Friday, May 20


Side Altars Continued:
New Liturgical Norms: Can Side Altars be Built?

The disappearance of side altars should not be attributed solely to the fading of the factors which led to their development, however. Perhaps the primary impediment to the continued construction of new side altars, and even the retention of old altars, is the widespread impression that current liturgical law—quite apart from discouraging their construction—out rightly prohibits the construction of side altars. The bishops’ conference of the United States, in their non-binding document on ecclesiastical architecture Built of Living Stones, states that, as “the altar is the center of the thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes… [i]n new churches there is to be only one altar.”[1]

The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not address the number of altars which a church can, should, cannot, or should not have. The Code says simply that it is “desirable to have a fixed altar in every church” and that “fixed altars must be dedicated… according to the rites prescribed in the liturgical books.”[2] The preface to the current rite of dedication of an altar states that “in new churches it is better to erect only one altar so that in the one assembly of the Church of God the single altar signifies the one savior Jesus Christ.”[3] If another side altar is constructed, it should be erected in a chapel “somewhat separated if possible from the body of the church.” In so far as this statement questions the wisdom of the tradition of the Church, this author questions the wisdom of this statement: it lacks confidence in the ability of the altar maius to be sufficiently distinguished from minor altars to preserve its symbolism, whereas for a millennium the Church had full confidence in this provision. However, the current ritual is simply restating the mind of the Church at the time it was written, as expressed in the 1975 Roman Missal: “minor altars should be fewer in number… In new churches they should be placed in chapels separated in some way from the body of the church.”[4] Both the Missal and the rite of dedication, however, spoke in suggestive—rather than descriptive—language.

Subsequent revision of the Roman Missal has shifted the language on altars. Where the former instructions had made a distinction between major and minor altar, the 2002 edition of the General Instructions makes no mention of the altare maius and altaria minora. The instructions speak only of having “a fixed altar in every church” which “should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people.”[5] Paragraph 303 begins, “in building new churches, it is preferable to erect a single altar which in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.”
It appears then, to be referring to the altare maius as simply “the altar”; in this way, there is neither implication that other altars ought or ought not to exist, reflecting the great flexibility of the Roman Rite. Just as current liturgical guidelines only discuss the church building only in terms of communal liturgy, without touching upon (but also without forbidding) the church building’s role as a place for private prayer, a civic focal point, or its many other functions, so also current liturgical norms only refer to the primary or major altar without commenting on the existence of additional altars.

The second half of paragraph 303 seems to confirm the intuition that the current instructions insistence on a single altar refers only to what would formerly have been designated the “major” altar:
In already existing churches, however, when the old altar is positioned so that it makes the people's participation difficult but cannot be moved without damage to its artistic value, another fixed altar, of artistic merit and duly dedicated, should be erected and sacred rites celebrated on it alone. In order not to distract the attention of the faithful from the new altar, the old altar should not be decorated in any special way.
Note that, in speaking of old churches, only the old altare maius is mentioned, and it is referred to simply as altare in the Latin.[6] The obvious multiplicity of minor altars in the vast majority of older churches is simply not addressed: the law’s concern is to prevent the duplication of two (major) altars within new churches and to regulate the duplication of (major) altars in existing churches where new, free-standing altars have been constructed. The symbolism of one altar is clearly endangered by the presence of two altars in the center of the church building: the law intends to address this duplication.[7]

Liturgical law does clearly state that when a new side altar is to be erected, “statues and pictures of saints may not be placed above the altar.” [8] Msgr. Peter Elliot,[9] a commentator on liturgical law and rubrics praised by Vatican officials for his faithfulness “to the authorities and official sources,”[10] states that “obviously, this need not preclude a reredos or window depicting events from the life of that saint.”[11] Indeed, in this sense there is continuity between the changes in art made by Trent and the changes in art made by the post-Conciliar documents of Vatican II. Pre-Tridentine art often depicted the saints as solitary figures, isolated from the reality of their earthly lives.[12] In response to Trent’s canons on art,[13] pictures placed above Reformation side altars moved sharply away from simple depictions of a solitary, decontextualized individual, instead showing almost exclusively saints within the context of scenes from their lives. This method of depiction in liturgical art seems to have prevailed until the rise of neo-Gothic architecture in the 19th century. Msgr. Elliot thus interprets current liturgical norms as a call to recapture the Tridentine manner of depicting saints in the altarpieces.[14]

[1] Built of Living Stones, 56
[2] 1983 Code of Canon Law, #1235 & 1237
[3] 1989 Roman Pontifical, Dedication of an Altar para. 7
[4] 1975 General Instructions of the Roman Missal #267
[5] 2002 General Instructions of the Roman Missal #298, 299
[7] Exhibits 10, 11, 12, & 13
[8] Ceremonial of Bishops, “Dedication of an Altar,” para. 10.
[9] Who takes for granted that the construction of new side altars in a church is completely legitimate,
Cf. Msgr. Peter Elliot. Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p. 31
[10] Msgr. Peter Elliot. Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p. xiv
[11] Msgr. Peter Elliot. Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995) p. 31
[12] Exhibit 14
[13] Rev. H.J. Schroeder, OP. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. (Rockford, IL: TAN, 1978). p. 215-217
[14] Msgr. Elliot comments that the norm about placing images of a saint above an altar was “apparently to avoid the impression that Mass is offered to the saint.” This norm, insofar as it interrupts the classical practice of the cult of the saints in order to justify lax catechesis, or even the potential for lax catechesis, is extremely unfortunate. In his Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus, John Paul II states, “popular piety can neither be ignored nor treated with indifference or disrespect because of its richness and because in itself it represents a religious attitude in relation to God. However, it has to be continually evangelized, so that the faith which it expresses may become more mature and authentic.” Should this norm be interpreted so strictly as to forbid even altarpieces depicting scenes from the lives of the saints, it would be a defeat for the Church’s commitment to evangelizing—rather than abandoning—popular piety.

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