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Liturgy: Relics in the Altar

5/4/2005 - 6:00 AM PST

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And More on John Paul II's Veil

ROME, MAY 4, 2005 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: I would like to know the present teaching of the Church, with documentary evidence, on fixing relics of the saints at the altar of Holy Mass. -- K.S., Nagapattinam, India

A: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 302, contains the following statement: "The practice of placing relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. Care should be taken, however, to ensure the authenticity of such relics."

This statement summarizes the more detailed treatment of this question found in other documents such as the Roman Pontifical, Dedication of a Church and an Altar, and in the Ceremonial of Bishops.

No. 866 of this latter book indicates the basic norms for relics:

"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."

Other numbers such as 876-877 describe some details as to the vesture and form of the entrance processions and the contents of the copy of the record of the dedication to be placed in the reliquary.

Later, in No. 900, the Ceremonial describes the rite of depositing of the relics:

"If relics of the martyrs or other saints are to be placed beneath the altar, the bishop approaches the altar. A deacon or presbyter brings the relics to the bishop, who places them in a suitably prepared aperture. Meanwhile Psalm 15 (14), with the antiphon 'Saints of God' or 'The bodies of the saints,' or some other suitable song is sung.

"During the singing a stonemason closes the aperture, and the bishop returns to the chair (cathedra)."

* * *

Follow-up: The Pope's Veil

I knew that I could rely on our well-informed readers to relieve me of my ignorance regarding the purpose of the veil placed on the face of Pope John Paul II before his coffin was sealed (see April 26).

Many readers, above all those hailing from the venerable traditions of the Eastern Churches, have written to explain that this veil is a common custom for priestly funerals, often accompanied by an anointing with blessed oils.

One reader explains: "In the Byzantine funeral-liturgy for a priest, the large veil (the one used to cover chalice and paten) is placed on the face of the deceased. It is on the one hand a symbol of the strength and protection of God, on the other hand a symbol of the tomb of Christ." Other readers attest similar practices in other rites such as the Melkite and Ruthenian.

Some hypothesize that this custom may have originated in Jewish burial customs.

One reader wrote: "In the Jewish burial custom, the Jews would anoint the faces of their dead priests with oil and then wrap them in a white cloth. This same action was apparently performed on Jesus.

"In the early Eastern churches at every Divine Liturgy, the priest would fan his chalice veil over the gifts during the Creed (a practice that endures to this day). During this fanning of the gifts, the priest is not to look over the top of the veil to the other side, a symbolic sign that, here on earth, he has the faith to believe what, after he dies, he will come to see.

"After the death of the priest, the veil would be placed over the face of the priest, with the front side of the veil, which faced away from him during the Creed, touching his face. This veiling of the priest's face was symbolic of the fact that, now that the priest was dead, he now saw what before he only believed."

Another reader referred to the TV commentary on the funeral in which a bishop commented that "the veil was requested by the Holy Father and points to the Scripture by St. Paul: 'We do not see clearly, as through a veil, but then (at the end of time) clearly.' At the resurrection, the commentators added, when the Pope's body is resurrected, he will remove the veil to see God face to face as a soul reunited with his body. I thought it was a beautiful comment."

It is certainly an appropriate ...

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