Relics in Altars

St. Thomas Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica
is so named b/c of the altar piece rendition of
St. Thomas’ famous inspection of Jesus’ wounds.
The relics below the altar are of St. Boniface,
so it is also called St. Boniface Chapel.
A question was posed to me today: Do all altars have to have relics in them?
My initial response was that while it is preferred to have a relic in the altar, it is not required, but I did a little research to make sure.
Here is what I found:
First, let’s consider why we put relics under the altar to begin with:

Dedication of a Church or Altar (DCA) IV, 5. All the dignity of the altar rests on its being the Lord’s table. Thus the martyr’s body does not bring honor to the altar; rather the altar does honor to the martyr’s tomb. For it is altogether proper to erect altars over the burial place of martyrs and other saints or to deposit their relics beneath altars as a mark of respect and as a symbol of the truth that the sacrifice of the members has its source in the sacrifice of the Head. Thus ‘the triumphant victims come to their rest in the place where Christ is victim: he, however, who suffered for all is on the altar; they who have been redeemed by his sufferings are beneath the altar.’ This arrangement would seem to recall in a certain manner the spiritual vision of the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation: ‘I saw underneath the altar the souls of all the people who have been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it.’ His meaning is that although all the saints are rightly called Christ’s witnesses, the witness of blood has a special significance that only the relics of the martyrs beneath the altar express in its entirety.

[As Jesus’ sacrifice is made present on top of the altar, He is made present above those who have died for Him. He is the head and they are the body. This also foreshadows the Resurrection of the Body, when at the end of time, God will bring our mortal bodies back from decomposition and reunite our souls to them in a glorified manner, and those who are going to Heaven will rise together as one Body with Jesus as our head.]

Revelation 6:9: “I saw underneath the altar the souls of all people who had been killed on account of the word of God, for witnessing to it.”

[Revelation is St. John’s record of the vision of Heaven that he was given. Our tradition of building altars above relics is tied up with this vision.]
Now to our question: Do all altars have to have relics?

Canon Law 1237 §2: The ancient tradition of placing relics of martyrs or other saints under a fixed altar is to be preserved, according to the norms given in the liturgical books.

[While this says that the tradition is to be preserved, it doesn’t give any specifics about the tradition, nor what the liturgical books say.]

GIRM 302: 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 is basically what Canon Law states, but it also gives the stipulation that the relic needs to be authentic. We don’t want just a random person’s bone(s) below our altars. The altar honors the saint’s bones.]

DCA II, 5. 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.

[So, the tradition “should be preserved, if possible.” That answers the original question: not every altar must have a relic. It also specifies more about the relic requirements. They should be sizable, not just those little bone chips you normally see. Note: there is a distinction between “shoulds” and “musts” in Church documents, but “shoulds” are still to be followed, if possible. The relic must not be on top, but must be below the table of the altar. This fits more with Rev. 6:9 – the souls are underneath the altar.]

DCA II, 14. When relics of a martyr are not available, relics of another saint may be deposited in the altar.

[This also fits with Rev. 6:9. The souls who were underneath the altar “had been killed no account of the word of God, for witnessing to it.” They were martyrs. “Martyr” means witness. It is then fitting that we prefer the relics of martyrs to be underneath our altars.]

DCA VI, 3. [I]t is not permissible to place the relics of saints in the base of a movable altar.

[This also sheds light on our initial question. Moveable altars cannot have relics, so it is necessary that not all altars will have relics, though it is preferred that fixed altars do, indeed, have relics.]
To clarify this point, lets go back to Canon Law:

Canon 1235: An altar . . . is called fixed if it is so constructed that it adheres to the floor and thus cannot be moved; it is called moveable if it can be removed.

[This begs the question as to how much effort is necessary to remove an altar for it to be considered fixed and not moveable. If a wood altar is screwed into the floor, I would imagine that it would be considered fixed, but it takes little effort to move it. Whereas a heavy stone altar might not be screwed to the floor, but it would take a great effort to move it. Would the wood be considered fixed while the stone be considered moveable, even though the stone altar is really much more fixed than the wooden one? I don’t know. Perhaps they are both fixed because more than a little effort is required to move either of them.]

Review: Courageous

My wife and I were recently invited to a sneak preview of the upcoming movie Courageous. While I found the movie entertaining and emotionally moving, it was not quite blockbuster caliber. Overall, I give the movie a B.

