ASK FATHER: Is it a sin not to have a cere-cloth on the altar?

From a preist reader…

QUAERITUR:

We recently began the Tridentine Mass in Santa Fe, at the oldest church building in the United States, San Miguel Chapel, built in 1610. [Kudos!  It would be nice to visit sometime.] I have a new sacristan. He gave me a copy of a 2-page article put out by “sanctamissa.org.” I know nothing about this organization. [This is from the Canons at St. John Cantius in Chicago.  Great men.]

The article quotes the Catholic Encyclopedia from 1907 and an article from A.J. Schulte that sets forth many requirements for the altar cloths, such as: they must be blessed by a bishop or a priest; there must be three on the altar; the bottom must be sealed with wax; they must be made of linen or hemp. The article also says that celebrating the Mass without these procedures would probably constitute a venial sin, since the rubric is prescriptive. My sacristan is a bit worried.

Can you please advise?

It is good to have a sacristan who is diligent.  Now you can help him to relax a little.

Some of this might be unfamiliar to most of the readers.  In the Extraordinary Form it was proper to have three altar cloths, as described. They are linen and, therefore, absorbent, in case of spills. The top cloth had to cover the whole of the altar top and then be long enough to reach the floor on either side.

Another cloth used (described in the Pontificale Romanum) was a wax-imbued “cere-cloth, also called a Chrismale.  It is called a “Chrismale” because its primary purpose was, during the ceremony of consecrating the altar, to protect the other cloths from the Sacred Chrism that was poured on the altar top.  Thereafter, during the ages before the evil air-conditioning denounced in a papal encyclical, the waxen cloth was useful to keep condensation from the colder marble altar top from wicking up through the other cloths, promoting mold, etc.

According to older legislation, the cere-cloth was not counted as one of the three altar cloths.  After its use at the consecration of the altar, there was no legislation that required the use of the cere-cloth (as a 4th cloth) on the altar.

Beyond the rite of consecrating an altar, is the cere-cloth really useful?  It could be.  Is it cool to have?  It sure is.  Is it a sin not to have one?  No.

Get a cere-cloth if you wish, but you might want to add it a little lower on the list of things to get amongst the things it would be nice to have but can wait.

The rubrics governing the linens required for Mass do seem to be prescriptive.  Also, the “defects” in the way Mass was/is celebrated are described in the Praenotanda as often being sinful, at least venially in some cases.  The lack of a cere-cloth doesn’t fall into that category.

The other day I posted a quote from With God in Russia by Fr. Walter Ciszek. HERE  If the circumstances are not perfect, that’s no reason for foregoing the good of the Mass. Work towards getting the proper linens, the proper vestments, the proper candles, but if the choice is between not having Holy Mass in the Extraordinary Form for lack of a proper cere-cloth, lack of maniples, lack of beeswax candles, or offering the Mass whilst one is still working on gathering the necessary gear, I’d say, offer the Mass.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Some might wonder if this isn’t all a little persnickety.  No, it really isn’t.  Visit to a few churches where only the Ordinary Form is used and inspect the altar appointments, vessels and vestments.  This can turn out pretty unedifying results.  Regulation of these matters, to provide a practical minimum based on centuries of experience of what works, as well as consistent decorum, produced a knock-on effect in the way the priest celebrated Mass and in the way the lay faithful treated their sacred space.

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9 Responses to ASK FATHER: Is it a sin not to have a cere-cloth on the altar?

  1. Maltese says:

    The traditional Latin mass is at 2pm each Sunday at San Miguel, btw, for any readers who might be visiting Santa Fe.

  2. jschicago says:

    As a programmer, I have to implement a lot of standards when coding. Sometimes it may seem tedious and a waste of time, but it makes for better code to easily debug and avoid common bugs. The rule mentioned in the article about the cloth shows that the Church doesn’t just throw out arbitrary and meaningless rules that burden us, but that She makes rules grounded in experience and practicality. In other words, it is prudence.

  3. majuscule says:

    Whe use our back altar for occasional EF Masses. The top cloth feels like cotton. It does extend to the floor on the sides and it has embroidery on the front. There is only one other cloth. It appears to be fine linen, covers just the top of the altar and has a cut-out area for the tabernacle.

    What would be the third cloth that should be on this altar if the cere cloth is not one of the three?

    The table altar (that can be easily moved out of the way!) has a small linen cloth over the altar stone and then the number of cloths on top depends on who sets it up. Sometimes one, sometimes two and sometimes three! None of these are linen and some may have synthetic content.

