Of Bishops, Bread, & Lemons

Back in the late 80s and early 90s I studied at a traditionalist Catholic seminary and as our rector was a bishop, pontifical ceremonies formed a regular part of our liturgical life. As one of several sacristans, I was able to get quite up close and personal with the preparations of these interesting ceremonies: coordinating with the MCs; selecting and laying-out all the vestments in the several different sacristies that were required; assisting the clergy with their vesting…and sometimes preparing the bishop’s “breakfast”.

Whenever an event called for the bishop’s use of holy oils–Confirmations, ordinations, the Chrism Mass, what have you–a salver with lemons and bread was placed on Credence I (think it was I…maybe III). The bread and lemons were presented to the bishop after any instance wherein he finished using holy oils; he would use them to clean his fingers of the oils. We sacristans referred to the bread and lemons as “Hizzexcellency’s Breakfast”.

We called it that because this bishop would actually consume the edibles afterwards: he gave instructions to leave all of the used bread and lemons in the sacristy and not to toss them into nature. We would obey, and he would take them back to his room after every such ceremony…and eat it all up, holy oil and all.

I always found that practice intriguing, and I wonder if the practice of cleaning holy oils from the fingers with bread and lemons is observed by bishops, today. Is that strictly a pre-Vatican II era practice or is it still done today? Are there any cathedral sacristans or MCs out there who are familiar with this custom?

Hmm, I’ve put out lemon slices for the bishop to cleanse his fingers but I’ve never heard of bread.

While the oil is edible, it’s olive oil after all, the thought of ingesting Sacred Chrism makes me gag. It smells wonderful but that perfume doesn’t belong in anyone’s stomach.

Yep, and it wasn’t just your plain old sliced white sandwich bread, either, but fairly large wedges cut from a freshly-baked loaf of whole wheat and molasses bread.

At the recent Confirmation at our parish the Archabbot (Archbishop was not available) did use lemons and bread to cleanse his hands. He did not consume it afterwards though. As a new sacristan that was the first time I had seen that but figured they knew what they were doing.:wink:

If memory serves, bread wasn’t always used. Often it was cotton balls (or a small piece of cotton batting) along with the lemon wedge. The lemon, of course, breaks down the oil, and the cotton is used to dry the fingers. When the cotton itself dries, it’s supposed to be burned. Again, if I recall correctly, (and my memory might be lacking here since I haven’t seen it in some years), the same is done in the Syriac Churches, including at priestly ordinations, when Holy Chrism is used. I’m unfamiliar with the practice in this regard in other Eastern & Oriental Churches.

Our Bishop uses the bread and lemons as well. He also requests a class of Pepsi over ice to be ready after the Mass - he drinks this but does not wash his fingers in it.

Too funny.

I usually MC at ordinations and large masses in my diocese. I’ve never heard of bread being used. Interesting.

We always have lemons, cotton balls, and a lavabo set (water, euer [basin] and towel) handy for bishop after using the chrism, or even handling the container of chrism at chrism mass, in case any is on the outside. He usually dosen’t use it after just handling the container, but it’s ready if he wants to.

I’ve also never heard of eating the lemons (or bread, if used) after. Also interesting…

All this talk of oils and bishops calls to mind the gremiale. The gremiale rested on the bishop’s lap in order to prevent his vestments from becoming soiled by holy oils. The amusing thing about that is that the gremiale was every bit as elaborate as the vestments they were meant to protect!

The Ceremonial of Bishops mentions use of the gremial. As for cleansing the hands after using sacred chrism or holy oils, it either vaguely says the requisites necessary for cleaning the hands or a pitcher of water. Water’s not much use for removing oil.

My favorite medieval relic featured in the pontifical Mass was the praegustatio: the pre-consuming of the bread by a lower cleric. The designated clark would be signalled by one of the MCs to make his way to the high altar, and to stand at the bishop’s right.

On the bishop’s paten, two hosts were placed beforehand. One would be passed to the designated pregustator, who would stand there and ingest it completely. If he did not choke or stroke or expire on the spot, he was given the signal to return to his place in choir. Mass continued.

I happen to know this because I served in the capacity of pregustator on several occasions (thus my user ID). I don’t know why I was chosen so often. An indication of the bishop’s aspirations for me, I suppose.


Undoubtedly he had Mark 16:18 in mind…

I’m sure that’s it.

In the case of the bishop in question, a food taster may have actually been a practical necessity, and not just the antiquarian resurrection of a quaint liturgical practice that had more or less fallen into desuetude even before the Second Vatican Council. As he and I did not exactly form a mutual admiration society, my repeated selection for this role often led me to wonder…and to take that host with…ever so slight apprehension.


More to be dreaded, however, were those responsible for the bishop’s ewer and basin, as, due to an apparent design flaw in the ewer, the water almost invariably went right over the basin, when poured, splashing on the pontifical sandals, instead. “It isn’t Holy Thursday,” would come the bishop’s reaction, accompanied by a sigh and the rolling of the episcopal eyes.

Haha! That’s really funny. I also got a kick out of the “pontifical eyes” pun. :rotfl:

It is one of the methods of disposing of Holy Oils. It is not required, but it is not all that uncommon either.

Holy Oil should never just be thrown into the garbage. If lemon slices or wedges were used to cleanse the fingers (and they are excellent for that purpose), it makes sense to eat them. Balsam is entirely edible, and that’s its the other substance in Chrism.

Interesting… I wasn’t sure if balsam is edible, but now I know… obviously the oil is.

Balsam smells sooooo good. I always help setup and serve our chrism Mass, and I (and a few others) always take the chance to rub a dab of balsam under our noses! The balsam itself (before it’s added to the oil) is so ridiculously strong that you get the scent on your hands just from picking up the bottle!

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