Patens may seem like an unlikely and uninteresting subject to discuss, but, on the contrary, I find myself fasincated by the ceremonial variations we find in this smallest and most seeming utilitarian of liturgical items.
For those who aren't certain what we are speaking of, the paten is seen here on the right, held aloft during the offertory (as it is in both the ancient and modern forms of the Roman liturgy), being the small, gold or silver-plated disc upon which the host is sitting at this moment.
The Paten in the Modern Roman Liturgy
So why the interest in this seemingly practical item? First, it is important to note there is a variation here which some may not be familiar with. In the modern form of the Roman liturgy, the priest holds aloft the paten at the offertory just as is pictured here, he then places the paten down upon the corporal (a small, square piece of cloth that sits on top of the altar linen) with the host upon it. There it remains until the priest takes the host off of the paten for the consecration, replacing it there once complete and up until the communion.
The Paten in the Ancient Roman Liturgy
In the ancient Roman liturgy this is not so. After the offertory as pictured above, the unconsecrated host is slid off the paten itself onto the corporal (a square piece of white linen that sits on top of the altar cloth) See the image to the right.
In the case of the Low Mass or Missa Cantata, the paten is then partially slid under the corporal with the purificator towel placed over the remainder, making it no longer visible. (This placement is also seen in the picture to the right.)
Once the consecration has occurred and the fraction rite about to take place (the breaking of the host), the priest cleans the paten with the purificator, takes the paten between his fingers, makes the sign of the cross with it upon himself and kisses it. He then proceeds to the fraction rite (over the chalice), after which the broken Host is placed upon the paten.
Another ceremonial note is that paten, at one point, is laid upon the base of the chalice so that they are touching for a time and then removed from contact in preparation for the minor elevation.
These may seem interesting or curious enough, but it is in the context of the solemn forms of the liturgical rites that the particular ceremonial diversity and richness associated with the paten begins to come out.
The Ancient Roman Liturgy: Solemn Mass
In the solemn form of the ancient Roman Mass, one of the most familiar and photographed moments shows the priest at the altar with the deacon and subdeacon behind, and the subdeacon wearing a humeral veil, holding his arms up before his eyes. The subdeacon is holding the paten, veiled inside the humeral veil.
Archdale King mentions some historical details surrounding the ceremonial holding of the paten in The Liturgy of the Roman Church:
Ordo Romanus I said that from the beginning of the canon until the 'Pater noster', and acolyte, with a linen scarf attached to his neck, held the paten with the sancta before his breast. This 'humeral veil' as it is now called, was originally made of white linen... Amalarius tells us that the paten was held in his day from the offertory until 'Te igitur' by an acolyte, and from then until the 'Pater noster' by the subdeacon. The sacramentary of St. Vaast (10th century), however, directed the acolyte to retain it until it was required by the priest. The paten, wrapped in the chalice veil, remained on the altar, to the right of the priest, according to a rubric in a missal of Grenoble (1522). Neo-gallican liturgies, in a desire to follow usages supposedly 'in diebus illis', prescribed distinctive practices. Thus the ceremonial of Paris directed an acolyte, vested in a cope, to hold the paten; while the missal of Soissons (1745) appointed a boy from the choir (puer chori), wearing a tunicle [to do so].
King continues more specific to the Roman rite again:
By an extension of the notion of 'our daily bread', the 'Pater noster' came to be associated with the reception of Holy Communion, and the communicants were thus directed to approach the altar. A signal for communion is common to all rites, and in the Roman liturgy this was effected by each of the sacred ministers successively raising the paten... The paten was not shown at Requiems, because there were no Communions, and still today the subdeacon does not take the paten at a Mass for the dead. The custom of elevating the paten seems to have been well-nigh universal until the end of the 16th century, when the celebrant contented himself with holding the paten on the altar. Among the neo-Gallican 'revivals', this 'showing of the paten' is spoken of in the Paris Missal of 1685 as 'in signum instantis communionis.' The missal of 1739 says that a boy from the choir holds the paten in a silver basin from the offertory until the beginning of the Lord's Prayer. The subdeacon then holds it aloft until the words 'panem nostrum quotidianum' when it is given to the deacon, who raised it till the end of the prayer. Finally the priest elevates the paten for the first part of the embolism. At Tours in the same century, a choir boy, at the beginning of the Pater, raised the paten in the middle of the choir, after which it was given to each of the ministers in turn. The custom is recalled today in the diocese of Bayeux and Lisieux, where so much of the ancient ceremonial survives; and acolyte holds the paten and, with a veil, hands it to the subdeacon, who in turn passes it to the deacon.
