During and following the Second Vatican Council there was an almost-frenetic push to remove or drastically alter the high altars and, as the case may be, side altars in many churches. No authoritative Church document ever called for their removal or other alterations — this was an ideological movement, similar to what was behind the removal of altar rails and even, in some places, of kneelers from pews.
Some of those altars had even been given by the faithful in payment of vows (i.e., as an “ex voto” — a thank you to God or a saint for answered prayer). I have seen some with inscriptions concerning Masses to be offered on an annual basis for certain deceased people. And so forth. In other words, rarely were they ever merely a “piece of furniture” that could easily be disposed with!
(For an example of how side altars in some places were altered so as to render them unusable, see this previous post I did on one of the “lesser-known” churches of Rome — scroll down for a photo of a side altar reduced to a shelf that look similar to the functioning altar that used to be there.)
There is a terrible injustice that has been done with all of this. The faithful of previous generations donated very generously and lavishly — often at great sacrifice — to provide fitting and dignified altars for their churches. For those altars to have then been removed or otherwise rendered unusable was a great violence.
Many older parishioners in various places have commented to me about the upset they experienced over this “back in the day”, when it happened. The fact that they have persevered in the faith is admirable. I know of others who did not. One person once told me that he left the Church “when they made it Protestant”. While I do not share the view that it was “made Protestant”, the sentiment is certainly understandable, given what such people witnessed when these drastic, non-mandated changes took place.
A simple way to remedy this injustice is for priests to hold occasional Masses on these historic altars, where they are still usable. If a church has side altars still, there is no reason that a priest cannot occasionally celebrate a Mass there — to honor those who donated it. Side altars are especially fitting for daily Masses, usually attended by smaller crowds. If there is a side altar dedicated to Our Lady, it could be where the Saturday morning Mass is celebrated, if the parish has such a Mass on its schedule.
Of course, this would almost always mean celebrating Mass ad orientem — I’ve written about that on several occasions. Type “ad orientem” in the blog search box to see all those articles. In any case, this has been in the news again recently, because Bishop Wall of Gallup, NM is the latest bishop to promote this in our country. With sufficient catechesis many people happily embrace this traditional posture of celebration, wherein priest and people face the Lord together in a common direction of prayer.
Simple gestures like holding a Mass to honor those who donated an altar not only fulfill the demands of justice but are an important expression of gratitude — a virtue which is quickly going by the wayside in our time. It also teaches about the necessity of praying for the dead. So many of our churches have names inscribed on the stained glass windows and on other items that were donated — and I have met good people who tell me that when they see those names, they pray for those people. What about our impressive altars? A Mass is just what is needed to honor those who gave. Where the altars are usable, let them at least occasionally be used!