Precious Metals and Communion

At my parish, we have begun offering the wine at Communion along with the hosts. Yet, we use glass cups for the wine. I always thought that the vessels used for Communion had to be made of gold or silver. Has this been changed?



Before addressing the substance of this question, a clarification needs to be firmly established. A bishop may grant the parishes in his diocese the privilege of distributing Holy Communion under both species, meaning that a person may receive both the Sacred Host and the Precious Blood. Never do we refer to the sacred elements as simply “bread” or “wine,” as though a person is simply receiving a mere symbol, or blessed bread and wine.

Our Holy Father once again emphasized this fundamental point of our Catholic faith concerning the holy Eucharist in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia: “The Church has received the Eucharist from Christ her Lord not as one gift — however precious — among so many others, but as the gift par excellence, for it is the gift of Himself, or His person in His sacred humanity, as well as the gift of His saving work. Nor does it remain confined to the past, since ‘all that Christ is — all the He did and suffered for all men — participates in the divine eternity, and so transcends all times'” (No. 11). Truly, at the words of consecration pronounced by the priest at Mass, bread and wine become — are transubstantiated into — the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Savior.

Given this firm understanding of what the holy Eucharist is, we can better understand the Church’s regulations concerning sacred vessels, whether the chalice, paten or the ciborium. (These regulations would also govern monstrances.) The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani) specified, “Sacred vessels are to be made from noble metal. If they are fabricated from metal which produces rust, or from a metal less noble than gold, then generally they shall be gold-plated on the inside.” (Note that the Conference of Bishops with permission of the Apostolic See may allow sacred vessels to be made of other solid materials as long as they are regarded as “noble.”)

This regulation represents a long-standing tradition that a chalice, paten or ciborium be made of gold, a gold-plated metal or silver, noting that the inside of the chalice or ciborium, or the top-side of the paten, be plated in gold. For instance, in the 10th century, the Corpus Iuris stipulated “that the chalice of the Lord, together with the paten, if not gold, must be entirely made of silver. If, however, anyone is so poor, let him at least have a chalice of pewter. The chalice must not be made of brass or copper, because it generates rust which causes nausea. And let no one presume to say Mass with a chalice of wood or glass.” Even earlier, St. Augustine (d. 430) and St. John Chrysostom (d. 407) also used vessels of gold and silver.

One must note that in the early Church, glass was used for sacred vessels, and glass was an expensive material at that time. However, glass came in to disuse because it was easily breakable and because gold or silver were considered most precious. Here is an important point: offering the best we can for the gift par excellence, Christ Himself.

Most recently, the instruction [[Redemptionis Sacramentum issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments affirmed the above points, highlighting the rationale: “…So that honor will be given to the Lord by their use, and all risk of diminishing the doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species in the eyes of the faithful will be avoided” (No. 117). The idea here is that sacred vessels made of precious material evoke in the mind of the beholder the preciousness of the contents, while those made of common, ordinary material evoke the common, ordinariness of the contents. Likewise, vessels beautifully crafted and dedicated in their use for the Blessed Sacrament evoke a sacredness of usage, while common and profane vessels do not.

Specifically, the Congregation stated, “Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily” (No. 117). Whether one uses Libby glassware bought at the local Food Giant or Waterford crystal bought at Hecht’s, such glasses must not be used for the distribution of the Precious Blood.

Just out of curiosity, I asked both an orthodox rabbi and a Catholic friend who is a convert from Orthodox Judaism what kind of cup is used for their Passover celebration and what materials are used. The fact that the Last Supper, the first Mass, was in the context of a Passover celebration sparked the curiosity. Both individuals answered that a special cup is used for Passover (and oftentimes for the weekly Sabbath ritual). This is called the “blessing cup,” or Kiddush. Most families, even going back to the time of our Lord, had a special cup made of precious metal with special ornamentation to distinguish its purpose and sacredness from ordinary vessels. While we do not know for sure, Christ Himself may have used a cup made of precious metal.

The key point is that we use the best for the most precious gift, the gift of Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders' work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)

Fr. William Saunders

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Fr. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and a professor of catechetics and theology at Notre Dame Graduate School in Alexandria. If you enjoy reading Fr. Saunders's work, his new book entitled Straight Answers (400 pages) is available at the Pauline Book and Media Center of Arlington, Virginia (703/549-3806).

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