How Something We Consider Solidly Traditional was Once Thought as Strangely Progressive & Barely To be Tolerated. A Brief Study of the Communion (Chin) Paten
Such a small but highly significant thing, the chin paten. Its use is to catch a host that might drop or a particle from a host. As such it is another reminder of the real, true and substantial presence of Christ in even the smallest particle of the host. The chin paten helps ensure that not even a small particle drop.
Today the communion, or “chin” paten is also symbolic. When one sees them today it is a pretty clear signal that “this is a more traditional parish.” Their use had declined, especially when communion in the hand became widespread, during the 70s and 80s. Today they are always used in the Traditional Latin Mass and are part of the ambiance and emphasis on reverent reception of the Eucharist. Some parishes, even in the Ordinary Form, still use them.
But it is fascinating the learn that they are rather new “inventions” and their use was barely tolerated, as they emerged about 100 years ago. Let’s take a look at some history.
First of all, a little credit to the researcher. The Archivist of our Archdiocese, Fr. George Stuart, is a great collector of things great and small; surely a good trait for an archivist! Among the projects he has assisted in was the compiling of an excellent manual for the Archdiocese entitled Liturgical Norms and Policies. As part of his research he investigated the history of the many liturgical practices and implements. Among them is the chin paten, sometimes also called the communion paten. In a footnote, Fr. Stuart notes:
GIRM 188 lists the communion plate among the things on the credence table. The only other mention of the communion plate in the GIRM is at 287, in connection with reception of an intincted host. See also ADW, Liturgical Norms and Policies, 2010, 6.40.5.
It is interesting that the communion plate has been in use (in place of the traditional communion cloth) only for about 120 years, and as recently as 1918—even in Rome—it was “tolerated, but not recommended.”
In 1887 a priest asked the editor of a journal about the legitimacy of its use; he was careful to state that the altar server held the plate indirectly by a wooden handle, and not directly. (The literature indicated a concern over whether such patens required consecration as sacred vessels.)
The editor responded, “We do not think that there is force in the objection that the acolyte who carries it by the wooden handle is usurping the position of a deacon or priest. But neither can we recommend this special contrivance. It is novel, having been introduced but recently into certain dioceses. It is unnecessary; for the Church still continues to prescribe the use of the cloth only. But we cannot say that it is a practice to be abolished as wrong, for the Sacred Congregation has not forbidden it in dioceses in which such a custom has been established. Yet we do not think that it is right to introduce it into a church without the sanction of the bishop.”
The editor quoted a response of the Sacred Congregation of Rites from 20 March 1875. “Substitute for the Usual Communion Cloth,” Irish Ecclesiastical Record 8 (1887) 370-372. See also “Communion Cloth or Plate,” American Ecclesiastical Review 56 (1917) 49-57, 194-195, 293-296; “Communion Plate Tolerated,” ibid., 59 (1918) 307.
Within a few years, however, the use of the communion plate was not merely tolerated, but required. In 1929, the SCS [AAS 21 (1929) 631-639] “ordered that a small metal plate, gilt on the inner surface, must be held beneath the chin of persons receiving Holy Communion. No shape was prescribed, but for convenience it is better that there are two small handles at each side. Should it be the custom for the server to hold the plate, one long handle is more convenient. The plate should be about the size of an ordinary paten used at Mass, and without a rim, so that it can be purified easily.” Peter F. Anson, Churches, Their Plan and Furnishing (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Company, 1948) 183.
Since they were held by lay people, whether servers or communicants, communion plates were not consecrated, for (with the tolerated exception of sacristans) only those in orders could touch sacred vessels. The rubrics of the Roman Missal of 1962 listed among the vessels placed on a side table the “patina pro fidelium communione,” but omitted the house cloth altogether (n. 528).
At age fifty I can say that I barely remember the use of the altar rail cloth in certain parishes. The cloth was draped along the inside of the altar rail and flipped over the rail just before communion (See photo left). As we knelt we were expected to scoop up the cloth and hold it under our chin about shoulder high. It would catch a falling host or small fragments. I was never sure how small fragments still didn’t fall to the ground when I let go of the cloth however. But we didn’t ask a lot of questions in those days and the practice was fading. Chin patens were the main tool and used even when, in some parishes, there was still the cloth.
I also remember the altar rail cloths looking wrinkled and unseemly (unlike the one at left) and they often detracted from the beauty of the rail itself. The old rails were often beautifully carved marble or wood.
It is fascinating to think that chin patens were seen by the editor of a prominent Roman Liturgical journal as a “contrivance;” the implication being that it was a loss in reverence, and a kind of reductionist solution. Today we consider them just the opposite.
Another fascination is the concern that such patens, if they were consecrated could not be touched by an ordinary server. Hence they were given a wooden handle so that he did not actually touch them. Older priests tell me that the practice of not allowing non clerical hands to touch consecrated vessels was honored more in the breach than the actual observance. After Mass, plenty of lay people, (sacristans, who put things away and women who cleaned and polished) touched them. Generally the norm was only followed in the Mass. After Mass, practicalities kicked in. Even today, in the Extraordinary form Masses I celebrate, while we are always very careful that only the priest or deacon touches the sacred vessels during Mass, after Mass is another story It just has to be.
I’m interested in what is done in your parishes. Communion (chin) patens are rarer today outside the Traditional Latin Mass, but they still exist. I haven’t seen a communion cloth in decades. But perhaps some of you have, especially as an EF Mass.
A final thought. I have often thought that altar cards must have been thought irreverent when they first emerged. Consider that the central altar card blocks the Tabernacle, or sometimes the altar cross. How strange, really. Today they are used only at the Traditional Latin Mass and once again they are part of the ambiance of that Mass. But, to be honest, I have always had trouble with how that central card blocks the Tabernacle. Yet to celebrate a Latin Mass without them would almost be thought nontraditional.
Reverence is an interesting thing really, lots of turns and twists. Don’t get me wrong, reverence DOES exist and we should follow its norms. But there are some fascinating alterations over time.
In this video Pope Benedict gives Holy Communion. The communicants kneel and receive only on the tongue, a preference for Pope Benedict, though not required of the universal Church. I note with some amusement that the Monsignor who serves has improvised a communion paten by turning a ciborium lid upside down. I admit that, in a pinch, I have sometimes done the same!