|ROME, 3 MAY 2005 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.
Q: I would like to know the present teaching of the Church, with
documentary evidence, on fixing relics of the saints at the altar of
— K.S., Nagapattinam, India
A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 302, contains the
following statement: "The practice of placing relics of Saints, even
those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly
retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of
This statement summarizes the more detailed treatment of this question
found in other documents such as the Roman Pontifical, Dedication of a
Church and an Altar, and in the Ceremonial of Bishops.
No. 866 of this latter book indicates the basic norms for relics:
"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
"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."
Other numbers such as 876-877 describe some details as to the vesture
and form of the entrance processions and the contents of the copy of the
record of the dedication to be placed in the reliquary.
Later, in No. 900, the Ceremonial describes the rite of depositing of
"If relics of the martyrs or other saints are to be placed beneath the
altar, the bishop approaches the altar. A deacon or presbyter brings the
relics to the bishop, who places them in a suitably prepared aperture.
Meanwhile Psalm 15 (14), with the antiphon 'Saints of God' or 'The
bodies of the saints,' or some other suitable song is sung.
"During the singing a stonemason closes the aperture, and the bishop
returns to the chair (cathedra)." ZE05050323
* * *
Follow-up: Relics in the Altar [05-17-2005]
Related to the question on relics upon the altar (May 3) a Pennsylvanian
reader asks: "The document on Popular Piety states that the relics of
the saints (I assume the blessed, too) are not to be exposed on the
mensus of the altar. Does this mean that during Mass on the feast day
one may not have the relic on the altar at all or is this more
The question refers to No. 244 of the Directory for Popular Piety.
It states: "The Church blesses sacred images because of their cultic
significance. This is especially true of the images of the Saints which
are destined for public veneration, when she prays that, guided by a
particular Saint, 'we may progress in following the footsteps of Christ,
so that the perfect man may be formed in us to the full measure of
Christ.' The Church has published norms for the exposition of sacred
images in churches and other sacred places which are to be diligently
observed. No statue or image is to be exposed on the table of an altar.
Neither are the relics of the Saints to be exposed on the table of an
altar. It is for the local ordinary to ensure that inappropriate images
or those leading to error or superstition, are not exposed for the
veneration of the faithful."
This norm is taken from No. 10 of the introduction to the Roman
Pontifical's "Order of Dedication of a Church and an Altar."
Although the document specifically refers to a long-term or permanent
exposition I believe that its sense and its spirit would also exclude
the exposition of a relic during a feast-day Mass. This would also be in
conformity with the general norm that only that which is necessary for
the Eucharistic celebration should be placed upon the altar during Mass.
This does not mean that the relic could not be exposed in some way
during the celebration of a feast. For example, it could be placed on a
column close to the ambo or some other prominent place. ZE05051727