A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH

Decorating the Sanctuary

ROME, 25 MAY 2004 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I have been searching for some type of directives regarding the decorating of the sanctuary. In the parish here we have a decorating committee that can do just about any type of decorating that it wants. Isn't there a book that contains what is permissible and what isn't? A.R., Hinckley, Ohio

A: By decoration I suppose you mean the occasional decoration of the sanctuary (flowers, etc.) and not the overall structure of the sanctuary itself.

The U.S. bishops' conference has recently published an official document, "Built of Living Stones," which gives concrete guidelines for many aspects of church construction and design.

The document may be obtained from the conference itself or from Catholic bookstores.

Apart from this, some general norms of the Church regarding decorating the sanctuary are contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in Nos. 304 and following, which address some aspects directly regarding the decoration of the altar but whose principles may be applied to the sanctuary in general.

No. 304 states: "Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."

No. 305 reminds us that: "Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar."

This applies especially to floral decorations, which "should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa," and which should be especially moderate during Advent and which are forbidden during Lent except for the Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), as well as solemnities and feasts.

No. 306 gives as a principle that "Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal." A microphone is also permitted when necessary.

This means that any other elements or symbols should not be placed on the altar.

No. 308 requires the use of a "cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations."

No. 307 deals specifically with candles but also makes another valid criterion with respect to general decorum: "The candles ... are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful's clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it."

Further on, No. 318 speaks of the use of sacred images: "In the earthly Liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste, in that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have some part and fellowship with them.

"Thus, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church's most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. For this reason, care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images."

From these numbers of the GIRM it may be inferred that what the Church desires with regard to the decoration of the sanctuary is an overall sense of moderation and well-balanced dignity, limiting, as far as possible, the use of merely decorative objects that have no direct liturgical function and avoidance of creating obstacles to the clear view of the assembly or impediments to its concentration on the celebration of the sacred mystery itself.

Thus, while the decoration of the sanctuary should remain fairly stable, there is ample space for traditional elements that reflect the liturgical season (Advent wreath, poinsettias at Christmastide, etc.) and for the occasional use of truly artistic banners on major feasts.

Although artistic banners may be used it is best to avoid the use of message posters in the sanctuary as well as other occasional articles such as children's drawings and the like which might draw attention away from the centrality of the celebration.

These objects are not necessarily excluded from the precincts of the church but should preferably be placed in some other suitable place outside the sanctuary. ZE04042524

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Follow-up: Decorating the Sanctuary [from 06-08-2004]

Many readers asked for clarifications regarding the May 25 column on decorating the sanctuary. A member of the military asked if a crucifix may be placed upon the altar during the celebration of Mass.

No. 308 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly permits this option, which is often necessary in situations where Mass is celebrated outside of a permanent chapel.

Such a crucifix would usually be placed at the front of the altar in a central position directly in front of the celebrant with the corpus facing toward the altar. In such a case the crucifix should not be so large as to obscure the faithful's view of the sacred action, nor so small as to be practically invisible. There are many thin metal crosses that can perfectly fulfill this task.

Related to what should be on the altar, a reader referred to a custom in one parish: "During Sunday Mass, at the preparation of the gifts, a given family comes up to cover the altar. First, they put down an altar cloth, always the color of the day or feast. Then, they put down a corporal. Then they set down several purificators which will be used at Communion time.

"After Communion, the same family comes forward again. They fold and remove the corporal and any purificators which might still be there, fold up the altar cloth, bow, and take all these items out of sight. The closing prayer, announcements, and blessing, are all said with the altar-table bare, as if stripped as on Good Friday and Holy Saturday."

Perhaps this is a rather radical interpretation of GIRM, No. 306: "Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar." But this practice certainly does not correspond to liturgical norms.

GIRM No. 117, treating of the articles to be prepared before Mass, states: "The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation ..."

No. 118 continues: "On the credence table: the chalice, a corporal, a purificator, and, if appropriate, the pall; the paten and, if needed, ciboria; bread for the Communion of the priest who presides, the deacon, the ministers, and the people; cruets containing the wine and the water, unless all of these are presented by the faithful in procession at the Offertory; the vessel of water to be blessed, if the asperges occurs; the Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful; and whatever is needed for the washing of hands."

Thus it is clear that these things should be prepared beforehand and not during Mass. Likewise the preparation of the altar, especially the extending the corporal and preparing the sacred vessels, is preferably undertaken by the deacon or, if lacking, by the acolytes.

The altar should be habitually covered even outside of Mass, although it is customary in many places to protect the white altar cloth outside of Mass by covering it with another cloth. This cloth should be removed some time before the Eucharistic celebration begins.

If stripping the altar after Mass were a regular practice then the rubrics requiring this action during the Easter triduum would have no significance at all.

A reader from the Philippines asked if flowers were forbidden on the altar.

It is true that GIRM No. 305 does not use the word "forbidden" when referring to flowers being placed upon the altar, but certainly indicates a clear preference. When read in tandem with the text of No. 306 quoted above, on placing only what is essential upon the altar, I believe it becomes more than a mere preference.

Even though there may be some rare exceptions to this general norm, I suggest that we should always try to follow the clear sense of the rule which best reflect what the Church desires for the liturgy.

On this topic readers may wish to consult an excellent recent article, "In Praise of Flowers," published in the March/April edition of the Environment & Art Letter. This recently revamped newsletter, produced by the Archdiocese of Chicago's Liturgy Training Publications, should prove to be a useful resource for parishes on all aspects of church decoration.

Several readers asked about the appropriateness of having national flags in the sanctuary.

Surprisingly, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. As a result, the question of whether and how to display a national or other flag in a church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.

It appears that the origin of the display of the American flag in many U.S. parishes stems from the custom of offering prayers for those who served during World War II. At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones especially those serving their country in the armed forces as a way of keeping before the attention of the faithful the needs of military families.

After the war the custom of having the flag present in the sanctuary, often accompanied by the pontifical standard, continued even in periods with no major international conflicts.

The practice, while not confined to the United States, is not widespread in other countries and is usually confined to certain churches of particular national importance.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, for example, displays a large national flag near the image of the Patroness of America and in another part of the church the flags of all the nations of North and South America.

The U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter.

Personally I would hold that national flags are best kept out of the sanctuary and the practice should not be introduced where no custom exists. If used, however, they should be discreet and of modest dimensions.

Finally, a Canadian reader asked if GIRM No. 318 meant that only one title of the Blessed Virgin may be placed in the church. The text says:

"Thus, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church's most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. For this reason, care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images."

This is basically a pastoral norm that strives to strike a balance between the needs of the liturgy and the private devotion the faithful.

In order to serve the liturgy, the norm indicates that images should not be so numerous as to distract the faithful during the celebration.

At the same time it asks that provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community so that images should be set up to cater for those devotions most deeply held by the local community, not excluding the use of votive lamps before the images.

The reason the document says that there should not be more than one image of any saint set up for veneration recalls certain excesses of former times in which more than one altar was dedicated to the same saint.

However, I do not think that the prohibition of more than one image would exclude images not explicitly set up for veneration as when, for example, in addition to a statue of a church's patron saint there are several murals or stained glass windows that illustrate episodes of the saint's life.

Nor would it exclude adding another image of the Blessed Virgin if pastorally advisable. For example, if, due to demographic change, a parish dedicated to the Virgin of Loreto acquired a significant Hispanic population there would be no reason to exclude the pastor setting up an alcove to Our Lady of Guadalupe to respond to the devotional traditions of the people. ZE04060822
 

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