20 July 2010

We Are Altar Cloth

(Photo by Rebecca Venegoni Tower of the St. Louis Review)

It is difficult to have a discussion about the differences in liturgical outlook between and among so-called progressive, conservative and traditional Catholics. Actually, it is quite easy, if you don't care if you hurt anyone's feelings. But as Catholics we ought to care. So, we should try not to do so.

The truth and charity are married, metaphorically speaking. They form one unified whole. Charity without truth is as insupportable as truth without charity. We strive neither for cold legalism nor for culpable treacle.

It is easy to claim that some of those that disagree with us are hypocrites. But hypocrisy is in good supply no matter what the shorthand type of label one adopts. I have seen error and exclusivity from the inclusive crowd; I have seen phariseeism among the traditionalists; and I have seen smug complacency among the conservatives. And in no way do I exonerate myself from the worst of it.

I lead with all of this because I am going to try to begin a discussion of
an article in the Review from last week about a local parish and a particular parish project in which they are engaging. I am genuinely befuddled by it, but those responsible for it no doubt have the best of intentions in doing it. And I would love some input on this without drawing battle lines--because sometimes I think Catholics we are divided by a common faith.

This division is not caused per se by differences in liturgical praxis, but it sure seems that liturgical praxis is a good indicator of how one falls out on lots of issues. As you know, I have often posted here about the disastrous consequences of the divorce between faith and worship. After Vatican II, it seems that as long as one gives intellectual assent to a particular set of beliefs then the manner of worship is irrelevant. Perhaps that seems right when engaging in apologetics work with evangelicals, but such a concept would have been completely alien to Catholics of the 1,500 year period prior to 1965. As St. Prosper's famous maxim states, lex orandi, lex credendi-- or, the law of prayer is the law of belief.

How we worship reveals what we really believe.

And so,
the article.

Parishioners of St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood are sewing their names into an altar cloth that will be used at times for Holy Mass. The photo above shows the process of parishioners signing their names to the cloth, apparently on the part of the cloth that will cover the surface of the altar. This is being done, according to the article, to celebrate parish unity.

Stitch by stitch: Handmade altar cloth reminder of parish unity

By Jennifer Brinker

It can be said that Catholics become one when they are placed together before Christ's altar.

A Kirkwood parish is placing its personal touch on that idea through the creation of a handmade altar cloth that will be used for special liturgical celebrations.

Last weekend, members of St. Gerard Majella Parish were invited after Masses to sign their family name to the simple, white polyester cloth, which was sewn by parishioner Jan Hinkebein, a member of the quilters' group. Each name will be hand embroidered by members of that group and other volunteers.

"It will be unique in that it will be their own personal signature," said Lisa Vienhage, who is helping to organize the effort.

Vienhage said the inspiration for the idea came from another archdiocesan parish, Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood, which created a similar altar cloth for its liturgical celebrations.


Hinkebein said it's hard to guess how long it will take to hand embroider all of the names on the altar cloth. "When I did one, it took maybe about half an hour," she said. The length of time spent sewing the names will depend on the number of people who can help with the project.

St. Gerard "is such a wonderful family parish, and it's an amazing group of people, where everyone volunteers and gives a lot of their time and talent," said Vienhage, who has been a member of the parish for the last 15 years. She and her husband, Michael, have five children.

The project is a perfect example of showing "families coming together. We're all so different and unique, and different ages, but we all put ourselves before Christ at His table, and that's where we become one. He is the source of our spiritual nutrition.

"As a mother, it's crucial that my family has our meal time together. And the Mass is really the pinnacle of our faith as Catholics. We're trying to celebrate that by dressing Christ's altar."


Promoting parish unity is a good thing. However, with all due respect I cannot see why this project serves the stated end. First of all, Catholic unity comes from the Catholic faith and membership in the one Church, visible and authoritative. The Church has authority to order her worship of God, and has rules for the various items used therein. What does she say about altar cloths, if anything?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304, states:

"Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar's design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color."

