When you go to a fancy restaurant, do you notice the table linens? The fresh starch and the precise folds made it a special occasion, didn’t it?
When you attend Mass, there are precisely cleaned and folded linens as well, letting us know that this, too, is a special occasion.
Altar linens hold a key place in each celebration of the Mass. The linens consist of altar cloths, corporals, purificators, finger towels and a pall.
Center stage in this list is the altar cloth, or cloths. The altar cloth covers every part of the mensa (table) of the altar. The cloth can be larger than the altar and hang over the sides, but it cannot be smaller than the top of the altar. For a long time — since around the ninth century and until the reforms after the Second Vatican Council — there were three altar cloths, one placed on top of the other.
The purpose of the altar cloth is to honor the “living stone” of the altar upon which the body and blood of the Lord become present to us. The altar cloth also serves the practical purpose of absorbing any consecrated wine that might accidentally fall upon the altar.
The main altar cloth is white and should be made of absorbent material. Traditionally, the material used was linen or hemp. While the church has never taught this, there is a pious tradition that says the altar cloth is made of linen because Jesus’ body was buried in a linen shroud (Mt 27:59 and Mt 15:46).
The corporal rests on top of the altar cloth. It must be large enough to hold the vessels that hold the body (corpus in Latin) and blood of Christ. Sometimes, corporals are embroidered on the four corners – but never in the center. This cloth is twice folded in threes — making nine even squares. This way, the folds can catch any spilled consecrated wine and/or bits of the consecrated hosts. A corporal should also be used at the side table for the purification of the vessels. When corporals are cleaned, they should first be rinsed in the sacrarium. This is a special sink in the sacristy that empties directly into the ground. (While altar linens are made of washable material, they are never made of disposable material, such as paper.)
The same cleaning rules apply for the purificators. These are the cloths used to wipe the lip of the chalice and the cups used during holy Communion. Purificators are folded in three parts and may have a cross embroidered on them. This serves to identify them as different from the finger towels.
The finger towels, also called lavabo or mundatory, are the towels used by the celebrant to cleanse his hands as he prepares the gifts at the altar. While the other altar linens listed above are white in color (with the possible exception of secondary altar cloths), the lavabo do not have a prescribed color. They are customarily white. (Unlike other altar linens, the finger towels are not blessed before their first use.)
The final altar linen is the pall. The pall is used to cover the chalice so that nothing, including insects, can get into the consecrated wine. It is often placed inside an easily washable cover so that it keeps its stiffened shape.
As the Catholic Encyclopedia notes, the pall was not originally separate from the corporal — and thus was much larger than now. This is because, in the past, corporals were so large that part of their cloth could be used to cover the host and the chalice. As the corporals became smaller, the pall became an altar linen in its own right. The pall is also cloth, but has often been stiffened so it sits as a firm square on top of the chalice.
Also used to cover the chalice, before or after the consecrated wine is inside, is the chalice veil. While this linen is not as commonly used today, instead of being white, it can be in the liturgical color of the day — such as purple during Lent or Advent.
When altar linens (except the finger towels) are no longer serviceable — torn or stained beyond repair — they are disposed of by burning and burial. Their ashes may be washed down the sacrarium. This is because they have been blessed and in contact with the Blessed Sacrament. And that is the finest of food we will ever have.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia; USCCB Committee on the Liturgy, BCL Newsletter; Zenit.org; and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.