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The Saints and Martyrs Reign from our Altars

The Catholic Church celebrates the memory of all her saints in her liturgy today. Besides feast days such as this, the Church also honours the saints in several other ways in the liturgy. Anyone with an understanding of the distinction between latria and dulia would know that this is not saint-worship, and would appreciate the Church’s practice of venerating the saints. One of her most fascinating modes of honouring the saints is the traditional practice of inserting relics into the altar. While this practice is not totally extinct, and is encouraged even in the modern liturgy, it is certainly a practice which many Catholics today are unfamiliar with.[1] In the traditional liturgy of the Latin Church, however, this practice is obligatory, and the relics must always be those of martyrs. While it may seem like a great burden to uphold such a beautiful practice, which after all is not necessary for the validity of the Mass itself, it is worth briefly considering the significance of this practice, lest we fall into the minimalist view which ends up banalizing the liturgy.

The placing of relics inside altars has its origins as far back as the early Church, at a time when the Church was undergoing an intense persecution. Any Christian would know that persecution existed from the very start of the Church’s history. The Church’s founder, Our Blessed Lord, was Himself persecuted by the Jewish authorities, and He warned His followers that they too would be persecuted because of Him (John 15:20). After Pentecost, the apostles continued to be persecuted by Jew and Gentile alike and all of them were either killed in odium fidei or were attempted to be killed (in the case of St. John).

This fierce opposition to the Gospel raged on for many decades, and a great multitude of Catholic Christians gave up their lives in martyrdom. During this difficult yet glorious era, a custom arose in Rome in which Masses were celebrated on the tombs of martyrs in the catacombs. The Catholic Encyclopedia states that this practice can be traced with a high degree of probability to the early second century, which is not even 100 years since Christ ascended into heaven.[2] Although the tombs of martyrs were not necessarily the only places where Masses were offered, this custom nevertheless became firmly established, and a decree from Pope Saint Felix who reigned from 269-274 ordered that Masses should be celebrated over the tombs of martyrs.

After Christianity became legalized under Emperor Constantine, this practice continued. As Christians came out of hiding and gained the capacity to build churches where the faith could be practiced openly, the Christian community wished to continue this venerable practice. The Christians of that era tried to avoid disturbing the resting places of the early martyrs if possible, so instead of moving their bodies into churches, the earliest churches in Rome were built over the tombs of the martyrs. The main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, for instance, is built directly over the tomb of St. Peter. Likewise, the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls is built over the tomb of St. Paul.

At times, pieces of bones or other pieces of mortal remains were taken and were solemnly moved to new churches where they would be deposited into new altars, so that other churches could also be erected in memory of the same martyr. This practice continued to spread, not only because of the devotion of the people, but also because this practice has a Scriptural basis: And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held (Apocalypse 6:9). While some historians think that this verse prompted the custom of celebrating Mass over the tombs of martyrs, it is also possible that this verse was written at a time when this custom had already existed.

Besides the historical and Scriptural basis for this holy practice, this practice also carries great theological significance. Perhaps the most beautiful theological reason is that the relics of martyrs are deposited in altars so as to unite the sacrifices of their lives with the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, which is mystically renewed at every Mass. St. Ambrose wrote: “Upon the altar is He that suffered for us all; beneath the altar are they who by His sufferings were redeemed.[3] The martyrs who were prompted by Christ’s sufferings also suffered for Christ’s sake, and they now reign together in glory. The deposition of relics into altars thus designates this close union with Christ. The great restorer of Benedictine monasticism in France after the French Revolution, Dom Prosper Guéranger, wrote:

The Altar represents our Lord Jesus Christ. The Saints’ Relics which are there, remind us that the Saints are His members. For, having assumed our human nature, He not only suffered His Passion, triumphed in His Resurrection, and entered into His glory by the Ascension, but He, also, founded the Church upon earth, and this Church is His mystical Body; He is its Head, and the Saints are its members. From this point of view, then, our Lord has not the fullness of His mystical Body without His Saints; and it is for this reason, that the Saints, who are reigning with Him in glory, are united with Him, in the Altar, which represents Him.[4]

From this perspective, it makes sense why the traditional legislation explicitly mandated that the relics in altars had to be those of martyr-saints, and not just any saint in general. It is famously said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.[5] Their relics in our altars fittingly commemorates the fact that the Church was built up by their sacrifices.

