ASK THE LITURGIST (8) – The side altars

Featured Image: One of the side altars in the cathedral of Pamplona, Navarre (Spain). (Photo by José Mario O Mandía.)

– Enrico Finotti

The side altars are generally abandoned. However, many of them are of great value and are part of history and art, but, unadorned and bare, they are reduced to museum pieces, also equipped with accurate historical-artistic captions. Question: Have they finished their liturgical function?

The side altars of the Catholic churches certainly have a glorious history and constitute a patrimony of immense theological, spiritual and artistic value. In fact, however, after the Second Vatican Council they suffered the damage of a reductive and imprecise reading of the liturgical norms, which practically deprived them of all their functions, relegating them, at best, to a museum role. It is then necessary to resume the right view of the problem with serenity and seriousness.

The side altars originated from ancient times, when it was a question of hosting the bodies of the Martyrs in the basilicas of the city, removed from the catacombs during the barbaric raids. It was then that the “statio” to their tombs to celebrate the Divine Sacrifice took place inside the basilica itself, there where the martyr had found his new and protected burial. In the Middle Ages then, especially in the great Abbeys, the erection of many side altars was required for the celebration of the Mass of the numerous monks, who, also for the absence of concelebration, had to celebrate individually. However, in this secular development the Church never lost neither the uniqueness of the altar, through the primacy and dignity always recognized at the main altar; nor the ideal uniqueness of the Divine Sacrifice, through the solemn Sunday Mass in the parishes and the conventual Mass in the monasteries. The Church of the East, however, never renounced the rigorous ancient custom of erecting a single altar and celebrating a single Divine Liturgy. In light of history, therefore, we must recognize without delay the identity and value of the side altars. In fact, they must be considered under three important aspects: liturgical, spiritual, historical-artistic.

1. The side altar keeps its liturgical function intact and it is rather harmful to transmit to the faithful the idea that the emergence of the side altars is the sign of a decadent and incorrect phase of liturgical development. The side altars celebrate with amazing artistic expressions the wonderful fruits of the only Sacrifice of Christ: the Saints and their works. Their memory, erected in connection with the altar, affirms that from the Sacrifice of Christ they received the grace of their holiness and the efficacy of their witness. Wanting to deprive such monuments of the table is to disrupt them theologically from their divine source. The multiplicity of the side altars is the visual manifestation of the infinite prism of the fruits of the one Altar and of the only Sacrifice, Christ Jesus. This is why the side altars cannot be “museified,” but must remain “alive” with all their own signs, open to the exercise of their liturgical function. Processionally going to the altar of the Saint where the feast is celebrated and being able to celebrate the Sacrifice, when conditions of space and dignity allow it, is a liturgical use entirely admitted. This happens daily in the great basilicas of Christendom, which offer chapels for the celebration of the Eucharist. If it is not possible or convenient to celebrate on a side altar, it will always be advisable to go in procession for an act of veneration at the conclusion of the Mass celebrated on the high altar. In this way we can see how the liturgical role of the side altars is not abrogated, but possible and enriching. Of course in all this we need intelligence, measure and good taste, in order not to fall into excessive devotional forms, which would undermine the balance of faith and liturgy, which are not rarely condemned by the Church down the centuries.

2. The side altar is a place of prayer and contemplation. With it the faithful enter into spiritual communion with the Virgin and the Saints. This is why the altars cannot be left desolate, without warmth and without life. They must bear the signs of devotion: candles, flowers, etc. Of course without indulging in bad taste, which would turn against a good education to true devotion. This is why we cannot abandon the decoration of the altar to anyone, but it must be constantly monitored by a vigilant pastor who truly cares for the education to authentic piety of the faithful. But at the same time a drastic museification totally deprives the lateral altars of their life, makes them strangers to the faithful and weakens them in their role of spiritual mediation.

3. Finally, the side altars are often masterpieces of art. They must be respected and protected. They are a patrimony not only of the Church, but of the whole society. We must avoid very serious abuses, well known in a recent past: removal of the side altars in the name of the uniqueness of the main altar; deprivation of their table or marble predella, rendering them mutilated and inaccessible; alienation of their crosses and their candlesticks and other furnishings, sometimes truly artistic and precious, etc. Regarding the construction of the new churches, the Missal recalls: “In building new churches, it is preferable to erect a single altar which in the gathering of the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.” (OGMR, 303). Naturally this provision does not exclude that there are other chapels, connected and distinct from the nave of the church, in which other altars can be erected, well defined in their position and in their liturgical use. This is the case of the ferial chapel or that of the Blessed Sacrament or a famous relic of a saint, etc. As can be seen, perhaps it is necessary to rethink somewhat the work of the immediate post-conciliar and, on a better theological and spiritual, cultural and spiritual basis, undertake a work of restoration and greater balance for the building up of the people of God.

(From Il mio e il vostro sacrificio. Il liturgista risponde, 2018©Chorabooks. Translated by Aurelio Porfiri. Used with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved)