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Liturgy: Decorating the Sanctuary

5/26/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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ROME, MAY 26, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I have been searching for some type of directives regarding the decorating of the sanctuary. In the parish here we have a decorating committee that can do just about any type of decorating that it wants. Isn't there a book that contains what is permissible and what isn't? -- A.R., Hinckley, Ohio

A: By decoration I suppose you mean the occasional decoration of the sanctuary (flowers, etc.) and not the overall structure of the sanctuary itself.

The U.S. bishops' conference has recently published an official document, "Built of Living Stones," which gives concrete guidelines for many aspects of church construction and design.

The document may be obtained from the conference itself or from Catholic bookstores.

Apart from this, some general norms of the Church regarding decorating the sanctuary are contained in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in Nos. 304 and following, which address some aspects directly regarding the decoration of the altar but whose principles may be applied to the sanctuary in general.

No. 304 states: "Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."

No. 305 reminds us that: "Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar."

This applies especially to floral decorations, which "should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa," and which should be especially moderate during Advent and which are forbidden during Lent except for the Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), as well as solemnities and feasts.

No. 306 gives as a principle that "Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal." A microphone is also permitted when necessary.

This means that any other elements or symbols should not be placed on the altar.

No. 308 requires the use of a "cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations."

No. 307 deals specifically with candles but also makes another valid criterion with respect to general decorum: "The candles ... are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful's clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it."

Further on, No. 318 speaks of the use of sacred images: "In the earthly Liturgy, the Church participates, by a foretaste, in that heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which she journeys as a pilgrim, and where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God; and by venerating the memory of the Saints, she hopes one day to have some part and fellowship with them.

"Thus, images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church's most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. For this reason, care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful's attention from the celebration itself. There should usually be only one image of any given Saint. Generally speaking, in the ornamentation and arrangement of a church as far as images are concerned, provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community as well as for the beauty and dignity of the images." ...

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