Brick by Brick – Houseling cloths installed!

Do you recall that I asked for help to determine a good way to attach houseling cloths on a Communion rail?  HERE  Many of you came through.

By the way “housel” is a Middle and Old English word for “Eucharist”.  It is also a verb, “to housel” means “to administer Communion”.  There are wonderful archaic words for our sacramental practices which, when we use them, puts us in touch with our forebears.  Think of “shrift”, which means absolution.  There is a verb, “to shrive”, or “to hear a confession, to absolve”.  Once you have been absolved you have been “shriven”.  When you confess, be brief… short shrift, as it were.  If you have been “aneled” you are probably in trouble.  The verb “to anele” is “to anoint, give extreme unction”.  The term “extreme unction” refers to the last moments of life, when you are “in extremis” and “unction” is from Latin ungo, “to smear, anoint”.  But I’ll finish this short rant… but I won’t rantize.

Rail cloths are practical, in that they help us to protect the Host from falling to the floor or, quod Deus avertat, into unconsecrated hands.   They are also theological, in that they show that the Communion rail or, often, altar rail is related to the … wait for it… altar, which is also clothed in linen.

Last night we installed some cloths… I think they are Houseling Cloths 1.0, because we will need to make some changes, upgrades.

In any event, we did it.  After all, the old Rituale Romanum requires that a clean white cloth be extended before those who receive Holy Communion (IV, ii, n. 1) prescribes that a clean white cloth be extended before those who receive Holy Communion…. “ante eos linteo mundo extenso“.  In some places people will put their hands underneath the cloth and even hold it up under their chins, although now we generally make use of Communion patens.

This is at St. Mary’s in Pine Bluff, WI where I help out.

Drilling guide holes for the screw in ring bolts.





Now the big question remains… hands under or over!  I wrote on that once, HERE.

How about a POLL?   Chose your best answer and, if you wish, give an explanation in the combox.  Anyone can vote, but you must be registered and approved to comment.

Position of hands when a houseling cloth is on the Communion rail. I (would) prefer...

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    I’m not saying a person needs to get their hands right under the cloth, but it really irks me to see people’s hands on top of the communion rail, or even worse, their entire elbows.

  2. Adaquano says:

    Please forgive my ignorance as my experience of a Communion rail is limited to my wedding and once more in Chicago, but what is the difference of where your hands are placed? I receive on the tongue in my parish and keep my hands folded in prayer in front of me, so my natural placement of hands was over the rail. My own experience growing up to was with patens to catch the host.

  3. Former Altar Boy says:

    Where’s option #3: no cloth.

  4. La Mamma says:

    Would that we had this conundrum in our parish! We do have altar rails and used them until last month, when our new Pastor brought in the first of his changes: no more kneeling at the altar rails, we must now process to the centre and receive communion standing. His second change? EMHCs must now purify the sacred vessels, not the priest. And third? He’s encouraging the kids (who gather round the altar for the Lord’s Prayer) to use the ‘orans’ position. It’s this first that grieves me most, though. He says we’re the only parish in the diocese to have used altar rails (probably right) and he’d taken advice from other more senior clergy before introducing the change (which I can well believe)… I want to talk to him about it but don’t know how to go about it. Anyone any suggestions about how I could do this? Thanks.

  5. Vincent says:

    I’m with Former Altar Boy on this: No cloth, won’t put my hands over or below the cloths if they’re there; I keep them tucked in to myself. And very much dislike the houseling cloths. But good luck with them!

  6. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Eons ago, the only “teaching material” on the Old Mass was a video (dubbed by the great Msgr. Albicete “The Mass for Shut-outs”) of a film made in 1941, narrated by Msgr. F. J. Sheen. In the film, the people put their hands under the cloth.

