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XVIII. The Requisites for the Mass

The Externals of the Catholic Church

In order that the Holy Sacrifice may be consummated not only validly but with the proper decorum, our Church has, in the course of centuries, made many regulations concerning the ceremonies to be used at the Mass and the accessories which are to be used to increase its solemnity.

The Place. Where can a Mass be celebrated? By ordinary Church law it ought to take place only in a church, or in a chapel which has been blessed by lawful authority; but many exceptions to this rule are permitted for good reasons. The missionary in pagan lands has often no church or chapel; he must gather his flock where he can, and offer for them the Adorable Sacrifice. And even in our own land every diocese has small settlements of Catholics in which there is no special place of worship, and where the Mass must perforce be offered up in a hall or private house. Again, in public institutions, army barracks, on shipboard and elsewhere, it is often necessary to celebrate Mass in a room which is used for other purposes at other times. Therefore the bishops of this and many other lands have authority to permit their priests to offer the Holy Sacrifice in places which are not churches, when there is sufficient reason for so doing.

The Altar. It is absolutely necessary for the celebration of Mass that it shall take place on an altar; but this need not be fixed or permanent. When a priest is compelled to say Mass in a place where there is no church, he must contrive something for an altar — a table or similar construction; but in every case he must place upon it an altar-stone or “portable altar,” consecrated by a bishop. This is an oblong slab of stone, usually encased in waxed cloth, and measuring perhaps twelve by ten inches — large enough to hold the Sacred Host and the greater part of the bases of the chalice and ciborium. It bears on its upper surface five crosses cut into the stone, and near its front edge a “sepulchre” or cavity containing the relics of some Saint and sealed with a cemented stone lid. A missionary priest must carry this altar-stone with him when one is not kept in the place wherein Mass is to be said.

A “fixed altar,” such as we find in consecrated churches, has its entire top formed of a large altar-stone, resting upon stone sides or columns, the whole being built up from the ground on stone or brick foundations.

An altar on which the Blessed Sacrament is kept has a tabernacle — a strong locked box, usually lined and curtained on the interior with silk, and situated at the rear of the altar-table, in the centre. Before the door hangs a silken veil which is changed according to the appropriate color of the festival; at Masses of Requiem a purple veil is used. Why is the box which contains the Blessed Sacrament called a “tabernacle”? Because in early ages the altar was surmounted by a canopy with veils, forming a “tabernaculum,” or tent, by which at certain parts of the service the Sacred Mysteries were concealed from the people. Traces of this remain in our present tabernacle veil, and in the chancel screen which is to be seen in many old and once-Catholic cathedrals in England.

Equipment of the Altar. The rules concerning the preparation of the altar on which Mass is to be said are minute and rigorous. To prevent diversity of practice and any lack of respect to our Eucharistic Lord, each detail is carefully specified in the Church’s rubrics, and exact conformity with these requirements is demanded of all.

The altar must have three cloths of white linen, of which the two lower ones should be nearly of the same area as the altar-table; the upper linen is to be long enough to touch the floor at each end of the altar. The rubrics insist over and over again that these cloths shall be clean — and, in some places, there is good reason for such insistence. Sacristans are not always diligent, and pastors are sometimes given to procrastination.

The altar may have hanging in front, an “antependium,” a drapery varying in color according to the Mass celebrated. This is not strictly required, especially when the altar-front is highly decorated; and with us it is generally used only in Masses of Requiem, when the beauty and ornamentation of the altar are to be hidden as a sign of mourning.

The Crucifix and Candles. Over the altar is placed a cross bearing the figure of our crucified Redeemer. This should be raised above the level of the candlesticks, and should be of such size and prominence that it can be easily seen not only by the celebrant but by the people.

When a priest says Mass he must, by strict requirement, have on the altar two lighted candles, blessed according to the formula provided for that purpose, and made of wax. Tallow, stearine and other similar substitutes are not allowed, unless, as the Roman decrees say, in distant and new missions in Oceanica or in polar regions where it is impossible to obtain wax, and where, unless other lights are permitted, the people could not hear Mass.

In Masses of more than ordinary solemnity a larger number of candles is used. A bishop’s Mass, when said privately, calls for four, and when he celebrates “pontifically,” in his own diocese, seven should be lighted. A high Mass sung by a priest should have six; and when the Holy Sacrifice is offered before the Blessed Sacrament exposed, at least twelve candles are used on the altar.