King concludes this discussion noting some of the differences in the timing of the priest kissing the paten.
Solemn Forms in Other Western Liturgical Rites
I. The Premonstratensian Rite
In the Premonstratensian rite, we read the following rubrics:
When the celebrant begins the words per omnia saecula saeculorum, the deacon goes to the celebrant's right, takes the paten from the altar, elevates it at the words 'Sursum Corda' and holds it elevated until the words 'Domino Deo nostro'. After lowering the paten, he brings it to the subdeacon and places it in his right hand.
Then, after the consecration the Premonstratensian rubrics continue:
When the celebrant sings the 'panem nostrum quotidianum' the deacon turns to his right, the subdeacon approaches and offers the uncovered paten to the deacon. The deacon goes to the right of the celebrant. He immediately elevates the paten until he gives it to the celebrant.
This action is illustrated by this photo:
Archdale King mentions that this usage is also found in the English mediaeval uses of Sarum, Bangor and York.
II. The Dominican Liturgy
Bonniwell, in his masterful, A History of the Dominican Liturgy, mentions that after the Sanctus,
...the subdeacon then received the humeral veil about his shoulders and the deacon gave him the paten which he covered with the veil. From now on, the subdeacon stood behind the deacon, holding elevated the covered paten...
[at the end of the Pater Noster] the subdeacon returned the paten to the deacon, who in turn gave it to the priest when he was about to say 'Da propitius pacem'. In giving the paten to the priest, the deacon kissed the celebrant's shoulder. The priest then made the sign of the cross with the paten and kissed it; then he placed it on the altar away from the corporal...
At the 'Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum,' the priest made the usual signs of the cross with the small part of the Host.. He did not place the remaining parts of the [fractured] Host on the paten, as is done in the present Roman rite, but continued to hold them in his left hand over the edge of the chalice.
Further to that, Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P., mentions that if there is no pax instrument, after the priest kisses the paten the deacon takes it back and uses it as a pax instrument. When the pax is over he returns the paten to the altar to the right of the corporal unless it is going to be used as a communion plate -- which would be unusual in most instances.
In the Dominican rite Low Mass and Missa Cantata the paten is removed from under the corporal during the embolism and kissed at "Da pacem" and placed on the altar edge end of the veil which is folded to form a vertical strip next to the purificator on the right of the corporal. The paten remains there until the remaking of the chalice after communion, when it is put back onto the chalice.
III. The Ambrosian Liturgy
In the Ambrosian liturgy, the subdeacon does not hold the paten under the veil as in the Roman and other rites. Rather, the subdeacon only wears the humeral veil for bringing the chalice and paten to the altar and then removing the veil immediately thereafter.
(You can see this in this video; go to the 6 minute mark.)
One interesting note comes up in Archdale King's Liturgies of the Primatial Sees:
The deacon covers the host with the paten before the cross and the altar is incensed.
King also notes the following in relation to the use of the paten in the Ambrosian rite:
Of the nine signs of the cross [made in relation to the consecrated species]... three are made with the hand, three with the host over the chalice and three with the paten over the Host and chalice together. For these last, the paten is held in a vertical position in the right hand, while the celebrant holds the Host over the chalice in his left. The ceremony, which is attested to in the 15th century, comes from the practice of touching the chalice and Host with the paten, as if to communicate the pax to them. It was formerly the custom to offer the paten as the 'osculatorium' or 'instrumentum pacis', [cf. what Fr. Thompson noted about the Dominican rite] but this was forbidden by the synod of 1573, which directed the use of the cross or some other sacred image. The ceremony, borrowed from the Roman rite, of the celebrant signing himself with the paten is found in some Ambrosian missals of the 15th century. The paten is not held by the subdeacon at a solemn Mass, and the deacon gives it to the priest when required.