    BTW: There is no such thing as “Communion in the teeth.” When receiving on the tongue, close your eyes. This eliminates the tendency to “help” the priest find your tongue by waggling it, trying to “take” the Host with your tongue, etc. When you feel the Host touch your tongue, keep your tongue absolutely motionless for about two seconds. Otherwise, you will almost certainly lick the priest’s fingers. Also, do not bow your head and open your mouth! Put your head back, and put your tongue out flat. If receiving on the tongue, but standing, follow all the preceding directions. This means your eyes will be shut, and you will not be tempted to rise on your tip-toes to “help” the priest find your mouth.

    Do not allow the Host to dissolve slowly and completely in your mouth in such a way that the Host is never actually swallowed. The common opinion of moral theologians, at least in the “old days,” was that when this is done, the Sacrament is not received.

  7. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    La Mamma:

    These abuses (including not allowing kneeling to receive) have all been expressly, explicitly condemned in recent years, despite their having always been contrary to the rubrics.

    A priest who is this determined to introduce such abuses should be reported to the bishop. And if the bishop does not immediately and unequivocally put an end to them, take the matter to Rome. If it were 1974, “dialogue” might be appropriate. But not today. Not after all that has already been done by the Popes and so many other authorities to stamp out these abuses.

  8. majuscule says:

    I don’t remember the cloths when I was young and we knelt at the communion rail. Now, in that very same church (which is now without the rails), they set up kneelers and use the houseling cloths for the once-a-month Traditional Latin Mass. They are taken off after Mass and they may even go with the people putting on the Mass!

    Not knowing about them, I did some research and came to the conclusion for myself , that I would put my hands under. I don’t pay much attention to what others are doing but I’d say about half the time the person next to me (if I notice) is putting their hands under.

    La Mamma–I will pray for you and your parish.

  9. taffymycat says:

    at least you all have a communion rail. our church doesnt have any, very annoying to stand to receive Eucharist.

  10. taffymycat says:

    actually not annoying, it feels irreverent and i still cannot get over the fact that there even IS communion in the hand which is so sacrilegious to me i can’t believe that it has happened, it is the worst of all the liturgical “updates” etc. i wonder if there is ever a chance of going back to the way we did it when i was a kid. receive eucharist at the rail, kneeling, no talking. i can’t imagine st isaac jogues looking down on all this.

  11. mtpensaventus says:

    Hi Fr Z.

    At the Chapel I attend, we have rail clothes and we put our hands underneath them when we kneel.

    Looks great!

  12. Michael says:

    La Mamma – I’ve said a prayer to the Blessed Mother that your pastor keeps an open mind about rescinding these changes. While the first point (altar rail) and third point (orans) you raise are unfortunate, the second point is actually forbidden by the GIRM. And the Holy See recently confirmed that only priests are to purify the sacred vessels. Father Z addressed this here:

  13. Frank H says:

    I remember such cloths in my youth, and the altar boys would turn them over the rail before communion, and flip them back afterwards. Thinking about that now, it seems illogical to flip it back off the rail. Wouldn’t that risk particles getting thrown onto the floor?

  14. kat says:

    I voted underneath the cloth, so that if by chance the Host should fall and miss the paten, unconsecrated hands are not tempted to grab It. And it is the way we did it when we had ours, so makes sense to me…

  15. Norah says:

    When I was a child in my corner of Australia we used to hold the paten under our chins and when we received Holy Communion we would pass the paten to the person on our left/right.

  16. Legisperitus says:

    Hands under the cloth, absolutely! Never know when the altar boy will be too unskilled or slow with the paten.

  17. Sieber says:

    Served Missa Cantata for five years in the 50s.
    The communicants reached over the altar rail & pulled the houseling cloth towards themselves, hands under cloth. The communcants hands rested on or slightly above the altar rail so that the cloth never impeded the paten held by the server.

  18. WYMiriam says:

    I voted for above the cloth. Even as a child, I wondered what good it was to put my hands beneath the cloth, because that causes the cloth to “tent” — particularly if someone piously folds one’s hands as if to pray — which would make the Sacred Host roll right off the cloth onto the floor, if It should happen to fall!

