Bear in mind that this was composed in 1939, well before the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council and some rubrics and requirements may have been modified...Other changes will be noted accordingly. Nevertheless, some may find the history fascinating.
Questions answered in this chapter:Pure linen has always been considered the proper liturgical material for certain textile accessories of the altar. The group includes corporals, palls, purificators, amices, albs, and altar cloths. It is permissible to make surplices, finger towels, and credence covers of cotton and linen mixture or of cotton alone. The desire of the Church, however, is that pure linen be used in the service of the sanctuary.
What accessories of the altar should be made of pure linen? How should altar guilds be guided in their selection of materials? Why is the corporal the most important piece of altar linen? Of what is it a reminder? What was the original two-fold purpose of the corporal?
What are the rubrical prescriptions in regard to the corporal? How is it folded? What is the purpose of the cross? How should it be finished?
By whom is the corporal blessed? How is it to be cared for? How is it used outside of Mass? How did St. Clare of Assisi occupy her time during her last illness?
When and for what reason was the pall introduced? Why are the corporal and the pall blessed together? How were the names formerly designated? What religious order still uses the corporal to cover the chalice?
Can you describe two methods of making the pall? How may palls be ornamented? What color and symbols are forbidden? How should the pall be finished?
What is the purificator? How is it folded? How is it made to fit a particular chalice? Where is the cross embroidered? How must the three principal altar linens be washed? What is the sacrarium?
What is the purpose of the finger towels? How may they be made? What is the Communion cloth? What is its purpose? What is the credence cover?
Altar guilds and societies whose duty it is to provide church linens, or the funds for their purchase, should, if possible, insist that the spirit of the liturgy be obeyed in this regard.
THE CORPORAL: The corporal, so named from "corpus" meaning body, is the most important of all the altar linens, because upon it the body of Christ is laid during the sacrifice of the Mass. It has a mystical affinity for the shroud in which Joseph of Arimathea wrapped the body of Jesus before laying it in the sepulchre. A Roman Ordo used during the time of Charlemagne states that the corporal "ought to be pure linen because our Savior's body was wrapped in a white winding sheet." The Jews wrapped the bodies of the dead in linen winding sheets.
Originally the corporal covered the entire table of the altar and was looked upon as a fourth altar cloth. It was laid upon the altar by the deacons and served, not only as a cloth whereon to repose the sacred Host, but also to envelop and cover the chalice. It is only since the twelfth century that the corporal has been reduced to its present dimensions.
RUBRICAL PRESCRIPTIONS: The rubrics do not prescribe a specific size for the corporal, but it should be large enough to hold the chalice, paten, host, and other hosts, whether in or out of the ciborium. The size varies according to the width of the altar. It should be a square of not less than fifteen nor more than eighteen inches, or an oblong measuring fourteen by eighteen inches. The corporal is folded symmetrically so as to form nine virtually equal squares when opened on the altar.
There is no rule requiring the embroidering of any cross, but it is customary to place a very small, flat cross worked in red thread in the center of the front fold of the corporal to indicate which side should be toward the celebrant. A one-half inch hem, sewn by hand or on the machine, is a proper finish for this piece of altar linen. While it is permissible to put a narrow lace edging around the corporal, rubricists discourage the practice for reasons which will be presented in the next chapter.
BLESSING AND CARE: The corporal must be blessed by a bishop, or by a priest having the faculty to do so, before it is used. It must never be allowed to remain lying on the altar, or carried in the bare hand, but should always be placed. in a special case called a burse. It should be removed from the burse after Mass or other devotions at which it is used. In the tenth century a Council of Rheims decreed that the corporal should be placed in the Missal or put away with the chalice and paten. Besides its use during the Mass, a corporal is always placed beneath any vessel containing the Blessed Sacrament anywhere at any time, such as beneath the monstrance at Benediction and on the "floor" of the tabernacle.
A contemporary biographer of St. Clare of Assisi relates that during her last illness, although weak and wasted by the practice of austerities, she requested her Sisters to raise her up in her bed, and thus reclining
"she spun the finest thread for the purpose of having it woven into the most delicate material from which she afterwards made more than one hundred corporals, and, enclosing them in a silken burse, ordered them to be given to the churches in the plain and on the mountains of Assisi." (Note 1)THE PALL: During the twelfth century, when the corporal was reduced from a large altar piece to its present size, a small square piece of linen, called a chalice pall, was introduced. It is used to cover the chalice during Mass. The pall, however, is still considered a portion of the corporal; both are blessed with the same formula in which they are designated in the singular.
