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On the Chin Paten and How It Was Once Thought Impious

February 6, 2017

Communion_PatenSuch 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!

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Comments (26)

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  1. Frank Hartge says:

    Thanks be to God, our “Ordinary Form” parish has instituted the use of communion patens in the last year or so, and I have noticed some other parishes in the Diocese of Columbus following that lead. At 62, I remember the cloths on communion rails in my youth in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

    Thanks for this post, Monsignor!

  2. TFM says:

    By my recollection, as a 1970’s altar server, the use of the communion paten declined not due to the introduction of communion in the hand, but due to the (more or less contemporaneous) introduction of the use of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, which led the number of communion stations to outnumber the available altar servers to hold the patens, thus their sad passage into history.

  3. Adams I says:

    In Nigeria, the communion paten is very visible even in a weekday noon mass, this is because communion kneeling on the tongue is still the norm in more than 80% of parishes.

  4. West of the Potomac says:

    My parish in the Arlington Diocese has the altar boys use communion patens at all Masses — both Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms. In our EF Masses, the sacristans do have to handle the sacred vessels outside of Mass, but they always wear gloves.

    A good motto for Mass might be: err on the side of reverence!

  5. JMC says:

    In the parish I grew up in (I’m in my sixties now), there was always a cloth draped over the Communion rail, but only the paten was used. The cloth, which was always meticulously ironed and clean, we always assumed to be something symbolic of a table-cloth, as the rail, to our childish minds, was symbolic of a dinner table. (We knew that, specifically speaking, it was the altar that was the table, but hey, we were seven and eight years old at the time.) I did not know until just now what the function of that cloth actually was – and my first thought upon finding out was, how did they clean the thing? Did they have to wash it by hand in the sacrarium? Or did they have a special washing facility that drained into earth as the sacrarium does? With those questions in mind, I can easily see how the paten eventually gained in popularity until it was the required instrument. It’d be a heck of a lot easier to purify than that cloth. ;D
    .
    We had a visiting priest in our parish a few years ago who insisted on the use of a paten at Communion, but that’s the only time I’ve even seen one since 1965, when the Novus Ordo Missae was introduced in my childhood parish.

  6. Richard Connell says:

    I once saw an altar boy catch a Host with a chin or communion paten. True, the catch was not as spectacular as that by Julian Edelman in Super Bowl 51, but it was more meaningful.

  7. Gianna Estel says:

    Thank you Monsignor,

    I have some dearly loved family members and friends who are always aghast with every little difference they note between my regular yet still reverent Novus Ordo parish Mass and their’s 1960 Latin Mass methods.

    It is nice to occasionally intelligently (and of course charitably) point out that a perceived “older and therefore better” part of the Mass, is not always as “old” as one might be initially inclined to assume.

  8. John Popp says:

    Msgr. Charles,

    I have been to many masses in the Extraordinary Form and have used the altar rail cloth each time I received Eucharist. The servers also followed the priest with a paten. I confess that I had the same thought about what would happen to particles that fell on the cloth when it is flipped back down after distribution.

    The church that continues to use the cloth is Holy Family Parish in Dayton, Ohio, in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. I beautiful parish with a growing population.

    On a side note, my family and I are Byzantine Catholic and our former parish was just down the road from the EO form parish. If our pastor was unable to make it, we would attend Holy Family and were very welcomed, including our young children who received Eucharist from the pastor. In our own tradition, Eucharist is received standing (as a sign of the resurrection,) and the servers hold a cloth, usually red in color, under the chalice with spoon and the communicant’s chin. I never thought of the similar tradition with the altar rail cloth.

    Peace to you!

  9. Cameron says:

    This is a very interesting read. I would have thought that their use could be traced back much further. Our pastor recently introduced the paten in our parishes, which are currently all Ordinary Form. I have felt relieved by the introduction, because I prefer to receive the Host on the tongue, but, in receiving, have had our Lord fall to the ground, resulting in desecration of the Host! And there was at least one time where it was a close call. I prefer to receive on the tongue because of the controversy over receiving in the hand. But I have decided that from now on, to prevent this from happening, I will receive on my hand when there is no paten available.

