that the Priest is allergic to wheat and or alcohol and that again a dispensation was given. I have a wheat allergy and it isn’t a problem for me to touch wheat. Just curious about all of this. To me it sounds loosey goosey.

For an answers, I consulted trusted canonists.

One trust clerical canonist wrote:

Ah summertime. The chance to travel and explore. The opportunity to visit different churches around the country and stumble across novel liturgical practices, and to be scandalized by the same.

What is amazing here is the speed with which the interlocutor received a response from the bishop’s office! Under a week! Kudos to the bishop’s office for at least replying with great haste.

The 2004 Instruction, Redemptionis Sacramentum makes it clear that vessels for Holy Mass should be made from solid, precious, and unbreakable materials.

Article 117 states, “Sacred vessels for containing the Body and Blood of the Lord must be made in strict conformity with the norms of tradition and of the liturgical books. The Bishops’ Conferences have the faculty to decide whether it is appropriate, once their decisions have been given the recognitio by the Apostolic See, for sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as well. It is strictly required, however, that such materials be truly noble in the common estimation within a given region, so that honour will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided. Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate.”

Now, (and we’re playing a little inside baseball here, so pay attention to the particulars) Redemptionis Sacramentum is an instruction (canon 34) issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. As an instruction, it is not in and of itself “law,” nor does it possess papal authority, since the Holy Father merely approved of it in the common manner. Therefore, it would seem possible for a bishop to make contrary provisions.

But wait! As an instruction, RS is intended to provide for the proper application of a law – an instruction is a means by which a law, the meaning of which may be doubtful, is explained and the faithful are instructed on how it is to be employed. It is an instruction, primarily, on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani – which “institution” is unfortunately translated as “instruction”, although the IGMR is very much so law, and not merely an instruction).

The IGMR makes it clear that “sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal,” (p. 328) though provisions are made for them to be made from other “solid materials that, according to the common estimation in each region, are precious…” No mention is made of glass, and the clarifying Instruction bars the use of glass outright.

A bishop has a significant amount of latitude in legislating in his diocese. He cannot, however, act in contradiction to a higher law. Canon 135 explicitly states that “A lower legislator cannot validly issue a law contrary to a higher norm.”

It’s a similar situation with regards to laity purifying the vessels during or after Mass. The law of the General Instruction (p. 279) says that the vessels are to be purified by the priest, a deacon, or an instituted acolyte. The bishop has no authority to dispense from that law. If the priest is unable to accomplish this task, the bishop should either assign a deacon, or institute an acolyte or two to assist the priest.

All that said, we’re left with the question of what to do when confronted by liturgical abuse such as the above. We can certainly complain and write letters and try to explain to priests that what they’re doing is wrong. Chances are, it will have little effect. At this point in time, we’re very close to a tipping point – the number of solid, orthodox, young priests, inspired by Pope Benedict XVI and his vision of liturgical reform is quickly outpacing the outdated and tired vision of the 70’s and 80’s. In most places (I realize not all, but most) a rubrically correct liturgy and an orthodox homily are within a relatively short drive. My advice – rather than subject oneself to undue stress and concern, when one encounters liturgical abuse or weirdness, walk away and find the nearest solidly orthodox priest and parish.


Here is the answer of another canonist:

My initial thought is that the questioner is being lied to, unless there was a LOT lost in translation between the response she received and her summary of the response. In other words, my hunch is that they’re just defying the rubrics and then covering it up with a bunch of semi-coherent excuses. But assuming she’s getting the truth:

Taking the second “dispensation” first, the 2003 circular letter from the CDF regarding the use of mustum and low-gluten hosts says, “If a priest is able to take wine, but only a very small amount, when he is the sole celebrant, the remaining species of wine may be consumed by a layperson participating in that celebration of the Eucharist.” So in theory, a layperson could licitly have at least some part in the purification of the sacred vessels in such circumstances, lapse of the general indult for the US notwithstanding. It’s hard to see what circumstances would require a layperson to take over the purification altogether: if a priest has such a severe allergy/addiction that he cannot even touch wheat or wine, one wonders how he can celebrate the Mass at all.

