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Side "altars" or "shrines"


Peregrinus Gasolinus: Wandering Notes on the Liturgy

Chapter 18

"Just what, after all, is an altar for?" asked the Antiquary, with charming disregard of grammar.


"To say Mass on," replied the Liturgiologist, instantly falling in with the bantering mood of his older friend.


The new "Scoot" was running smoothly as the oil indicated on the chart in the garage said it should. The condition of the suburban roads kept the two inveterate tourists in or near the city, so that, really, it was not too great a hardship for the Antiquary to keep to the letter of the law regarding the first thousand miles, which all motorists agree are the hardest. Fortunately there was no lack of parishes to visit within the city limits, ranging from the cathedral to Fr. Margo's tiny Slavish[1] church on the outskirts, from which they were now returning. The somewhat flamboyant decoration of the two side altars, which flanked the high altar at a distance of not more than four feet on either side of the diminutive sanctuary, was the seed from which the present conversation had grown, with much good-natured persiflage[2], to the point where the Antiquary's question gave the Liturgiologist an opportunity to propound his ever-ready theory of the ratio of ceremonial things in general, and side altars in particular.


"To say Mass on," repeated the Liturgiologist. "And, by the same token, anything in the way of ornament which prevents, or would hinder, the altar from being used for its proper and legitimate purpose is ipso facto[3] out of place."


"Vigil lights on the mensa,[4] I suppose," mused the Antiquary. "Ditto, candlesticks, potted plants,[5] and other impediments. Is that what you mean, Pere?"


"Not only that, but the very existence in any church of altars which are never used for Mass or other liturgical functions." The Liturgiologist was warming to his subject. "Did you notice that besides the fact that Fr. Margo's side altars were cluttered up with all sorts of extraneous miscellany, ("Good, Pere, good!" interjected the Antiquary) they weren't real altars at all, neither of them having a stone."[6]


"But they both had tabernacles," soothed the Antiquary. "Now what for, do you suppose? One might be useful for Maundy Thursday or Forty Hours—but the other?"


"Custom perhaps permits the use of a side altar for the Repository,[7] tho the books prescribe that the locus aptus,[8] which need not be an altar at all, should be not in the sanctuary but at a distance. No, we can't justify Fr. Margo by that excuse."


"Since you have spoken the magic word 'custom,' "remarked the Antiquary, "does it not seem that our American 'use' requires not less than three altars in every church, whether they are ever used as altars or not?"


"There certainly is no law against having three, or as many as you wish, in any church," conceded the Liturgiologist. "But why cramp a sanctuary, already inadequate, by injecting two altar-like structures if their only purpose is to serve as pedestals for statuary and repositories for flowers and votive offerings, wax or otherwise? The statues could be arranged on brackets, or real pedestals, with much better artistic effect, and more room left for the regular and required liturgical functions."


"You mean what we usually call 'shrines' tho the term, as defined in the dictionary, is not especially apt," said the Antiquary. "I have seen some fairly large churches where there is but one altar, and the customary statues of Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph are placed in niches at the head of the aisles, with votive stands before them. It really looked rather well. Of course it is a different matter if the Forty Hours is celebrated in the church. Then you would need another altar for the Mass of the second day."


"As if the looks of the thing really matter in comparison with the propriety of having real altars or none at all," said the Liturgiologist.


"But, don't you think, the proper thing usually looks better than what is liturgically or architecturally incorrect?" asked the Antiquary.

"it is always a pleasure to agree with you, Pere," responded the Liturgiologist, "on those rare occasions when one finds it possible to do so! But in this, as in so many other matters, we seem hopelessly involved in a cast-iron conformity, which cannot even claim the dignity of 'custom' in the canonical sense of the term.[9] Because the larger churches have more than one altar, every little crossroads chapel must have as many. It is rare, to be sure, that one see several Masses being celebrated simultaneously in one church, outside the religious and seminary churches. But side altars, or what seem to be side altars, tho Mass never is, and could not be, said at them, are a drug on the market[10] and a drag on good architecture and good liturgical practice. Why? Because the good Fathers who erect them, don't stop to consider the ratio of the matter—"


"Stop," cried the Antiquary, bringing the "Scoot" to a sudden and unprovided standstill at an intersecting street.


"Do you mean me?" inquired the Liturgiologist, with dignity.


"I was only quoting the traffic cop," laughed the Antiquary. "But if you wish to include yourself I have no objection."


The "Scoot" lurched forward into the traffic, and the Liturgiologist, murmuring something that sounded like 'ante porcas'[11] gave his attention to watching the side streets for possible dangers.



1 This is a play on the word "Slavic" (of Eastern European origin) here meant to convey that the church building is slavishly unoriginal in its arrangement, or even more so, is blindly submissive to a certain pattern.


2 To jest or banter.


3 Latin for "of itself" or "by the fact".


4 A Latin term that means "table", meaning the horizontal surface, or table of the altar.


5 It is repugnant to put potted plants on the altar, for this mystically represents Christ, Who's glorious and resurrected body never corrupted nor was ever covered with soil (i.e., buried in dirt).

6 Meaning an altar stone.

7 Where the Blessed Sacrament is specially reserved from Holy Thursday until just after the Mass of the Easter Vigil.

8 Latin for "a suitable place".


9 The strict canonical or legal sense of the word "custom" is "a practice that has force of law". J.B. O'Connell has an excellent chapter on this topic in his book, The Celebration of Mass: A Study of the Rubrics of the Roman Missal.


10 Referring to the proliferation of "patent" medicines of that era.


11 Latin for "before swine", extracted from Our Lord's counsel of "nolite mittere margaritas ante porcas"—"Do not cast your pearls before swine". In this case, the Liturgiologist's "pearls of wisdom"!

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