Q: I have a question about the altar cloth. Our parish’s practice has been to have the wooden altar bare at the start of Mass (other than the seasonally appropriate color strip of cloth that overhangs the altar) then to place the white altar cloth over that as the altar is prepared for the liturgy of the Eucharist. Then a corporal is placed over the altar cloth. After communion the corporal and altar cloth are removed. Is this within the realm of the rubrics or does the altar cloth need to be in place before the beginning of Mass?
A: The GIRM requires a cloth on the altar for mass (117, 304). It never describes a time for the placing of the altar cloth, so it implies that the cloth is on the altar from beginning to end.
Having the altar adorned with a cloth from the beginning helps draw attention to the altar throughout the entire celebration of the mass. However, to place a cloth on the altar for the liturgy of the Eucharist is not inconsistent with its function. The rubrics do not explicitly condone or forbid the practice.