The first “dispensation” is considerably more dubious. Redemptionis Sacramentum 117 reprobates the use of glass vessels, not because (or not solely because) they are not commonly regarded as noble, but because they are inherently breakable. They create a wanton risk of profanation. Any dispensation requires “a just and reasonable cause, after taking into account the circumstances of the case and the gravity of the law from which dispensation is given; otherwise the dispensation is illicit and, unless it is given by the legislator himself or his superior, also invalid” (c. 90 §1). Here we have a very grave law being dispensed in the name of a seemingly trivial cause (not wanting to hurt the feelings of a donor?).

Stretching the limits of charity and physics, I guess it’s not altogether impossible. Hypothetically if we were dealing with an unusually durable glass chalice (a durability equivalent to metal) of unmistakable nobility, and if somehow even the appearance to the faithful of a risk of profanation were somehow excluded, I think a dispensation could be justified. Or to look at it another way, when RS says “alia vasa ex vitro, argilla, creta aliisve materiis confecta, quae facile frangantur,” you could read the “quae” clause as restrictive; in that case, a dispensation sensu stricto, would not be necessary at all.

Loosey goosey indeed.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. pelerin says:

    At the Mass I attended on Sunday I noticed that the bowls containing the Sacred Hosts looked as if they were made of pottery or earthenware. I suppose they could have been unbreakable I don’t know but it would not have been advisable to complain to our Bishop as he was the Celebrant along with another Bishop, an Archbishop and a Cardinal!

  2. dans0622 says:

    I think the canonist’s first impression is most probable. The term “dispensation”, in come circles, tends to be used in a loosey goosey manner. “Dispensed” sounds more authoritative than “excused” which sounds better than “the excuse is…”

  3. Michael in NoVA says:

    In college, my campus ministry used earthenware plates for the Hosts and glass vessels to hold the Precious Blood (may God forgive us). I hope that those have long since been replaced.

    In addition, one of the priests from the nearby theological seminaries who would celebrate Mass on campus refused to clean/purify the vessels. When asked why, he simply snapped, “I don’t do dishes.”

    I did not know how grave of an abuse this was at the time. Yet despite these constant abuses, my orthodox Catholic friends and I were grateful for the campus ministry, because our only other local choice for Mass was the new age parish that made its own hosts for the youth Mass (using multiple types of leavening) and sang John Lennon’s “Let it Be” as a meditation for Good Friday Stations of the Cross (“Jesus meets His afflicted Mother”).

  4. VexillaRegis says:

    “Loosey goosey excuses
    for liturgical abuses”

    Nice lyrics for the chorus of Fr. Zuhlio’s next hit, don’t you think?
    If someone else completes the lyrics, I can compose a suitable tune. :-)

  5. michelekc says:

    Why does it seem as though all the places people go for vacation are in the loosey goosey dioceses?

  6. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The former Archbishop of our diocese had a dad in the glass industry, so he was very big on pushing crystal as durable and precious. But instead of doing something openly (like having breakage test data posted, and making rules about exactly how durable the crystal had to be, and whether it was more desirable to have crystal that included precious metals in it, etc., etc.) or bringing in the glass industry to have some kind of guild fight, he just encouraged priests in his archdiocese to buy crystal for vessels. And crystal pretty much got defined down, I’m telling you, because the priests were more interested in “my archbishop gave me an excuse to do this new hip thing” than in whether the vessels were precious and hard to break.

    Loving and supporting an industry and art shouldn’t mean that it’s okay to do weird cronyism stuff. Technical developments have been accepted by the Church in the past, and technical developments have been rejected as not useful for Mass. But sneaking stuff in, because of your own convictions and preferences and your position of power, is ridiculous.

    I’m sure there will be a time when there really will be kinds of glass and ceramic that stand up to metal, and perhaps there will be ones that are also precious. (Or there will be a lot more use of gilding the inside of such vessels.) But I don’t think we’re there yet.

  7. Gail F says:

    Suburbanbanshee is right, of course, but it IS possible that someone could have donated very expensive crystal goblets. I have bizarre Waterford crystal things given to me as wedding presents 26 years ago, and they are quite durable (sadly…)

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Here’s something you don’t see every day: the “Eleanor Vase,” a vessel of intricately carved rock crystal that was donated to the Abbe Suger for use as a communion vessel at St. Denis. St. Denis also had a rock crystal aquamanile and a bunch of sardonyx vessels that survived the French Revolution and are held at the Louvre.

