Sancta Missa


By Rev. William A. O'Brien, M.A.


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1. The Altar. The altar, is the raised structure of wood or stone at which the Massis celebrated. More correctly, the altar is the stone on which the Holy Sacrifice is offered, for even when the main portion of the altar structure is of wood the chalice and the Host must rest on a slab of stone. So we have two kinds of altars

(a) The Fixed or Immovable Altar;
(b) The Movable Altar.


The fixed or immovable altar is one that is permanently fixed to the floor of the Church.

b) THE MOVABLE ALTAR. The movable altar is a rectangular slab of stone, inserted in the middle of the table of a wooden altar structure.

c) THE ALTAR MUST BE SOLEMNLY CONSECRATED. The altar, before it is used for the celebration of Mass, must be solemnly consecrated by the Bishop. The ceremony of consecration is a very long and involved one, in the course of which the altar table, or altar stone, is sprinkled with holy water, specially blessed for the occasion, and anointed many times with holy oils. Near the end of the ceremony relics of Martyrs are always enclosed in a little cavity cut for that purpose in the center of the altar. (See illustration in table of movable altar.) In evidence of the consecration, five crosses are also cut into the stone, one at each corner and one in the center. The fixed or immovable altar is consecrated as a whole, while the movable altar has only a consecrated slab or stone.

Altar showing sepulcher.

d) THE ACTUAL ALTAR. The real altar is the table and its supports; the rest of the structure, like the steps for the candlesticks and the built up portion in the back that is part of many altars, known as the "Reredos," is added for convenience or ornamentation.

e) ALTAR STEPS. The altar is raised above the floor and approached by steps, usually three but sometimes more, and sometimes only one, an uneven number of steps being always employed.

f) THE ALTAR PARTS AND ACCESSORIES OF THE ALTAR. In the diagram on page 26 there is shown a sanctuary with a high altar as may be seen in the average church. The altar is shown in the manner usual when Low Massis to be offered. The various parts of the altar, sanctuary and accessories are indicated by means of numbers that agree with the numbers of their names in the following list:

1. Crucifix.
2. Canopy or throne of the altar.
3. Tabernacle covered by veil (wherever used the veil is of the color of the day or white).
4-9. Large candlesticks (are lighted only for High or Solemn Mass, Benedictionand some other solemn services).
10-11. Small candlesticks (are lighted only for Low Massand at certain ceremonies relating to the Holy Eucharist).
12, 13, 14. Altar cards. (The larger is in the center, containing prayers that the priest reads at the Offertory and Canon. The smaller one on the epistle side has the prayers read by the priest when washing his hands after the Offertory. The other smaller one on the gospel side has the Gospel of St. John, which is the most frequently read at the end of Mass.)
15. First gradine or candlebench for the smaller candlesticks.
16. Second gradine or candlebench for the larger candlesticks.
17. Mensa or altar table.
18. Altar tablecoverings. The Altar table is covered with one wax and three linen cloths. The fourth or top of linen frequently edged with lace hangs down over the side of the altar to the floor. Outside of the celebration of Mass, or of other functions, the mensa or table of the altar is covered with a cloth, usually of felt, in any of the colors of the church except black, to protect it from dust.
19. Antependiumor frontal (wherever customary a cloth of the color of the day hangs down in front of the altar).
20. Gospel sideof the altar.
21. Epistle sideof the altar.
22. Sanctuaryfloor.
23. First altar step.
24. Second altar step.
25. Predellaor altar platform (sometimes called the footpace).
26. Credence table.
27. Water and wine cruets.
28. Finger basin.
29. Towel.
30. Communion paten.
31. Sediliaor priests' bench.
32. Bell.
33. Communion rail.
34. Missal stand.
35. Ambryfor holy oils. A wooden or metal cabinet hung on or set in the wall of the sanctuary usually on the gospel side, or also in the sacristy for safekeeping of the Holy Oils.

NOTE: The side altars that are generally found in every parish church are decorated and cared for with the same exactness as the main altar as circumstances and occasions permit.

