Altars & relics


-The remains of St. John Neumann (1811-1860) enclosed within the glass altar of the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann, which is located in the lower church of the Parish of St. Peter the Apostle (1842-1847), Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. On December, 27, 2007, the body of St. John Neumann was put into a new set of traditional vestments, substantially affecting the appearance of the saint’s body. Fire broke out in the lower church on May 13, 2009. The pulpit, located near the body, was reduced to ashes, but the body of the saint was left intact. The plaster covering over the face did not show any signs of heat. The pastor, Fr. Kevin Moley, C.Ss.R., of the same order as St John Neumann, the Redemptorists, called it miraculous. When Bishop Neumann died suddenly in 1860 he was buried, as requested, at St. Peter’s Church beneath the undercroft floor directly below the high altar.

Pope Paul VI beatified Neumann during the Second Vatican Council and declared him a saint in 1977. The undercroft at St. Peter the Apostle Church underwent several renovations after Neumann’s initial interment. The space served for years as the lower church of St. Peter the Apostle parish and eventually became the National Shrine of Saint John Neumann after his canonization. The body of the saint lies in a glass-enclosed reliquary under the main altar. It is dressed in the episcopal vestments with a mask covering the face.

The saint’s body has undergone multiple vestment changes since it was first displayed at the time of his beatification. In 1989, during the course of a major renovation of the shrine, the body of the saint was clothed in a set of modern vestments cut in the Gothic style. On December 27, 2007, the body received a new mask and was clad with a set of high-quality traditional Roman vestments, including a laced alb, stole, maniple, episcopal gloves, and traditional Roman fiddleback chasuble. The Cardinal Archbishop of Philadelphia, Justin Francis Rigali, was present to assist with the vesting.  Please click on the image for greater detail.

“Early Christians under persecution in Rome would bury their dead in the catacombs.  No surprise.  However, they also needed to celebrate Mass in secret, for obvious reasons.  The catacombs were perfect.  And what better place to celebrate Mass than on the tomb of one who gave the ultimate witness to the faith.

Each Catholic Church has within it an altar stone. Before the Second Vatican Council, Latin-Rite priests could lawfully celebrate Mass only on a properly consecrated altar. This consecration was carried out by a bishop, and involved specially blessed “Gregorian Water” (water to which wine, salt, and ashes are added), anointings (LOTS of consecrated oil), singing, and ceremonies. The First class relics of at least two saints, at least one of which had to be a martyr, were inserted in a cavity in the altar which was then sealed, a practice that was meant to recall the use of martyrs’ tombs as places of Eucharistic celebration during the persecutions of the Church in the first through fourth centuries. Also in the cavity were sealed documents relating to the altar’s consecration. The tabletop of the altar, the “mensa”, had to be of a single piece of natural stone (almost always marble). Its supports had to be attached to the mensa. If contact was later broken even only momentarily (for instance, if the top was lifted off for some reason), the altar lost its consecration. Every altar had to have a “title” or “titulus” in Latin. This could be The Holy Trinity or one of its Persons; a title or mystery of Christ’s life (Christ the Good Shepherd; the Holy Cross); Mary in one of her titles (Mother of Christ; Our Lady of Good Counsel); or a canonized saint. The main altar of a church had to have the same title as the church itself, for instance, there are many “side altars” in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, but the “high altar” in the center is dedicated to St. Patrick. This reflected the idea that the altar was the key element, and the church was built to house it, as opposed to the church being built and simply supplied with an altar as part of its furniture.

Obviously, these regulations would have made it impossible to celebrate Mass anywhere but inside of a Roman Catholic church. To provide for other circumstances—for chaplains of everything from military to Boy Scout units, for priests traveling alone, for missionaries, or for large outdoor celebrations of Mass on pilgrimages—portable altars, popularly called “altar stones,” were used. These were usually blocks of marble, often about 6 inches by 9 inches and an inch thick, consecrated as described above. A priest with a field kit could simply place this stone on any available surface (a tailgate, or a stump or log) to celebrate Mass, or it could be inserted in a flat frame built into the surface of a wooden altar. Many Roman Catholic schools had a full-sized, decoratively carved wooden altar (which, being wood, could not be consecrated) in their gym or auditorium that could be taken out and prepared for Mass, with an altar stone placed in the “mensa” space.

The privilege of using a portable altar was not automatically conferred on any priest. Cardinals and bishops normally had such rights under canon law, but other priests had to be given specific permission— this was, however, easily and widely obtained.

Consecrated altar stones are no longer required in parish altars, but they are part of a tradition dating back to the second century, when the early Christians celebrated Mass on top of the tombs of the martyrs.  Before Vatican II, the altar stone was really the altar.