    Rock crystal is durable!

  9. Siculum says:

    Yes, “Loosey goosey excuses for liturgical abuses” has some good rhythm to it.

    At my old home parish there was an entire set of ceramic/pottery ‘sacred’ vessels, not even lined with gold. Thankfully, they were put away in the sacristy cupboard and never used in my time there. I really wanted to accidentally drop them so no one could use them again in the future. *CRASH*

    “Ooops! Oh my, I’m so sorry. What a shame. Oh well, at least it wasn’t your metal chalice, Father….. Which wouldn’t break!”

    I also have the same urge whenever I see common wineglasses (or even Autom church supply wineglasses) used by the overstaffed “Eucharistic Ministers” for the distribution of the “wine.” Yes, I am a masochistic sinner.

  10. bsjy says:

    The ease and speed with which the challenged claim “dispensation” reminds me of Mel Gibson’s other great gift to cinema: Lethal Weapon 2. The South African antagonist cries, “Diplomatic immunity! Diplomatic immunity” when the main characters have him in their cross-hairs.

  11. +JMJ+ says:

    When our “new” Pastor arrived 8 years ago, we almost immediately switched to crystal vessels, which bugged the heck out of me. Then one Sunday before Mass, there was a loud crash from the Sacristy, accompanied by the sound of a LOT of glass breaking. That morning, about half of the vessels for the precious blood were metal. The following Sunday, they all were.

  12. Markus says:

    Having made a few chalices, over the years, and a Master’s degree in metalsmithing, which included a study and making of handmade liturgical vessels, let me chime in.
    The St. Denis chalice has a cup portion which is QUARTZ. Quartz has a hardness of 8 on the Mohs scale, ten being the hardest. If it does not have inclusions (flaws like the St. Denis does not) it is quite durable. As it was “carved” during the late medieval period, it was quite a feat. Purple quartz is amethyst and yellow is the gem citrine.
    Crystal is glass. Silicone sand and sometimes (especially in the past) lead. It breaks. Drop it on a floor and see it at least chip.
    Acrylic usually does not shatter but in my tests it cracks over time. Lexan ® is used as bullet proof “glass” (bank teller windows, stained glass protectors, etc.) could be a good alternative. It does scratch easily, though, and probably not suitable. The wine glasses, that my wife uses, deteriorate (clouds and cracks) after a couple of years of use, made from Lexan ®.
    While the Latin translation for oxidation is “rust”, it usually is the copper in the alloy that reacts to oxygen and sulfur in the air. Most chalices are made from a base metal of brass (containing copper) and electroplated with pure gold, micron(s) thick. There is a danger of the gold wearing off and exposing the base metal brass, which reacts to the acid in the wine, releasing cooper ions. Sacristans need to be aware of these potential dangers, a whole other subject.

  13. gracie says:

    A neighboring parish of mine uses glass chalices. I was told they were a gift from a parishioner. The glasses are Waterford. Apparently, this makes them okay in the eyes of the pastor. Why, I don’t know, because Waterford can chip and break (I’ve seen it).

  14. Thorfinn says:

    Whether for good or ill, I set my bar pretty far down when going to Mass on vacation, particularly in a beach community. There was the priest who called God a woman and said ‘she’ isn’t in the tabernacle, the one who skipped the gospel and wandered around the nave preaching, the one who said Jesus is no longer with us so we need to rely on each other for inspiration …. I didn’t bother complaining about any of them. Fortunately they were on their way to or past retirement. I suspect that if their bishop was sound, he could not afford to dispense with them considering the vocation situation, and if their bishop was lax, he might commend them for “challenging the people and taking them out of their comfort zone”.

  15. The Masked Chicken says:

    What about transparent aluminum from Star Trek? It is clear; it is metal; it is precious; it is so durable it will take a rocket shell.

    The Chicken

  16. The Masked Chicken says:

    Okay…transparent aluminum isn’t technically a metal. It is aluminum oxynitride, which is a ceramic, but it is clear, precious (very expensive) and durable.

    The Chicken

    [Okay… I’d go for transparent aluminum, perhaps with communion paten of unobtainium.]