  10. Jay Nelson says:

    Fascinating article — I had no idea the communion paten was so recent. As for its sacredness, all things connected with the Eucharist were surrounded by more superstition than true reverence. Instead of emphasizing Christ’s love and acceptance, it was all about building up the dread power of the priest.

    What else could explain the rape inflicted on me by Father for having fumbled a catch with the plate one fine morning?

    I thank God that the Bible, particularly Hebrews, eventually showed me the lie of the Catholic priesthood when I finally read it a dozen years after my ordination. I hope you too can find the perfect freedom of the sons of God too some day, monsignor.

    Pax tecum,

    J.

  11. Dr J.A.C. MacLeod says:

    In the Anglican Church it was also called a ‘houseling cloth’and was intended to show reverence to the Blessed Sacrament (‘houseling’ being an old word for each household of a parish). As a former Anglican priest (now a Catholic), I can remember its use in our parish as an altar boy in the fifties. Boys being boys, one of us almost ran the length of the altar rail at the offertory, smartly tumbling the cloth over the rail in a single movement as a cascade of white. We were very proud of our technique!

  12. Mario says:

    I belong to a parish run by the FSSP. We have communion cloths! A lot of parishioners don’t know what to do with them. Some just fold their hands above it, others put their hands under it. But the catechetical books we used with our kids about the Mass (from the days the Extraordinary Form was just the Mass, for first Holy Communion instruction) had an illustration of kids doing it. Learn something new every day.

  13. Mrs. L says:

    Dear Father,
    When my brother served Mass in the 80’s, a paten was used, as were the bells, at St. Peter’s church in Joplin, MO. Today, I receive Communion on my tongue, and many times, when a Eucharistic Minister is giving Communion, they hesitate when they don’t see hands held out and it can take them a second to realize I will be receiving on the tongue.
    I would welcome if the Church had people kneel again and receive Communion on the tongue. The reverence is beautiful. Thank you for an interesting article.

  14. Beth says:

    Interesting indeed! I just also learned that pews/benches are relatively new, it used to be standing only I would guess? In that case, did they used to kneel on the bare floor during the Consecration, or remain standing the entire time? Imagine trying to keep young ones from wandering about with no pews.

  15. Rex says:

    The communion paten had a lot to do with my return to the Catholic faith. In my youth I was a server and was very careful with the paten to make sure the Eucharist could never fall on the floor. As an adult I married a Baptist woman and we raised our family Baptist. One evening after a communion service I walked over to greet some friends and noticed that one of the little crackers had landed on the floor and somebody had already stepped on it. The old altar boy in me went into shock and I changed direction towards this tragedy and wondered how I would get every speck off the floor. Then I realized that all the leftover crackers were headed to the trash. We had no Tabernacle. That’s when I realized there was a difference between those denominations. Baptists love Jesus and would never throw Him out with the trash so they obviously considered that cracker merely a symbol. Two years later, after a lot of study, at age 40 I came back to the Catholic Church. That was 16 years ago.

  16. Keith Mack says:

    We use communion patterns – though you’ve been to our parish and seen them in use at St. Mary in Anacortes, WA!

  17. Greg walek says:

    Is there any reason why the chin patens are not used in mass today. I have seen the Blessed Sacrament fall from people’s hands onto the floor. Is it too much to ask if someone could hold one under the hands or chin during communion. Even with the best handling, accidents do happen sometimes.

  18. Rev. George E. Stuart says:

    Dear Msgr. Pope,

    I am very happy to know that you enjoyed the note on the use of communion patens. Since 2010 it has been augmented a bit in the draft revision of the Norms, and now includes the following, which may also be of interest:

    ¶ For a “high church” Anglican treatment, see Ritual Notes (10th ed. 1956), 20: “88. The houselling cloth, which is a white linen cloth attached to the communion rail and turned over so as to cover it, and which communicants hold under their chins, survived the Reformation in some places, and has been restored in a few others. It was used at royal coronations until that of William IV exclusive [1830]; and in the established Church of Scotland until recently the pews were covered with white cloths on ‘Communion Sunday,’ which seems to be a survival of the same use. 89. The communion plate (patina) is a modern device; it is an elongated plate of silver-gilt ending in two flat handles, and is used with the same object in view as the houselling cloth, namely, to prevent the Sacred Host, or fragments of it, falling to the ground. The patina is passed from one communicant to the next, or it is held by the server. It is not easy to see how it can be used when Communion is received into one’s hands or given under both Kinds; and it does not seem to have been introduced at all widely among anglican [sic] Catholics.”

