Images above Altars

I’ve been on my annual retreat this week, which I am making in a beloved city in Mexico. During this time I have been sharing some photos on social media. One, in particular, generated some comment:

The Shrine of the Congregation of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico

Some have wondered not only how there could be such a big Mexican flag above the altar, but also why there should be an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe directly above, with the large crucifix only on the side.

With regard to the Mexican flag, it is important to note that the national identity of many historically-Catholic nations is closely tied with a certain image of Our Lady. In Mexico, it’s Our Lady of Guadalupe, whom Mexicans consider their “Queen and Empress”. The inscription around the arch above the altar says “Our Lady of Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, Pray for Your Nation”. Then, the tympanum immediately above the image has the quotation from Psalm 147: “Non fecit taliter omni nationi“, reminding us that it was because of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a singular grace from God not given to any other nation — that the Catholic faith took root in Mexico (and thus, in a real way, united the country).

The national identity of Poland, for example, is very closely connected with the image of Our Lady of Czestochowa. There are other examples. In any case, this concept may be a bit challenging for those of us who are from a religiously and culturally diverse nation like the United States of America. In the case at hand, the flag in the sanctuary should not be viewed as a political statement, but as a prayer request to Our Lady to watch over the nation and keep it in the faith.

But what about this issue of having an image of Mary with no crucifix above the altar?

First of all, historically, there would have been a crucifix there as well. Notice that the tabernacle has a flat surface on top. When this was a proper high altar (the altar now has been disconnected from it), there would have been a crucifix on the tabernacle, which the priest would have gazed upon according to the rubrics at various points during the Mass. The people, of course, would have seen it also and thus been reminded of the sacrifice of Christ being celebrated on the altar.

In this case, the church was “re-ordered” at some point according to the “Spirit of Vatican II”, and so the altar was detached, Mass began to be celebrated facing the people, and thus there wasn’t as much need to keep a crucifix on top of the tabernacle (though it would still be a lovely thing to have there). Instead, they set up the large one which is on the left there. In the current legislation for the Mass we read:

308. Likewise, either on the altar or near it, there is to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, a cross clearly visible to the assembled people. It is desirable that such a cross should remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations, so as to call to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord.

So everything here is above board, even if, often, we are accustomed to seeing the crucifix in the center of the sanctuary and above the altar.

For cross-reference, take note of these other historic churches which had an image of something other than the crucifix prominently displayed above the altar – but with a smaller crucifix for priest and people to look upon still there as well.

First there is the Sistine Chapel, which we know has the incredible Last Judgment scene by Michelangelo frescoed on the entire wall behind the altar. But here is a shot of the atlar, with crucifix set up in front of this scene:

Photo taken by yours truly.

Then there is the famous high altar in Notre Dame de Paris, with the stunning pietà sculpture on it. But note in this photo that there is also a crucifix there:

By Abelmontf – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And finally, the chapel of Our Lady of Humility in the Casa Santa Maria residence in Rome (where most American priests who are in Rome for further studies live), with its image of Our Lady of Humility and other paintings prominently displayed above the altar — but if you look closely, there is a crucifix that surmounts the beautiful tabernacle:

Photo by yours truly.

There are countless other examples. The bottom line is: it’s perfectly fine, and quite customary actually, to have an image of a saint, of the Blessed Mother, or of Our Lord that is other than the crucifixion above the altar. But traditionally, there is a crucifix there as well. And if there is not a crucifix front-and-center, then it should still be displayed near the altar in a way that the faithful in attendance can see it.

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Why Do Some Sign Themselves during the Penitential Rite?

It is fairly common to see people making the sign of the cross when the priest says the words, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to everlasting life. Amen.” Yet, that sign of the cross is not indicated in the rubrics of the Mass and never has been in the history of the Novus Ordo (i.e. since 1969). So where does it come from?

I believe that this is a carryover from the older form of the Mass — what we now call the Extraordinary Form. When the priest and servers (or deacons) are saying the “Prayers at the Foot of the Altar” in the old Mass, it is then that the “penitential rite” takes place. The priest recites the confiteor prayer (I Confess); then the servers or deacons do so. After they have done so, the priest says:

Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus et, dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.

May almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you your sins, and lead you to everlasting life. (The translation is slightly loose, to make it match up better with what we currently say.)

At that point, however, the priest and ministers do not make any gestures like signs of the cross. It is immediately after that they do so. The next thing the priest says is:

Indulgentiam, + absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.

May the + almighty and merciful God grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

It is while the priest is saying those last words that he signs himself.

The “Misereatur vestri” prayer was brought into the new Mass, but the one that immediately follows it, “Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem” was not. Yet — I opine — the gesture that accompanied it was. Not officially, but through popular piety. Many people remembered it and got in the habit of making the sign of the cross when the priest recited the so-called “absolution” in the new penitential rite.

So this gesture is not in the rubrics of the “new Mass”; it doesn’t even quite go with the prayer that it accompanies, historically speaking. But I would say that it is meaningful to many, and a harmless thing to do.

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Something You (Sometimes) See in Seminary Chapels

I’m visiting Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans at present, and noticed an interesting detail in their chapel. It is surely not an accident that there are four steps leading up to the main sanctuary level, then three steps from there up to the high altar. Here is a photo:

Traditionally, there were seven “steps” in the ordained hierarchy of the Church. A man was ordained into each of these steps. The first five steps (see list below) were sacramentals of the Church; the last two are part of the sacrament of Holy Orders.

The seven orders were/are:

  1. Porter
  2. Lector
  3. Exorcist
  4. Acolyte
  5. Subdeacon
  6. Deacon
  7. Priest

These were divided into two classes: minor orders (the first four) and major orders (the last three). In 1972, Pope Paul VI greatly simplified this traditional arrangement, clarifying that the sacrament of Holy Orders consisted of deacons, priests, and bishops; he effectively abolished the orders of porter, exorcist, and subdeacon; and he made lectors and acolytes “ministries” that men in the Church may receive. On Fr. Carota’s old blog (may he rest in peace), he has a more extensive explanation: click here.

Because of this hierarchical arrangement, which was of very ancient origin and use in the Church, it was not uncommon that seminary chapels had four steps leading up onto the main sanctuary level and then three more steps leading up to the high altar. The priest, deacon, and subdeacon (in a Solemn High Mass, at least) stood on those upper steps, ministering at the altar. Access to the sanctuary was limited only to those who were clergy (clerics); i.e. those who had received one of the steps or ranks listed above.

It some seminary chapels there are even the names of each rank engraved or appliqued onto the faces of the steps. Here is a photo I took about five years ago in the gorgeous main chapel of Mundelein Seminary, near Chicago:

If you click to enlarge you might be able to make out the names more clearly; they are inscribed in Latin, starting with Porter (Ostiarius) on the bottom step and leading up to Priest (Sacerdos) on the very top step in the back.

Of course, when these chapels were built there was not a detached “table” altar marooned in the middle of the sanctuary and interrupting the visual and liturgical flow.

Interestingly, although Pope Paul VI technically abolished the classic ranking of orders in 1972, it has never fully gone away, and probably cannot ever. The various traditional institutes (such as the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King, and the Institute of the Good Shepherd) still confer all the minor and major orders on their members. I believe the Eastern Churches still maintain these rankings also. While it may not be a very high priority for the Holy Father or anyone in the Vatican to think about at present, it is plausible that the classic ranking could be brought back on a full scale some day. We will see.

In any case, the foregoing is an example of one of the many ways that our Catholic faith was built into our places of worship in the past. It is to be hoped that we all could re-appropriate these rich traditions of symbolism and start incorporating them anew in the churches we renovate or build.

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Is the daily Rosary a guarantee of heaven?

Are we guaranteed to go to heaven simply by praying the Rosary faithfully each day?

Depending on which quotations (prooftexts?) you read from the saints, you might be led to think that. Many publications quote such things precisely to encourage the frequent prayer of the Holy Rosary. And indeed, I think it is correct to say that if you pray the Rosary with a sincere heart, as part of a heartfelt life of devotion and loving service of God, it will certainly obtain for you many special graces, among which may be that of final perseverance. But be on guard against anyone who offers the daily Rosary as a talisman or magic formula!

