The Crystal Carafe and the Coffee Cup

February 11, 2013 | 0 comments

A colleague told me not long ago of a priest he knows who attended the installation of a new bishop in the diocese in which the priest resided. This was a diocese in which the incoming bishop might have been expected to have a difficult row to hoe in cleaning up some of the liturgical funny business his predecessor chose, for whatever reason, not to crack down on. As I understand it, the priest walked out of the bishop's installation Mass during the consecration, when the large amount of sacramental wine needed for the larger-than-usual congregation was consecrated within crystal carafes (rather than first being poured out into chalices). This is a liturgical no-no, and the priest felt honor-bound to make his displeasure known by his departure.

I got to thinking about this incident, wondering why it continued to niggle at me. Then I remembered another story I had heard a few years ago, this time in a homily.

The homilist told of reading about a home Mass attended by Servant of God Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The homilist noted that the story did not mention why the celebrant at the Mass did not have a Mass kit with him, but for some reason the priest decided to use a ceramic coffee cup as a chalice. For the precious blood of Christ to be consecrated in a coffee cup is a more serious liturgical abuse than not pouring out sacramental wine into extra chalices before the consecration of the Eucharist, but Day reportedly said nothing. The Mass went on without incident. After Mass, Day asked the priest for the cup, took it out into the backyard of the home, and buried the cup in the earth. When asked why, Day explained that the cup was no longer ordinary and therefore could no longer be used for any ordinary purpose.

Both the priest at the installation Mass and Dorothy Day were concerned about liturgical abuses they witnessed, abuses that did not affect the validity of the eucharistic consecration but certainly were illicit and an unfitting treatment of the precious blood of Jesus Christ. But the priest and the laywoman handled the abuses they witnessed in very different ways.

Some might argue that such differences were necessary. A priest has more of a duty, by virtue of his office, to make his feelings known, even on minor liturgical abuses, than does a lay Catholic. And some might ask why Day allowed a coffee cup to be used at all. If she was asked for a mug to celebrate the home Mass, should she not have refused?     

I cannot presume to know a priest's conscience, but I might ask this priest if walking out accomplished any positive change in his diocese's liturgical practices. Let's look at some of the possible outcomes:

If the bishop did not notice the priest's departure, nothing would change.  If the bishop did notice, but didn't know why the priest left, nothing would change. If the bishop noticed, knew the priest's reason for leaving, but thought he himself had good reason for bending the liturgical rules, nothing would change. If the bishop noticed and was embarrassed or otherwise upset by the priest's action, then change might occur but perhaps it would be change that negatively impacts the priest's ability to conduct his own ministry.

It's also possible that the bishop might call up the priest to thank him for the public rebuke the priest delivered during the consecration at his installation Mass and pledge to never again consecrate sacramental wine in carafes. But perhaps that kind of action would demonstrate more clearly the bishop's personal sanctity than it would priestly prudence.

On the other hand, what did Dorothy Day accomplish? Her community was able to have a Mass with a valid Eucharist, perhaps marred to some extent by an inappropriate "chalice" but otherwise unmarred by congregational outrage over something that evidently could not be made better in the moment without denying the Mass to everyone present. After the Mass, though, Day had an opportunity to witness to the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist by treating the cup used to hold his precious blood as a sacred object that required a dignified disposal rather than being put back into service for coffee. It's not hard to imagine that the priest at Day's Mass never again made the mistake of using a coffee cup for a chalice, at least whenever Day was present.

The difference then is that the priest at the installation Mass satisfied his own feelings but probably did not actually improve liturgical practices in his diocese by his action. Dorothy Day did something constructive that reminded everyone at the Mass she attended, including the celebrant, that Christ's Real Presence among us sanctifies and sets apart as holy all that comes into contact with it.


Michelle Arnold is a staff apologist at Catholic Answers. You can contact her online through Facebook.
The Mass Of The Early Christians
Using the words of the early Christians themselves -- from many documents and inscriptions -- Aquilina traces the Mass's history from Jesus' lifetime through the 4th century. The Mass stood at the center of the Church's life, evident in the Scriptures as well as the earliest Christian sermons, letters, artwork, tombstones and architecture. Even the pagans bore witness to the Mass in the records of their persecutions.

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