  17. frival says:

    This leads me to wonder about the validity of our previous Bishop’s dispensation allowing all EMHCs to come up and stand around the altar before the Agnus Dei rather than approaching only after the priest’s Communion. While this has practical benefits in the age of scheduled EMHCs (“oh darn Joe didn’t show up again, someone needs to shuffle up and take his place so we have all ten EMHC spots filled”) it does have the double negative effect of 1) making them look like they’re “more special” somehow and 2) diminishing the unique role the priest has throughout the Mass.

  18. KateD says:

    By golly, +JMJ+, you may be on to something!

  19. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Suburbanbanshee,

    The situation you cite unfortunately shows the perils of free will that God has willed to gift to His sons and daughters. As I understand it, the Archbishop, whose authority (though indirect) included not merely his territorial Archdiocese but also the suffrigan dioceses of his eccclasiastical provence, had a “vested interest” in believing that glass could be a precious material. Had I been a mere parish priest in his jurisdiction, I would have not dared to challenge his view and, by implication, his authority (and truth to tell would probably have purchsed a crystal “chalice” to be trotted out when he came to confirm my parishioners or made a visit to my parish). God forgive me of my cowardice, I would have believed better to be available to serve the needs of my flock than to incur the wrath and discipline of my bishop.

  20. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Masked Chicken (and Fr. Z),

    Shouldn’t we be expecting the invention of transparent aluminum any day now by a small firm in San Francisco following some ingenious tampering by a certain Star Fleet officer named Cmdr. Mongomery Scott of the U.S.S. Exclibur (formerly assigned to the U.S.S. Enterprise) but serving on a captured Romulan War Bird under the command of Adm. James T. Kirk? As for unobtanium, I await the discovery of either cavorite (pace H.G. Wlls) or scrith (pace Larry Niven). As for use in sacred vessels, the elements’ scarcity should ensure their precious nature.

  21. The Masked Chicken says:

    “but serving on a captured Romulan War Bird”

    It was a captured Klingon Bird-of-Prey, re-named HMS Bounty by Dr. McCoy. Scotty replaced the food packs.

    Of course, element 118 is supposed to exist at Area 51 – about 630 lbs – and is the element the aliens used for their anti-gravity drive in 1947. I heard this on the radio in a taxi. It must be true.

    As for the wheat or alcohol allergies – good grief, the priest can just wear gloves.

    The Chicken

  22. The Masked Chicken says:

    Oh, and there is no such thing as dermal allergies to alcohol. It has to be ingested and most people are allergic to the plant-base of the alcohol, not ethanol, since ethanol has no proteins in it to trigger an allergic reaction, so that aspect of the story is, probably false or misunderstood. Also, while I could, theoretically, imagine someone having a dermal wheat allergy (we are leaving out Celiac Disease, because that requires ingestion), the odds of having a reaction from contact with a Host is so small as to be functionally zero. Indeed, if the priest had such an allergy, how could he hold the Host to consecrate it? Both of those explanations strain scientific credulity.

    The Chicken

  23. faustinamaria says:

    I am the person who posed the question to Fr. Z. I just wanted to add a couple of details that I left out in order to make my question brief like Fr. Z asks. The response that I quickly got from the Bishops office was from the previous Pastor of that particular church, so the Priest had a vested interest in my observations. I quoted his response about the chalice. What I left out of my question was that he told me the “glass set which includes a Chalice, Paten, 4 cups, 4 bowls, and a cruet set.” He told me it was glass. Then he told me that ” since GRIM permission was sought to keep the set in use. The Bishop did grant permission due to the circumstances surrounding the gift. If any of the set were to break the new item had to meet the standards of GRIM.” He went on to say ” also, special dispensation are given to priests for lay people (designated and approved ) by the bishop to purify the sacred vessels when the Priest has an allergy to wheat & or alcohol. This is the case with the Pastor of ___________. I hope this helps.”
    So, loosey goosey it is. I knew it.
    One of the replies given to Fr. Z was to leave and find another Parish. That isn’t always so easy when on vacation. Was I supposed to leave at communion and then search for another parish? I know if I am ever in that area again I will look for another church.
    I bothered to write for 2 reasons. 1. Maybe the Bishop was unaware of the abuse. And number 2, I feel that many of us stand around not wanting to be bothered or get involved so I decided to try to make a stand for Jesus in a charitable way.

  24. faustinamaria says:

    By the way,
    Thank you Father Z for your response!
    God Bless you.

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