Tuesday, May 10


Raised to the Altars:
Side Altars as the Liturgical Consummation of Popular Piety

As those who know me know, I love side altars. And I love them for exactly the reason listed above--I believe they represent the liturgical consummation of popular piety which Vatican II prescribed. To this end, I wrote a paper for a class on exactly the subject. Excerpted here from that paper are some considerations on the history and development of side altars; it is not complete, particularly because I wrote a total of 18 pages for a 10 page paper, so I wasn't able to address how the cult of relics led to the rise of side altars (an important theory).

Much of what I know about our religion, I read in old books. The sort of books, for example, that use phrases like "such and such died in the odor of sanctity" or "was raised to the altars by Pope who-and-who." I always eally liked that phrase: “raised to the altars.”

If the saints and the liturgy were well connected in the books I read, they were not in my lived experience of Catholicism or her liturgy. Time and again, devotions I read about in my books were totally alien to my parish life—enthralling, amazing, but alien. The Vatican has recently weighed in on the stark divide between liturgy and popular piety: “Following on the conciliar renewal… manifest and hasty abandonment of inherited forms of popular piety” and “unjustified criticism of the piety of the common people in the name of a presumed ‘purity’ of faith” have resulted “in a void not easily filled.”[1]

I argue that both a clear symptom and catalyst of this division is the neglect of liturgical side altars, which formerly served as the seamless intersection of popular piety and ecclesial liturgy. Contextualized within the history of their development, the present consideration seeks to demonstrate not only that the construction of side altars is permissible under current liturgical law, but in fact that their construction is necessary to recover a proper relation of popular piety and the liturgy.

So here is a history of their development. Tomorrow, I'll either post on the feasibility of constructing side altars under current Church law, or just skip straight to the conclusion. Either way, I hope you'll end up agreeing that side altars are a necesary component of liturgical renewal!

The History of Side Altars

The earliest Christian churches had only a single altar; in fact, in all times and places of Christendom, the importance of a single altar in a given church building has been stressed. The earliest type of altar “was a mere table copied after secular patterns,” consisting of “a rectangular and slightly oblong top, supported by one, four, or even five legs.”[2] The earliest altars were of wood, as shown by the high altar of St. John Latern—the mensa of which is the wooden table[3] upon which St. Peter the Apostle celebrated the Eucharist in his day.[4] While earliest evidence suggests the altar of the sub-Apostolic house-churches may have been built against a wall, subsequently the early Christian altar was “normally free-standing.”[5] Writing at the beginning of the second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch discusses the symbolic importance of a single altar: “For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup in the union of his blood; one altar, as there is one bishop, with the presbytery and my fellow servants, the deacons.”[6] To this day, in Eastern rites, “only one altar is erected upon which only one Mass be celebrated in the same day.”[7]

As the monastic movement became clericized and the practice of concelebration declined, both in the early Middle Ages, the demand for altars increased with the number of priests. The Greek Church constructed small chapels or oratories, parecclesiae, around the main body of the church building for “those who desire to celebrate privately.”[8] Within the Western Churches, however, this pressure was answered by the construction of additional altars within a single church edifice: “the practice of celebrating private Masses caused other altars to be added.”[9] In addition to the simple increase in the percentage of priests, the practice of concelebration, which “during the first centuries had been a common custom,” became rare by the thirteenth century and was replaced by “separate private celebrations” of the Mass.[10] Through monasteries, the practice of private Masses spread to the whole priesthood, and it became common practice for each priest to say a private Mass each day.[11]

Other sources insist that the custom of the celebrating Mass for particular intentions “led to Mass being said every day by each priest” and “involved the building of many altars in one church.”[12] The celebration of the Mass for special intentions grew naturally out of the practice of Christian intercessory prayer. Pope Paul VI notes that “the Apostles themselves exhorted their disciples to pray for the salvation of sinners,” which the Church continues “particularly in the practice of penitents invoking the intercession of the entire community,” especially in those good works “which human frailty finds difficult.”[13] Just as Christians offered suffrages for various intercessions, they began also to offer the Holy Sacrifice for specific intentions.[14] Thus the use of the Mass as a culminating form of intercessory prayer also led the development of side altars.[15]

