“I visited El Paso in April, for a wedding,” wrote Samantha James. “This was my first time at any sort of Roman Catholic service. I noticed the priest and the deacon kisses the altar. Why do that do that? I was told that there are dead people in the altar. Is that why? I would also like to know what parts of these people are in the altar.”
Samantha’s sister-in-law suggested that she send me an email with her questions for a proper answer. In her email to me, I couldn’t help but laugh at some of the answers she found about altars and just why the priest does, in fact, kiss it.
Before I tell you why there is a degree of reverence paid to the altar, I’ll simply tell you what is contained in the altar: relics of saints and martyrs from the Roman Catholic tradition.
Going back to 120 A.D., Christians would find their ways into the catacombs, and the priests would perform the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass there, away from prying eyes. At this stage of the early Church, being a Christian, and openly practising your religion could mean death. This is evidenced both by history and the sheer number of martyrs found within the early Church.
When the priest was preparing to offer the Mass, he would seek out the tombs and remains of those martyrs.
Why the relics today, and such veneration then?
The Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, in their document entitled “Dedication of a Church and Altar” (DCA) has the following in Chapter five:
The Altar as Honouring Martyrs 5. All the dignity of the altar rests on its being the Lord’s table. Thus, the martyr’s body does not bring honour to the altar; instead, the altar does honour to the martyr’s tomb. 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. 12 Thus ‘the triumphant victims come to their rest in the place where Christ is victim: he, however, who suffered for an is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.’ 13 This arrangement would seem to recall in a certain manner the spiritual vision of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation: ‘I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who have been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it.’ 14 His meaning is that although all the saints are rightly called Christ’s witnesses, the witness of blood has a special significance that only the relics of the martyrs beneath the altar express in its entirety.
Father Patrick, a friend and priest in New York City, adds the following:
“The relics, the Saints, are there for two reasons, in my way of thinking and understanding,” begins Father Patrick. “Firstly, we have a continuation of our brothers and sisters from the early Church being present with us during the Mass and consecration of the host. These saintly individuals gave their lives for Christ, for preaching Christ Crucified and risen. We continue to share that truth with them today.”
“Another reason, and more mystical than the first is that Christ is the Head of the Church and the martyrs and we are the body of that Church. By having these sainted individuals present in the altar, it strengthens our faith in the resurrection.”
On a day known only to, and appointed by God, all believers will be caught up, and stand before God and Jesus Christ in a resurrected and-slash-or glorified body.
Another reason for the presence of relics of martyrs, or saints being within the alter is one of preserving strength, as Father Patrick said. To know that there are those who kept their faith unto death or those who overcame impressive odds and hardships to keep their faith should inspire other Christians to do the same.
We are not perfect people; we fail and sin. It’s not easy, at least in my life, to live up to the standers set by the life Christ lived. Yet, within the Roman Catholic churches, and other liturgical churches, there are the saints who lived lives that we can emulate – my favourite Saint is Saint Francis of Assisi.
What parts of the saints or martyrs are found in the altar? I asked several of my friends, both Catholic and Protestant, and the answers ranged from full bodies to a collection of bits and pieces.
First, we must understand that there are three (3) types of relics within the Roman Catholic Church:
- A first-class relic is a part of a Saint’s body (e.g., hair, bone, etc.)
- A second-class relic is something the Saint owned or an instrument of torture that may have been used against them.
- A third-class relic is something that has touched a first or second-class relic or a tomb of a Saint.
There are altars where the full body of a saint is present, and that would be considered a first-class relic. An example would be Saint Robert Bellarmine, Doctor of the Church. In his case, that is an exception to the general rule. However, the relics found within the alters must be a first-class relic. A second-class relic may be used only if there is a first-class relic present.
DCA II, 5. The tradition in the Roman liturgy of placing relics of martyrs or other saints beneath the altar should be preserved, if possible. But the following should be noted:
a) Such relics should be of a size sufficient for them to be recognized as parts of human bodies. Hence excessively small relics of one or more saints must not be placed beneath the altar.
b) The greatest care must be taken to determine whether the relics in question are authentic. It is better for an altar to be dedicated without relics than to have relics of doubtful authenticity placed beneath it.
c) A reliquary must not be placed upon the altar or set into the table of the altar; it must be placed beneath the table of the altar, as the design of the altar permits.
Two of the photos attached to this piece are the relics found in the Altar of St Mary’s.
Those relics are:
All but one of our relics are first-class relics, meaning that they are a small piece of bone. The second-class relic is a piece of fabric from the clothing worn by that Saint.
Saint John Neumann, an early American bishop;
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first native-born American Saint;
Saint Maria Goretti, a martyr of hospitality;
Saint Katharine Drexel, the famous American millionaire nun, and;
An unnamed martyr, because altars always contain a martyr’s relics.
The final rule worth mentioning is that the relic of a martyr a saint is used.
Samantha, I hope this answers your question.
I’ll give Father Patrick the final thought:
“The presence of these Saints is a good reminder to all of us that when we celebrate the Mass when we join together in communion, we are joining not only with those all over the world but with those in heaven as well.”