From an eschatological point of view, the Mass is also a foretaste of the glory of heaven. If we wish to reign with Christ and the saints in heaven, we need to first go through the path of sacrifice. We are called to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Christ as the martyrs did. True Christianity is not a religion of nice, but a religion of the Cross, in which the path to eternal glory begins by renunciation of self. The daily sufferings that come our way are not mundane inconveniences that we bear grudgingly, but are opportunities of sanctification when united to the Sacrifice of Christ. Suffering can be redemptive if borne with the right spirit, and this is what we are called to do. Each time we hear Mass, as Christ offers Himself through the hands of His earthly minister, we too are called to make a little offering of our daily sacrifices, uniting it to the offering par excellence – Christ’s Sacrifice upon the Cross.

In the beginning of the traditional Roman liturgy, the priest prays: “Orámus te, Dómine, per mérita Sanctórum tuórum, quorum relíquiæ hic sunt, et ómnium Sanctórum: ut indulgére dignéris ómnia peccáta mea. Amen.”

This can be translated as: “We beseech thee, Lord, by the merits of thy saints, whose relics are here, and of all thy saints, that thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me of all my sins. Amen.” This prayer is recited secretly right after the priest ascends the altar, and the rubrics mandates that he bends down to venerate the altar with a kiss just as he prays “whose relics are here.”

This is a beautiful prayer which calls to mind the mystical presence of the members of the Church Triumphant, most especially the martyrs, who intercede for the Church Militant. The relics are also deposited in such a way where the region the priest kisses would most likely be the very spot where the relics rest. This explains why altars in the Latin Rite are traditionally reverenced with a kiss, and not so much a bow. Latinists would also note that this reference to the relics is written in the plural, and this indicates that there is supposed to be more than one relic in the altar stone. A 1906 decree from the Sacred Congregation of Rites mandates that a Latin Rite altar should contain the relics of at least two canonized saints, one of whom must be a martyr. The decree notes that these relics must be actual portions of the saints’ bodies (first class relics), and not just garments or objects that they used while they were alive (second class relics).

A less obvious reference to relics, which is often passed over unnoticed, can be found in the Offertory: “Súscipe, sancta Trínitas, hanc oblatiónem, quam tibi offérimus ob memóriam passiónis, resurrectiónis, et ascensiónis Iesu Christi, Dómini nostri: et in honórem beátæ Maríæ semper Vírginis, et beáti Ioannis Baptistæ, et sanctórum Apostolórum Petri et Pauli, et istórum et ómnium Sanctórum: ut illis profíciat ad honórem, nobis autem ad salútem: et illi pro nobis intercédere dignéntur in cælis, quorum memóriam ágimus in terris. Per eúndem Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Amen.”

This can be translated as: “Receive, O Holy Trinity, this offering, which we offer unto Thee in memory of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ Our Lord, and in honour of Blessed Mary Ever Virgin, and Blessed John the Baptist, and the Holy Apostles Peter & Paul, and of these, and of all the Saints, that it may avail to their honour and our salvation, and may they intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate on earth. Through the same Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Dom Gueranger comments:

Et istorum. This expression has more than once raised a difficulty: it has been asked, many a time, who are hereby intended? Some would have it, that the saint of the day was here referred to; but in such a case, we ought to use the word istius, and not istorum; and then, again, Masses of the Dead would present another difficulty in the way of such a solution; so it is evident that the Church’s meaning must be other than such a supposition. It is plain that she here intends to allude to those saints who are There, that is to say, whose relics are incorporated in the Altar itself. For this very reason, when an Altar is being consecrated, Relics of several saints must be placed therein; those of one saint only would not suffice and would not justify the Church’s expression here: et istorum. Yea, says she, in honour of these Saints who here serve as the resting place of the mystery which is established upon them, of these Saints on whose bodies the Great Sacrifice is to be accomplished: what could be more fitting than to make special mention apart of these Saints.