"At the close of the thirteenth century the names corporal and pall were distinguished and used just as at present. The chalice pall is also called animetta (little soul) and in the Mozarabic Ritual filiola (little daughter), as it formed the inmost part of the folded corporal and was only a piece of it. Among the Carthusians the old (somewhat inconvenient) practice of covering the chalice with the corporal, is maintained to the present day." (Note 2)MAKING THE PALL: There are two accepted methods of making palls. One is to sew together two or four thicknesses of linen so as to form a six-inch square, and starch to a proper stiffness so that it may be placed over the chalice and removed easily. This is known as "a little pall made of linen." A pall which is possibly more convenient to use, is made by inserting a linen-covered square of thin cardboard into a slip made of two six-inch squares of linen sewn together on three sides. The open end is finished with a tiny hem.
The rubrics do not require any ornamentation of the pall, but it is customary to work a small cross in red floss in the center. Palls which are used on feast days may be elaborately embroidered, if so desired. It is even allowable to have the upper surface made of silk and decorated with an emblem, monogram, or cross, provided the under surface be of plain linen. The Congregation of Sacred Rites forbids the use of black for the upper layer of the pall. The embroidering of any symbols of death upon it is also prohibited. Small tatting rings or a simple crocheted edge make an inconspicuous finish for the pall if lace is desired, but a thin cording is much more appropriate.
THE PURIFICATOR: The purificator is a small linen cloth which should measure about twelve by eighteen inches. It is really a linen napkin which is used by the celebrant during Mass for cleansing the chalice and wiping his lips and fingers after Communion. It is folded twice on itself so as to give it three thicknesses.
Since chalices vary in height, it is not easy to give precise measurements, but if it is desired to make a purificator for a particular chalice, the width of the folded cloth should be the diameter of the cup of the chalice, and its length twice the height of the chalice plus the diameter of the cup. Since one of the essential qualities of the purificator should be absolute flexibility, it should never be starched. No provision is made for ornamentation of any kind, although rubricists allow a small red cross to be worked in the center, in order to distinguish it from the finger towels. The purificator is not blessed.
Since the corporal, pall, and purificator come in such close contact with the body and blood of Christ, they should be kept spotlessly clean and handled reverently. When soiled, these linens must be washed by a cleric in major orders before they are laundered in the usual manner. The first washing should be done in a vessel that is used for no other purpose and the water poured in the sacrarium or into the fire. A sacrarium is a drain connected with the earth for the disposal of water, candle-wax, cotton and other things used for sacred purposes.
FINGER TOWELS, COMMUNION CLOTH, AND CREDENCE COVER: The finger towels which are used at the Lavabo and after the distribution of Holy Communion, are not subject to any rubrical legislation. They may be of any size and of any material, but linen, of course, is preferable. For solemn Masses, where the celebrant washes his hands instead of merely the finger tips, and for all Masses celebrated by bishops, the towels should be larger and made of more absorbent material.
Another linen cloth which should be provided for is the Communion cloth, which is required in addition to the Communion paten for the distribution of Holy Communion. This cloth is hung on the inside along the entire length of the sanctuary railing. Since it is intended to serve as a corporal for any particles which might fall from the hand of the priest in giving Holy Communion to the faithful, it should be of pure, white linen.
Credence table covers should fit properly and harmonize with the other textile furnishings of the altar and sanctuary. They must be white in color. Ordinarily the credence cloth may be simple, but sufficiently large to cover the entire top of the table. On very solemn festivals when the chalice and the paten are placed upon the credence until the Offertory of the Mass, it is quite proper for the cloth to extend to the floor on all sides. It should be finished with a plain hem.
Note 1. Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. IV. Page 6.
Note 2. Gihr, The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, Page 261.
Adapted from Altar and Sanctuary, An Exposition of the Externals of the Mass
by Angela A. Glendenin (© 1939)
Published by the Catholic Action Committee
The Catholic Action Series of Discussion Club Textbooks