    Rev. George E. Stuart

  19. Robertlifelongcatholic says:

    I am sixty five and used the chin paten and the communion rail cloth as an alter boy since I was eleven through my late teens. I haven’t seen them used in so long I forgot all about them until you brought it up in this article. Out of site out of mind.

  20. Nick says:

    Drawing the Sacred Heart was also once considered impious, but now almost everyone draws Jesus with His Heart on the Bosom.

    Drawing Mary’s Sorrowful Heart is somewhat considered impious today, because it’s said to overemphasize her role in the Passion.

  21. John Ko says:

    I’m just young enough to have never seen a communion cloth but have always seen the communion paten used. We used it when I was an Altar Boy and my son has caught a fallen communion while serving with one. After we heard Pope Benedict preferred communion on the tongue and kneeling, the priest announced that at least one mass on Sunday, we were going to use the communion rails again (thouh one still had the option of standing if it was difficult to kneel). That “tradition” has caught on and I believe just about everyone and all masses now have kneeling at the communion rail as the norm. Love that ciborum lid upside down as a communion paten!

  22. Richard A says:

    I first encountered the communion cloth last year when I attended an EF Mass at a parish in South Bend. Monsignor explained to visitors how to use it, which was helpful, and also was followed along the communion rail by an altar boy with a paten. The cloth, however, I did not understand fully. It is white, so if sacred particles were to fall onto it, it would be difficult to see, and there was no ritual after communion where actual possible particles were dealt with. Perhaps your archivist could follow up with some research on what the practice was before patens came into use. Of course, until St. Pius X’s reforms, Catholics received the Eucharist much less frequently than we do now.

  23. David says:

    Thank you – very interesting indeed!

    Can the texture of the cloth engage a fragment, keeping it from falling, but meaning it must be disentangled?

    Must the paten be held at the right distance and angle, to keep a fragment or the Host from bouncing or sliding?

  24. Br. Joseph says:

    I recall a conversation with a older gentleman, who is a veteran of the Korean War. He was serving at a battlefield Mass and the chaplain instructed him, “If I’m killed [by shrapnel, etc], be sure to consume the Eucharist.” The gentleman hesitated, because that would have involved touching the sacred vessels, and the priest that to reassure him that it would be all right under the circumstances.

    Definitely a different age and attitude.

  25. Bee Bee says:

    In the Archdiocese of Chicago, at my former parish, the paten was always at the ready held by the server next to the priest in case someone wanted to receive on the tongue. However, at my new parish, Communion is received kneeling at the rail for all Masses, even the Novo Ordo (unless someone wants to receive standing and in the hand, an exception used mostly by those who have difficulty kneeling), and an altar cloth is always used. The server proceeds the priest along the rail (walking backwards) holding the paten below the chin of each communicant.

    I have never seen an rail cloth wrinkled, even when I was a kid. They were always brilliant white and immaculately pressed, like altar cloths.

    Most people seem to like kneeling to receive Eucharist very much, and it seems to go much quicker than standing in line.

  26. Fr. Joseph Faulkner says:

    I am lucky enough to be a priest in the Diocese of Lincoln, where all parishes throughout the diocese use Communion patens. Sometimes their ubiquity can present a different problem, in that, when every server in every parish uses them at every Mass, the boys (we only have altar boys) can get distracted and don’t always “track” the Host from ciborium to mouth/hand with 100% attention. It becomes a thing that the priests and adult men acolytes have to find ways to encourage them and give them incentive to keep focus!