    On the other hand, maybe I wasn’t taught (or simply don’t recall being taught) exactly how the hands were supposed to be positioned under the cloth — were we to put them so as to make a sort of hollow into which the Sacred Host could fall (if such an accident were to occur) and *not* end up on the floor?

    Legisperitus, an unskilled altar boy can be trained through doing “dry runs”, and being “too slow with the paten” can be avoided for the most part not only by training, but also by having priests who distribute Holy Communion with decorum and don’t rush through the “Corpus Domini nostri” at breakneck speed. That is such a beautiful prayer!

  19. allingham_pd says:

    Dear Father,
    How lovely to see this houseling cloth in place! It should be noted, though, that the cloth is not flipped over the rail until the Pater Noster – until that point it should hang on the altar side. This helps keep it cleaner but, most importantly, means that the lovely communion rails are on display to the congregation until the cloth is actually required.
    …and of course, hands underneath!

  20. Tony from Oz says:

    When I made my First Holy Communion in Canberra, Australia in 1963, the practice was to place one’s joined hands on top of the altar rail cloth – communion was then administered by the priest with the altar boy holding the paten beneath one’s chin.

    Sr Elizabeth, the wonderful Presentation sister who instructed us for our FHC, told us that, in former times, the cloth had been for people to place their hands underneath it (before the days of patens, presumably, or where there was none being used). I can see the impractability of saving the consecrated host by tenting the cloth, personally; but, I like to think the cloth serves as a lovely symbol which gives reverence to the Faithful receiving from the altar of the Lord: as the altar is dressed, then, so too is the altar rail.

  21. Imrahil says:

    I like to fold my hands properly for kneeling Communion, hence above the cloth. But not on top of the rail, but in between the cloth and myself. However, I also have done it underneath the cloth, with hands folded in the usual easy-going manner.

  22. jaykay says:

    I voted for “beneath” and I think hands should not be joined but held supporting the cloth, because it just seemed more logical since if the Blessed Sacrament were to fall then it could only be caught if the the hands were open beneath. Also, I’m sure I’ve seen medieval woodcuts of people doing it this way e.g. in Eamonn Duffy’s “Stripping of the Altars” – which was also where I first came across the term “housel”.

    While we always had a (beautifully laundered) cloth covering the altar rails when I was younger, it was only as wide as the top of the rail and was in any case secured down with (beautifully polishsed) brass holders regularly spaced about every 6 feet or so. But the altar boys were so well drilled with the paten (and everything else!) that I never recall anything untoward happening.

  23. Markus says:

    Served from 1962 to 1970 (graduated from high school). The clothes were flipped (as mentioned above). No one ever placed their hands under the cloth, they were too long over the rail and as linen, too stiff. If a host dropped and missed the paten, (it did happen once or twice in my experiences) the priest had an easier time to retrieve it if the cloth was not ruffled with hands underneath. I never had seen or heard of hands under the cloth. Must be a new “tradition.” As the vessels were be purified, the 2 extra servers (that is why there were 4 at high mass) would return to the rail and “reflip.” They were attached on removable brass “curtain” rods on the altar side of the rail so they could flip easily and be removed for laundering. In my old parish, each of the two were about 20 feet long. One server on each side could flip in one motion, with practice.

  24. monnica says:

    I first encountered a houseling cloth when I spent a summer in Lithuania as a pre-teen, in the early 90s. I’d grown up hearing my mother’s memories of the days before Vatican II. When I went to Lithuania, I felt like I’d gone back to them. The Mass was in the vernacular but it was a language I didn’t know well. There were very few pews in most churches; all except the old and infirm stood and knelt through everything. There were sometimes long litanies after Mass, processions, wakes with sung rosaries under the main church. Everyone knelt for Communion, either at the altar rail or along the center aisle.

    The houseling cloth was at a church I only went to once, on some day trip, I think. Everyone put their hands under it. I didn’t see one again till last Christmas eve when I was visiting a parish in MN.

