It’s a fixture in every Catholic Church we visit, and one we’re so used to that we may take it for granted: the altar.
For Masses high and low, in Latin or the vernacular, Roman Catholic or Eastern Rite, an altar is used for the sacred liturgy in which ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Our Lord.
But unlike Christ, the things of this world are passing, and so altars occasionally require a replacement – such as the altar at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, which was replaced in 2021 and officially blessed by Bishop Wall on January 26, 2023.
Fr. Mitchell Brown, Cathedral rector, spoke to The Voice of the Southwest about the symbolism and of importance of altars in Catholicism, and the installation of the new altar at the Cathedral.
Can you give us a little history of the new altar (who made it, why was a new one needed, etc.)?
Late in 2019, Bishop Wall wanted to bring new beauty and greater dignity to certain aspects of the Cathedral. In particular, this was to focus on the ambo and the altar in the Cathedral as a way to stress the importance of the Word of God and the Eucharist. At the same time, he wanted to continue the age-old custom of cathedrals supporting the arts. With both of these things in mind, he asked Robert Montoya, a carpenter in Santa Fe, to build and carve the ambo and altar. He then commissioned Charlie Carrillo and Arlene Sena, both traditional santeros, to paint the retablos. The altar specifically displays the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, and the Chaste Heart of Saint Joseph.
Why do altars require a blessing? Is there a specific “altar blessing” prayer?
In general, a blessing can be considered a way in which the Church claims something for God – in which She returns part of creation to the Creator. When it comes to liturgical items, such as altars and chalices, this blessing takes on a consecratory aspect, which means the particular item that is blessed is completely given over to the service of God and it cannot be used for anything else. It’s easy to see why this would happen for an altar: the stone or wood that makes the altar must be totally given to God, so that the Mass can be celebrated on it regularly and it cannot be used for mundane purposes.
There are various prayers used for this blessing, depending on the situation. The one used for this altar harkened to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which is made present on the altar. It also asked that the altar become the central place of our worship and thanksgiving to God, the table from which we receive the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ, and even the very fountain of salvation. The prayer then asked that we all be drawn to Christ, the Living Stone, so that we might be built into His holy temple by the sacrifice of our lives.
Does the altar in the Cathedral set a standard for other altars and parishes throughout the Diocese?
As the Mother Church for a diocese, the Cathedral does set the standard for other parishes. At the same time, each parish and community will have different means and needs. I think the biggest thing to keep in mind is that each church is meant to be a beautiful place to meet the Lord Who Himself comes to meet us. This beauty can take many different forms, from simple to very ornate, but it must always lift the heart and mind to God. In addition, whatever is placed in a church must also be in accord with the truth of Revelation and the goodness of God. These three things together – goodness, truth, and beauty – all help to make a church a ready place to encounter God. This is why the Church has guidelines and rules for these things that we must obey – they help us to engage the higher, spiritual realities well.
Are there any relics are in the Cathedral altar?
There are actually many relics in the altar – a few dozen! We could think of no better place to put the Cathedral’s collection of relics than in the altar, especially since it would be difficult to display them securely.
At Mass, or when visiting a church, how should people respectfully act toward an altar? Are there any reflections about it they can consider while in prayer?
Given its purpose, an altar is to be treated with great respect. The Eucharist is confected on it, and it is in fact a symbol of Christ Himself. It represents the Cross, the empty tomb of the Resurrection, and heavenly worship as well. As such, it should never be treated as a normal table, but rather as a sacred altar of sacrifice. Each of these realities could be part of one’s meditation, especially given that we too are meant to be altars of sacrifice, who represent the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ in the world (see Rom. 12:1; Gal. 2:20).
It is fitting, if the Blessed Sacrament is not present, to bow to the altar. One can also note the various forms of veneration given to the altar during Holy Mass: it is incensed, kissed, and adorned with cloths and candles. It can also have artistic and floral decoration as is fitting to the particular space.