Liturgy: Plexiglass Covering on Altar
And More on Obedience to a Priest
ROME, AUG. 17, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: A certain parish uses cut-to-size plexiglass covers on both the free-standing altar and the high altar as a means of preserving the white altar cloths from wax, burn holes and other stains. The plexiglass completely covers the mensa and altar cloth on both. A corporal is unfolded on top of this plexiglass at the preparation of the gifts. Is the use of such a plexiglass cover on top of the altar cloth permissible? I thought that nothing that is not necessary for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is meant to be placed on top the altar. -- C.B., Dearborn, Michigan. Q: Since the burse has fallen out of use, is it permissible to leave a corporal on the altar at all times or must it be taken to the sacristy after each celebration of the Eucharist? -- H.J., Peabody, Massachusetts
A: The use of the altar cloth is addressed in No. 304 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM):
"Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."
From this it is fairly clear that the liturgical norms require a white cloth and not a plexiglass covering upon the altar for the celebration.
I suppose there is no great difficulty in placing plexiglass or other transparent materials in the area beneath wax candles, just as it is quite common to place another cloth over the altar cloth outside of the celebration so as to protect it from dust and insects.
Regarding the question on the corporal, it is true that the burse (a case to hold the folded corporal usually covered with cloth matching the liturgical color of the day and usually forming a set with the chalice veil) has fallen out of use in many places although the use of the veil at least is still recommended.
The dropping of the burse probably arose from the liturgical reform.
The previous liturgical practice had the celebrant bring the veiled chalice with him as he approached the altar and he himself took the corporal from the burse and unfolded it at the beginning of Mass.
The present liturgy no longer reserves this task to the priest but entrusts it to the deacon or acolyte at the moment of the preparation of the gifts as specified in GIRM, No. 73.
In the former liturgy the altar breads for consecration were often placed directly upon the corporal -- hence the name "corporal" as it held Christ's body. Even though this practice is rare today, as hosts are usually placed in a ciborium, the corporal conserves its role as the most important of all the altar linens: All that is to be consecrated should be placed upon a corporal and some tiny fragments may yet fall upon the corporal during the fraction rite.
Likewise, whenever the Blessed Sacrament is exposed or otherwise removed from the tabernacle it should always be laid upon a corporal.
In virtue of the special role of the corporal it is incorrect to habitually leave it upon the altar where it can be easily soiled. If the burse is not used it may be placed folded on top of the chalice pall.
The corporal should be unfolded carefully one section at a time and never shook open. It should be folded with equal care during the purification rites.
On some occasions, such as large concelebrations, extra corporals may be placed upon the altar before Mass, leaving just the corporal containing the principal chalice to be unfolded during the preparation of the gifts.
Alternatively, a single very large corporal is sometimes placed before Mass as it would be ungainly to unfold it during the preparation of gifts.
In all cases the corporals should be removed during or after Mass, conserved with care, and regularly washed using the procedures indicated in "Redemptionis Sacramentum," No. 120:
"Let Pastors take care that the linens for the sacred table, especially those which will receive the sacred species, are always kept clean and that they are washed in the traditional way. It is praiseworthy for this to be done by pouring the water from the first washing, done by hand, into the church's sacrarium or into the ground in a suitable place. After this a second washing ...
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