The Liturgy

On the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood (Corpus Christi) earlier this month, the Church in the United States entered into the second of a three-year Eucharistic Revival as called for by the bishops of our country. Here in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we marked the beginning of this year by holding a Eucharistic Congress, which was a day of prayer, work and catechetical formation on the Eucharist. Continuing that formation, this month’s column focuses on the altar, the table upon which the sacrifice of Eucharist is offered.

In every Catholic church you will find an altar. It is so essential to a church building the “Order of Dedication of a Church and an Altar” describes the altar in the following way:

“In every church, then, the altar is the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist, around which the Church’s other rites are, in a certain manner, ordered. Because it is at the altar that the memorial of the Lord is celebrated and his Body and Blood given to the faithful, it came to pass that the Church’s writers have seen in the altar a sign of Christ himself — hence the saying arose, ‘The altar is Christ.’”

Even in the most remote mission territories of the world, the altar may be the only object inside the simplest structures used as churches or chapels. In the construction of the earliest churches, an altar was built and put in place first, and the building built around it, which, in a sense, is designing the church from the “inside out.” An altar is so significant to a Catholic church that no place can be designed for the celebration of liturgy unless it has an altar.

As the central focus for worship, the altar is the sacred table where the ministerial priest celebrates the Eucharist. The “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” tells us that there should be a single altar in a church. This is to signify that there is one Christ and one Eucharist of the Church around which we, the one Body of Christ, gather. The construction or erection of several altars in a church merely for the sake of adornment is strictly forbidden.

In addition to there being only one altar in a church, “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” also states that “the altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and so that Mass can be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” (No. 299)

Before an altar can be used for the celebration of the Eucharist, it must first be dedicated to God by a bishop, whose responsibility, by virtue of their ordination, is to dedicate to God new altars built in his diocese. If, for whatever reason, he cannot dedicate the altar himself, he must entrust the responsibility to another bishop. Only in extremely extraordinary circumstances, and by a special mandate of the bishop, may a priest dedicate an altar. This is because bishops have been entrusted with the care of a particular church through teaching, governing and sanctifying the faithful. Additionally, a bishop possesses the fullness of Orders so that the fullness of Christ’s grace may flow forth in sacramental form to the sanctification of the faithful.

The Rite of Dedication of an Altar is always celebrated within Mass. In place of the Penitential Act, the bishop first sprinkles the people and the altar with holy water, a reminder of the great mercy of God which cleanses us of our sin in the sacrament of Baptism. Next follows the Liturgy of the Word, with special readings proclaimed that form our minds and hearts about the nature of sacrifice and offering, as well as the bread and wine, which, once blessed, broken and shared with the community of the faithful, admit us into a participation in the Body and Blood of Christ. (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16-21) Through the lectionary options for the Liturgy of the Word, the faithful are reminded that while the ritual they are about to see is impressively beautiful and focuses on a piece of furniture, right worship requires proper intention, not just a dedicated altar.

After the Liturgy of the Word, the dedication rite begins with the Litany of the Saints and a Prayer of Dedication. It is a solemn prayer which glorifies the Lord who decreed that altars reach their fulfillment in Christ by recalling the altars of Noah, Abraham and Moses. It then highlights the Paschal Mystery of Christ, who handed himself over on the cross as a pure offering. The Prayer of Dedication culminates with the bishop praying for the Lord to “pour forth from heaven your sanctifying power upon this altar, built in the house of the Church, that it may be an altar dedicated for all time by the sacrifice of Christ, and stand as the Lord’s table where your people are refreshed by the divine banquet.” (Order of Dedication of an Altar)

Following the prayer, the bishop anoints it with the most sacred oil, the Sacred Chrism, and it is then crowned with a blazing fire of fragrant incense — both signs of the work and presence of the Holy Spirit, who is one with the Lord, “the Christ” and “the Anointed One.” At this point on, the only thing the altar can be used for is the celebration of the Lord’s sacrifice and banquet.

After an altar has been dedicated, it is now a sign of Christ, and it is therefore dressed with the cloths and candles that are used at every celebration of the Eucharist. Finally, the bishop celebrates Mass on the altar, and we pass beyond mere symbolism. In the celebration of the Eucharist, Christ is present — really, truly and substantially present — among us in the celebration of his sacrifice. His Body and Blood are offered for us and then given to us to be received from this sacred table.