IV. The Carmelite Liturgy
Archdale King notes that the passing of the paten only occurs on greater feasts in the Carmelite rite. He continues:
The subdeacon kneels, and gives the paten uncovered to the deacon, together with the veil, after the 'Sed libera nos a malo' in the Lord's prayer. The embolism, which follows, has certain ceremonies peculiar to that rite. The deacon kisses the shoulder of the celebrant and hands him the paten before the words 'da propitius'. The priest kisses the paten, and continues with the prayer... the kissing of the paten cannot be an act of devotion to the vessel on which the sacred Host will be laid, as the Host is never placed on the paten in the Carmelite rite, unless some ceremony ... has disappeared. Perhaps, however, sufficient reason may be found from the fact that the paten is placed on the altar 'seorsum ad corporale'. At the words 'Ope misericordiae, the celebrant touches his left eye with the paten, and at 'Et a peccato simus liberi', his right eye. Finally at 'Ab omni perturbatione, he signs himself with the paten, and replaces it on the altar near the corporal.
V. The Rite of Lyons
Archdale King also speaks of this ceremonial in relation to the Lyonese rite in Liturgies of the Primatial Sees:
The subdeacon, from the offertory until the Pater Noster, holds the paten in his maniple behind the altar. This usage can be traced to the 'Ordo Romanus Primus', in which the acolyte is directed to hold the sancta [a host consecrated at a previous Mass] on a paten or in a casket until the 'Pater noster' when it is given to the Pope, and the Host placed in the chalice. The Carolingian sacramentaries adopted the practice, and, although its purpose had been forgotten, the acolyte or subdeacon continued to hold the paten behind the celebrant until the 'Pater noster', that is until the time of the fraction. The 13th century ordinary of St. John says that the paten was held by an acolyte, who gave it to the subdeacon during the 'Pater noster', but today it is the subdeacon who holds the paten...
Lyons has retained the maniple for holding the paten, and not adopted the humeral veil. The actual Ceremonial (1897) directs the subdeacon to take the paten in his maniple, after which he is to go behind the altar and sit down. At the beginning of the canon [the subdeacon] comes, together with the induti, subdeacons and acolytes with roches, to the epistle side of the altar, where he remains until after the elevation of the chalice. Then, retiring behind the altar [again] until the Pater noster, he returns, but goes back after the elevation. At the 'Libera nos', he reappears and gives the paten to the deacon. Martene in his description of a solemn Mass in the primatial church says that at the 'Pater noster' the subdeacon lays the paten on the altar in front of the celebrant, and kisses his shoulder. A slight variation in the ceremonial takes places if there are assistants in copes (chapiers) or if there is no creed, and the subdeacon has not returned to the choir to present the chalice. Then one of the induti subdeacons or the thurifer takes the paten and gives it to the subdeacon behind the altar, where it is placed on the credence, only to be taken up for the two elevations. [A footnote here notes that the thurifer receives the paten in the sleeve of his surplice.] The deacon kisses the arm of the celebrant as he offers him the paten.
VI. Carthusian Liturgy
In an interesting footnote in Josef Jungmann's, Missarum Sollemnia, he mentions that at least in the older statutes of the Carthusians
...the priest first makes the sign of the cross with the paten, then touches the host with the paten at 'da propitius' and kisses it at the word 'pacem'.
Summary of Ceremonial and Examination of Possible Origins
The consistent themes we have seen here is that the paten is substantially veiled, either by means of the corporal and purificator, or, in the case of solemn liturgical forms, by the some kind of humeral veil or even a maniple or surplice sleeve -- with the exception of the Ambrosian rite. We have also seen that the paten is used by the priest in blessing, it is venerated in the form of being kissed, and we have also seen that in some cases it may be used in the passing of the peace -- as a "pax instrument".
It is worth noting that none of this can be said with regard to the modern form of the Roman liturgy, which sees none of this ceremonial activity surrounding it.
The question becomes, why all this activity surrounding the paten?
The early history of the paten shows that it was at a time larger than it became, having the function of a ciborium effectively. The mention as well that some part of the consecrated host was upon it may help explain some of the veneration shown towards it -- the Jungmann disputes that.