  4. mulieribus says:

    My husband makes small portable altars and we also provide the linens for these altars. I have learned a lot about the rubrics associated with altar linens in the past few years (much through previous posts on Fr. Z’s blog. One of the priests who ordered an altar told me that in addition to the practical reasons for having three cloths (to prevent any seepage down to the mensa), the three layers also signify the three cloths Our Lord was wrapped in when put in the tomb. The two bottom cloths were each the length of the mensa and one represented the cloth to wrap Our Lord’s feet, one for Our Lord’s head and the top cloth was used to wrap His body (the shroud). As far as I can tell, the cere cloth only needs to be large enough to cover the altar stone – or even better, the main area in front of the tabernacle as it does act as a barrier to prevent any liquid from seeping into the mensa – which often was wood though it held the stone within it. Further, the top or main cloth could have lace attached to the edge but after the Easter Season ends, the laced cloth was removed and only a plain altar cloth was used. All three altar cloths are to be 100% linen. I have made a number of cere cloths and wouldn’t mind sending you one if you like – email me at stjosephsapprentice@yahoo.com. No charge. I just soak a smaller 100% linen cloth in liquid bees wax – which I melt in a big pan in the oven and iron it between two other linen pieces until it is sufficiently thinly coated.

    [I’m still waiting for altar cloths for my portable altar! o{]:¬) ]

  5. marty5519 says:

    Ahh San Miguel Church..!!

    I attended Latin Mass there daily for 6 years when I was a boarding student at St. Michael’s High School adjacent to the church, I graduated in 1959. The De La Salle Christian Brothers taught at the school and they owned the church, it was always a private chapel during my time there.

    I also received my first communion in that church so it holds a very special place in my heart.

    I am thrilled that the chapel is being used again, especially with the Latin Mass, I heard that it was deconsicrated (sic) awhile back.

    Anyone visiting the Santa Fe area should put that chapel on their list of places to see, and to attend Mass.

    M. Campbell
    St. Michael’s class of 1959

  6. Father K says:

    I would consider this sort of thing to be pernickety. If you take seriously all the admonitions from the days of the ‘rubricists’ – often manuals written by clerics who had nothing better to do than be pernickety then it was possible to commit over 50 mortal sins: not venial, mortal, while saying Mass. I find it hard to believe that a question like this and framed in the way it is could possibly be asked in this day and age when there are so many real liturgical abuses which would make the angels weep.

    For a reliable book or manual I would suggest Joseph Wuest’s book, ‘Matters Liturgical.’ It is clear, concise and explanatory without descending into finger pointing, ‘Oooh that’s a big fat mortal sin.’

    [I think it was a bad idea to divorce the rubrics, etc., from moral theology.]

  7. JeffTL says:

    Father, I would venture that you are giving the cerecloth short shrift here. While it isn’t necessary, its utility is without question even in the absence of fresh chrism and the presence of modern climate control. It’s fundamentally a table protector pad, of the sort your mother probably puts under her dining room tablecloth. While marks from hot vessels are unlikely to be an issue with even a wooden altar – the thurible shouldn’t be sitting up there – spills are still an issue. Wax, water, wine, and worse yet the Precious Blood can get spilled up there, and I suppose a loose cinder from the thurible could burn a hole in the linens. The cerecloth serves to contain spills and incense fires to the linens (minimizing damage to or cleaning of the mensa of the altar).

    If at all possible, I wouldn’t dress an altar with a mensa either partially or wholly made of wood without a cerecloth, and today most cerecloths simply *are* table pads cut to the appropriate dimensions for the altar so they aren’t horridly expensive to obtain. Even on a stone altar where stains aren’t going to be as likely an issue, though, the cerecloth still keeps spilled wax and errant embers from soaking through. To that extent, even an altar not regularly used for Mass should be dressed at least with a cerecloth and a single linen if candles – true candles, that is, not candle-shaped oil lamps – are to be placed on it. Getting wax off the linens isn’t fun, but it’s easier than getting wax off the altar. Even though it isn’t a sin to be without one, your sacristan will still appreciate if one is in place.

    [I think I explained that it is useful.]

  8. JeffTL says:

    You actually said it could be useful – I’m just saying that it almost always is :)

  9. Michael Costello says:

    I’m the sacristan about whom the question of the cere-cloth was raised. Fr. Z’s response was what I expected. I had never seen a cere-cloth, having never been present when an altar was consecrated. Even in the seminary (the 50’s) on those occasions when the altars were stripped, nada. As Fr. Z mentioned, there are and have been deviations from what is expected, and my self-appointed job places me in the position of making certain that we attempt to do things correctly. Besides ordering the proper type and colors of traditional chasuble sets, a set of traditional cross & candlesticks, and usable sacristy furniture, I am working at making certain we have sufficient altar linens to meet our needs. We utilize a high altar (Pueblo-style) for the Latin Mass, and a portable altar for an English-language Mass.
    The San Miguel Chapel is the oldest church in the United States. It has been de-consecrated long ago and is now a historic site/museum. We are permitted to offer Mass by the owners, the Christian Brothers. Come, visit Santa Fe NM and see our Chapel!