Friday, September 28


Clarification, of sorts, on Side Altars

In a previous post I mentioned that liturgical law forbids putting images over a consecrated altar--aside, of course, from the required image of Christ Crucified.

I was only slightly wrong--it explicitly forbids images of saints for new altars, as we read in the post-Conciliar Ceremonial of Bishops for the "Dedication of Church and Altar" (often published in other collections of rituals, like the Rites) para. 10: "statues and pictures of saints may not be placed above the altar." **Even in its strictest interpretation, this does not call for the dismantling of previously-consecrated altars.**

Msgr. Peter Elliot, a commentator on liturgical law and rubrics praised by Vatican officials for his faithfulness "to the authorities and official sources," s tates that "obviously, this need not preclude a reredos or window depicting events from the life of that saint." (Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, p. 31)

I don't know how he justifies that position. However, if it works for him it works for me. In a sense there is continuity between the changes in art made by Trent and this change. Pre-Tridentine art often depicted the saints as solitary figures, isolated from the reality of their earthly lives. In response to Trent's canons on art, 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

So, that is my attempt to "clear up" what I alluded to below.

In the reformed practice, then, to answer the question of a priest as to whether or not he should re-install side altars: by all means re-install them!! However, you will not be able to have them consecrated as altars under the post-Conciliar rubrics: they would remain simply devotional surfaces, a practice which Duncan Stroik employs with extreme frequency (e.g.: Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, Wis.). Further, it is prohibited to celebrate Mass anywhere in a consecrated church except a duly consecrated altar.

Here, though, is where it gets messy: Summorum Pontificum.

The provisions against side altars and against images of saints over altars are contained within the revised liturgical books. And, the 1984 Code of Canon Law, which now governs both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Uses, gives authority to the liturgical books themselves:

Can. 1217: As soon as possible after completion of the building the new church is to be dedicated or at least blessed, following the laws of the sacred liturgy.

Can. 1237: Fixed altars are to be dedicated, movable ones either dedicated or blessed, according to the rites prescribed in the liturgical books. The ancient tradition of placing relics of Martyrs or of other Saints beneath a fixed altar is to e retained, in accordance with the rites prescribed in the liturgical books.

So the question now is this:

If Canon Law gives the liturgical books the force of law, does the law change depending upon whether one uses the Extraordinary books or the Ordinary books?

To me, that would seem to be the case. Certainly, it is something which Ecclesia Dei or its successor will probably articulate more clearly.

If that is the case, then there are no more impediments
- to erecting any number of side altars
- to using small pieces of relics set in the altar table (currently forbidden)
Update: I was wrong: the part about relics is in canon law itself and so would not change, regardless of the norms within the liturgical books.
- to placing images of saints over altars
... provided that one uses the Extraordinary books to do so.

These, and other similar implications, are reasons why Summorum Pontificum has the power to re-enforce a hermeneutic of continuity, that is, the attitude that what was once universal practice cannot now be "bad," in all manner of instances where the liturgical reform produced very significant ruptures in Church practice.

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