Even according to the more recent norms governing the Ordinary Form, it is clear that the uppermost altar cloth must be white. It is possible, I suppose, that the St. Gerard altar cloth will be underneath another white cloth, but then one won't see the names anyway. The traditional material for these cloths is linen (though polyester is not proscribed in the new GIRM), in part because Our Lord was wrapped in a linen shroud.

I think the final couple of paragraphs gives a clue to the theological issue here. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. And yes, we are nourished by Our Lord's Body and Blood. But it is evident that in recent years the meal aspect has been more greatly emphasized over the sacrificial aspect. Many Catholics point to the dramatic decrease in the percentage of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as following naturally from this shift in emphasis. The family-meal theme of this project seems to be of a piece with this trend.

And like many well-meaning novelties in the way the new Mass is celebrated in our parishes, it has an ad hoc feel and is not designed to last. What happens when someone moves out of the parish? Or when someone moves in? Does there need to be a yearly altar cloth project?

I am not belittling the good faith effort of those persons responsible for this. They are trying to do something special. The point is that the Mass is already special enough when celebrated correctly. This type of project seems to be the type of closed-in, self-congratulatory practice lamented by then-Cardinal Ratzinger that so often banalizes the Ordinary Form.

The Mass is not the private property of any person or group. It is the gift of God to give due worship to God, entrusted to the custody and care of the Church. The way Mass is celebrated is of infinitely more importance than any building project or community-building exercise. The Mass is not "about" us.

So, I ask you, am I wrong in this? What do you think?


StGuyFawkes said...

No quarrel with your take on the article. You wrote of our Church, "sometimes I think Catholics we are divided by a common faith."

Bravo, Tim. Nice allusion to Churchill's trope of "America and England: two great nations divided by a common language."

Jane Chantal said...

I agree that this project is well-intentioned...at least, on the part of the people who are doing the signing, and probably by most, if not all, of the embroiderers as well. Imo it is, however, yet another sad manifestation of the "it's all about me/us" scam that has been pushed in recent years not just in "progressive" Catholic parishes, but -- surprise! -- in many Protestant denominations as well.

There are people out there who don't want it to be about Him -- and they know that a great way to shift our focus away from Him -- and get everyone feeling all warm and fuzzy in the process! -- is to make it about US.

Now, during Holy Communion, the kids can have the soul-enriching experience of looking intently past the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in order to try to make out their name on the altar cloth. I'm sure that Mom and Dad will enjoy helping the little ones get the most out of this weekly exercise in self-esteem.

Hmm...who are we worshiping again?

StGuyFawkes said...

Allow me to add: Altar cloth signing makes the unity of the Faith no more than the "Get Well" card signed by everyone at the office.

Altar clot signng is Novus Ordo sentimentality at its most dangerous; altar cloth signing makes the Mass about our signatures in ink, and not about HIS signature in Blood!

Christ's blood sacrifice on the altar doesn’t need our signing. It can create a unity out of our petty differences by means of our contemplation of the presence of His Crucified Presence on the altar. To this sacrifice our poor scribbling can neither add or detract.

My worry is that altar cloth signing is but a sentimental attempt to diminish the Mass and run away from the true reality of parish life, which is, truth be told, a bit of hell.

The Marianist order has a saying that "the definition of suffering is life in community."

Truer words never spoken. The average parish community is a slumgullion of petty hatreds coming from grudges over CYC soccer, the vixenish gossip of the Lady's club, and the Men's Clubs waste of parish resources on vanity items -- all of this together makes the average Parish a precinct of purgatory.

Against all that, the Traditional Mass grants a few minutes when all of that hatred goes away and we find ourselves re-oriented to something pure and holy which underscores the utter meaninglessness of whether the new team uniforms are bought this year or next, or whether the Lady’s club president “had a little work done” on her face and lips. The Old Mass is a glimpse of Heaven.