The Message
The movie is an effort to sound a wake-up call to dads across the country–trying to get them to step up and be real fathers. I heartily agree with their great, redeeming message of good fatherhood (and it’s a message we desperately need to hear), but I think Michael Catt and company try to beat the audience over the head with it, and I think this will make the movie ultimately less effective.

The opening scene draws all of us in to wonder “Would I have done that?” Nathan Hayes (played by

Nathan Hayes (Ken Bevel) watching out for his daughter,
who is being romantically pursued by a young gang member.

 Ken Bevel) is filling up with gas when a man sneaks into his truck and drives away. Hayes jumps into action, sprinting after the truck and diving half-way into the driver’s window. Clinging for life, fighting with the thief, and trying to avoid traffic, Hayes eventually gets control of the wheel and steers the truck off the road and into a tree as he bails out into the ditch. The thief exits the scene with his accomplice as shocked witness minivan moms call the police and rush to Hayes to see if he’s okay, but he fights through them to get back to his vehicle and reveal that the motivation for his motor vehicle daredevilry was more than a mere machine. He opens the back door to reveal a crying baby in a car seat. Each viewer is stuck with the real question: “Would I have done that?” I thought this was an excellent way to set the stage for the audience to consider that question throughout the film.

This, however, is where we start to get hit over the head. Instead of letting the audience naturally come to this question and grapple with it, Catt & Co. force the issue. Police officer Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick) is driving away after having helped with Hayes’ accident when he asks his partner “Would you have done it?” As they tried to discuss the issue without losing any of their macho bravado between each other, I couldn’t help but wonder: are they trying to spoon-feed us this question? This particular scene wasn’t a bad addition, but it really was a harbinger of what was to come: plenty of emotionally charged scenes with an almost after-school-special-esque dialogue, explaining the moral of the situations.

The movie mostly revolves around four police officers (and also includes a construction worker who becomes their friend), and how they come to see that most of the men they are putting in jail come from fatherless homes, or homes where the father shows little attention to (or appreciation of) the kids. Instead of them being drawn to realize this throughout the movie, and allowing the viewers to do the same, the fact is presented to them by their chief in a meeting of the police force, starting something like “an e-mail came across my desk the other day with some surprising statistics.” This situation could be believable, but the person cast for the police chief wasn’t chosen for his public speaking abilities and the e-mail was given no credible source. For all we know, it could have been from his Aunt Martha who sends on every forward she receives without checking any of the facts. Again, I wondered: are they spoon-feeding us these statistics?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed my time. I certainly cried at a few of the tear-jerking scenes and laughed at some of the funny parts–there were elements of action, drama, some bits of suspense–but where I think this movie really breaks down is the dialogue in the crucial moments. When the drama gets thick, the dialogue goes flat. I think the writers did a great job of creating an environment in which the questions they’re dealing with come up, but I found the actual conversations that work through the difficult situations to be contrived and unnatural.

The Effect
I predict that the problem with the dialogue will plague the movie’s effect on secular audiences. While Christian audiences will understand the words and forgive the clunkiness, I think it will be a turn-off to many who don’t believe. Yes, the message is a Biblical message, so there will be certain parties automatically disaffected, but the lingo and style is distinctly Evangelical Protestant, which (in my experience) tends to have its own lexicon, and a false assumption that everyone else knows what they’re talking about or at least gets the idea right when it is spoken. I’ve found this particular conversational style to be ineffective when dealing with people outside of the particular group to which the jargon belongs.

The movie also draws the viewer through some extreme emotional situations, trying to pull down any

defenses, in the hope that the head-whacking with the message will be well received. This approach of selling an idea (and, again, this is a really good idea) through the use of pathos (emotion) is often effective (commercial advertisers capitalize on it all the time), but that effect isn’t always lasting. It isn’t always enough for someone to change his/her life. It rallies the troops and makes some converts, but it doesn’t sustain the morale. What is needed for that is a strong logos (reason). This movie has some good logos at some points, but it chiefly relies on pummeling us with pathos, and I can’t help but think that a number of non-Christian viewers will be turned off. I’ve had many conversations with many non-believers who are turned off by this sort of emotion-based faith. It lacks real substance. I agree. I’m turned off by it, too. That’s one of the benefits of the rich intellectual treasures of the Catholic Church: a fantastic combination of faith and reason. I think the movie brings up a really good topic (one that is much needed) and shows some men trying to strive for excellence in fatherhood (quite commendable), but the dialogical potholes and the overflowing emotional tide/head-whacking will keep it from being a huge success.

