Sacred Vessels are the receptacles and utensils used in liturgical celebrations to hold the consecrated Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church, these are the Chalice, Paten, Ciborium, Pyx, and the Luna and Monstrance. The Sacred Vessels of the Church are to be treated with special care and reverence.
The chalice is the cup used to hold the Blood of Christ in the liturgy of the Eucharist and the Paten and Ciborium hold the consecrated hosts – the Body of Christ. The ciborium is typically deeper than a paten (which is the shape of a plate) and has a lid. The pyx is a small round case for safely and properly transporting the Eucharist to the sick and homebound. The monstrance with the luna is used to display the consecrated Body of Christ for Eucharistic adoration.
What Materials are Suitable for a Sacred Vessel?
Paragraph 328 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) reads, “Sacred vessels are to be made from precious metal. If they are made from metal that rusts or from a metal less precious than gold, then ordinarily they should be gilded on the inside.”
Under the guidelines given in the GIRM, precious metal is the preferred and best material to use. Chalices and patens made completely from 14kt gold may not be within the budget for many parishes, and so gold plating is acceptable. The outside may be gold or silver, but the inside (which will hold and touch the consecrated Body and Blood) should be plated (gilded) with gold.
The GIRM does allow other materials to be used, but only according the custom of a particular region:
Paragraph 329: In the Dioceses of the United States of America, sacred vessels may also be made from other solid materials that, according to the common estimation in each region, are precious, for example, ebony or other hard woods, provided that such materials are suited to sacred use and do not easily break or deteriorate. This applies to all vessels which hold the hosts, such as the paten, the ciborium, the pyx, the monstrance, and other things of this kind.
This allowance does not imply that any material may be used just because people like it; this allowance gives dioceses the permission to use materials aside from precious metals that are considered precious materials in a particular region. Precious metals with a gold interior are the traditional and preferred materials. Additionally, when another metal is used for a chalice that will hold the Precious Blood, it must be solid and nonabsorbent:
Paragraph 330: As regards chalices and other vessels that are intended to serve as receptacles for the Blood of the Lord, they are to have bowls of nonabsorbent material. The base, on the other hand, may be made of other solid and worthy materials.
As for the artistic style and design of the vessels: the design may reflect the customs of the local region, however they should be designed in a way to make it apparent that they are indeed sacred vessels for liturgical purposes, not something for casual or everyday use. That is, a missionary diocese in the Southwest may use a differently styled chalice than an old East Coast diocese, but both should look like a chalice intended for liturgical purposes and not a dinner cup.
How and by Whom are Sacred Vessels to be Cared For?
It has become a practice in recent decades for extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to purify the sacred vessels. However, as laid out the GIRM, the task is clearly described as a responsibility of a priest, deacon or acolyte:
Paragraph 279 of the GIRM: The sacred vessels are purified by the priest, the deacon, or an instituted acolyte after Communion or after Mass, insofar as possible at the credence table. The purification of the chalice is done with water alone or with wine and water, which is then drunk by whoever does the purification. The paten is usually wiped clean with the purificator.
In 2006 Bishop William Skylstad, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, requested an indult allowing extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion to assist with the purification of sacred vessels at Mass. Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments brought the matter to Pope Benedict XVI and received a response in the negative – the indult was not granted.
The reasoning was clarified in a letter sent to the USCCB by Cardinal Arinze, who noted that his letter was also “a request to the members of the Bishops' Conference of the United Status of America to prepare the necessary explanations and catechetical materials for your clergy and people so that henceforth the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 279, as found in the editio typicatia of the Roman Missal, will be observed throughout its territories.”
The USCCB then published a document to answer specific questions regarding purification of sacred vessels:
Who then purifies the sacred vessels?
As ordinary ministers of Holy Communion, the Priest and the Deacon purify the sacred vessels. The instituted acolyte, by reason of his office, “helps the priest or deacon to purify and arrange the sacred vessels.” In the Dioceses of the United States of America, the ministry of instituted acolyte, which is open only to men, is primarily made up of those preparing to receive Holy Orders.
May an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion assist in the purification of sacred vessels?
In accord with the Holy Father’s recent decision, as reported in Cardinal Arinze’s letter … an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion may not assist in the purification of sacred vessels. This extraordinary ministry was created exclusively for those instances where there are not enough ordinary ministers to distribute Holy Communion, due to the consummate importance of assuring that the faithful have the opportunity to receive Holy Communion at Mass, even when it is distributed under both species.
What about those instances where there are many chalices and only one Priest to purify them?
When there are insufficient Priests, Deacons, or instituted acolytes to purify the additional chalices during Mass, the purification may take place immediately after the Mass has concluded. If such purification by ordinary ministers proves pastorally problematic, consideration should be given to distribution of Holy Communion by intinction or to the distribution of Holy Communion under the form of consecrated bread alone. Priests should also keep in mind potential health risks associated with intinction, especially in the coming flu season.
How to care for chalices and other metal ware.
Don't use abrasive chemicals or cloths.
Don't leave liquid, especially wine sitting in metal ware for extended periods of time. It can discolor and even rust your vessels if the gold plating isn't thick enough or has a flaw in the coating.
Wash in warm water only if necessary. The intricate detail and joints on chalices and ciboria can be very hard to dry. Instead, fill the basin with warm water and rub with a cloth.
If the shine dulls over time, rubbing a small amount of baking soda on the metal will help restore it.
– Information for this article is taken from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the USCCB document Purification of Sacred Vessels. You can also read Redemptionis Sacramentum: On certain matters to be observed or to be avoided regarding the Most Holy Eucharist for more explanation on Sacred Vessels and other regulations regarding the Holy Eucharist.