Altar stones reminiscent of Mass in the early Church

| Susan Klemond | July 5, 2018 | 0 Comments

This altar stone is located in the high altar at St. Mary of the Purification in Marystown. The church is part of Sts. Joachim and Anne in Shakopee. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Embedded in the tops of altars in some Catholic churches are stone panels that contain hidden treasure: the relics of saints and martyrs.

Consecrated altar stones are no longer required in parish altars, but they are part of a tradition dating back to the second century, when the early Christians celebrated Mass on top of the tombs of the martyrs.

“Before Vatican II, the altar stone was really the altar,” said Thomas Fisch, associate professor of sacramental theology and liturgy at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul.

“When you had a wooden table or a wooden altar against the wall, the altar stone was always consecrated. The priest would kiss the altar stone and place the gifts on it. Most people didn’t think about it that way, but fundamentally that’s what it was.”

Fifty years after the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms included lifting the requirement that the Eucharist be celebrated on stone and relics, parishes may wonder about the meaning of these stones and what to do with them.

An altar stone is a solid, flat piece of natural stone which contains relics of at least two saints — one a martyr — as well as incense grains representing an offering to God. The stones had to be large enough to hold a chalice and sacred host, and on average are nine inches square. Five crosses engraved on the top signify the five wounds of Christ.

Before Vatican II, only stone altars could be consecrated. Many parishes had wood altars, so they placed consecrated altar stones in their altars to meet the requirement. If a priest wanted to celebrate Mass in a park for a parish picnic or on the battlefield for soldiers, for example, he had to bring the piece of stone with the embedded relic, said Father Tom Margevicius, the newly appointed director of worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who teaches liturgical theology at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

The practice of placing martyrs’ relics beneath an altar is found in Revelation 6:9: “When he broke open the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered because of the witness they bore to the word of God.”

Around 150 A.D., Christians expressed belief in Jesus’ resurrection by offering Mass on the tomb of a martyr, often on the anniversary of his or her death, Fisch said. In 517, a Church council in France first decreed that, to be consecrated, an altar should be made of stone.

Fisch said he didn’t know where parishes obtained relics for their altar stones, but that they likely came from a central Vatican office.

Before Vatican II, a bishop usually consecrated altar stones in a ceremony that was similar to, but less formal than, an altar consecration, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia. The bishop used blessed oil, incense and a type of holy water reserved for anointings and ceremonies that contained salt, wine and ashes.

During Vatican II, the Council fathers changed the requirement that altars contain relics or altar stones as they sought to preserve, improve and reform the Sacred Liturgy, Fisch said. They advocated for the altar to be viewed as a table, in addition to a place of sacrifice.

The Council retained the custom of placing relics under altars if their authenticity was verified. “The Council clarified, and said, yes, relics are important, we should honor them, and this is a noble custom, but it should be a recognizable part of the human body and not some dust that someone gathered out of a crypt in the catacombs,’” Fisch said.

It’s unclear how many altar stones are in the archdiocese, but some are still set in parish altars or are loose as portable stones. For example, All Saints in Minneapolis has three altar stones: one in the church’s main altar that was brought from Pennsylvania, and two loose stones kept in its sacristy, said Pastor Father Peter Bauknecht, a priest of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.

At the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, the altar stone in its main altar was brought from the previous cathedral building in downtown St. Paul and was installed in 1924, according to parish records. In it are relics of the true cross, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Paul and the apostles. Relics of St. Maria Goretti and St Pius X were added to the altar stone before the Cathedral’s 1958 consecration, but the reconstructed stone proved too small for the altar opening. During the ceremony, the bishop had to request cardboard to be lined up with the opening for a level surface, according to an interview with Msgr. James Lavin, now deceased, in 2008.

Altar stones should be treated with respect even though their function has changed, Fisch said, and if they’re not in a parish’s altar, they should be cared for in its archives.

Parish records may contain information on the particular saints contained in their altars. These records are not kept by the archdiocese, said Heather Lawton, archdiocesan director of archives and records management.

Today, altars are dedicated in a revised rite, and relics are optional. But according to the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar, they still play a role: “For it is altogether proper to erect altars over the burial place of martyrs and other saints or to deposit their relics beneath altars as a mark of respect and as a symbol of the truth that the sacrifice of the members has its source in the sacrifice of the Head [Jesus]. Thus ‘the triumphant victims come to their rest in the place where Christ is victim: he, however, who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.’”

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