Such a small but highly significant thing, the chin paten. It is used is to catch a host or piece of a host that might otherwise fall to the ground. It is another reminder of the real, true, and substantial presence of Christ in even the smallest particle of the host.
Today, the chin paten (also called a communion paten) is also symbolic. When one sees one today it is a pretty clear sign that it’s a more traditional parish. Their use has declined over time, especially when communion in the hand became widespread beginning in the 1970s. Today chin patens are always used in the Traditional Latin Mass; they are part of the emphasis on reverent reception of the Eucharist and they also contribute to the overall ambiance. Some parishes even use them in the Ordinary Form.
Given that background, it is fascinating to learn that chin patens are actually rather new “inventions.” In fact, their use was barely tolerated when they first emerged about 100 years ago. Let’s take a look at some history.
First of all, I’d like to give a little credit to the researcher. Fr. George Stuart, an archivist for the Archdiocese of Washington, is a great collector of things great and small—surely a handy trait for an archivist! Among the projects with which he has assisted was the compilation 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 the chin or communion paten. In a footnote, Fr. Stuart notes the following:
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-five I can say that I can only barely remember the use of the altar rail cloth. It was a cloth draped along the inside of the altar rail that was flipped over the rail just before communion (see photo at left). As the communicants knelt, they were expected to scoop up the cloth and hold it under the chin at about shoulder height. Its purpose was to catch a falling host or any small fragments thereof. I never could figure out how it was that any small fragments didn’t end up on the ground once the cloth was released! But we didn’t ask a lot of questions in those days and the practice was already fading. Chin patens were the main tool at the time, and were usually used even if there was an altar rail cloth as well.
I also remember the altar rail cloths looking wrinkled, and seemed to me to detract from the beauty of the rail itself, which was often exquisitely 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 represented a loss in reverence and a kind of reductionist solution. Today, we consider them to be just the opposite!
Another interesting point is the insistence that such patens, if consecrated, not be touched by an ordinary server. Hence, a server had to use a wooden handle so that he did not actually touch the paten. Older priests tell me that the practice of not allowing non-clerical hands to touch consecrated vessels was honored more in the breach than in the observance. After Mass, numerous lay people (e.g., sacristans who put things away, women who cleaned and polished) touched them. Generally, the norm was only followed in the Mass itself. After Mass, practicalities kicked in. Even in the Extraordinary Form Masses I celebrate today, 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 learning what is done in your parishes. Communion (chin) patens are rare today outside the Traditional Latin Mass, but they are still used. I haven’t seen a communion cloth in decades, but perhaps some of you have, perhaps at a Mass in the Extraordinary Form.
A final thought: I have often thought that altar cards must have been considered irreverent when they first emerged, considering that the central altar card blocks the Tabernacle or sometimes the altar cross. How strange, really. Today altar cards 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 the way the Tabernacle is blocked. Yet to celebrate a Latin Mass without them would almost be thought nontraditional.
Reverence is an interesting thing; there are lots of twists and turns. Don’t get me wrong; reverence does exist and we should follow the norms, but there have been some fascinating changes over time.
In this video from 2008, Pope Benedict is giving Holy Communion. The communicants kneel and receive on the tongue, which Pope Benedict preferred even though it is not required of the universal Church. When I watched the clip, I noted with some amusement that the Monsignor who is serving in the video had improvised a communion paten by turning a ciborium lid upside down. I admit that, in a pinch, I have done the same!