2. Directions Regarding Certain Altar Ornaments and SanctuaryAccessories.

a) THE ALTAR LINENS. Any altar on which Massis to be said must be covered with three linen cloths properly blessed. The uppermost cloth (top cloth) shall hang down on each side of the altar to the floor (the cere or wax cloth which covers the altar stone or the entire mensa if of stone is not counted as one of these linen cloths).

b) THE ALTAR CRUCIFIX. On every altar on which Massis said there shall be placed a cross, bearing a figure of the Crucified One (a crucifix) in the middle of the altar between the large candlesticks. It must be plainly visible to the celebrant of the Mass and the people. It is never allowed so as to protect it from dust, to cover the altar crucifix with a cloth or to put a smaller one in its place.

c) THE CANDLESTICKS AND CANDELABRA. Upon the main altar, there shall be six large candlesticks. There may also be two smaller candlesticks, one on either side of the tabernacle. These are lighted at Low Mass, instead of the six large candles. For greater ornamentation and solemn occasions, candelabra or branch candlesticks may be added. Candlesticksor candelabra may not be covered with veils or hangings at any time, not even in the seasons of Advent and Lentnor at funerals, may they be covered with violet or black hangings.

d.) THE CANDLES, THEIR COLOR AND QUALITY. It is immaterial whether the color of the candles is white or yellow but they must be wax. However, where circumstances permit, it is fitting that in the Massand Office of the Dead and during the seasons of Advent and Lentunbleached candles, which are dark yellow in color, should be used; while on feasts and solemnities, particularly when the Blessed Sacramentis exposed, white candles are proper.

Altar showing three linen cloths.

e) THE MANNER OF LIGHTING AND EXTINGUISHING CANDLES, The lighting and extinguishing of the candles on the altar takes the following order: Start at the epistle side, beginning with the one nearest the tabernacle first and continuing toward the end of the altar; then take those on the gospel side, again beginning with the one nearest the tabernacle and continuing with the others in their order. When extinguishing them, the order is reversed, so that the first candle lighted is the last one extinguished.

f) REMOVAL OF CERTAIN ALTAR ORNAMENTS BEFORE EXPOSITION OF THE BLESSED SACRAMENT. The altar crucifix may remain in its place or it may be removed, according to the custom of the place. If there are any statues on the altar upon which the Blessed Sacramentis exposed, these are to be covered with white veils. However, statues on any other altar or place in the church need not be covered.
NOTE: If a sermon is preached when the Blessed Sacramentis solemnly exposed on the altar, a veil or small banner called Expositionor SanctuaryVeil should be placed before the Blessed Sacrament.

g) RELICS AND STATUES. These are permitted to be placed on the altar between the candlesticks, except when the Blessed Sacramentis exposed. The more worthy are placed on the gospel side of the altar and near the Crucifix.

h) FLORAL DECORATIONS. Natural flowers and plants, as also artificial flowers of silk, are permitted upon the altar especially on festive days. These adornments should be removed during penitential seasons when the Massor Office of the season is said. Exceptions to this rule are as follows: the third Sunday of Advent (Laetare); the fourth Sunday of Lent(Gaudete); Holy Thursday; Holy Saturday; the Vigil of Christmas; and the Feat of the Holy Innocents. Flowers should be removed from the altar at RequiemMasses. Nothing whatsoever should be placed upon the altar but what pertains to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass or the ornamentation of the altar itself. Nothing whatsoever may be placed before the tabernacle. Upon the tabernacle nothing may be placed except the crucifix.

i) THE SANCTUARY LAMP. This lamp usually hangs in the center of the sanctuary before the tabernacle. It must be kept burning day and night. This is a strict obligation and the sacristan should see that the lamp is ever ready to fulfill its purpose.

j) THE COMMUNION RAIL. The linen cloth at the communion rail wherever it is customary to have one, must always be a clean one. The communion paten or plate, which is now generally in use, should be washed daily and polished frequently.
NOTE: The communion paten or plate according to the instructions of the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments, dated March 26, 1929 (Acta Ap. Sedis, XXI, 631-639), to the Bishops, prescribes that the communion paten be used in churches under their jurisdiction. The linen cloth is even prescribed now, but whether its use is of grave obligation is somewhat in doubt. It will be best for the sacristan to follow the Reverend Pastor's directions in this regard.

k) SHRINES AND VOTIVE STANDS. Care should be taken that candles and tapers are provided for shrines and that every danger of fire is removed. Votive standsrequire frequent attention lest they become "eye-sores."




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