Crucifixes on the Altar
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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) references four times a crucifix on the altar of Sacrifice. Will that now be expected on altars wherever? Also, in the U.S., are celebrants allowed to use the readings from Revised Standard Version, Catholic edition, in place of the New American Bible lectionary, which some consider a less literary translation? -- J.M., Kansas City, Missouri
A: I suppose that our reader refers to the following four texts from the GIRM.
"117. The altar is to be covered with at least one white cloth. In addition, on or next to the altar are to be placed candlesticks with lighted candles: at least two in any celebration, or even four or six, especially for a Sunday Mass or a holy day of obligation. If the Diocesan Bishop celebrates, then seven candles should be used. Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
"122. On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow. The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place. In addition, the candlesticks are placed on the altar or near it. It is a praiseworthy practice that the Book of the Gospels be placed upon the altar.
"188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.
"350. Furthermore, great attention is to be paid whatever is directly associated with the altar and the eucharistic celebration, e.g., the altar cross and the cross carried in procession."
It is worth noting that the text does not actually use the term "crucifix," although this is clearly meant in Nos. 117 and 122.
The document also allows this cross to be placed on or near the altar. There is no requirement that it be place directly upon the altar itself.
This is also understood in the U.S. bishops' document "Built of Living Stones" regarding church furnishings:
"The Cross §91. The cross with the image of Christ crucified is a reminder of Christ's paschal mystery. It draws us into the mystery of suffering and makes tangible our belief that our suffering when united with the passion and death of Christ leads to redemption. There should be a crucifix 'positioned either on the altar or near it, and ... clearly visible to the people gathered there.' Since a crucifix placed on the altar and large enough to be seen by the congregation might well obstruct the view of the action taking place on the altar, other alternatives may be more appropriate. The crucifix may be suspended over the altar or affixed to the sanctuary wall. A processional cross of sufficient size, placed in a stand visible to the people following the entrance procession, is another option. If the processional cross is to be used for this purpose, the size and weight of the cross should not preclude its being carried in procession. If there is already a cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view of the congregation following the procession."
Therefore, there are several legitimate options offered with respect to the location of the altar cross, and present legislation does not prefer one solution over another.
It is well known that even before becoming Pope, Benedict XVI advocated the use of a sizable crucifix upon the altar itself as a means of establishing what he called a liturgical east or a means of focusing priest and faithful on the central mystery of redemption made present at Mass and symbolized by the crucifix.
During his pontificate the presence of such a crucifix upon the altar became habitual at papal Masses and thus far has been continued by Pope Francis.
In this way, the popes teach through example and good liturgical practice. However, no decree or other legal document has yet been promulgated instituting a change in legislation. Therefore, the norms of the GIRM retain all of their validity and legal force.
Not legislating might have been a deliberate choice on the part of the pontiffs so as not to close an open debate regarding the best practice in this area and leave room for flexibility in different pastoral situations.
With regard to the second question: Priests should follow the liturgical texts approved by the bishops' conference of each country. They may not use other texts approved by other conferences. An exception would be a Mass in English in countries with other languages. In this case any approved English text may be used.
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