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Dedications and Blessings of Altars

Date: February 6, 2022
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The consecration of an altar is the responsibility of the bishop. But what is the current nomenclature used when he delegates a priest to carry out the task? There are a number of altar stones that have been damaged and, after having been repaired, require re-consecration. In addition, a new altar requires consecration. The chancery delegated the task to me, a priest. Properly speaking, in performing the ritual laid out in the Roman Pontifical, is what I am doing a consecration or a blessing of the altars in question? I ask because the Testimonium stating that such has been done will reflect that nomenclature. The Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar does not use either word. Rather, it uses, dedication: "If he cannot himself preside at the rite, he shall entrust the function to another bishop, especially to one who is his associate and assistant in the pastoral care of the community for which the new altar has been erected or, in altogether special circumstances, to a priest, to whom he shall give a special mandate" (Chapter 4, section III, subsection 12, Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, English translation 1978, International Committee on English in the Liturgy Inc. The word traditionally used, even when such an action was done, even by priests, is consecration. -- C.M., State of Georgia

A: Although the Rite of Dedication is the primary source of legislation in this matter, the subject is also fleshed out in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

With respect to who performs the ceremony, the Ceremonial indicates:

“923. Since the bishop has been entrusted with the care of the particular Church, it is his responsibility to dedicate to God new altars built in his diocese. If he cannot himself preside at the rite, he should entrust this function to another bishop, especially to one who is his associate and assistant in the pastoral care of the community for which the new altar has been erected, or, in altogether special circumstances, to a presbyter, to whom he shall give a special mandate.”

In this book, the distinction between dedication and blessing is not so much tied to who performs the celebration as the permanence or not of the church and or altar. Thus:

“954. Since sacred edifices, that is, churches, are permanently set aside for the celebration of the divine mysteries, it is right for them to receive a dedication to God. This is done according to the rite for dedicating a church, a rite impressive for its striking ceremonies and symbols. But if the church does not receive dedication, it should at least receive a blessing, according to the rite described in this chapter.

“Private oratories, chapels, or other sacred edifices set aside only temporarily for divine worship because of special conditions, more properly receive a blessing, according to the rite described in this chapter.

“When a church, private oratory, or chapel is blessed, all such things as the cross, images, organ, stations of the cross are counted as blessed and installed by the one rite of blessing and do not, therefore, need a special blessing or installation.”

“972. A movable altar is one that is not attached to the floor and so can be moved from place to place. A movable altar also deserves religious respect, because it is a table set aside solely and permanently for the eucharistic banquet. Consequently, before a movable altar is put to use, if it is not dedicated, it should at least be blessed.”

This also clarifies the proper vocabulary to be used. If the new altar is permanent and the priest has received a special mandate from the bishop, then the proper name is dedication. If the altar is not fixed, it will be blessed. This distinction also holds in the case of an altar that has undergone such significant repairs and transformations as to require a new dedication.

The term consecration is no longer officially used for this rite, so the term used in the official acts certifying the celebration should refer to the “dedication” of the altar.

With respect to the use of relics under altars, there has been a significant change in law and practice after the Second Vatican Council. As No. 920 says, “It is fitting to maintain the practice of placing beneath the altar relics of the saints, even those who are not martyrs (see no. 866).”

No. 866 says:

“866. The tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar should be preserved, if possible. But the following should be noted:

“a. such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognized as parts of human bodies; hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath the altar;

“b. the greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic; it is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it;

“c. a reliquary must not be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar; it must be placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits it.”

Therefore, the use of an altar stone with tiny relics of saints is no longer required for any altar. Nor is there any rite to bless or dedicate such stones.

The above norms refer to new altars. I would say that restored altars that originally contained an altar stone could retain it as part of the integrity of the altar table, but no separate rite need be envisioned distinct from the dedication of the altar itself.

As the Ceremonial of Bishops indicates:

“921. The altar is of its very nature dedicated to the one God, for the eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one God. This is the sense in which the Church's practice of dedicating altars to God in honor of the saints must be understood. St. Augustine expresses it well: ‘It is not to any of the martyrs, but to the God of the martyrs, though in memory of the martyrs, that we raise our altars.’

“In places where altars are customarily dedicated to God in honor of the saints, the practice may be continued, but it should be made clear to the people that the altar is dedicated to God alone. In new churches, statues and pictures of saints may not be placed above the altar. Likewise, when relics of saints are exposed for veneration, they should not be placed on the table of the altar.”

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

 

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