By Father Francis Hoffman - The Catholic Answer, 3/1/2012
Q. About 30 years ago our small rural church was replaced by a new modern one a few miles away. When the altar, statues and pews were removed from the older building the altar stone was removed from the altar. One of the parishioners ended up with it, and it was handed down to a Catholic friend of mine who had no idea what it was until I identified it for him. I was told that altars were no longer required to have altar stones following the Second Vatican Council, and our current parish church does not have one. My friend offered it to our pastor for insertion in our altar, but it was refused, and he was told he could keep it, but one should treat it with reverence, which he does.
The fact that the miraculous change of bread and wine into the Body of Christ took place so many times over this altar stone leaves me in awe, and incredulous that the pastor wouldn’t want it for our church. Basically, I would like your comments about altar stones and their non-requirement in the newer churches being built.
Guy, via e-mail
A. As you can read below, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal does not require an altar stone for an altar, but allows for the placement of authentic relics underneath the altar, and not in the altar stone. The old altar stones are still sacred items because they have been consecrated and because of what you mention: Mass was celebrated upon them. Accordingly, they should be treated with reverence. It could be fitting to display them in a reliquary of the Church.
Here are the current norms for altars:
“In keeping with the Church’s traditional practice and the altar’s symbolism, the table of a fixed altar is to be of stone and indeed of natural stone” (GIRM, No. 301).
“The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics” (No. 302).
The practice of placing relics of saints, especially martyrs, in the altar stone or underneath the altar connects us to the early Christians who would gather in catacombs and celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on the stone sarcophagi of the martyrs. But it also connects us to the sacrifices in the Old Testament when altars were made of stone.
St. Mary Major’s Rank
Q. Aug. 5 on the liturgical calendar commemorates the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. How does the dedication of a church rank over one of the saints, and how did St. Mary Major get the nod over the other basilicas in Rome?
Robert Beyerle, Greer, S.C.
A. You’re right, the feast of the dedication of a church takes precedence, normally, over the feast day of a saint. If you open the Roman Missal to the Prefaces in the Order of the Mass, after all the Feasts of Our Lord, you will find first “Dedication of a Church,” followed by prefaces for Masses in honor of the Holy Spirit, then the Blessed Mother, then St. John the Baptist, St. Joseph, the Apostles, Pastors, Virgins and Religious, Holy Men and Women, All Saints, Marriage, Christian Death, and, finally, civic holidays.
You ask, “How does the dedication of a church rank over one of the saints?” But I ask, “How does the dedication of a church rank over the Holy Spirit?” If I can answer that one, yours will be easy. There are theological, historical, liturgical and practical reasons why this is so. Let’s consider a theological reason.
The dedication of a church ranks right after feasts of Our Lord Jesus Christ because the Church is the “mystical body of Christ.” Now, we use the word “church” in various ways. “Church” can refer to the assembly of the people or to the physical building, the temple of God, where the Sacrifice of the Cross is re-presented daily in the Sacrifice of the Mass. The focal points of any Catholic Church are three: the altar — not only a symbol of Christ and His sacrifice, but also the sacred place where the sacred sacrifice takes place; the tabernacle, which houses the glorious and living body of Christ; and the crucifix, with the corpus of Jesus on it. The Church “building” is the house of God, the dwelling place of the Lord.
Now, Jesus Christ is not higher or greater than the Holy Spirit, since both are persons of the Holy Trinity and equal but distinct in every respect. Since you can’t have two prefaces on the same page, you have to put it somewhere. So the prefaces are listed in the order: 1) Feasts of Jesus Christ; 2) Dedication of a Church; 3) Feasts of the Holy Spirit.
Finally, other basilicas in Rome are also commemorated in the liturgical calendar. This is not an honor reserved to St. Mary Major. On Nov. 9, we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome; on Nov. 18, we celebrate the feast of the Dedication of the Basilicas of St. Peter (Vatican) and St. Paul (Outside the Walls) in Rome. The dedications of these four major patriarchal Roman basilicas are commemorated every year, all over the world. For that reason, if you ever journey to Rome as a pilgrim, you can gain a plenary indulgence if you visit any of those churches. But, curiously, on the feast of the dedication of St. John Lateran basilica, the Roman Missal indicates the Mass of the Dedication of a Church be used. For Aug. 5, St. Mary Major, it’s a Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and for Nov. 18, Dedication of St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s, the Mass is from the Common of the Apostles.
Baptism by Grandma
Q. Some of my good Catholic friends say they baptized their grandchildren because they were so worried, as I am. I am refraining, but were these baptisms true for these children? Where do we find a satisfactory answer that these children’s souls will go to heaven if they die without being baptized?
Arlene, via e-mail
A. I am assuming that the parents of the grandchildren did not want to have their children baptized, therefore your good Catholic friends took the matter into their own hands. They should not baptize children without the parents’ permission, but once they are baptized, I doubt they need to be baptized again.
For a valid baptism of an infant, the minister must pour natural water over the crown of the head of the child while saying out loud the Trinitarian formula: “N., I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
For the valid baptism of an adult, besides what is specified for the infant, the adult must specifically desire baptism: he must speak for himself. A child cannot speak for itself, so the parents and godparents speak up for a child. The Church indicates that there must be a reasonable hope that the parents or guardians of the infant will raise the child in the Faith. How can grandparents have a reasonable hope that the child will be raised in the Faith if the parents resist it?
