Is there a saint in our altar?

By Deacon Shaun Johnson | Special to The Compass | February 1, 2022


I was told that altars contain relics of saints? Is this true? How does a parish get these relics? And which saints do they use? — Kimberly


The short answer to this question is, “yes,” this is usually true — ideally.

As the principal master of ceremonies for Bishop David Ricken, I have the honor and privilege to walk alongside many of our parishes who have undertaken remodeling projects which sometimes include a new altar and other liturgical furniture. The liturgy surrounding the consecration and dedication of an altar is absolutely beautiful and, as part of that liturgy, it is prescribed that the deposition of relics occurs. At this point, typically, documentation of the date of the dedication and consecration as well as documentation as to the authenticity of the relics are deposited as well.

Though this part of the rite can and is often done before the Ritual Mass of Dedication of an Altar, it brings us all back to our roots as a Christian community. In the early days of the church, during Christian persecutions, Mass was often prayed on an altar over the tombs of martyrs in the catacombs in Rome. This is a tradition that the church is encouraged to maintain as the relics — parts of bone, teeth or the body of a martyr or saint connected with the particular parish — are deposited under the mensa  (the top) of the altar.

As the Order of the Dedication of a Church and an Altar states, this tradition harkens to the Book of Revelation where John writes, “I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the Word of God and for the witness they have given” (no. 5).    

To answer the second part of this question, typically, when a parish is in the process of remodeling, the priest can request that the bishop send a letter to the Vatican to secure a relic of a particular saint that has a connection to the parish. Sometimes this request is sent to a particular religious order which may have possession of relics of a particular saint instead as well. 

Deacon Johnson is divine worship director for the Diocese of Green Bay.

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