    There was something beautiful about covering my hands to receive Communion. Later I reflected on the way Our Lady of Sorrows’ hands are covered in pictures of her. Eastern ikons show angels with covered hands when they’re ministering to Our Lord — ikons of the baptism in the Jordan, for example.

  25. SanSan says:

    Oh, the Church looks so beautiful. I love the altar clothes how they dress up the entire look. I love putting my hands under the cloth, for I am not worthy to touch, but only to receive Our Lord with a clean soul. Someday, God willing, I will be able to touch and hug my Father in Heaven! I can’t wait.

  26. Fr. D. says:

    We had the cloths at the boarding school I attended. They had been part of the custom for decades. The hands were almost always joined over the linen. When some ventured to place their hands underneath they were reminded of two things: that one did not usually place hands under the table cloth, and that the nuns who did the washing and ironing and starching had worked very hard so we should attempt not to wrinkle them up. I believe the nuns laundered them only once per month. The altar rail was very long hence the long cloths and the chore of ironing. When the chapel burned and the new one built in 1962 the custom was dropped and I have not seen it since.

  27. KateD says:

    If there is functionality to it, then it must be to prevent the Eucharist from falling to the ground, in which case, it would seem most useful to hold the cloth up to both sides of one’s chin in order to catch Our Lord, should He fall. But I’d probably just watch what everyone else does and follow suit…Monkey see, monkey do.

  28. The Masked Chicken says:

    So, is this what they mean by dealing (with hands) under the table :)

    Oh, by the way, what do you call the attempt of divorced and (unannulled) remarried Catholics to receive communion? A housel takeover.

    So many liturgical terms to parody; so little time.

    The Chicken

    P. S. Since I can’t figure out how to post to the urgent prayer request page (no login link), I would like to ask for prayers for someone I encountered, today, for their help.

  29. Pax--tecum says:

    I always put my hands underneath the houseling cloth, but always in such a way as to pull the cloth towards my chest in order to be able to catch the Sacred Host in case the priest drops it accidentally.

  30. Nun2OCDS says:

    We were told that the “communion cloth” was an extension of the altar cloth; that was to emphasize we all received from the one table. We were told to place our hands under the cloth as at a dinner when one does not rest ones hands on the table but keeps them in the lap except when using silverware etc. Fr. D must have learned different table manners from us.

    As a senior citizen, I sometimes feel a bit unsteady when kneeling and would like to have my hands on top; there is nothing to grab onto underneath. At my parish it does not appear that anyone has hands both under the cloth and on top of the rail much less forming a cup under the cloth.

  31. alanphipps says:

    I guess I don’t understand the need for the cloth if you are using patens with well-trained servers? Perhaps for symbolic value as tying the rail more closely to the altar?

    “Violá”. You mean “Voilà”! Sorry, I’m a pedant. [Bùt nòt my ònlìné, püblic édìtòr!]

  32. Mike says:

    Hands beneath the cloth are most unlikely to come into contact with stray particles of the Blessed Sacrament, or with a paten carelessly handled as decried by Fr. Z in the post to which he links above.

  33. benedetta says:

    I think that the link between altar and altar rail that these houseling cloths provide quite edifying — something that we can all acknowledge and be thankful for in our receptions of Holy Communion regardless of which Rite we assist at. And, a Happy Christmas to Father and to all the commenters here.

  34. andia says:

    I remember putting my hands under when we still had Latin Mass in my mother’s parish. (My Parish does not have a rail-yet.)

  35. timfout says:

    Actually, hands below the communion but sometimes outside the actual cloth. As long as hands are not on the rail, it really makes no difference if they are in front or behind the cloth because the hands are not visible and are not on the covered communion rail. The long and the short of it for a communicant is: keep your hands to yourself!

  36. rodin says:

    Reminds of one of the two lines I remember from Beowulf in my 1945 class:

    “Homeless and houseless and hunted by wyrd.”

    As I recall that last word refers to “fate.”

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