Crucifixes on the Altar

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Crucifixes on the Altar

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 17 June 2014 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) references four times a crucifix on the altar of Sacrifice. Will that now be expected on altars wherever? Also, in the U.S., are celebrants allowed to use the readings from Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, in place of the New American Bible lectionary, which some consider a less literary translation? — J.M., Kansas City, Missouri

A: I suppose that our reader refers to the following four texts from the GIRM.

"117. 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. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.

"122. On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow. The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.

"188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.

"350. Furthermore, great attention is to be paid whatever is directly associated with the altar and the eucharistic celebration, e.g., the altar cross and the cross carried in procession."

It is worth noting that the text does not actually use the term "crucifix," although this is clearly meant in Nos. 117 and 122.
The document also allows this cross to be placed on or near the altar. There is no requirement that it be place directly upon the altar itself.

This is also understood in the U.S. bishops' document "Built of Living Stones" regarding church furnishings:

"The Cross §91. The cross with the image of Christ crucified is a reminder of Christ's paschal mystery. It draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering when united with the passion and death of Christ leads to redemption. There should be a crucifix 'positioned either on the altar or near it, and ... clearly visible to the people gathered there.' Since a crucifix placed on the altar and large enough to be seen by the congregation might well obstruct the view of the action taking place on the altar, other alternatives may be more appropriate. The crucifix may be suspended over the altar or affixed to the sanctuary wall. A processional cross of sufficient size, placed in a stand visible to the people following the entrance procession, is another option. If the processional cross is to be used for this purpose, the size and weight of the cross should not preclude its being carried in procession. If there is already a cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view of the congregation following the procession."

Therefore, there are several legitimate options offered with respect to the location of the altar cross, and present legislation does not prefer one solution over another.

It is well known that even before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI advocated the use of a sizable crucifix upon the altar itself as a means of establishing what he called a liturgical east or a means of focusing priest and faithful on the central mystery of redemption made present at Mass and symbolized by the crucifix.

During his pontificate the presence of such a crucifix upon the altar became habitual at papal Masses and thus far has been continued by Pope Francis.

In this way, the popes teach through example and good liturgical practice. However, no decree or other legal document has yet been promulgated instituting a change in legislation. Therefore, the norms of the GIRM retain all of their validity and legal force.

Not legislating might have been a deliberate choice on the part of the pontiffs so as not to close an open debate regarding the best practice in this area and leave room for flexibility in different pastoral situations.

With regard to the second question: Priests should follow the liturgical texts approved by the bishops' conference of each country. They may not use other texts approved by other conferences. An exception would be a Mass in English in countries with other languages. In this case any approved English text may be used.

* * *

Follow-up: Crucifixes on the Altar [7-01-2014]

In the wake of our June 17 comments on the altar cross, a Belgian reader asked: "If a church is blessed to possess a relic of the True Cross, could it be used as the processional cross, and as the cross placed upon or near the altar during Mass?"

I would say that this would not be the best practice. The relics of the True Cross receive a special degree of veneration that would make it somewhat complicated to use them as the processional cross and the habitual altar cross.

For example, it is customary to venerate the relic of the True Cross with a genuflection. This requirement would complicate movements during Mass.

Above all, however, the Ceremonial of Bishops, Nos. 866 and 921, forbids the placing of relics upon the altar during the celebration of Mass, and no exception is mentioned for relics of the Passion.

I would say that it is probably better to distinguish the procession of the relic of the True Cross with a shrine of its own containing the reliquary.

At the same time, because of the long history of venerating relics of the True Cross, it is quite possible that in some cases cruciform reliquaries have done double duty as an altar cross. This would be most likely where the cross was above a high altar.

A correspondent from Poland asked which direction the figure on a cross upon the altar should face. As we wrote on May 16, 2006, the figure should face the altar:

"[A reader asked]: Based on GIRM, No. 308: 'There is also to be 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.' Since the concern here is visibility 'to the assembled congregation,' it would seem also that a crucifix on the mensa of the altar should be turned to face the people.

"I am not convinced of this interpretation. The mention of the figure of Christ in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal was inserted above all to eliminate the nascent fashion for bare crosses. I believe that the visibility requirement refers above all to the cross itself.

"The rubrics of the Ceremonial of Bishops in use before the conciliar reforms already foresaw the possibility of the altar 'versus populum.' This book, while mandating that the cross be visible to all, also prescribed that the corpus be placed toward the altar ('cum imagine sanctissimi Crucifixi versa ad interiorem altaris faciem').

"Another priest suggested having an altar crucifix designed with a figure on both sides.

"Although there do not seem to be present norms to forbid this practice, it was not permitted in earlier times.

"Some manuals recommended the use of other images on the side of the cross (facing the people) such as the fish symbol or even another image of the Redeemer such as the Good Shepherd or King of Kings.

"With regard to visibility many local synods established a minimum size of 40 centimeters (16 inches) for the vertical to 22 centimeters (8.8 inches) for the horizontal bar, although in practice the altar cross was often larger.

"A decree of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) also established that another cross was not necessary if a large crucifix was painted or sculptured as part of an altarpiece."

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