All about the Altar in a Catholic Church
By: Alex Stapleton, Sacristan at Holy Trinity Parish
Before we begin, I would like to clarify what we are talking about when we talk about an Altar. The Altar is the raised slab or table in the center of the Sanctuary in a Catholic Church (See Picture above)
In the Old Testament, an Altar is where people may offer sacrifices to God. This sacred place appears many times in the Old and New testaments as a place where the people of God offered burnt offerings to God.
Then Noah built an altar to the Lord, and took of every clean animal and every clean bird, and offered burnt offerings on the Altar. – Genesis 8:20 NRSV-CI
Curious Catholics have asked me (often Altar Servers during their training) why we bow to the Altar during the Mass – Why is the Altar important?.
When they have arrived at the Sanctuary, the Priest, the Deacon, and the ministers reverence the Altar with a profound bow. Moreover, as an expression of veneration, the Priest and Deacon then kiss the Altar itself; the Priest, if appropriate, also incenses the Cross and the Altar – GIRM 49
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (aka the General Instruction, or the GIRM) is the set of rubrics the church provides to celebrate the Holy Mass. This includes everything from how the Priest, Deacon, and ministers reverence the Altar, how the Priest holds his hands during the consecration, and how the church is
decorated and arranged for Mass. All around, it's a fantastic document.
Sidenote: The Liturgical Institute offers an amazing online course on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal at https://liturgy.teachable.com/p/roman_missal
The General Instruction tells us that the Sacrifice of the Mass on the Altar makes present for us the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. The Altar is where, through transubstantiation, the Bread and the Wine become the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ.
The Altar, on which is effected the Sacrifice of the Cross made present under sacramental signs, is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is convoked to participate in the Mass, and it is also the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist – GIRM 296
The simple answer to why we give reverence to the Altar is because it is the place in which Christ is made present to his people on earth through the Sacrifice of the Mass. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that: "The Eucharist is "the source and summit of the Christian life." (CCC no.1324) This means that the Altar is the central focus during the celebration of the Mass.
The Altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The Altar should usually be fixed and dedicated. - GIRM 299
At the dedication of the Church and Altar is a special ritual in which the Bishop celebrates Mass in a new Church or on a new Altar. During this ritual, the Altar is anointed and marked with five crosses to symbolize the five wounds of Christ. The Altar usually has a relic of a saint (or multiple relics) embedded within it (dark square in Altar Stone below)
"Having become both the true Priest and the true oblation, he has taught us to celebrate for ever the memorial of the Sacrifice that he himself offered to you on the altar of the Cross."- from "Preface: Christ himself is the altar." Roman Missal (USCCB) p.1230
The practice of the deposition of relics of Saints, even those not Martyrs, under the altar to be dedicated is fittingly retained. However, care should be taken to ensure the authenticity of such relics. - GIRM 302
Additional Instructions on the Altar
It is desirable that in every church there be a fixed altar, since this more clearly and permanently signifies Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Peter 2:4; cf. Ephesians 2:20)… – GIRM 298
The Altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the Altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The Altar should usually be fixed and dedicated. - GIRM 299
An altar, whether fixed or movable, should be dedicated according to the rite prescribed in the Roman Pontifical; but it is permissible for a movable altar simply to be blessed.- GIRM 300
In keeping with the Church’s traditional practice and with what the altar signifies, the table of a fixed altar should be of stone and indeed of natural stone. In the Dioceses of Canada, however, another natural material which is dignified, solid, and well-crafted may also be used, provided that the altar is structurally immobile. As to the supports or base for supporting the table, these may be made of any material, provided it is dignified and solid. A movable altar may be constructed of any noble and solid material suited to liturgical use, according to the traditions and usages of the different regions – GIRM 301
Bower, C. F. (2019, February 19). The Altar. Catholic Answers. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/the-altar
Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops. (2010). General Instruction of the Roman Missal. CCCB.
Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. (2012). New Revised Standard Version of the Bible - Catholic Edition (Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, Ed.). Canadian Bible Society.
The Vatican. (1992). Catechism of the Catholic Church - IntraText. Vatican.Va. Retrieved February 18, 2022, from https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P3X.HTM
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (2010). The Roman Missal [E-book].