Speaking of candles, our readers may have noticed lately an apparent innovation in our churches which is really not an innovation at all — the lighting of a candle on the side-table or “credence” where the wine and water are kept during the Mass. This is a custom of considerable antiquity, and has been practised in nearly all parts of the world; but for some reason it did not become common in our country until recently. One candle is used when the celebrant is a priest, two when he is a bishop. The lighting is done at the Sanctus, and the extinguishing takes place after the priest has received Holy Communion; so that the candle remains lighted during all the Canon, the more solemn part of the Mass.

For holding the wine and water used in the Holy Sacrifice the credence table is provided with cruets or small flasks, which must be of glass, both for cleanliness and that the wine may be easily distinguished from the water. A clean towel is also provided, for the washing of the priest’s fingers.

The Altar-Cards and Missal. On the altar are placed three printed cards, usually framed, containing the words of certain parts of the Mass. These are intended as an aid to the priest’s memory, to obviate the necessity of turning to various parts of the Missal in case the celebrant should forget the words. The central and largest card contains usually the Gloria, the Credo, the offertory prayers for both the bread and the wine, the solemn words of consecration, and certain other parts of the Mass as well. The one at the Epistle side has two prayers which are recited at that part of the altar — that which is said when water is poured into the chalice, and the psalm “Lavabo” (“Among the innocent will I wash my hands,” etc.), recited by the priest when he washes his fingers. The card on the gospel side presents the words of the first chapter of St. John which form the last Gospel of most Masses.

The Missal, or Mass-Book, is an indispensable requisite for the Mass, for it contains not only the fixed parts of the wording, which the priest could learn by heart, but also the constantly changing prayers, epistles, gospels, offertories and other portions of the Mass which vary from day to day according to the festival celebrated and the season of the year. Its contents and arrangement are described in another chapter of this book. The Missal is mounted, for convenience, on a book-stand, which may be covered with a cushion or drapery of the color of the day’s vestments.

Nothing is allowed on the altar except what pertains to the Holy Sacrifice; but on festival days, especially the more solemn, (except in the penitential seasons) it may be decorated very elaborately with flowers, lights and other ornaments.

The Chalice and Paten. “And taking the chalice, He gave thanks, and gave to them, saying: Drink ye all of this, for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which shall be shed for many unto the remission of sins.” (St. Matthew, xxvi.)

These words show us why the priest uses a cup or chalice — because He who gave us the adorable Sacrifice of the Mass made use of one when He instituted that wonderful mystery. When the Apostles followed His command to “do this for a commemoration of Me,” they also used a cup — probably at first the ordinary drinking-goblet of those times. In the course of centuries it became customary to have the chalice formed of costly metal and oftentimes adorned with precious stones.

A chalice is generally from eight to eleven inches high, and consists of a wide-spreading base to insure stability, a stem which has a knob midway to facilitate handling, and a cup. The whole may be of gold or silver, or the cup only may be of precious metal; and it is even permitted, on account of poverty, to make the cup of inferior metal, such as block tin, but in every case, when any metal but gold is used for the cup, the interior must be heavily plated with gold. This is the part which comes directly in contact with the Precious Blood of our Lord, and it is proper that gold or gold-plating should be used on account of its purity and the fact that it will not easily tarnish or corrode. The best that we can supply is immeasurably unworthy of containing or coming into actual touch with the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ; and therefore gold is used in preference to other metals, in all parts of the sacred vessels which the Holy Eucharist touches or rests upon.

A circular, slightly concave dish, resembling a saucer, and made either of gold or of silver, or other metal heavily gold-plated, is used with the chalice. This is called the paten. It is held aloft in the hands of the priest when he offers the bread which is to be consecrated in the Mass. Later on, after the Pater Noster, the celebrant blesses himself with it and places it under the Sacred Host. The chalice and paten must be consecrated by a bishop. The blessing of the chalice goes back many centuries, at least to the time of St. Gregory the Great, and that of the paten dates from about the eighth century. After certain prayers the paten and the whole interior of the chalice are anointed with holy Chrism, and a concluding prayer is offered, asking that they may be sanctified and made a new sepulchre of the Body and Blood of Christ.