When you had a wooden table or a wooden altar against the wall, the altar stone was always consecrated. The priest would kiss the altar stone and place the gifts on it. Most people didn’t think about it that way, but fundamentally that’s what it was.

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms included lifting the requirement that the Eucharist be celebrated on stone and relics, parishes may wonder about the meaning of these stones and what to do with them.

An altar stone is a solid, flat piece of natural stone which contains relics of at least two saints — one a martyr — as well as incense grains representing an offering to God. The stones had to be large enough to hold a chalice and sacred host, and on average are nine inches square. Five crosses engraved on the top signify the five wounds of Christ.

Before Vatican II, only stone altars could be consecrated. Many parishes had wood altars, so they placed consecrated altar stones in their altars to meet the requirement. If a priest wanted to celebrate Mass in a park for a parish picnic or on the battlefield for soldiers, for example, he had to bring the piece of stone with the embedded relic.

The practice of placing martyrs’ relics beneath an altar is found in Revelation 6:9: “When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God.”

Around 150 A.D., Christians expressed belief in Jesus’ resurrection by offering Mass on the tomb of a martyr, often on the anniversary of his or her death, when a saint’s feast is typically celebrated marking their real birthday into eternal life. In 517 AD, a Church council in France first decreed that, to be consecrated, an altar should be made of stone. Parishes obtained relics for their altar stones from a central Vatican office.

Before Vatican II, a bishop usually consecrated altar stones in a ceremony that was similar to, but less formal than, an altar consecration. The bishop used blessed oil, incense and a type of holy water reserved for anointings and ceremonies that contained salt, wine and ashes.

During Vatican II, the Council fathers changed the requirement that altars contain relics or altar stones as they sought to preserve, improve and reform the Sacred Liturgy. They advocated for the altar to be viewed as a table in addition to a place of sacrifice.

The Council retained the custom of placing relics under altars if their authenticity was verified. The preference is for a recognizable part of the body, rather than dust gathered from a crypt.

Today, altars are dedicated in a revised rite, and relics are optional. But according to the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, they still play a role: “For it is altogether proper to erect altars over the burial place of martyrs and other saints or to deposit their relics beneath altars as a mark of respect and as a symbol of the truth that the sacrifice of the members has its source in the sacrifice of the Head [Jesus]. Thus ‘the triumphant victims come to their rest in the place where Christ is victim: He, however, Who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by His sufferings are beneath the altar.’”


-by Br Philip Nolan, OP

People realize that something strange is going on with Catholic altars when they visit a church that has the full body of a saint in a glass case beneath the stone slab. Saint John Neumann’s shrine in Philadelphia (pictured above) is a good example of this. It’s like an open-casket wake that never ends. Not only does this practice reveal something about the Catholic understanding of the body, it makes clear the somewhat shocking truths about all Catholic altars: every altar is a place of death.

Our altars have their roots in the Jewish altar in the Temple. The altar in the Temple, according to the laws of Torah, was a place marked by sacrifice and blood and fire. There the priests made the different offerings that God had instituted as constitutive of the covenant with his people. It must have often been a messy, smelly place, but it is where God chose to have his people worship and make atonement for their sins.

In the Last Supper, Jesus institutes a new sacrificial system. He offers himself, once for all, in the unbloody sacrifice of the Eucharist. He ties together the full meaning of the history of the chosen people—the Exodus, the sojourn in the desert, the promise of fruitful land—into one great sacrament that makes present the fulfillment of all these realities. And he does this in the context of a meal among friends.

The Catholic altar follows upon both mysteries: place of sacrifice and place of meal. As the Catechism puts it, “The altar, around which the Church is gathered in the celebration of the Eucharist, represents the two aspects of the same mystery: the altar of the sacrifice and the table of the Lord” (CCC 1383). Furthermore, as a place of encountering the Lord in the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar itself becomes a representative of Christ: “What is the altar of Christ if not the image of the Body of Christ?” asks St. Ambrose.

Why, then, does the Church have the practice of placing relics of saints, whether small pieces or full bodies, beneath altars? On the symbolic level, there is a profound unity between the saint and the altar. The altar, an image of Christ, holds the physical remains of those who took on the form of Christ in their earthly life—suffering, dying, and now, thanks to God’s generosity, living again with Him. We can look on the body of the dead saint without fear because they faced death and triumphed by being united with Christ’s victory over death. By our reverence and faithfulness to the altar and the perfect Sacrifice that adorns it every day, may we do the same.”

Love,
Matthew

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