Wednesday, May 18


Side Altars as the Liturgical Consummation of Popular Piety
Part II: Their Decline in the Post-Conciliar Age

The other day I posted about liturgical consummation of side altars. After the stress of college graduation (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) is over, I'm going to continue posting the rest of that paper.

Thank you all for your thoughts on the matter. After discussing simply their history in the last post, we saw how a few factors lead to their development and increase. We will now consider how each of these factors has declined in the post-Conciliar Church of the last 40 years, and with their decline, there has also been a decline in the number of side altars.

As the document quoted at the beginning of the present consideration detailed, following the Second Vatican Council there was—in some areas—a collapse in many forms of popular piety. Each of the forms of devotion listed above (private Masses, the Mass as intercessory prayer, devotion to the Holy Souls, relics, and devotion to the Saints, especially through the Mass) which served as factors in the construction of side altars has been muted or fallen out of practice to some degree in the last forty years.

Though an increase in the number of priests coupled with a decrease in the practice of concelebration had served as an impetus to side altars, the number of priests as a percentage of the Catholic population has declined significantly. Since 1980, the number of priests has declined more than 25% even as the Catholic population has continued to increase.[1] Further, the Second Vatican Council allowed for a revival of concelebration on regular basis, “at conventual Mass, and at the principal Mass in churches when the needs of the faithful do not require that all priests available should celebrate individually.”[2] Simultaneously, pressure from some liturgists and theologians attempted to discredit the value of Mass without a congregation; some American liturgical groups even petitioned Rome to ban “private Masses” as recently as the late 1990’s.

The legitimacy of Masses without a congregation, however, has been definitively restated by all post-conciliar editions of the General Instructions of the Roman Missal, which have included a chapter on the manner of celebrating such Masses. Nonetheless, side altars for the celebration of private Masses have often been removed from churches. Occasionally, new altars have been constructed in separate rooms to accommodate these private Masses “out of sight” of the general Catholic population, which is often surprised that Masses without a congregation are still celebrated.

The Mass as a form of intercessory prayer has declined significantly in recent times. The exact reasons for this decline, whether due to a secularization of the laity, disapproval by some clergy, or simply a disconnect which prevents laity from approaching clergy to request Masses be said for a given cause, are unknown. Whatever the reason, “recent years have seen an increasing dearth of requests for the celebration of Masses in Western society, and even the Holy See has felt the pinch.” [3] It is hoped that “among the fruits hoped for from the current Year of the Eucharist is a renewed faith in the Mass as intercession and a consequent return in the faithful to the practice of asking for the celebration of Mass for specific intentions.” Nonetheless, Masses requested on a regular basis as a form of intercessory prayer are no longer exerting the pressure for an increased number of celebrations (and therefore an increased number of altars upon which to celebrate) which they once did.

Masses requested on behalf of the Holy Souls have also decreased. While the new Code of Canon Law incorporated a lengthy section regulating pious foundations, there can be no doubt that both the awareness and the actual practice of creating such Mass foundations (much less constructing altars upon which the Masses might be said) has drastically dissipated in comparison with earlier epochs; indeed, similar practices are often discouraged.[4] While current liturgical guidelines affirm that “the Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ’s Passover for the dead,” it nonetheless calls for the use of Masses for the Dead “in moderation, since every Mass is offered for both the living and the dead, and there is a commemoration of the dead in the Eucharistic Prayer.”[5] Guidelines published in 1975, however, called on the priest to “use Masses for the dead sparingly.”[6] But even more influential in the decline of Masses said for the repose of the dead is the fall from favor which the doctrine of purgatory suffered during the 1970’s, and a lack catechesis on the subject which continues to be widespread even today.

Use of the side altar as a shrine for prayer to particular Saints is perhaps the practice least disturbed by the changes of the last few decades. In fact, in practice, most existing side altars “serve as shrines for popular devotion.”[7] As long as such shrines exist, the psychology of the faithful will naturally gravitate towards them as centers of devotion to the Saints they depict. However, the connection between the side altar and popular devotion to Saints in new churches is seriously under fire in various ways. Under current liturgical law, the very construction of true side altars with images of the saints seems to the vast majority of ecclesiastics, architects, and liturgical design consultants to be forbidden. Further, the rites for the dedication of an altar no longer contain any reference to titling altars after a given saint.[8] Current liturgical law permits that “in places where altars are customarily dedicated to God in honor of the saints, the practice may be continued,” but no where within the rite of dedication is name of the saint in whose honor the altar is dedicated ever mentioned.[9]

Lost by most faithful is the conception of celebrating Mass or receiving communion at side altars erected in honor of a Saint. The practice is remembered and continued by some; the St. Jude Legacy club of Chicago, Ill., for example, offers to remember all members, on the 28th of each month, “in a Mass celebrated at the altar of St. Jude in the Vatican.”[10] A general survey of younger American Catholics, however, will doubtless result primarily in confused looks. The practice of thanking and petitioning Saints through the Eucharistic Sacrifice having dwindled, the demand for such altars has also waned.

The decline of all of these factors, combined with the interpretation of post-conciliar liturgical legislation, has therefore lead to the disappearance of side altars. In some cases, these altars have been torn out of old, even ancient, structures.[11] In other cases, where new buildings have been constructed according to traditional forms, places in which side altars might normally be found have been left empty, or filled with a simple statue.[12] Or, in churches of a more contemporary style, no place for side altars even remains.[13]

[2] Sacrosanctum Concilium, 57

[4] The author’s great-grandmother recently passed away, yet when he approached an elderly priest to offer the traditional “Gregorian” series of thirty Masses for the repose of her soul, the author was strongly discouraged from pursuing such a request “which belongs to a past age.”

[5] 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, para. 379 & 355

[6] 1975 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, para. 316

[7] Msgr. Peter Elliot. Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p. 31

[8] Roman Pontifical, Dedication of an Altar para. 48

[9] Ceremonial of Bishops, para. 251

[10] Rev. Bede Jagoe, O.P., ed. St. Jude Chronicle. (Chicago: The Domincans, March 2001).

[11] Exhibit 7

[12] Exhibit 8

[13] Exhibit 9

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?