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And More on Decorating the Sanctuary

ROME, JUNE 11, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: How should brides dress for a wedding Mass? What would not be appropriate? -- J.Z., Chicago

A: This is a tangled question. The Church has historically granted wide berth to local traditions in weddings and funerals so customs vary from place to place.

There are few universal norms regarding brides and, although white is the traditional color for weddings in the English- speaking world, it is not obligatory, and there is ample room in multiethnic societies for other traditions, such as Asian or East European.

Many dioceses and even parishes do have guidelines in order to respect Christian values such as modesty and a respect for the spirit of Christian poverty.

These guidelines are especially important today, when what is fashionable is inspired by media stars who are not exactly paradigms of Christian virtue.

With regard to dress, these guidelines should emphasize the specifically religious nature of a Christian wedding and positively present modesty within this context. And while they should generally avoid being a list of prohibitions, they do well to provide clear parameters of what is expected.

The guidelines may also deal with other aspects, since weddings are very special occasions and should be treated as such. At the same time excessive opulence should be avoided especially if motivated more from vanity than a desire to emphasize the importance of the sacrament.

I remember a few years ago an Italian bishop publicly scolded a couple for their extravagance when the bride arrived in an open convertible, followed by a pickup holding her train. It seems that the hapless couple were trying to enter the record books for the longest bridal veil when they caught the prelate's eye as he left the chancery.

This is just a singular example of what can happen when the social aspects of marriage predominate over the mystery of man and woman united sacramentally in the bond of Christ.

* * *

Follow-up: Decorating the Sanctuary

Many readers asked for clarifications regarding the May 25 column on decorating the sanctuary. A member of the military asked if a crucifix may be placed upon the altar during the celebration of Mass.

No. 308 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly permits this option, which is often necessary in situations where Mass is celebrated outside of a permanent chapel.

Such a crucifix would usually be placed at the front of the altar in a central position directly in front of the celebrant with the corpus facing toward the altar. In such a case the crucifix should not be so large as to obscure the faithful's view of the sacred action, nor so small as to be practically invisible. There are many thin metal crosses that can perfectly fulfill this task.

Related to what should be on the altar, a reader referred to a custom in one parish: "During Sunday Mass, at the preparation of the gifts, a given family comes up to cover the altar. First, they put down an altar cloth, always the color of the day or feast. Then, they put down a corporal. Then they set down several purificators which will be used at Communion time.

"After Communion, the same family comes forward again. They fold and remove the corporal and any purificators which might still be there, fold up the altar cloth, bow, and take all these items out of sight. The closing prayer, announcements, and blessing, are all said with the altar-table bare, as if stripped as on Good Friday and Holy Saturday."

Perhaps this is a rather radical interpretation of GIRM, No. 306: "Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar." But this practice certainly does not correspond to liturgical norms.

GIRM No. 117, treating of the articles to be prepared before Mass, states: "The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation ..."

No. 118 continues: "On the credence table: the chalice, a corporal, a purificator, and, if appropriate, the pall; the paten and, if needed, ciboria; bread for the Communion of the priest who presides, the deacon, the ministers, and the people; cruets containing the wine and the water, unless all of these are presented by the faithful in procession at the Offertory; the vessel of water to be blessed, if the asperges occurs; the Communion-plate for the Communion of the faithful; and whatever is needed for the washing of hands."

Thus it is clear that these things should be prepared beforehand and not during Mass. Likewise the preparation of the altar, especially the extending the corporal and preparing the sacred vessels, is preferably undertaken by the deacon or, if lacking, by the acolytes.

The altar should be habitually covered even outside of Mass, although it is customary in many places to protect the white altar cloth outside of Mass by covering it with another cloth. This cloth should be removed some time before the Eucharistic celebration begins.

If stripping the altar after Mass were a regular practice then the rubrics requiring this action during the Easter triduum would have no significance at all.

A reader from the Philippines asked if flowers were forbidden on the altar.

It is true that GIRM No. 305 does not use the word "forbidden" when referring to flowers being placed upon the altar, but certainly indicates a clear preference. When read in tandem with the text of No. 306 quoted above, on placing only what is essential upon the altar, I believe it becomes more than a mere preference.

Even though there may be some rare exceptions to this general norm, I suggest that we should always try to follow the clear sense of the rule which best reflect what the Church desires for the liturgy.

On this topic readers may wish to consult an excellent recent article, "In Praise of Flowers," published in the March/April edition of the Environment & Art Letter. This recently revamped newsletter, produced by the Archdiocese of Chicago's Liturgy Training Publications, should prove to be a useful resource for parishes on all aspects of church decoration.

Several readers asked about the appropriateness of having national flags in the sanctuary.

Surprisingly, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. As a result, the question of whether and how to display a national or other flag in a church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.

It appears that the origin of the display of the American flag in many U.S. parishes stems from the custom of offering prayers for those who served during World War II. At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones -- especially those serving their country in the armed forces -- as a way of keeping before the attention of the faithful the needs of military families.

After the war the custom of having the flag present in the sanctuary, often accompanied by the pontifical standard, continued even in periods with no major international conflicts.

The practice, while not confined to the United States, is not widespread in other countries and is usually confined to certain churches of particular national importance.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, for example, displays a large national flag near the image of the Patroness of America and in another part of the church the flags of all the nations of North and South America.

The U.S. bishops' Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter.

Personally I would hold that national flags are best kept out of the sanctuary and the practice should not be introduced where no custom exists. If used, however, they should be discreet and of modest dimensions.

Finally, a Canadian reader asked if GIRM No. 318 meant that only one title of the Blessed Virgin may be placed in the church. The text says:

"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."

This is basically a pastoral norm that strives to strike a balance between the needs of the liturgy and the private devotion the faithful.

In order to serve the liturgy, the norm indicates that images should not be so numerous as to distract the faithful during the celebration.

At the same time it asks that provision should be made for the devotion of the entire community so that images should be set up to cater for those devotions most deeply held by the local community, not excluding the use of votive lamps before the images.

The reason the document says that there should not be more than one image of any saint set up for veneration recalls certain excesses of former times in which more than one altar was dedicated to the same saint.

However, I do not think that the prohibition of more than one image would exclude images not explicitly set up for veneration as when, for example, in addition to a statue of a church's patron saint there are several murals or stained glass windows that illustrate episodes of the saint's life.

Nor would it exclude adding another image of the Blessed Virgin if pastorally advisable. For example, if, due to demographic change, a parish dedicated to the Virgin of Loreto acquired a significant Hispanic population there would be no reason to exclude the pastor setting up an alcove to Our Lady of Guadalupe to respond to the devotional traditions of the people.

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Liturgy, Bride, Women, Wedding, Sanctuary

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