Saints in sanctuary

Question: I attend a parish named Immaculate Conception. We recently built a church that has an altar and a crucifix that hangs well above it. There is also a lovely statue of Our Lady holding the Child Jesus off to the right. Recently our pastor installed a painting of Mary on the back wall behind the altar. I was upset since I think the altar area should remain wholly dedicated to Christ and not give the impression we are directing worship to Mary. I am so upset that I may leave this parish. 


Answer: Your concerns are not without merit. While there are no rules absolutely forbidding images of the saints in the sanctuary, current norms and customs speak of the sanctuary area of the church as emphasizing the altar, the ambo (pulpit) and the chair. There should also be, on or near the altar, a crucifix. Further, the tabernacle, in most parish settings, is usually in a prominent place, either within or very near the sanctuary (see “Built of Living Stones,” Nos. 54,57,74-80). 

That said, while images of Mary and the saints in the central axis of the sanctuary are not common in modern church design, they are not forbidden. There may be some merit to have the patron of the parish church prominently displayed (as many older churches do) somewhere near the front, presuming it does not overly dominate the sanctuary. 

Perhaps, since you mention the crucifix being high above the altar, there may be some merit in placing a small crucifix on the altar. But only if the high crucifix is well out of sight since more than one crucifix in the sanctuary is discouraged (see “Built of Living Stones,” No. 91). 

It is regrettable that this has caused you such grief as to consider leaving the parish. Perhaps a spiritual way to accept what you consider less than ideal is to remember that we do gather with the saints at Mass. Scripture says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (Heb 12:1). There may also be benefit in recalling the description of the early Church at prayer: They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus (see Acts 1:14). 

As you express, we pray with the saints, and they with us, we do not worship them.

‘Our exile’

Question: What do we mean when we speak of “our exile” in the prayer “Hail Holy Queen.” 

Dionilla, Minnesota

Answer: Biblically, “exile” refers to the fact that, after original sin, Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden (see Gn 3:24). Hence we are exiled from there and live in this “valley of tears,” another expression that occurs in the same prayer. 

Since the death and resurrection of Jesus, we can also say that “exile” refers to the fact that we are not living in our true home. For Christ has opened the way not merely back to the Garden, but to heaven. Heaven is now our true homeland. This sinful and suffering world is not our home, and thus our time here can be considered a kind of exile as we await our summons to “come up higher” to our true and heavenly homeland. 

Finally, speaking of this world as an exile and valley of tears is a recognition that life is often hard. And though we may ask God for certain relief, true and lasting joy can only come when we leave this exile for our true home with God. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.