Effective Post-Climax
In order not to give too much more away, I’ll just say that the climax of the movie is arguably a special scene for which the main characters get all dressed up. It is an exclamation point in the movie for the men and their families, and Catt & Co. do a good job of not stopping there. They continue on, showing that even when men are being real dads, there will still be trials. The movie doesn’t simply end with a “happily ever after.” There is still a fair amount of drama to go, but the men have changed, and the viewers are able to see how these particular men put biblical notions of fatherhood into rubber-hitting-the-road practice when the going gets tough. I thought this area was quite exceptional–it inspired me to work even harder at being a good husband (and hopefully a good father someday).

Cheesy Conclusion
In an almost shameless-self-promotion style, the movie wraps up with the predominant character, Adam Mitchell, standing up in front of his Sunday service, flanked by his buddies, giving a testimony about being a man. As he reaches the climax of his talk, he raises his hand Billy Graham-style (appropriately, since this is, after all, a Baptist congregation in a movie made by a Baptist congregation) and calls out men to stand up and be real fathers. This was fine in itself, but as his words reached their peak and he raised his hand, the scene immediately flashes to the COURAGEOUS title block and intros the credits. It almost seems as though the whole movie was a commercial for the movie. Something about it just stood out as awkward.

Also, that Sunday service scene will lose some appeal for high-liturgy Christians. Granted, the movie is made by a Baptist congregation, so they have Baptist sensibilities and tend to cater toward Baptists, so it really should come as no surprise that their worship space looks more like a theater than a house of God. If it weren’t for the cut-scene of the sign out in front of the building and the alb-laden choir in the stadium seating behind the stage, a Catholic might wonder why their congregation meets at the local concert venue.

Bottom Line: Is it worth going to see, or is it a “rentable”?
I have mixed thoughts on this one. Hollywood generally puts out a bunch of junk movies that have no redeeming moral quality. This one, however, has a great message, no scantily clad women, no sex scenes (nor even any innuendo), no obscene language, and generally leaves you inspired to live better. I really want to send Hollywood the message that this is the type of movie we’re looking for, so our ticket dollars would be a good way to turn the tide a bit in Hollywood. Because of the above-menitoned downfalls, however, I know some will be turned off. I’d say that the good of the movie ultimately outweighs the bad, and that (if you can forgive a little cheesiness and heavy-handed message making) you’ll have a really good movie-going experience. Ultimately, if men are inspired to be better fathers by this movie, it will be well worth the price of the ticket.

The Importance of Proper Definition

I have been in a discussion lately regarding marriage, and the reaction to the State of New York’s decision to start calling same sex relationships “marriages.” One of my interlocutors thought that when I had distinguished between valid marriages and invalid marriages, I was saying that all non-Catholic marriages were invalid (and how unfair that would be). This was obviously not the case, and I will explain it below. Another was having a similar difficulty. Both were confused about the distinction yet validity of religious marriages and non religious marriages, and they were confused about the idea that marriage means more that simply a “boyfriend and girlfriend telling the state of their love.” The discussion stemmed from a response to an article, which included the above statement and claimed that by redefining marriage to include same sex couples, the state effectively undefined marriage, and that there is a great loss in this.
Photo courtesy of Isela Maria Photography 
First, let’s get things straight. God is involved in all marriages, whether the vows are expressed in a religious setting or not. When my wife and I exchanged our vows in the traditional Catholic wedding Mass, God was (and is) involved in our marriage. When a non-Christian man and woman go to the justice of the peace and get married, God is involved in that marriage too. The only time God does not unite a couple in marriage is when a marriage is prevented by some impediment from coming about. This is discussed below.