Where there is proper worship there is no need of gestures like the Hallmark "Get Well" card altar cloth.

Anonymous said...

"But hypocrisy is in good supply no matter what the shorthand type of label one adopts. I have seen error and exclusivity from the inclusive crowd; I have seen phariseeism among the traditionalists; and I have seen smug complacency among the conservatives. And in no way do I exonerate myself from the worst of it."
In this instance, you are 'spot on.'

Peggy said...

I agree with your concern. Good post. Too many parishes are "all about us" with casual, non-reverent masses--er, liturgies. [Why use a bigger, vaguer word? Why abandon "mass" as so many modernists do?]

I have a theory about these modernists--now folks who were brought up with it and don't know any better unless they take the time to research.

They can't see beyond the material. For all their talk of being "spiritual", they don't see the spiritual side of the articles, words, actions and visuals of sacred worship. They prefer primitive materials to glorious materials that would glorify God and His Son, Our Savior. Mass is a meal of bread, not a re-presentation of Christ's suffering and death. These are the folks who would have father in a rough woven vestment, rather than silk with golden threads. They'd rather a wooden than golden chalice. They are offended at the opulent majesty on display at an EF or even a reverent or grand-scale OF, ie with a bishop or the Holy Father. They prefer felt banners about US, rather than silken flags or banners of a diocesan or bishop's crest. They prefer altar cloths about US instead of the finest materials (prescribed by the Church) to glorify God. They wear sweats and flip flops rather than suits/dresses and wingtips/pumps. They want to build churches that welcome every one rather than glorify God. They do not fear excommunications--they think it's detention by the bishop with no supernatural impact.

It's no wonder they want to be "welcoming","inclusive" "a community" by placing themselves on the altar. Is there not a canonical or GIRM prohibition on this?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your opinion on this. I'd like to point out that while these might be all good intentions of the lay faithful, the clergy should know better. This truly damages reverence for the sanctuary and discourages proper catechesis of how the Mass unifies the communion of saints.

It is sad reality that there is such a lack of formation of the lay faithful when Vatican II sought to bring about a greater conversion and understanding of our universal call to holiness. It is even worse when the clergy's vocation is to know, love and teach these things, but choose to ignore the truths they were taught - or should have been taught.

I was visiting St. Gerard Majella at the Mass where parishioners were invited to join in signing the altar cloth as the parishes "unifying" symbol. I had originally intended to simply pray for this St. Gerard Majella’s pastor to remove this practice from the liturgy, but because this practice was praised by the archdiocesan newspaper, I agree it is necessary to share how the use of such an altar cloth is inappropriate for liturgical celebrations and distorts the Catholic teaching of the unity experience through the communion of saints at each Mass.

Another sad fact is that the archdiocesan newspaper should known to never publish such an article for the newspaper has a Theological Consultant to filter through such articles. Apparently, the theologian isn't consulted regularly or maybe another theologian should be put to the task to better testify to the theological understanding of the faith.

The Church is in the state She is today because of priests tarnishing the truths behind Catholic identity, teachings, traditions under the guise of reform for the sake of unity - and because the lay faithful are not reminding priests and bishops what it means to be priests and bishops - that they need to serve their flock faithfully and administer the sacraments. It is extremely dangerous for the transmission of the faith when clergy ignore the practices outlined in the GIRM and take it upon themselves to create a new view of the symbol of unity the communion of saints experience at the mass. I think this "new view" approach sounds a lot like moral relativism.

Anonymous said...

Oh where oh where is Unknown Canon Lawyer X??


jbinjc said...

My family has this tradition of signing and stitching a signature tablecloth - used at family gatherings and PICNICS.

I was mortified to read that this was the 'table setting' for the ALTAR... a SACRED place on which the ultimate sacrifice of Calvary is made present again during the HOLY SACRIFICE of the MASS.

How do we regain that sense of what is holy, reverent, & sacred???