We should be very concerned about the eternal welfare of children who are not baptized, because Jesus said, “I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (Jn 3:5). Baptism is serious business. While we do not know how an unbaptized person who dies can be saved, the Church offers this hopeful thought from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (No. 1261).
Mortal Sin Query
Q. A layperson is not supposed to receive Communion while in a state of mortal sin. But what about a priest who is in the state of mortal sin? Does he have to go to confession before celebrating a Mass? Does it impact the validity of the Mass?
Name withheld by request, via e-mail
A. No one should receive holy Communion while in a state of mortal sin. Fortunately, the Church provides us with the wonderful Sacrament of Penance, to forgive our sins, and priests are willing to hear confessions whenever the faithful make a reasonable request for this sacrament.
Nevertheless, the Church recognizes that there can be situations when a person has an unconfessed mortal sin on his soul and has no opportunity for confession before holy Communion, yet has a serious need to receive Communion. In those cases, the person is asked to make the best Act of Contrition possible — a perfect Act of Contrition — with the resolve to go to confession at the earliest possible opportunity. This is all laid out in canon law:
“A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to celebrate Mass or receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible” (Canon 916).
If a priest has committed a mortal sin, he should go to confession before he celebrates Mass — unless he has no opportunity to confess — AND he must celebrate that Mass for the good of the faithful. The obligation to celebrate Mass for the parish is a “grave reason.” If he is the parish priest and has no substitute, he should make a perfect Act of Contrition, and then celebrate Mass.
If he makes a perfect Act of Contrition, he returns to a state of grace (and a condition of this perfect Act of Contrition is his resolve to confess ASAP) and celebrates the Mass validly. Even if he is not in a state of grace, he still celebrates the Mass validly if he intends to do what the Church does in celebrating the Mass.
The validity of the sacraments is not dependent on the personal holiness of the minister. The sacraments operate ex opere operato, by the very fact of the rituals being performed.
Q. I had the pleasure of attending a pilgrimage at Holy Love outside of Cleveland, Ohio. It was a very spiritual pilgrimage, and one I would like to repeat in the near future. While in the area I attended a Catholic Church for Sunday Mass. Much to my surprise there were no kneelers and the tabernacle was not present in the front of the church, actually not in the church at all. After Mass, I discovered the tabernacle was positioned in the chapel off to the side of the church. I feel that it is not acceptable to have the tabernacle not present during the Mass. I hope the rest of the United States does not take that position. I also missed the kneelers. Please fill me in on your thoughts.
Monica, Chesterfield, Mo.
A. A pilgrimage could be a very spiritual experience, but not necessarily a bona fide religious act, if you show a willful disregard for the directives of the local bishop. “Spiritual” is a subjective term that often describes our subjective experience of something. In the Catholic Church a “religious” act is something done in union with the clear indications of the Church hierarchy. In the case of your pilgrimage to “Holy Love” outside of Cleveland, you may be unaware of the local bishop’s decree that stated: “I, Richard G. Lennon, Bishop of Cleveland, hereby 1. Declare that the alleged apparitions and locutions to Maureen Sweeney Kyle are not supernatural. 2. Forbid members of the clergy of any ecclesiastical jurisdiction to celebrate the sacraments on the site of Holy Love Ministries (cc. 835, par. 1; 838, par. 4). 3. Admonish the faithful of the Diocese of Cleveland to cease gathering for any religious, liturgical, spiritual, or devotional purpose on the site of Holy Love Ministries (cc. 212, par. 1,3; 214). 4. Declare that the Confraternity of the United Hearts of Jesus and Mary is not an approved association of the Christian faithful in the Diocese of Cleveland and may not legitimately use the name ‘Catholic’ or represent itself as a Catholic group (c. 216).”
As to your comments about the kneelers. Unless the local bishop demands that the Church have kneelers, it is not necessary to have kneelers. Kneelers are for the convenience and comfort of the faithful. But I agree, it’s a lot easier to kneel on cushioned kneelers than on the hard floor. What is not optional is the posture we are to follow at certain points of the Mass. The faithful are asked to kneel during the Eucharistic prayer and again during the “Behold the Lamb of God.” Why the Church you visited does not have kneelers, I don’t know. Perhaps they ran out of money when they were building the church?
What about the tabernacle? It should be in a conspicuous location (readily visible), safe and secure, and noble and beautiful in appearance (see GIRM, Redemptionis Sacramentum, Sacramentum Caritatis). Years ago most parish churches had the tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary, clearly visible to everyone. Then there was a period to emphasize the centrality of the altar, and to transfer the tabernacle to a side altar, or to a side chapel. There were solid theological reasons for it.
But now the trend is moving back, and the practice of Pope Benedict XVI is convincing some bishops to request that the tabernacle be placed in the center of the church.
In a recent book, “Light of the World,” the Pope made this statement about the Holy Eucharist: “The Holy Eucharist is the event that is at the center of absolutely everything. It is the event, not just of a single day, but of the history of the world as a whole, as the decisive force that then becomes the source from which changes can come.”
If the Holy Eucharist is the “event that is at the center of absolutely everything,” shouldn’t the tabernacle at least be at the center of the sanctuary?
So to your questions and comments: you should not go to Holy Love; it’s OK to skip the kneelers unless the bishop says otherwise; and it’s OK to place the Tabernacle off to the side, or even in a side chapel, so long as it is clearly visible, secure and noble (unless the bishop indicates that it should be placed in the center of the church). But the real answer to the question behind your questions is: pray more. TCA
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