A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Relics in the Altar
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 Holy Mass. — 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 such relics."
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 beneath it;
"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 the relics:
"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
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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 specific?"
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
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