From a preist reader…
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.