Marriage is a thing into which the couple enters, not something the state created for couples to enter. What the state chooses to recognize as “marriage” has no effect as to whether the couple is, in reality, married or not. The state could call anything a marriage, but that doesn’t bring a marriage into existence. Similarly, the state could legally call an apple an “orange,” but that doesn’t make the apple an orange. Would such a redefinition preclude the orange from being an orange? No. Does such a redefinition remove the state’s distinction between apples and oranges? Yes. Is something lost? Yes, it becomes harder for the average person to truly understand what an orange is, as distinct from what an apple is.
Photo found here
Particularly with regard to the question about the distinction of Catholic marriages: There are two different levels of marriage: natural and sacramental. If a marriage is valid, it is always at least a natural marriage. My marriage is a natural marriage. The marriage between a non-Christian man and woman would also be a natural marriage. Both of those marriages are valid marriages. The particular Christian extra is that marriages between baptized persons are also sacramental–that is, they cause grace in the lives of the couple (a discussion for another time). My marriage is not only natural, but it is also supernatural (sacramental). The catch, with respect to our conversation, is that it takes certain requirements for a marriage to be valid (for various reasons, generally revolving around the fundamental definition that marriage is a full gift of self to the each other) including, but not limited to:
  • Marriage can only come about between two people – a full gift of self can only be given to one person, otherwise it is a divided gift. (This rules out polyamory.) This statement also requires that the parties be humans–animals plants and inanimate things are unable to consciously choose to give themselves, so they cannot enter marriage. (A man could not marry his cow.)
  • Marriage can only come about between willing people – it is not a gift of self at all if the persons are unwilling. (Shotgun weddings are generally invalid–even though the state would recognize them.) Here is it helpful to note that even arranged marriages are entered into willingly (only the bride and groom don’t get to choose the person to whom they give themselves), so they are completely valid.
  • In order to be willing, a man and a woman need to know the covenant to which they’re vowing themselves. You can’t totally agree to give yourself fully to another person for the rest of your life without a minimal understanding of what that really means. This area is greatly effected in our society. With the continual redefinition/undefinition of marriage, it becomes harder and harder for couples to know what marriage truly is, so it is harder for them to fully give themselves to each other.
  • If either the man, the woman, or both is/are a Catholic, the wedding must take place according to the rules of the Catholic Church (in a Catholic church, by a Catholic priest/deacon, they must intend to raise their children as Catholics, and they must conform to all of the other requirements for marriage). Catholics are not free to get married on the beach, in the forest, in a mansion, or elsewhere. Doing so fails to bring about a marriage. They are not married. They can always have their marriage convalidated by the Church, so that it becomes real, but they remain unmarried otherwise (even if the state considers them married).
  • Marriage can only come about between people who are able to give themselves – the mentally retarded, the insane, and similar others lack the capacity to truly choose to give themselves to another person for as long as they both shall live. This lack of the ability to give themselves prevents those people from entering a state of self-gift. (The drunk are also not able to give themselves at the time, so drunken Vegas weddings are generally not valid–even if the state recognizes them. This couple could always convalidate their marriage later.)
  • The couple must be able to consummate their marriage at least once – if the couple is unable to complete the marital act, they cannot consummate (“bring to perfection”) their gift of self to each other. A man who cannot become erect cannot consummate a marriage. I have heard of cases of women who are unable to receive a man–they would be unable to consummate a marriage. The marriage must be consummated by at least one marital act. The marital act does not need to be a fertile act, but it needs to be the KIND of act that would be fertile. The marital act is the act by which a man and woman would normally generate children (the man must climax within the woman’s vagina–wether or not they are fertile). If the couple is unable to perform this function, they cannot consummate the marriage, so they are unable to give themselves fully to each other. (*As an aside, when a couple forcibly removes their fertility from this act–through contraception, etc.–they change the act which they are performing, reserving themselves from giving a full gift and failing to perform the marital act, so a contracepted act wouldn’t consummate a marriage.*)  This act doesn’t need to generate children, but it must be the same act by which children would normally be generated. That being said, obviously a man cannot climax within another man’s vagina (because the other man has no vagina). Men cannot FULLY give themselves (fertility and all) to men. The same goes for women–they cannot FULLY give themselves (fertility and all) to women. Same sex couples cannot enter into a real marriage. No matter what the state calls their relationship, same sex couples lack the ability to enter the reality of what marriage is because they lack the fundamental elements (one man and one woman).

