|The negative of a photograph of the Shroud of Turin|
Then cometh Simon Peter … and went into the sepulcher, and saw the linen cloths lying, And the napkin that had been about his head, not lying with the linen cloths, but apart, wrapped up into one place. (John 20: 6-7)
The Shroud of Turin is traditionally believed to be the pure linen burial cloth which was wrapped around the Corpse of our Savior and which was found in the empty tomb on the first Easter Sunday. The image of our Lord miraculously imprinted upon the Shroud is a visible indication and (to some degree) “proof” of the Resurrection.
Thus, it is fitting that, during the Easter season, the Christian faithful consider the Shroud, meditating upon the joy and amazement of the first disciples who found the tomb empty.
Many of the faithful may not realize that the Church provides a tangible reminder of the Shroud at every Mass through the use of the corporal.
What is a corporal?
The corporal is the white linen cloth which is placed upon the altar in preparation for the celebration of the sacrifice of the Mass. This white cloth is generally square-shaped and about seventeen inches wide (though size does vary).
The corporal is usually unfolded upon the altar either by an altar server or by the deacon, during the offertory (or preparation of the altar) after the intercessions. The cloth is then carefully re-folded and taken from the altar after the distribution of Holy Communion when all the remaining Hosts have been placed in the tabernacle.
Much more could be said about the historical development of the use of the corporal (and also of the pall, since the two were once only one large cloth), but such detail does not touch upon our current topic.
A corporal is used to wrap a dead body
When we ask why it is that this linen cloth is called the “corporal”, we come to understand what the mystical signification of the object is. The word “corporal” comes from the Latin word corpus (corporis) meaning “body”.
Now, we should be able to recognize the similarity between “corporal” and “corpse”. A corporal is the cloth which is used to wrap a corpse. But why would we call the white cloth used at Mass a “corporal”?
The corporal is so-called because, in the ancient tradition of the Church, the Sacred Host (even after consecration) was laid directly upon the cloth. Since the Mass is a sacrifice and makes present the death of Christ, the white cloth upon which the Host rested is called a “corporal” or “burial cloth”.
[Likewise, the white cloth which is placed over the chalice is called a “pall”, in reference to the funeral pall which is placed over the casket.]
The corporal as a symbol of the Shroud
Now, it should be obvious that the corporal used at Mass is a symbol of the Shroud of Turin. It is the mystical representation of the white linen burial cloths in which Jesus’ dead Body was wrapped and which were left in the tomb after his Resurrection.
This is why the corporal ought to be made of linen – because Christ was wrapped in linen. This is also why the corporal should be white – because the Shroud was white. (cf. St. Thomas, Summa Theologica III, q.83, a.3, ad 7 [here])
So, when you see the altar boys preparing the altar and laying out the corporal, think of the Cross and Golgotha.
As the Host, having been elevated after the consecration, is laid upon the corporal, think of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (together with the Mother of God, Mary Magdalene, and the other women) preparing the Christ’s Body for burial. As the Sacred Chalice is lowered to the altar, think of the tomb being readied and Christ being laid therein.
And, later on in the Mass, when you notice the servers folding up the corporal and taking it away from the altar, think of the devout Magdalene as well as Peter and John, who first saw the linen cloths lying in the empty tomb. Recall that Christ your Lord has risen from the dead, and has left us the Holy Shroud as a visible testimony to his Resurrection.
Here is a little verse attributed to Hildebert (1194):
Ara crucis, tumulique calix, lapidisque patena,
Sindonis officium candida byssus habet.
The altar is the Cross, the chalice the tomb, and the paten the stone,
The white linen cloth [i.e. the corporal] takes the place of the shroud.
Reverence for the particles of the Eucharist
And, finally, we must note that there is a practical reason for the use of a corporal: It is there so that no particle of the Sacred Host should accidentally fall and be lost.
This is why priests are very careful in handling the Eucharist, and the faithful ought to be careful in receiving our Lord in Holy Communion. Indeed, the current practice of reception upon the hand is quite dangerous, since particles of the Host can easily adhere to the palm or fall to the ground.
The practice of some (perhaps well-intentioned) priests by which they wipe their fingers upon the corporal after touching the Host – presumably, to brush off any particles upon the corporal – is detestable. Such particles would then remain ground into the corporal after the celebration of the Mass, which is sacrilege. Most regrettably, this abuse is even taught in at least one prominent American seminary and is quite wide-spread throughout the United States and Europe.
In any case, the practice is directly contrary to the explicit rubrics of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 278):
“Whenever a fragment of the host adheres to his fingers, especially after the fraction or the Communion of the faithful, the priest is to wipe his fingers over the paten or, if necessary, wash them. Likewise, he should also gather any fragments that may have fallen outside the paten.”