Liturgy Matters — What is ‘purification?’

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

Most parishioners may be unfamiliar with the term and process of “purification,” yet many Catholics have witnessed parts of this ritual at Mass and perhaps wondered about it.

The term “purification,” as it is found in the rubrics or directions for Mass, refers to the treatment of the vessels that have been used for the distribution of holy Communion at Mass. Mistakenly identified as “washing the dishes,” the process of purification precedes the washing of these vessels.

What are the vessels used for distribution of holy Communion?

During Mass the vessel or container that holds the Eucharist is called a paten or ciborium, in Latin. It is also referred to in some liturgical documents as a plate.

These vessels are made of a precious metal such as gold or silver, or they are at least lined with it.

Patens or ciboria come in various shapes and sizes. Some look like a plate or saucer, some resemble a bowl, some look like a chalice with a lid, and others have a round shape, a flat base, and are three or four inches deep, sometimes having a handle for easy transport.

The vessel for the Precious Blood is called a chalice or a cup. It too is made of precious metal or lined with it. Chalices do not have lids but sometimes a small flat cloth-like square cover is placed over it during Mass to ensure that insects will not be attracted by the fragrance.

These are the vessels that are purified after they have been used for distribution of holy Communion.

What happens after distribution of holy Communion?

After the distribution of holy Communion, the remaining sacred Hosts are placed in the tabernacle for Communion outside Mass or, if there is already enough reserved for Communion for the sick and dying, then the Sacred Hosts are reverently consumed. The Precious Blood that remains after distribution is also consumed in this manner. Purification of these vessels is then performed by the priest, a deacon or a seminarian that has been instituted as an acolyte, a step along the way leading to his ordination.

The purpose of purification is to gather any remaining particles of the Sacred Host and any droplets of the Precious Blood that remain in the vessels in order that they can be respectfully consumed.

In the first step, the minister uses the cloth called a purificator to brush the remaining particles from the ciborium into the chalice. Sometimes he may need to pour a small amount of water into the ciborium to help pick up these particles.

A small amount of water is then poured into the chalices swirled around to pick up the droplets of Precious Blood and then this water is consumed. Purificators are then used to dry the inside of each vessel.

Purification may take place at the altar if there are only a few vessels that have been used, but in most cases on Sunday when Communion is distributed under both forms requiring multiple vessels, purification takes place at a side table or in the sacristy. Purification may be done right after distribution of holy Communion or right after Mass. This is not a process that is meant to command the attention of the congregation but is a respectful process to consume the remaining sacrament.

After Mass, when the purification process has been completed, Communion ministers, sacristans or servers wash these vessels in hot, soapy water and dry them so that they are clean and ready for the next Mass.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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