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Mother never told me washing dishes was a sin


Next time I take my little ragbag of sins to the confessional, do you suppose I should admit to cleansing sacred vessels? I washed a full set last Sunday even after I knew what the new instructions from Rome said about that.

I could plead mitigating circumstances. After Mass I stood in the vestibule next to the table that held the coffee urn, the lemonade server and cups and was hospitable for as long as seemed necessary (my name was on the new hospitality committee for that Mass). I had been a Communion minister at that Mass, and Communion ministers normally cleanse the sacred vessels.

I went to the sacristy. On the counter were four used crystal chalices, two plates for hosts and four slightly soiled linen purificators. The priest, still vested, was in back of the church visiting with people. What’s a layperson to do?

St. Martha of Bethany, hovering at my elbow, seemed to suggest that I put down my purse and make myself useful.

I rinsed the chalices and plates respectfully with bottled water, poured the precious water down the special sink that leads to the good earth. I respectfully and carefully washed each chalice and plate with a dab of dish soap under hot running water and rinsed them under more hot running water. My mother who had a great fear of germs would have been proud. I dried the chalices and plates with a fresh towel, placed them reverently in the little cupboard, locked it and hid the key in the usual place. I placed the purificators in the little plastic basket to await my friend, Maria, who washes and irons them every week.

The priest came in while I was in the middle of the dishwashing. I told him I would be happy to complete the task. He said he would be happy to have me do so. His homily had been about how good it is not to grumble. We agreed not to grumble about the new instructions. He hung up his vestments, gave me a quick hug and went out to talk with people still lingering in the church.

I don’t think Jesus would mind that I washed the sacred vessels. Jesus seemed to like being in the company of ordinary people, seemed to relish being part of the jostle of daily life. For a long time I’ve believed that Jesus so loved being among us that he found this bread-and-wine way to let us know he’s still at hand.

I’ve adopted one of the beliefs of a favorite family friend. If we really understood what happens at Mass, she said, there would be standing room only at every Mass in the world. Because I attend a mid-city church with a much smaller congregation than it once had, I love to think about what it would be like if my church were packed Sunday after Sunday. This is one of my conflicting desires, since one of the things that drew me to St. James Church is that the people scramble at the time of the Sign of Peace. They move about the church, shaking hands, hugging, getting to know one another, creating the sort of hubbub that must have existed among the multitudes that trailed after Jesus. That would be difficult to do with a standing-room-only crowd.

I’m trying not to grumble about any element of my church, local or worldwide. But sometimes I wonder where the people who write Rome’s instructions go to Mass. Those instructions sometimes suggest they are intended to prevent an erosion of love, respect and belief in the Eucharist. When I read that sort of thing, I want to invite the prelates who prepare these preventive care missives to come with me to any of the three churches where I have served as a Communion minister or to the hospital where I have carried the Body of Christ to patients. I want those prelates to stand beside me and see the eagerness with which people of all ages, colors and income levels reach out to receive the host or the Communion cup, to see the love in their eyes, to feel the grace of that moment.

I don’t think the prelates need to worry about erosion of belief in the Eucharist. And when it comes to sacred vessel washing, we should make sure they’re clean.

Patty McCarty is NCR copyeditor. Her e-mail address is pmccarty@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 25, 2000