Altar stones

Altar stones

Continuing its series of articles on saints’ relics, the Boston Globe addresses the fate of altar stones removed from closed parishes. Among the problems is that a new standard for the relics literally cemented into the stones was put into place—when else?—after Vatican II. Previously the relics could be tiny chips of bone, but now the requirement is that the relic be an identifiable body part (probably for the sake of authentication), and since such large relics are rarer now, the requirement that every altar have an altar stone was rescinded. In my opinion, hoping to fix one problem, they created a bigger one.

In any case, what to do with the pile-up of stones?

After Heck retrieves an altar stone, she takes it to the archdiocese office complex in Brighton, where it is placed in the custody of chief archivist Robert Johnson-Lally . The stones are cataloged and put into storage in a climate-controlled room.

Johnson-Lally records the parish of origin for each altar stone, but records are scarce as to which saint’s relics are interred within any given piece. Most relics are embedded along with a certificate of authenticity from the Vatican, which is written in Latin and contains information on the relic itself and the church in which it was placed.

But when the documents have been sealed into an altar stone with concrete, it’s nearly impossible to take them out without destroying the stone.

[...] If some other devotional use is not found for the relics, church guidelines mandate a formal burial in a Catholic cemetery. Either way, the change in practices effectively ends a tradition that originated in the earliest days of Christianity.

“The early, early, early Christians . . . celebrated the sacraments in the catacombs, on the tombs of the catacombs in Rome,” says Heck. “That was their altar surface. The sarcophagi that held the bodies or the bones of the saints in the catacombs are where they celebrated Mass.”

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  • Whaaat? Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of known saints, and we supposedly don’t have enough relics for our altars?

    Ridiculous. A made-up shortage.

    Cementing relics into altarstones was reaaaal foresighted, too. Churches have always closed, opened, and moved relics about—even the ones under the altars.

    Clearly the thing to do is to find out which new parishes don’t have relics under their altars, and store the altarstones there, in their proper place—under an altar. If Boston doesn’t have enough parishes that don’t, either place them in a parish the next diocese over or store them under active parishes’ altars that already have relics. There’s surely room for company, right?

    This is hardly rocket science.

  • For one thing, they’re not under the altars; they’re in the altars and thus if the altar is not designed for it, then the altar has to be replaced. (And to be clear, the “altar” is the table, not the “sanctuary” that so many people mislabel as the “altar”.)

    The relics were cemented in to make them permanent and to prevent anyone from removing them willy-nilly or even losing them.

    And while there are hundreds or even thousands of saints, you can only divide them up so much (and really should we dismember every saint’s body?) and do we even know where every saint’s body is, and let’s not forget that there are probably on the order of hundreds of thousands of churches ad chapels and other places with altars worldwide.

    It sounds like a made-up shortage, but don’t be so sure.

  • Haven’t we doubled the number of saints over the last 50 years?  Why are there not enough relics?  Are these saints’ bodies off-limits because their families may still be living, or something?  It doesn’t have to be a relic from an early saint, does it?

  • I don’t think they “dismantle” saints as readily as they used to. And they probably have to be dead for some time (let all the natural processes complete) before they do anything.