While researching this topic, I came across a chapter of True Devotion to Mary that is very relevant to the question at hand:

Presumptuous devotees

97. Presumptuous  devotees are sinners who give full rein to their passions or their love of the world, and who, under the fair name of Christian and servant of our Lady, conceal pride, avarice, lust, drunkenness, anger, swearing, slandering, injustice and other vices. They sleep peacefully in their wicked habits, without making any great effort to correct them, believing that their devotion to our Lady gives them this sort of liberty. They convince themselves that God will forgive them, that they will not die without confession, that they will not be lost for all eternity. They take all this for granted because they say the Rosary, fast on Saturdays, are enrolled in the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary or the Scapular, or a sodality of our Lady, wear the medal or the little chain of our Lady.

When you tell them that such a devotion is only an illusion of the devil and a dangerous presumption which may well ruin them, they refuse to believe you. God is good and merciful, they reply, and he has not made us to damn us. No man is without sin. We will not die without confession, and a good act of contrition at death is all that is needed.  Moreover, they say they have devotion to our Lady; that they wear the scapular; that they recite faithfully and humbly every day the seven Our Fathers and seven Hail Marys in her honour; that sometimes they even say the Rosary and the Office of our Lady, as well as fasting and performing other good works.

Blinding themselves still more, they quote stories they have heard or read – whether true or false does not bother them – which relate how people who had died in mortal sin were brought back to life again to go to confession, or how their soul was miraculously retained in their bodies until confession, because in their lifetime they said a few prayers or performed a few pious acts, in honour of our Lady. Others are supposed to have obtained from God at the moment of death, through the merciful intercession of the Blessed Virgin, sorrow and pardon for their sins, and so were saved. Accordingly, these people expect the same thing to happen to them.

98. Nothing in our Christian religion is so deserving of condemnation as this diabolical presumption. How can we truthfully claim to love and honour the Blessed Virgin when by our sins we pitilessly wound, pierce, crucify and outrage her Son? If Mary made it a rule to save by her mercy this sort of person, she would be condoning wickedness and helping to outrage and crucify her Son. Who would even dare to think of such a thing?

99. I declare that such an abuse of devotion to her is a horrible sacrilege and, next to an unworthy Communion, is the greatest and the least pardonable sin, because devotion to our Lady is the holiest and best after devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

I admit that to be truly devoted to our Lady, it is not absolutely necessary to be so holy as to avoid all sin, although this is desirable. But at least it is necessary (note what I am going to say), (1) to be genuinely determined to avoid at least all mortal sin, which outrages the Mother as well as the Son; (2) to practise self-restraint in order to avoid sin; (3) to join her confraternities, say the Rosary and other prayers, fast on Saturdays, and so on.

100.  Such means are surprisingly effective in converting even the hardened sinner. Should you be such a sinner, with one foot in the abyss, I advise you to do as I have said. But there is an essential condition. You must perform these good works solely to obtain from God, through the intercession of our Lady, the grace to regret your sins, obtain pardon for them and overcome your evil habits, and not to live complacently in the state of sin, disregarding the warning voice of conscience, the example of our Lord and the saints, and the teaching of the holy gospel. (Source)

The daily Rosary? Yes! But as true devotees – not as presumptuous servants!

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Prayers Please

I would sure appreciate any prayers you can spare for two special intentions. Thank you!

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Walking the Road to God

A kind reader sent me a book called Walking the Road to God that I had had on my wish list. The author, Father Lawrence Carney, went to the same seminary as me, a year ahead of me. I remember him well as a seminarian (though I haven’t seen him since) – and I recall how I was edified by his simplicity of life and strong faith. He is the real deal. So when I heard about his book and the interesting new endeavor that he is pursuing, I was glad to learn more about it.