In addition to offering suffrages for particular intentions, the dead were also “assisted with suffrages, particularly through the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.”[16] While forms of suffrage such as “prayers for the dead, giving alms, performing other good works, and applying indulgences” are recommended by Catholic authors for the relief of the Holy Souls, they always gave “first place to the Divine Sacrifice.”[17] To this end, individuals in the Middle Ages began to establish pious foundations, “fixed bequests of funds or real property, the interest or income from which is to procure the celebration of Mass for the founder” upon his death for the repose the soul after death and its deliverance from purgation.[18] The will of John le Coffrer from1305, for example, established such a foundation at the altar of St. Mary within the cemetery of St. Martin Pomary near his mansion.[19] Historical evidence “suggests that the chapel [of St. Mary] in the cemetery was… paid for by le Coffrer himself.” In fact, the specific saint honored by name the altar on which Masses were to be said was also significant: historical records indicate that the individual establishing a Mass foundation would specify a particular altar, by the name of the saint in whose honor the altar was erected, for the Masses to be said. The historical record therefore shows wills establishing a “chantry at altar of St John of Beverley” or “at the altar of St Mary Magdalen,” according to the individual’s personal devotion.[20] Thus, devotion to the holy souls directly fueled the construction of private chapels and side altars visible in European churches to this day.[21]

The practice of having Masses celebrated on the anniversaries of a loved one’s death, or for the holy souls in general, also indirectly contributed to the construction of side altars by increasing the demand for Masses and, therefore, increasing the need for additional altars.[22] Special altars set aside exclusively for the celebration of Masses for the dead were also built; these “privileged altars” constituted the ultimate synthesis of devotion to the Holy Souls.[23] An altar was said to be privileged “when, in addition to the ordinary fruits of the Eucharistic Sacrifice, a plenary indulgence [was] also granted whenever Mass [was] celebrated thereon.”[24] Therefore, Masses offered on altars which received this designation from the Holy See were “sufficient in themselves to free forthwith a soul from the pains of purgatory.” Both through the general increase in masses said for the souls of the faithful departed, and specifically through the institution of privileged altars, devotion to the Holy Souls contributed to the construction of side altars.

The most sought-after privileged altars were “altars of St. Gregory,” those dedicated to St. Gregory. All altars were dedicated or “titled” to a specific person or event; the altar became known by that name, for example, “the altar of St. Anne.” Canon 1201 of the 1917 code “imposes the strict obligation of choosing a title for every fixed altar.”[25] Formerly, “the Roman Pontifical prescribe[d] that the name or names chosen be mentioned in several places in the ceremonies of consecration.” These titles were restricted to the Holy Trinity, or one of the Divine Persons, or to Christ the Lord and any of mysteries or even sacred objects associated with His life, the Blessed Virgin and any mysteries and titles associated with her, the angels collectively or those individual angels whose names are known, or any Saint from the Roman Martyrology or well-known event in a Saint’s life.[26] The title of the main altar had to be “the same as the title of the church,” and no church could have two altars dedicated under the “same title."

The practice of titling altars continued, and they quickly became sites of petition, thanksgiving, and devotion to the saints to which they were dedicated. As a matter of simple psychology, the faithful devoted to a particular saint would, upon desiring to pray with that saint, travel to their shrine at the side of a local church; or, as pilgrims, should a member of the faithful encountering a side altar dedicated to the saint in a church, certainly he would pray there with special fervor. In its grant of an indulgence for visiting the “seven altars of St. Peter’s,” the Church asked that the faithful recite “any prayer they may choose in honor of the Titular Saint of the altar.”[27] Indeed, the phrase “praying at the altar of…such and such” has entered popular usage as a reflection of this practice.[28]

Masses petitioning God for a particular favor which were celebrated at a titled altar were understood to invoke a given saint’s intercession. Therefore, for example, medieval gilds would attend Mass at the altar of their Patron in order to call down the Saint’s intercession on their behalf:
"And so, all fairly clad, [the guild members] go in procession, with much music, to the church of the Friars Minor of Beverley; and there, at the altar of St. Elene, Solemn Mass is celebrated, and every one of the guild makes offering of a penny. The mass ended, and all prayers said, they go home; and, after dinner, all the guild meet in a room within the hall of the guild; and there they eat bread and cheese, and drink as much ale as is good for them..”[29]
This confidence that a Mass on the altar of a Saint invoked that Saint’s intercession was not only extremely strong in the minds of the faithful, but was taken for granted even in curial decisions of the Church.[30]

