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When a Church Is Used Again for Liturgy

Date: June 12, 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.

Question: I have a somewhat technical question. A church building was originally dedicated in 1895. However, during the 1970s it briefly and illegally fell into non-Christian hands, liturgical worship was interrupted, and the high altar removed. After a while, the building was restored to Church ownership, and worship was renewed with a simple Mass on a new altar. Did this brief interruption constitute a loss of consecration? Finally, is the anniversary of the dedication automatically a solemnity in the Church or does this require a special decree to celebrate the solemnity? -- C.V., Middle East

Answer: This is mostly covered in the Code of Canon Law:

“1205. Sacred places are those which are designated for divine worship or for the burial of the faithful by a dedication or a blessing which the liturgical books prescribe for this purpose.

“1206. The dedication of any place belongs to the diocesan bishop and to those equivalent to him by law; they can entrust the function of carrying out a dedication in their territory to any bishop or, in exceptional cases, to a presbyter.

“1208. When the dedication or blessing of a church or the blessing of a cemetery has been completed, a document is to be drawn up, one copy of which is to be kept in the diocesan curia and another in the archive of the church.

“1211. Sacred places are violated by gravely injurious actions done in them with scandal to the faithful, actions which, in the judgment of the local ordinary, are so grave and contrary to the holiness of the place that it is not permitted to carry on worship in them until the damage is repaired by a penitential rite according to the norm of the liturgical books.

“1212. Sacred places lose their dedication or blessing if they have been destroyed in large part, or have been turned over permanently to profane use by decree of the competent ordinary or in fact.

“1217 §1. After construction has been completed properly, a new church is to be dedicated or at least blessed as soon as possible; the laws of the sacred liturgy are to be observed.

“1218. Each church is to have its own title which cannot be changed after the church has been dedicated.

“1222 §1. If a church cannot be used in any way for divine worship and there is no possibility of repairing it, the diocesan bishop can relegate it to profane but not sordid use.

“§2. Where other grave causes suggest that a church no longer be used for divine worship, the diocesan bishop, after having heard the presbyteral council, can relegate it to profane but not sordid use, with the consent of those who legitimately claim rights for themselves in the church and provided that the good of souls suffers no detriment thereby.”

I would say that, in the case of this church, the illegal occupation could be considered as falling under the terms of Canon 1211. Since the interruption was not permanent nor was there any decree from the bishop, it does not appear that Canon 1212 is applicable. Therefore, the church did not lose its original dedication.

So, it was possible to restore liturgical worship after suitable acts of reparation.

However, since a new permanent altar was built, it should have been properly dedicated in accordance with Canon 1237 and the Roman Pontifical, but without having to rededicate the whole church building.

Finally, since the anniversary of the dedication of a church appears as a proper solemnity under number 4b in the “Table of Liturgical Days According to their Order of Precedence,” the only thing required to celebrate the solemnity is to have reasonable certitude as to the actual date. If Canon 1208 above has been obeyed, the document should be in the archives of the parish and diocese. This is one solemnity that is frequently forgotten in parishes.

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