Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Guest Article on Post-Communion Ablutions for the Laity

Our thanks to Mr Archie MacGregor, a PhD student in Religious Studies at Marquette Univeristy, for sharing with us this brief article about ablutions for the faithful at Mass. Readers may also find interesting a recent article at Corpus Christi Watershed on the same topic.

I was reading Pope Benedict XIV’s De Sacrosancto Missæ Sacrificio (1748), a primer, designed for seminarians, on the history of the ceremonies of the Mass, and of certain related theological controversies. Among other things, he makes reference to a now-abandoned practice; after the laity had received Communion, they were given a cup of ordinary wine, in order to ensure than all particles of the Host had been swallowed. The cup was handed to the laity by a server instead of the priest, in order to distinguish it from the Chalice. [1] The wine was consumed standing, using a fistula, or straw. [2]

As noted in the article on CCW linked above, a rubric which refers to the post-Communion ablution offered to the laity, although long obsolete, remained in the Roman Missal until the new rubrics of 1960 were promulgated. “The server, holding in his right hand a vessel with wine and water, and in his left a napkin, (standing) a little behind the Priest offers them [the purification, and the napkin to wipe their mouths.” It is seen here in the Ritus servandus of an edition printed by Desclée in 1913.
Benedict’s explanation of the ritual is insightful, even if his arguments are disputed by later liturgical scholars such as Jungmann. By the 1740s there was already debate as to the origins of the ablution. The Pope rejects the suggestion that the custom is a holdover from the period when the laity received under both species. Aware of contemporary polemics in favour of utraquism, he seeks to emphasize its ancient precedents. Citing an unspecified Latin translation of Chrysostom, he argues that the ablution is the successor of the custom attested by the Saint of communicants purifying their mouths by eating bread and drinking water after the liturgy, as is still done to this day in the Byzantine Rite. While the idea that the drinking of unconsecrated wine after Communion is a direct descendant of this practice is tendentious in the extreme, it does show the long history of reverence for the Real Presence even in particles of the Host. [3]

Jungmann acknowledges the custom mentioned by Chrysostom, but holds that the origin of the practice of ablution wine can be found in High Middle Ages. There are scattered references to it in the ninth century, but it does not seem to have been widespread. In order to minimize the risk of spilling the Precious Blood, it was often added to a cup, or cups, of ordinary wine. This wine was considered to be sanctified, and still in some sense the Blood of Christ. [4] A modern analogy might be the addition of ordinary water to Holy Water to make one’s supplies of the latter last longer, but in this case, the greater proportion of the cup’s contents were unconsecrated. [5] Jungmann seems to believe partly because of the retention of the fistula that the ablution wine was an extension, and perhaps a dilution (no pun intended) of this custom. More substantial is the evidence that infants were given a little of the ablution wine to drink after Baptism, whereas in the Middle Ages they had received the Precious Blood. Giving ablution win to the newly baptised continued until at least 1783 when the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II, decried it. [6]

The custom spread with the growing reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, and seemed first to spread through monastic communities such as the Cistercians. Jungmann believes that the laity did not know that they were receiving an ablution, and not Communion, since during the Reformation provincial synods began to demand that clear signs be given that the two were different. [7] Pope Benedict cites two of these in his book, but he interprets them as showing that the Church had always known the difference. In 1584, the Synod of Bourges declared in Canon 12 on the Eucharist, “In exhibenda laicis sacra Communione paratum sit vas, quod formam Calicis non prae se ferat, ex quo sumatur ablutio post Communionem Eucharistiae.” (When giving Holy Communion to the laity, a vessel should be prepared which does not have the appearance of a Chalice, from which the ablution may be received after the Eucharistic Communion). [8]

Likewise, the Synod of Aachen, where both the ablution and utraquism had been practiced in living memory, demanded a year later that, “Clericus, qui Confessionem recitavit, accepto vase purificationis, quod tamen non sit Calix ad Consecrationem paratus, sed cyathus, et mappa purgata alia manu teneat aliud vas, in quo vinum sit pro purificatione communicantium.” (The cleric who recited the Confiteor, after having taken the vessel of purification, which should not be the Chalice used for the Consecration, and a clean towel, should hold this other vessel in his other hand, which contains the wine for the purification of the communicants.) [9] Since the Chalice for the laity, the mixture of wine and the Precious Blood, was given after the cup of purification, and the latter was a different vessel, it seems unlikely that this injunction was really concerned with the fact that the laity did not understand the difference between communion and ablution. By the 1580s, it was already a well-known fact that Catholics did not receive under both kinds. More likely the Church simply wanted to emphasise further its already apparent differences with Protestantism in the age of Confessionalization.

Evidently, the practice was still common in the Papal States when Benedict wrote his tract, as he takes it for granted. Jungmann says it persisted until ‘the last centuries’, but gives no account of its decline, or why it might have ceased to exist. The only remnant of it that remains is in the rite of priestly Ordination according to the traditional Pontificale Romanum, in which the newly ordained are given wine after Communion. It would be fascinating to find out if there are nineteenth century documents attesting to this practice.

A newly ordained priest of the FSSP consumes the ablution of unconsecrated wine during the ordinations held in Auxerre cathedral in 2016. (Photo courtesy of the FSSP).
[1] Benedict XIV, De Sacrosancto Missae Sacrificio, Libri Tres (Prati: 1843), p126.
[2] Josef. A. Jungmann, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Solemnia), Volume 2 (New York: Benziger, 1951-1955), pp. 382-384.
[3] Benedict XIV, op. cit., p. 126.
[4] Jungmann, op. cit., p.383.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid. p. 414.
[7] Ibid. pp. 385-386.
[8] Benedict XIV, op. cit., p. 126.
[9] Ibid.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: