The Eucharist and Sacramental Validity, Part II

Q: How are some priests who are recovering alcoholics permitted to use grape juice instead of wine at Mass? Don’t you have to use wine to have a valid consecration? –Doug

A: Doug’s question is, in a sense, related to the question addressed in the November 11, 2010 column, about the reception of Holy Communion by those persons unable to ingest wheat bread because it contains gluten. Both of these questions directly involve the  issue of valid matter for the Eucharist, and thus many of the answers to both questions come from the same sources.

We’ve seen before that in accord with canon 2, liturgical laws are as a rule found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) rather than in the Code of Canon Law itself. Since Doug’s question directly involves the liturgy, we’ll look to the GIRM for answers. But we are also dealing here with a question about what constitutes valid matter for a sacrament, and issues of validity/invalidity are a key concern of canon law. That’s why in this particular case, we will find information pertinent to Doug’s question in both the code and the GIRM.

Canon 924.3 states that the wine used for Mass must be natural, made from grapes, and not corrupt. The GIRM echoes this canon, and adds that the wine must be unadulterated—in other words, it must not contain other substances (322). Let’s take a look at the practical implications of these specifications.

First of all, the wine must be natural, so artificial drinks that might look and taste like wine cannot be used. It must be made from grapes, which means that strawberry, gooseberry, or any other sort of wine is prohibited. The wine has to be incorrupt, meaning that if it has turned to vinegar, or if through some defect in its production it has ultimately been reduced to sludge or some other substance, it may not be used. And finally, it must be unadulterated. Many wines on the market today contain extra sugar, which is added to speed up the fermentation process, and these wines thus cannot be used for Mass. Similarly, port wines are actually a mixture of grape wine and brandy, and these cannot be consecrated for precisely the same reason.

The rubrics require that a slight amount of water be added to the wine, and they are echoed by canon 924.1, which describes the contents of the chalice as “wine to which a small quantity of water is added.” This is done because traditionally, in the time of Christ, wine was drunk with some water added to it; we presume that this is what was done at the Last Supper as well.

In 2004, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued the Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum, to regulate various matters pertaining to the proper celebration of the Eucharist. This document gave even more detailed directives regarding the type of wine that may be used at Mass:

It is altogether forbidden to use wine of doubtful authenticity or provenance, for the Church requires certainty regarding the conditions necessary for the validity of the sacraments. Nor are other drinks of any kind to be admitted for any reason, as they do not constitute valid matter (50).

The Church is very exact about the type of wine that is permissible, because it strives to follow Christ’s directive at the Last Supper, to “do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). We know that Our Lord must have consecrated ordinary grape wine such as is described by both the GIRM and the code, because on the night of the Last Supper, He and the Apostles would have been drinking the wine normally used by Jews at the Passover meal. Thus the Church cannot arbitrarily decide to permit the consecration of an entirely different sort of beverage at Mass, because this would be a violation of Christ’s specific directive.

But wine, by its very definition, is an alcoholic beverage, because the term “wine” always implies some degree of fermentation. Which brings us to the heart of Doug’s question: how can a priest who is suffering from alcoholism validly celebrate Mass if he is unable to drink anything containing alcohol? Many people presume that since wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice, a priest can simply consecrate grape juice instead of wine.

At first glance, they may seem to have a point. For even when grapes are picked and squeezed with the intention of making grape juice rather than wine, a degree of fermentation does indeed take place. The moment that the juice is pressed from the grapes, it begins to ferment, and some alcohol is thus created. Therefore, if we want to get really technical about it, it’s possible to argue that freshly pressed grape juice truly does contain a miniscule amount of alcohol—and the fermentation continues for as long as that grape juice sits in its bottle before somebody drinks it.

So this means that we can validly use grape juice at Mass whenever necessary, right? But not so fast. There are a couple of reasons why this is not the case.

Firstly, the grape juice commonly found in our grocery stores has been pasteurized. Pasteurization, the preservation-process which destroys bacteria, is brought about by heating the liquid to a specific temperature. When grape juice is pasteurized, not only are harmful germs destroyed, but the tiny amount of alcohol the juice contains also evaporates. This is why we can purchase grape juice in bottles or frozen concentrate at the supermarket, and know that it will last for at least several days in our refrigerator, without quickly turning to wine or vinegar. With pasteurization, the fermentation process ceases.

It is possible, however, to make a particular type of grape juice, known as mustum, that does contain the tiny bit of alcohol created in the first moments when the juice is squeezed. Using a carefully timed process, mustum is pressed and ordinarily it is then quickly frozen, in such a way that it does retain an alcohol content, but one that is much, much lower than ordinary wine. And in 2003, then-Cardinal Ratzinger, as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), issued a letter stating that such mustum constitutes valid matter for the celebration of the Eucharist.

Therefore a priest who is unable to drink alcohol may celebrate Mass in which he validly consecrates mustum into the Blood of Christ. But he may not decide to do this on his own; the same CDF document states that a priest may use mustum only with the advance permission of the Ordinary (i.e., his bishop or certain other diocesan officials, c. 134.1). Shortly after publication of the CDF letter in 2003, the bishops of the United States determined that there are a couple of different companies here which produce mustum under the proper conditions to render it valid matter for the Eucharist—again, a priest does not have authority to make this sort of determination himself. We can see evidence here of a careful attempt by the Church to ensure that only truly valid matter is used for the celebration of Mass.

In locations and situations where mustum is unavailable, what is a priest who cannot drink alcohol to do? We know from the November 11, 2010 column mentioned previously that when celebrating Mass, a priest is required to consume the Eucharist under both species, and thus he cannot avoid drinking from the chalice. But there is a legitimate way around this problem: during the concelebration of Mass by more than one priest, a priest who is not the principal celebrant may receive the Eucharist under one species only. Thus a priest suffering from alcoholism, who does not have the option of using mustum, may concelebrate Mass with at least one other priest, and receive only the Eucharistic Host.

Another possibility is for the priest to receive under both species by dipping the Host into the Chalice, and thereby receiving only a very tiny amount of the Precious Blood. If he is able to imbibe this slight amount of alcohol, the priest will in this way be able to celebrate Mass alone. But in more severe cases, where even this miniscule amount would potentially cause problems for the priest, concelebration remains a completely legitimate alternative.

Occasionally a question about a possible solution to this problem is raised with regard to adding water to the chalice during Mass at the offertory, before it is consecrated. Could a priest who cannot drink alcohol conceivably pour only a tiny bit of wine into the chalice, and then add so much water that perhaps he would not be able to taste the alcohol in the wine?

The answer is an unequivocal no. For the Church holds that Christ Himself consecrated wine with a bit of water added—and not vice versa! If the contents of the chalice are diluted to the point that they can no longer be described as wine, this then constitutes invalid matter for the Eucharist. Nevertheless, while this is not a possibility, we can see that others exist that enable a priest who cannot drink alcohol to still say Mass. The Church has found means both to help him avoid alcohol and also to maintain the integrity of the Eucharist. We can see that it is possible, in this situation, to look out for the priest’s well-being while at the same time safeguarding the Mass.

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