Anonymous said...

We left a local parish where for the first Communion Mass each class had their own special vestment ---some classes each put their footprints on the vestment and some classes put on hand prints.

just wondering said...

i was mortified when i read this article in the review, and am mortified still. i hope the bishop did not take this lightly. but i would expect nothing less in a parish where the people on the pro life committee are threatened with arrest by the pastor if they leaflet the cars in the parking lot near election time, but then again, that is claire mckaskill's parish. all your church are belong to us.

Anonymous said...

All together now.....Sing it loud and clear !...hmmmmmm ...........

Hippie days are here again !

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Just Wondering,

I feel so stupid. Would you or somebody please explain to me this running joke which goes "all your church are belong to us".

I misunderstood it when it was used in French a few weeks ago and I've seen variants of the joke in this blog since.

I'm guessing "all your church are belong to us" might have been something a Polish condo owner named Boguslaw Bozek may have said at a news conference.

Hip me up. I feel so out of it.

Peggy said...

St Guy:

The original poor English sentence is "All Your Base are belong to us." A translation to English by a native Japanese speaker. I think it was for a video game. The phrase is catchy and easily adaptable.


Samuel said...

All Your Church Are Belong To Us.

The St. Louis Review has been sliding backwards as of late. So sad.

StGuyFawkes said...

Dear Samuel, Peggy and Tim,

This business of "all your base are belong to us" has convinced me that I am so very, very old. On the other hand it's nice that so many young people in touch with cyber culture relate to Stlcatholic.

But at this moment I feel all of my 58 years.

Geez, anybody out there remember who was the Beatle's drummer before Ringo hired on? Anybody remember who first played "Felix" in the "Odd Couple" on Broadway. Anybody remember a husband and wife acting team called "The Lunts", or Mike Nichols and Elaine May?

I give up. I'll go quietly now.

Thank you Peggy for hipping me up.

St. Guy

nazareth priest said...

I'm utterly speechless.
"Banal" just doesn't quite do it here...
idiotic, stupid, pointless, huh?
Yes, when the Holy Sacrifice is offered with reverence, decorum, solemnity and properly, who needs this?
I mean, really?

Jane Chantal said...

St. Guy,

Pete Best! Alfred Lunt & Lynn Fontanne! Nichols & May, Second City! Yesss!!

But, I don't know who played Felix on the Great White Way. Who was it?

(Really old inquiring minds want to know :-D )

Anonymous said...

Who cares??? Let 'em be!!

StGuyFawkes said...

Jane Chantal,

Finally, someone on this blog is old enough to know the kind of junk I know.

Jane, you got them all right.

The character of Felix was created on Broadway by Art Carney.

St. Guy

Peggy said...

St Guy,

You're not THAT much older than us. My huz is approaching your range. I am ahem, NOT a recent college grad myself. I came across this about 8-10 years ago on a blog somewhere...

"Let them be" sigh.

Anonymous said...

I am a convert. I can have all the feel-good, lovey, don't upset anyone, sunshine and happiness stuff at any protestant church. Tempting to go back to them sometimes because I end up at protestantized masses. Fortunately I regularly attend a mass where although it is the newer mass, it is treated as sacred. The sacraments are only available in the Catholic church.

I attended mass in Manchester recently. I had been there before so this time I knew where to find the tabernacle. It was to the side. I am used to finding it in the center. A recent remodel to a local church has them putting Christ in a hole in the wall. It is a nicely decorated hole in the wall but it bothers me that it is a hole in the wall.

You can speculate all you want on why mass has gone the way it has, why people do not value the sacred anymore, and why our society is going rapidly downhill. My musings have led me to one conclusion: Satan believes in us. He believes that we can damn ourselves by convincing us that we need to do what feels good. If it feels good or makes us feel good, it must be good. If it feels bad or makes us feel bad it must be bad. I don't know why the church has fallen for this fallacy. I am not a masochist. I dont think we should do things to make ourselves feel bad. I do think that we should quit trying to convince people to give because it will make them feel good, we should quit telling people to go to mass because they will feel better all week if they go, and most of all I think we should not be telling people they should go to confession because it will make them feel better. What a crock!