Jungmann, in Missarum Sollemnia proposes the following in regard to the history of the matter as found in relation to Papal ceremonial as found in Roman ordinals:
Years ago on great feast days, when all the people partook of Holy Communion, it must have been a very important activity [the fraction], which was then carefully regulated... The older Roman ordines have carefully outlined the proceedings. After the 'Pax Domini' was said and the kiss of peace given, the pope took the two Host-breads, now consecrated, which he had himself presented, and after breaking off a small piece, which remained at the altar, laid the two breads on the large paten held out for him by the deacon; then he made his way to his cathedra, the deacon following with the paten. Now acolytes stepped up to the altar, taking their stations at both sides of it. They had scarfs over their shoulders... they all carried linen bags which, with the subdeacons' help, they held open and ready, and in which the archdeacon placed the breads which lay on the altar. Then they divided to right and left among the bishops and priests who, at a sign from the pope, began the fraction...
This all occured in the context of the use of leavened bread. After the introduction of unleavened bread and smaller hosts, the paten reduces in size and the ceremonial develops accordingly. In this context, Jungmann continues in relation to a Mainz pontifical from circa 950 A.D.:
The subdeacons took their usual place right after the 'Pater noster' since their function at the fraction dropped out. The archdeacon took the paten as he had always done, but simply handed it to the bishop... after the propitius pacem, and nothing special was done with it as far as we can see... the paten reappeared again at the Communion, along with the chalice held by an acolyte. From the paten the bishop, as the first to receive, took his Communion; the particles had therefore been deposited on it.
Jungmann notes that this then too disappeared and the paten became the resting place for the large Host during the fraction until the Communion, and the making of the offering, with its use no longer extending beyond the altar.
Continuing as regards the ceremonial however:
... still reminiscences of the ritual handling of the latter have been transferred to [the paten]. At a high Mass it does not remain lying on the altar after the offertory, even though this contracted paten would not be in the way on the altar... but instead the subdeacon takes it and holds it, covering it with the ends of the humeral veil, until he returns to the altar near the end of the 'Pater noster'. This is a survival of the function of the acolyte of the seventh-century papal liturgy, who appeared at the beginning of the preface, carrying the paten which he had brought from the secretarium, and which he held to his breast under the folds of a cloth thrown over his shoulders, until 'medio canone' he turned it over to others; then near the end of the embolism it was carried over to be used at the fraction.
However, the reasoning for the reverences seems to be a point of open question. Jungmann does note that the reverences afforded the paten correspond with the reverences generally accorded to holy objects and their handling within the sacred liturgy, making note of the kisses afforded the book of gospels, the manner in which episcopal insignia are carried and so on.
Certainly as well, the idea of holy objects being veiled is nothing new, either for the possible purpose of concealment or for the purpose of touching the item through a medium.
Other interesting questions remain of course, not least of which surrounding the Roman practice of the subdeacon holding the veiled paten aloft before his face. Some may perhaps give this an allegorical interpretation -- something many modern liturgists are generally dismissive of, but which Abbe Claude Barthe defended nicely in 2006 at the CIEL conference in Oxford in his paper, “Liturgical Catechesis in the Middle Ages: The 'Mystical' Meaning of the Ceremonies of the Mass”.
I cannot help but be put to mind the reference to the seraphim who cover their face before the presence of God and some of the striking similarites. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
In a vision of deep spiritual import, granted him in the Temple, Isaias beheld the invisible realities symbolized by the outward forms of Yahweh's dwelling place, of its altar, its ministers, etc. While he stood gazing before the priest's court, there arose before him an august vision of Yahweh sitting on the throne of His glory. On each side of the throne stood mysterious guardians, each supplied with six wings: two to bear them up, two veiling their faces, and two covering their feet... His highest servants, they were there to minister to Him and proclaim His glory, each calling to the other: "Holy, holy, holy, Yahweh of hosts; all the earth is full of His glory."
...the seraphim stand before God as ministering servants in the heavenly court.
This is purely speculative musing on my part of course. It would be interesting to read what Durandus, the great mediaeval allegorist, might have to say about this.
Whatever the case, the ceremonial activities that surround this smallest of liturgical items demonstrate to me some of the great richness of the liturgical tradition and to the reverences afforded to the items that surround the Holy Sacrifice. They also intimate something of the deep and rich history of our ancient liturgical rites.