At the beginning and the end of the Mass the chalice is shrouded in a “chalice-veil” of the same material and color as the vestments of the Mass. Upon this rests the “burse,” a flat pouch of the same color, in which the corporal is kept — the square linen cloth which, during the Mass, is spread upon the altar to receive the Host and chalice. Symbolically, the corporal represents the winding-sheet in which the dead Body of Christ was wrapped for burial.

A “purificator,” a folded piece of linen, is draped across the chalice, and is used for cleansing its interior, and for purifying the priest’s fingers during the Mass.

The “pall” is used to cover the chalice. It is a piece of linen usually about six or seven inches square, often double and stiffened by a piece of cardboard. This part of the chalice equipment is not of ancient date. At one time a part of the corporal was brought up from the rear to cover the chalice, but about the year 1200 a separate piece began to be used.

The Ciborium. When the priest is about to give Holy Communion he takes from the tabernacle the vessel in which the Blessed Eucharist is kept. This is called a ciborium, which signifies a food-vessel, from Ciborium the Latin “cibus,” food — being, as it is, a receptacle intended to hold the Heavenly Food which God’s goodness has given to us in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar.

The ciborium is in shape somewhat like the chalice, but usually has a larger bowl, provided with a closely fitting cover surmounted by a cross. They vary greatly in size, according to the needs of the place where they are to be used — that is, the number of persons who will receive Holy Communion from them. The interior of the ciborium is heavily plated with gold, and when it contains the Blessed Sacrament the vessel is enshrouded in a silk cover or drapery, always white or gold in color and usually highly ornamented.

The Ostensorium. While treating of sacred vessels, it may be well to insert here a mention of those that are not “requisites for the Mass.” The word “ostensorium” signifies an instrument for showing or displaying, and its other name, the “monstrance,” has the same meaning. This sacred utensil is used in giving the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament and in processions in which the Host is carried publicly, and is generally formed of a cluster of metallic rays radiating from a central aperture which contains a receptacle for a large Host. This receptacle is called a “luna” or “lunula” (a moon, or a little moon), and has glass on either side, so that the Host may be seen when enclosed therein. The whole is mounted on a base so that it can stand erect.

The Pyx. This vessel, in which the Holy Eucharist is carried to the sick, is a very small ciborium, but is of a different shape from that used in church. It resembles a watch, being formed of two hollow cups hinged together and fastened by a spring catch operated through the stem. It also is gold-plated, unless it is made entirely of gold. It is kept with a small corporal and purificator, in a silk-lined leather case, called a burse.

The ciborium, the pyx and the luna of the ostensorium are blessed with a simpler formula than that used for the chalice, and this blessing may be imparted, in our country, by any priest.

A “Communion paten” is often used at the giving of Holy Communion, being held beneath the chin of the communicant. It resembles the Mass-paten, but is usually provided with a handle, and does not require a blessing.

Touching of the Sacred Vessels. It is lawful for any one not a priest to touch or handle the chalice and other sacred vessels? If the vessel contains the Blessed Sacrament, it must not be touched by any one except a priest or deacon, under pain of mortal sin, unless in case of grave necessity, or to prevent profanation. For example, in time of persecution or in case of fire, it would certainly be allowable for any one to remove the Blessed Sacrament and to touch the vessel containing it.

But if the sacred vessel be empty? There is some diversity of opinion about this matter, some holding that when the vessel does not actually hold the Blessed Sacrament it may be handled by any one if there is reason for doing so; but the usual practice to-day is to restrict the touching of these vessels to clerics, even though these are not priests, and to such lay persons as have obtained permission from the bishop — for example, those whose business it is to repair or clean church goods. Any other person who may have occasion to handle or move a sacred vessel should use a cloth to prevent direct contact of the hand with it.

The chalice, the paten, the luna and the pyx are sacred things, true sacramentals, and are worthy of deepest reverence; for they are set apart for a purpose than which none can be higher and holier — to contain the Heavenly Food which the love of our Redeemer has given us. St. Augustine tells us: “I dare to say God, though He be omnipotent, is not able to give us more; though He be all-wise, knows not how to give us more; though He be all-rich, has not more to give.”

The vestments used by the priest at Mass and other services are considered in a separate chapter, in the section of this work treating of the Sacramentals.