Anonymous said...

I'm sure that this will cause some sort of firestorm, as most comments even mildly or constructively critical of the typical Trad viewpoint (at least as presented in this ComBox) do, but I find this line of reasoning a bit Pharasaical and more than a bit navel-gazing, and the pro-Trad comments preceding this comment have only fortified those admittedly knee-jerk reactions.

I think the altar cloth embroidery is a bit silly, but generally harmless. At worst, it is emblematic of a frame of mind that is unserious and unreverent (not necessarily, however, irreverent).

Reactions like "mortified" and "damages reverence" and "discourages proper catechesis" and "extremely dangerous for the transmission of the faith" seem a bit overheated to me.

I think it is a symptom of issues in the Church, not the illness itself, and certainly not some active part of a nefarious plot to keep the Church in the 70s/80s.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Anonymous said...

Whole lotta confusion here ..... Here's the remedy ! 10 a.m Solemn High Mass @ St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church , fill yourself with sound and sight of the the overwhelming beauty of the ancient,unchangeable Latin Mass .... Spiritual and emotional and Catholic.{count the altar boys}welling up and "yes" , some tearing guaranteed .

Anonymous said...

This idea could be a halfway decent idea for maybe a parish banner for processions. I don't think it would be the classiest parish banner, but not a horrible idea either. But as an altar cloth its just tacky, theological and liturgical abuse aside.

anselmo said...

Pardon the contrarian spirit here, but isn't it "all about us" in a sense? Didn't God become flesh to be with us, one of us? Didn't Christ die for us? Isn't Eucharist Christ in us, part of us--us? The Church's universality notwithstanding, isn't every faith community, every parish, a particular manifestation of that us in the same way that every person is unique? Even at the "unchangeable Latin Mass," won't a find a liturgical culture similar to but ultimately unique from any other owing to the neighborhood, the architecture, the character and personality of the homilist, the music director, the choir, the spirit of the persons gathered?

Jane Chantal said...

Anselmo, I would say again: who are we worshiping?

When God became flesh, He did not stop being God -- nor did we start being God.

The serpent precipitated the Fall by telling Eve that if she and Adam ate of the forbidden fruit, they would be like God.

The push we have been seeing, in Western Christianity, to emphasize Jesus' humanity -- inevitably accompanied by a de-emphasis of His Divinity -- employs the same strategy. It appeals to our Pride.

Unless we remain educated about, and mindful of, the ways in which we are not like Him...the ways it is not about us...it can be a perilously short leap from "Jesus was like me" to "I am like God". And that is a leap Satan wants us to take.

Anonymous said...

In many ways my opinion is probably closest to that of Anonymous July 22, 16:27. Whereas I think this idea is silly and all-too-casual for the Sanctuary, I wonder of our criticisms of it have gotten too strong. I'm grounding my opinion in the famous icon of the Most Blessed trinity by
Rublev's. In that icon, where the Three Persons of the Trinity are seated together at table, there is a small rectangular opening or box built into the front of the table at which they are seated. Tradiitonal iconography has consistently interpreted that "open box" to represent the place for the needs/concerns/petitions, etc., of humanity in the Presence of the Most Blessed Trinity. I am seeing this altar cloth project as a reflection of that same beautiful and theologically sound principle. Whereas it is unpolished and regrettable (and one would like to have a good talk with the pastor there), I don't think it merits condemnation.

just wondering said...

why dont all of you anons who think mortified too "overheated" a term, go get the crayons out and scribble on your wife's wedding gown and see if things get "overheated" at your house, or better yet take a trip to the art museum with a "sharpie", hey the mona lisa might look good with a mustache. all your brains are belong...oh never mind.