Marriage, by its nature, is ordered to the procreation and education of children. Not every marriage will generate children, but marriage requires the KIND of people who would normally be able to give themselves to each other so fully that their self-giving love MIGHT produce another life. (An infertile man and woman may marry each other because they are the KIND of relationship that is necessary.) Anything else is not a marriage. The state may call it a “marriage,” but that’s like the state calling an apple an “orange”–it doesn’t make it so.
To the next point: is anything lost by this altered definition of marriage? Yes, but the loss is subtle (great, but subtle). Over the last century, we have seen a great breakdown in the family unit. This has been caused by a societal watering-down of the understanding of what it means to “be married” and to “be a family.” Much of this has been because of the disassociation of marriage and the marital act. Instead of the marital act being looked at as the fullest gift of husband and wife to each other possible, society has slowly turned it into a mere pleasure act. To be sure, there is much pleasure involved, and that is good, but sexual intercourse purely for pleasure robs it of such self-giving properties. It becomes a form of using the other person for mutual pleasure–even if consensual, it fails to be a true gift. When society treats the marital act as though it’s just a pleasure time, why should it treat marriage like it’s anything special? Problems like adultery have been troubling mankind for practically as long as history records, but should they be considered acceptable? No! We know people shouldn’t cheat on their spouses. Our society, however, has slowly started to brush that problem (and others) under the carpet.
Widespread contraception was one of the first big falls. First, it removed the telltale sign of infidelity–another woman’s pregnancy–but it also dissociated the marital act from being open to generate children, which only stoked the burning fires of lust (sexual intercourse for pleasure instead of pleasure as a part of marital self-gift). This split between marriage and the marital act also gives any man who views women as sexual objects further leeway to treat them as such. It also greatly increases the temptation for men who otherwise wouldn’t treat women as objects to treat them as such–and vice versa. The same can be said for abortion, which became the fail-safe for contracepting couples. Preventing and killing babies from such illicit relationships made it easier for the relationships to occur, and they became more common, more mainstream–such relationships are even lauded in television shows. All of this erodes at the definition of marriage–they are both the sign of a lower view of marriage and contributors to lowering it further.
As our society’s view of marriage lowered, divorce became more prevalent, and to make this easier, lawmakers created “no-fault” divorce, which only further lowered the view of marriage. Not only is marriage separated from the marital act in society’s eyes, but they now look at marriage as a relationship of convenience. While stating, “until death do we part,” people are often really thinking, “as long as I feel good and he/she meets all my needs, but if things turn sour, we’ll just get a divorce.”
Adultery and fornication both went rampant, exploding in the 1960s and 70s. These vices which have historically been seen as evil, were now being seen as not only acceptable, but “freeing.” This libertine “freedom” (which is really just a license to indulge in lust, and become enslaved to one’s passions) has led to a further deterioration of society’s view of the family. As contraception became more available and society’s general view of marriage lowered, the increase of divorce, teen pregnancy, out of wedlock pregnancy, single families, spousal abuse, etc. skyrocketed. The more a society deviates in its understanding from what marriage really is (1 man and 1 woman, committed to giving themselves to each other for a deepening love, for generation and education of any children they might be given as the building block of society, for as long as they are alive), the more prevalent marital evils (divorce, teen pregnancy, infidelity, abuse, etc.) will be in that society.
Has something been lost? Yes. Our society no longer knows what marriage really is, so it will seemingly label anything it wishes a “marriage.” (What is the next apple to be called an “orange?” It looks most likely that the polyamorous crowd will be the next to push their agenda, but I assume they will wait and push the gay agenda first to first try to more fully establish the same sex crowd and lessen the understanding of marriage further before trying to add more partners). With same sex relationships now being called “marriages” by some state governments, it is a further erosion of the real definition of marriage, which will result in a further increase of our society’s marital ills. Unfortunately, people often only live up to the minimum expectation you give them, and as you keep expecting less and less from marriages, they will keep giving themselves less and less to a relationship that requires to give themselves fully. Marriage and family are the building block of society. Our society will not thrive on a faulty foundation–in fact, it is nearly guaranteed to get worse. As we keep lowering our society’s expectations of marriage, we will continue to see worse rates of marital and social evils in our country.
There is a silver lining. Individuals can resist. People can come to learn the real definition of marriage and try to live up to the higher standard to which truly married couples are called. They can raise children who understand marriage and plan to fully give themselves (for life) into a marriage (if God so calls them to that state someday). That’s what my family is doing, and we are not alone. We are just one couple among millions who understand what marriage really is, and we have pledged to live up to that calling, and to teach our children to live up to that calling.
Lastly, and perhaps, most importantly, we can pray. We can pray that God helps us to understand marriage even more deeply, and we can pray for mercy for any time we have offended the truth of marriage, and for mercy on others who have committed offenses against the truth of marriage. We can also pray for mercy on us as a country, for the country’s offenses against the truth of marriage.

“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”