With intercession naturally comes gratitude, and here side altars occasioned the opportunity to offer thanksgiving. An anonymous account promoting devotion to St. Philomena recounts the conversion story of a man said to have been away from the sacraments for thirty-four years. He was “persuaded by his friends to join in a public novena to the St. Philomena” and, when his petition was answered, the natural culmination of the story is that he “afterwards received Holy Communion in thanksgiving at the altar of St. Philomena.”[31] To enable such devotion of prayer, petition, and thanksgiving before side-altar shrines, churches frequently constructed shrines to saints particularly popular amongst their congregations.[32]

In order to maintain the important Christian symbolism of a single altar in the midst of the multiplicity of altars which arose due to the four factors detailed above, a distinction arose between a principle or main altar (altare maius) and all other altars (altaria minora) constructed for reasons other than the celebration of a community’s principle daily or weekly Masses. A single major altar amidst the minor altars became the rule in Western churches. In this way the honor and importance of a singular altar was retained while the practical needs of the community were met.[33]

In addition to the four uses already discussed, other uses occasioned the construction of altaria minora. To accommodate Mass celebrated by a monastic community immediately after the celebration of Matins, a “matutinal altar” was constructed within monastic choirs.[34] Before the Tridentine reforms, some churches contained special altars apart from the main altar for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament. “Pilgrim altars” were constructed behind the main altar of popular shrine churches for early-morning Masses attended by pilgrims. Within the Western tradition, altaria minora were freely constructed for a wide variety of purposes, though always with respect for the heavy difference towards the one main altar.

[1] Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy: Principles and Guidelines. December 2001. para 1.
[2] Rev. P. Chas. Augustine, OSB, DD. A Commentary on the New Code of Canon Law (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co, 1923) p. 85
[3] Exhibit 1
[4] The table has, however, been encased in marble on its sides.
[5] F.L. Cross, ed. “Altar,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (New York: Oxford Press, 1997) p.46
[6] Letter to the Philadelphians, 3:3-4:1
[7] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 16
[8] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 16
[9] F.L. Cross, ed. “Altar,” Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (New York: Oxford Press, 1997) p.46
[10] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09790b.htm
[11] Exhibit 2
[12] http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09790b.htm
[13] Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, para. 6
[14] Cf. Pope Paul VI, Firma in Traditione
[15] Exhibit 3
[16] Pope Paul VI, Indulgentiarum Doctrina, para. 6
[17] Fr. F.X. Schouppe, SJ. Purgatory. (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1893 & 1986) p.234
[18] These are also known as “Mass Foundations” or “Chantries.”
[19] 'St. Martin Pomary 95/0: The parish church of St. Martin Pomary', Historical gazetteer of London before the Great Fire: Cheapside; parishes of All Hallows Honey Lane, St Martin Pomary, St Mary le Bow, St Mary Colechurch and St Pancras Soper Lane (1987), pp. 107-10
[20] http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.asp?compid
[21] Exhibit 4
[22] Cf. Fr. F.X. Schouppe, SJ. Purgatory. (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1893 & 1986) p.228-229
[23] Exhibit 5
[24] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 122.
[25] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 119.
[26] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 120.
[27] 1944 Preces et Pia Opere (“The Raccolta”), grant #711
[28] Some random examples found through popular search engines include: http://www.irishexaminer.com/text/story.asp?j=25490835&p=z549y67z&n=25491741 and
[29] http://www.trytel.com/~tristan/towns/florilegium/community/cmevnt23.html
[30] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 126.
The rulings here cited refer to “Gregorian Altars,” privileged altars dedicated to St. Gregory at which Masses are particularly said for the dead. St. Gregory the Great, owing to popular stories his visions of souls freed from purgatory, is heavily associated with suffrages successfully offered for the holy souls. A Mass offered on a Gregorian altar applied both “the autority of the Church and the intercession of St. Gregory,” in addition to the merits of the Mass itself, that “souls may be freed from the pains of purgatory.”
Cf. S.V. Indulg., 11 Mart. 1884, ad 2, Collectanea S. C. de Prop. Fide, II, n. 1613
[31] http://www.scborromeo.org/saints/philomen.htm
[32] Cf. USCCB. Built of Living Stones. (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2000)
This practice is taken for granted in paragraphs 135-138: for example, “It is important that the images in the church depict saints for whom devotion currently exists in the parish.
and Exhibit 6
[33] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 15
[34] Nicholas Martin Bliley, OSB, JCL. Altars According to the Code of Canon Law (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America, 1927) p. 15

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