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!

17 Responses

  1. Juan says:

    I am from Chile and there in all masses communion patens are used. Usually there is a small boy for each of the communion ministers. Generally they don’t have wooden handles though.

  2. Jan says:

    I haven’t seen a chin paten since shortly after my FHC in 1968. I don’t recall my church having the altar rail cloth.

    This brings up the whole larger issue of the abuses that occur with communion in the hand. An example – we have a lot of ‘visitors’ in our parish due to its proximity to several national parks and destinations and since I sit in the front row it’s interesting to watch. Lately there has been a lot of reverence shown – lots of genuflecting, some profound bows (although our former diocesan liturgy director taught us to do only a simple, or head, bow and I’ve since learned that is incorrect) Anyway- a few weeks ago I watched in sheer amazement as a man and woman each received the Host from Father, stepped to the side, and proceeded to feed their Host to the other.

    There is a habit among some of our own parishioners – a deacon included – of the husband and wife standing side-by-side to receive Holy Communion.

    These behaviors are not conducive to unity at all; instead they call attention to those doing them and are a cause of confusion for a lot of people.

    I guess it’s a cliché, but it seems to be the case that if you give an inch, some will take a mile.

    While we are at it – let’s talk about extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, of which I am one…I serve the sick and home-bound. We have two extraordinary ministers distributing the Cup at each Mass. I guess I can really understand this in very, very large parishes, but in my church, at a packed full, standing room only Mass, we are hard pressed to get through 3 verses of a Communion hymn before everyone is done receiving. There really is no need. They dress terribly, sweat pants and sweat jackets, flip-flops and sandals with no socks. It’s very distracting and, if you ask me, detracting.

    Thanks for the vent, Monsignor :)

  3. Alan says:

    At my parrish, only during the TLM do we use that communion paten. However, at our NO celebration we do have the choice of using the altar rail. So I cant complain. I dont think I could find another NO in a 100 miles using the rail. My mother, who grew up in Luxembourg, spoke of using the cloth over her hands at the rail (just as you described). As long as we get the option to kneel… I dont care if we use a cloth or paten.

  4. Jeff Galloway says:

    Do you think, Msgr, that this Sacrament – the summit of Christian life to paraphrase Cardinal Weurl – has become a mechanistic activity for many Catholics? The gradual erosion of the ceremonial and particular aspects – the paten, kneeling, receiving by mouth – seems to render this most holy of encounters with Christ as just “what we do” at Mass for many.

    • Bender says:

      That’s curious, but just to point something out here, Jeff, not to criticize or anything, but you ask about whether Holy Communion has “become a mechanistic activity,” and then list as a possible cause of this the erosion of various mechanistic activities — paten, kneeling, receiving by mouth — none of which necessarily require any particular inner disposition or thought or will or spiritual attitude. A notorious public sinner — a politician perhaps — can kneel and receive by mouth with paten and do all the rest just as easily as the most strict adherent of “say the black, do the red.” Saying and doing are no proof of inner sainthood.

      In any event, with respect to the “has become,” I think if we looked throughout human history, since the time of Abraham, many, if not most, people have often simply gone through the motions, their faith and worship being merely something that they do. It is not something that has arisen merely in the last, oh, let’s say, 40 years or so.

      • Jeff Galloway says:

        My point being, Bender, that ceremony highlights what should be and is important to the Church. I realize that sinners can and do abuse the sacrament all the time – but perhaps would find is less easy to do so if the Church made tangible steps to exhault it.

  5. Ryan Ellis says:

    At St. Rita’s in Alexandria (in my opinion, the finest overall parish in either of the regional dioceses), we use the paten for all receptions of communion–standing or kneeling, OF or EF, tongue or hand. The celiac parishioners don’t have the protection of the paten when they receive from the cup, but that’s it.

  6. Romulus says:

    I have attended the EF in several cities in the US and Europe, and have never seen a communion cloth. Both O and X forms are celebrated at my parish. Holy Communion is distributed at the rail in both forms, and chin patens are used (we have some with wooden handles, and others with metal “wings” that can be held with thumb and index finger. Probably most of our communicants receive on the tongue; a large minority receive in the hand. We have no provision for Holy Communion from the Cup. From time to time a “hand” recipient blesses himself with the Host before consuming; that’s about as weird as it gets for us, I’m glad to say.

  7. Rev. Paul Weinberger says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope,
    Thank you for the great information on your blog. I often post your information in my parish bulletin. Below is in keeping with your most recent blog entry. Rev. Paul Weinberger, St. William Church, Greenville, TX Diocese of Dallas
    INSTRUCTION Redemptionis Sacramentum On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist March 25, 2004 Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments [93.] The Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful should be retained, so as to avoid the danger of the sacred host or some fragment of it falling.180
    HERE IS THE FOOTNOTE:
    [180] Cf. Missale Romanum, Institutio Generalis, n. 118.

  8. Mary says:

    At my OF parish back in Ohio, we had a communion rail (no communion cloth) which is used for every mass and the altar servers held a paten. Most people receive on the tongue though I did notice some received in the hand and the paten was used just to insure no particles of the Blessed Sacrament could fall.

    I wish our parish had an altar rail, but we do have the EF and the paten is used at that mass.

  9. John M. says:

    I attend a diocesan TLM in Texas. Both a chin paten and communion rail cloth is used each week.

  10. david s says:

    The communion paten was (re)introduced at St Rita’s a few years ago. Actually, I thought I heard at the time it was a mandate from the bishop, which would imply pretty widespread use around the diocese.

    I’ve only seen the houseling cloth a few times, only at the TLM. Once in France, and I think somewhere here in the U.S., but I forget where.

  11. Mary M. says:

    Thank you, Monsignor, very interesting.

  12. Fr. Richard Heilman says:

    I have yet to offer the EF Mass, but I have made every attempt to restore the reverence due our Eucharistic Lord in the NO Mass. We no longer use EMHCs, we offer the kneeler (following the Holy Father’s lead), we use the paten with the wooden handle, and I acquired white gloves (inspector gloves can be found by the dozen online) when handling any sacred vessels … I have MCs (men) who handle them during the Mass, and Sacristans (oftentimes women) who handle the vessels after Mass, always with gloves.

    I simply cannot muster any logical reason why reverence should be any degree lower at a NO Mass versus an EF Mass.

  13. Michael Guglielmo says:

    How about communion a cloth held by two altar servers under the communicants chin? I have seen old photos of this.

  14. Joe says:

    At the 10:30 am Mass at St. Jerome’s in Hyattsville, MD (unsure about the other Masses), we have started using Communion patens with wooden handles.

    If you would like to experience a Novus Ordo Mass that is reverent, you should come by and celebrate at the 10:30 am with us. Everything is reverent:

    - priest, deacon, and altar servers
    - incense
    - beautiful choir
    - etc.

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