Once again, the priest bends down and reverences the altar with a kiss after this prayer, beseeching the saints to intercede especially for us. So we have at least two instances in the Traditional Roman Rite in which the saints whose relics are in the altar are beseeched explicitly.

Another noteworthy feature of the traditional liturgy in venerating relics is the order of incensation. The rubrics mandate two swings of the thurible on each side of the altar for all the relics exposed on the gradines. This is done each time the altar is incensed, not just for Mass, but also for Solemn Lauds and Solemn Vespers. The practice of exposing relics on the altar gradines came much later, but this is noteworthy because of the symbolism of incense. The use of incense can be traced from the Jewish Temple liturgy, and is also written in the Book of Apocalypse: And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel (Apocalypse 8: 3-4). We are called to unite our prayers with the prayers of the saints in heaven, especially the saints whose relics are exposed on the altar, in offering a sweet oblation to our God.

While no sane Catholic can deny that celebrating Mass over the relics of martyrs is a good and beautiful practice, many would perhaps raise concerns over the practicality of this practice, especially when Masses are celebrated outside of churches. Traditionally, the Church makes a distinction between fixed and portable altars. Fixed altars are the immovable altars made of stone found in churches, whereas portable altars consist of only a block of stone with the relics sealed within. This block of stone, called an altar stone, can be inserted into a larger structure to form a larger altar. Altar stones can also be carried around by travelling priests and be placed on a flat surface, covered by altar linens, where the Mass can be celebrated on these stones. The 1917 Code of Canon Law mandates that altar stones should be big enough to contain the sacred host as well as the greater part of the chalice. This attests to the care taken to ensure that Mass is celebrated directly over the relics. Alternatively, another option for travelling priests is to use what is called an “Antimension,” which is a corporal with the relics sealed in a tiny sack at one corner. The antimension is a liturgical item that was borrowed from the Greek Rite (aka Byzantine Rite), hence its alternate name, the Greek Corporal. Antimensions are very handy alternatives to altar stones, and they became popular especially during the World Wars when altar stones were at risk of being shattered by bombs.

A portable altar used by the French MEP Missionaries. The altar stone is the white block located in front of the chalice. This intriguing altar was photographed at the Diocesan Museum of Penang, Malaysia.
Antimension designed in the Byzantine style, in the possession of the Traditional Latin Mass Society of Malaysia. The relics are sealed at the top-right corner and belong to the Chinese martyrs, St. Jerome Lu and St. Joseph Chang, both of whom were lay catechists. Photo by David Naden.

After many considerations on the significance of sacrifice, a final question which some might ask is “why so much focus on suffering?” Christ does not will that we suffer simply for the sake of suffering. That would be sadistic. Rather, the reason Catholicism places so much emphasis on the importance of sacrifice is because sacrifice is an eminent display of one’s love. Some theologians such as Aquinas theorize that Christ could, absolutely speaking, have used another means of redeeming us, since nothing is impossible with God. However, the Passion of Christ was the most beautiful and fitting way to redeem us, for through the sufferings of Christ, we are brought to realize the profound love that God has for us, to the point of dying for filthy sinners. So often, we are tempted to think of God as a cold and indifferent being, with little care for human affairs. The Incarnation and the Passion of Christ are supereminent reminders of God’s love. We too are called to love God with all our hearts, and to renounce our personal goods in favour of God, so long as done with the right spirit, is a sign of our determination to love Him as He ought to be loved. The martyrs demonstrated this beautifully through their heroic sacrifices. May we learn to imitate them as well, taking up the way of the cross to attain unto eternal glory.

Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission. 

[1] “The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained” (GIRM. Paragraph 302).


[3] Letter 22.

[4] Guéranger, Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of Holy Mass.

[5] Attributed to Tertullian.

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