Criteria for Preparing the Altar

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Criteria for Preparing the Altar

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In our archdiocese there is no uniformity in the way the altar is prepared or laid out for liturgical celebrations. In some cases, the altar is dressed as a conference table; in others, the stone is never seen the whole year round, with the exception of Holy Thursday when it is stripped. My question is: How should the altar for liturgical celebration be arranged? — V.A.F., Bamenda, Cameroon

A: Total uniformity is probably not possible — and maybe not even desirable. In the first place, the missal itself offers several legitimate options, and second, the most appropriate layout depends on such factors as the size of the altar and sanctuary area as well as the possibilities of each parish. I will attempt to illustrate the various possibilities so that at least a common denominator can be established.

The altar should be covered by at least one white altar cloth (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304). It should at the very least cover the entire top of the altar table and preferably hang down on either side. It may also have a hanging fringe on the front and/or back of the altar, but this is not obligatory. It may be plain or adorned, in accordance with local tradition. If other cloths are used, then the white altar cloth is always the uppermost one.

This cloth is obligatory for Mass and may be removed after the celebration. However, it is probably best to reserve the symbol of the stripped altar for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and for this reason it is best to leave the altar cloth habitually upon the altar. Outside of Mass it is good to cover the altar cloth with another simple cloth or cover so as to keep it clean at all times. If desired and useful, another cloth may also be placed underneath the altar cloth. These undercloths may be of a different color and of a heavier textile than the altar cloth. This helps avoid creases and gives greater stability to the altar cloth.

It is also a possible to use an antependium, or frontal. This cloth usually comes to the ground in front of the altar. It is usually a good-quality fabric and often embroidered with liturgical symbols. It may be white or the color of the liturgical season. Its use would not normally be recommendable if the altar is itself a significant work of art that is best left exposed.

The crucifix should be placed upon the altar or near it (see GIRM, No. 308). The cross should be large enough to be visible to the faithful. In general, there should be only one crucifix in the altar area. Benedict XVI has promoted the practice of placing the cross at the center of the altar between the priest and the people, but the present norms do not require this position. It is also possible to suspend the crucifix above the altar or on the wall behind it. If the processional cross is large enough, it may double as an altar cross. Should there be a fixed cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view after the entrance procession.

Two, four or six candles may be placed near or upon the altar (GIRM, No. 307). Seven may be used if the diocesan bishop celebrates Mass. The candles may be arranged in several ways, but they should not obscure the view of the ritual action on the altar. In some places the custom has developed of using two candles for weekday Masses, four for feasts, and six for Sundays, solemnities and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

With respect to flowers, GIRM, No. 305, says: "Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar. During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions. Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa."

Regarding other elements necessary for Mass, No. 306 of the GIRM gives the overarching principle: "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. In addition, microphones that may be needed to amplify the priest's voice should be arranged discreetly."

Therefore, it is not good liturgical practice to leave the corporal, missal, microphone, etc., habitually upon the altar.

We have not been able to offer our reader a uniform criterion for the arrangement of the altar, but then this lack of total uniformity is something contemplated by the Church herself. We hope that what we have offered will at least offer some guidance in removing obviously erroneous practices.

* * *

Follow-up: Criteria for Preparing the Altar [3-15-2011]

Subsequent to our commentaries on the decoration of the altar (see March 1), a reader from Rochester, Minnesota, asked if it was possible to be more specific regarding some details. To wit: "1) How should one decorate the freestanding altar? How to decorate an ad orientem altar? 2) Where should flowers not be placed on an altar? I recently saw a photo of a celebration of the extraordinary form where flowers were displayed above the tabernacle! 3) On great days, if extra candles are desired, what is the best placement? 4) You mention the number of candles on various days. Do you know if the older ceremonial requiring this distribution is in force where there is regular choral celebration? 5) Do you know of good resources related to Catholic practice in church decoration? I know about the superb book that was put out years ago by the Flower and Altar Guilds of the National Cathedral on using flowers. I think that this could be used without difficulty in Catholic parishes with very large buildings, but I believe it is out of print."

It is not possible to go into detail with any great authority, given that the liturgical laws are themselves very succinct and leave much to the personal judgment of pastoral agents. In a way this is a good thing, since differences in church architecture, cultural tradition, and practical logistics mean that there might be more than one legitimate solution.

The closest that comes to official norms regarding flowers in the United States is found in the episcopal conference's document "Built of Living Stones." Regarding floral decoration these guidelines state:

"§124 Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.

"§126 In the course of the liturgical year, the feasts and memorials of Our Lady and of saints with special significance for the parish afford opportunities to show devotion by adorning their images with tasteful floral arrangements or plants.

"§129 The use of living flowers and plants, rather than artificial greens, serves as a reminder of the gift of life God has given to the human community. Planning for plants and flowers should include not only the procurement and placement but also the continuing care needed to sustain living things."

While not overly specific they do give some good principles to help interpret what the General Instruction of the Roman Missal terms "moderate" floral decoration. Floral displays should not obstruct the liturgical action nor should processions have to weave their way around such displays. For a freestanding altar, flowers may be arranged in front of the altar in a way that emphasizes the feast but should not be an obstacle, for example, to walking around it while incensing. As a general rule flowers should not be placed on the altar table.

The above norms refer obviously to a freestanding altar. An old high altar still in use would follow in general terms the norms in force for the extraordinary form.

The general principle regarding flowers in this form is that they are unnecessary, but there is no law against them on feast days in accordance with local custom. They should be used with great restraint. The Ceremonial of Bishops for this form suggests small vases of little flowers on the greater feasts (I,xii,12). Natural flowers or those made of silk or other precious fabrics may be used. Forbidden is the use of flowers made of porcelain, glass, plastic or fabric other than silk.

Flowers may be placed between the candlesticks upon the altar as well as upon the lower steps leading up to the altar but never in front of the tabernacle door.

Regarding altar candles in this form, the relative norms are that they should be placed symmetrically on each side of the cross, upon the altar table or on the upper steps of the altar. Six candles are generally used on the high altar, two on side altars. The number can be increased for a special function such as the Forty Hours' Devotion. Candlesticks with multiple branches are forbidden.

The Ceremonial of Bishops (I,xii,11) says that the candlesticks or the candles should be of different sizes and placed in ascending order toward the center of the altar in such a way as to form a kind of pyramid with the cross. However, equal-sized candles are also admitted.

There are no precise rules regarding how to place candlesticks in the ordinary form, and the disposition can be varied according to circumstances, depending, for example, on the number of concelebrants or the number of sacred vessels required for a specific celebration.

Although I know of no specific title regarding church floral decorations, specialist publishers such as the Archdiocese of Chicago's Liturgy Training Publications have several books that touch upon the subject of decoration in general.

I hope this covers most of our reader's inquiries.

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