Monday, November 18, 2019

Why We Should Retain or Reintroduce the Communion Plate (“Chin Paten”)

At a time in my life when I was still attending daily Novus Ordo Masses, there was a particular year in which, due to what strange epidemic of butterfingers I could not say, I witnessed hosts falling to the ground several times. It happened with three different priests. Apart from further cementing my conviction that nothing dumber could ever have been imagined than switching from the safe, efficient, and reverent method of communicating the faithful on the tongue as they kneel along the altar rail to the unsteady, convoluted, and casual method of queuing up and sticking out hands or tongue at varied heights in relation to the distributor, these episodes prompted me to do a bit of research about what ever happened to the paten or “communion plate” held by an altar server in order to catch hosts or fragments.

The full story of “chin patens” or communion plates turned out to be considerably more interesting than I had realized: Monsignor Charles Pope relates it here. Although a recent (19th-century) development, they make a great deal of sense. After all, even if the “houseling cloth” was the traditional method and still possesses an aesthetic and devotional appeal of its own, it wouldn’t really work very well at catching anything unless it were suspended carefully under each communicant — as one sees in Byzantine practice, or in some First Communion services in the Roman rite (see photograph below). So the invention of the “chin paten” was a brilliant idea and deserved its universal acceptance around the Catholic world. We could consider it a classic example of organic development: a real need is met by an appropriate solution that harmoniously slides into what is already there.

We can all guess what happened to them in the 1960s: in the rush to modernize, the chin paten, together with maniples, birettas, amices, houseling cloths, altar rails, and a hundred other standard-issue features of a Catholic church, would have seemed fussy extras, sacristy clutter, scrupulous remnants interfering with the businesslike transaction and the clean lines of the new aesthetic, where less was thought to be more — more “authentic” and more “spiritual.”

Nevertheless, it does not take long experience to see that when a chin paten is used, fragments of the host do fall on its surface sometimes, and that it does catch falling hosts. [1] That, in and of itself, should be more than enough to force an earnest reconsideration of the importance of retaining or reintroducing chin patens during communion time.

What surprised me is that this is also the mens ecclesiae, as expressed most recently in 2004, in the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, which states:
The Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful ought to be retained, so as to avoid the danger of the sacred host or some fragment of it falling. (Patina pro Communione fidelium oportet retineatur, ad vitandum periculum ut hostia sacra vel quoddam eius fragmentum cadat.)
The Instruction at this point cites n. 118 of the General Instruction, which lists all the things that should be provided on the credence table, including: “the Communion-plate [patina] for the Communion of the faithful.” It is true that a close reading of the GIRM would suggest that this paten is mandatory only when intinction is utilized (see n. 287), but nevertheless it is a common sense practice allowed for by the GIRM and certainly commendable for all sorts of reasons.

Houseling cloth and paten in use (a first communion in Germany) 

One reason has not yet been mentioned: quite apart from its utility, the chin paten reminds the faithful of the mystery of the One who is present to us under the sacramental species of bread. He is the Lord of glory, hidden under the humble veil of food, and we must approach It and handle It with utmost reverence. The paten is a simple and subtle way of underlining that communion is no mere symbolic token of communal belonging but a genuine participation in the Redeemer’s divine flesh. When we recover little signs like this — and in ideal circumstances, we would be restoring the altar rail, too, and the houseling cloth — we do our part in reversing the outrageously bad statistics about the ignorance of and lack of faith in transubstantiation that characterizes American Catholics and probably Catholics in many other parts of the world as well.

Another reason to use the chin paten is that it subtly encourages the faithful to receive on the tongue, since the paten seems to have its use most properly in that configuration. The signal is transmitted that something special is occurring in reception on the tongue that reception on the hand rules out. Psychologically, this could come across as: “The person in line ahead of me is treated more specially because the priest and the server cooperate when giving him communion. Maybe I should do that, too. It seems more appropriate somehow.” I grant that Boomers are not likely to reason this way, but others with less baggage might.

Although communion plates with no handle are sometimes used, plates with long handles tend to be much more convenient for altar servers. If a particular place is following the common though inefficient and impersonal “queuing up” model, the server should stand to one side of the priest and hold the paten under the chin of any communicant who receives on the tongue. It is harder to say what should be done with those who receive in the hands, apart from saying that they just shouldn’t, period. But that topic has been taken up in many other NLM articles, and is not the main point here.

For those who take the motto of “brick by brick” seriously, reintroducing the communion plate would be a simple and affordable brick that could be set into its place readily enough.

[1] No method is perfect, since a host hard enough can bounce off of a paten, as I saw happen with the first generation low-gluten hosts, which tended to be hard rather than soft. Such mishaps can, in any case, be avoided as long as the paten remains close to the communicant's chin, so that there is not a long distance through which a host can fall.

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