Father Carney was ordained a diocesan priest in Wichita, Kansas, but in recent years has been chaplain for the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of the Apostles in Gower, Missouri (with the permission of his bishop). Each day, after fulfilling his duties to them, he goes and walks the streets of St. Joseph, Missouri, wearing his cassock and a Roman hat called a “saturno”. While walking he carries a crucifix and a rosary, while praying for the souls who will see him and talk to him along the way. The book that he wrote documents many of his experiences in this rather unique apostolate.

Jim & Joy Pinto recently had Father Carney on their show, At Home with Jim & Joy, and I recommend that in addition to considering Father’s book, you also take the time to watch this interview:

In the interview, Father talks about how he wishes to start a religious order of priests who will offer beautiful liturgy in the city and then walk the streets to draw people to God. They will be called the Canons Regular of St. Martin of Tours. Unfortunately there is no mailing address provided for Father, but they do give his email:

Take a look at his book, at this interview, and consider supporting Father Carney in his work! I also recommend that you get this book for priests and seminarians you know.

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Rome Pilgrimage – February 1-11

I am leading a pilgrimage to the Eternal City from February 1 to 11, 2018. We had a full group, but a couple of people have backed out, so we are advertising it again. If you are interested in participating, kindly contact the tour directors – contact information on the enclosed flyer. For locals, there will be an informational meeting with the tour guides next Wednesday evening, September 6 (see the flyer also). If you know of someone who may be interested, please share this with them! Although we only need a couple more participants for the tour to go on as planned, we can accommodate up to 10 more (for a maximum of 25 in the group – we are trying to keep it to a moderate size).


Click to download PDF

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Having A Home Chapel

Is it permitted for members of the faithful to set up a chapel in their private homes?

YES. And I would like to encourage this practice, for those who can.

Of course, such chapels would NOT have the Most Blessed Sacrament in them.

I have been blessed to know several families that were able to set up beautiful chapels in their homes. For those who have the resources and the space, I heartily encourage this traditional practice. While the whole home should be a place where God is honored and loved, yet it can greatly help to have a special place set aside for this purpose. Many people accomplish this by having “prayer corners”, “prayer chairs”, “home altars”, and so forth. These are all good and holy things as well. But if you can set up a chapel? Even better.

Here is an example of one such home chapel:

Note the altar, the worthy crucifix, the candles, the kneeler (prie-dieu), and the relics. Of course, the sky’s the limit. Here is what one wealthy family in Rome built for their palazzo in the 1600s:

The sky truly is the limit for this sort of thing. And whatever is done, should be done for the glory of God and the edification of all who will visit the special place.

Now, there are some who will also scoff at this post: these people perhaps take an EITHER/OR approach to the Church and in matters like this presume that adorning a chapel (or even setting one up to begin with) basically involves depriving the poor. The money should be spent on the poor instead! I would encourage such people to read what St. John Chrysostom says on this matter. We can take a BOTH/AND approach! I have also written about St. Francis of Assisi’s approach to the furnishing of churches (here). Finally, see this post, which also addresses the issue of serving God and the poor, not in competition with each other but in complementarity.

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UPDATE – Formula of Absolution

A little over three weeks ago I published THIS POST on the formula of absolution. Since then I’ve received both some positive feedback from theologians, as well as a number of discouraging messages from people who say that they have been to confession with a priest who changed the words of the formula in some way, leaving them in doubt. We really must pray for priests a lot – I am sure that any priest who changes the words for a sacrament thinks that he is being helpful in some way, but it is the height of unhelpfulness for him to think that he can improve upon what the Church has decreed for the sacraments and the sacred liturgy. More than that, it goes against what the priest himself has promised to uphold.

With this post I wish to add greater precision to what I already wrote. Ordinarily, a priest should recite the entire formula of absolution, whether in the Ordinary Form or the Extraordinary Form – and I wrote out those formulae in my previous post. He should say all the words and not change any of them. He should especially be careful not to change or omit any of the words used in the actual declaration of absolution. In a pinch — for example, in an emergency scenario — he could just say “I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

But what if he says something else? What if he leaves out some part or otherwise fudges it?

Here is what tried-and-tested theologians say on the matter: it is probably enough simply to say “I absolve you”. As long as at least that was there, then it was probably a valid absolution. (Bear in mind, a priest should NEVER do this bare minimum, and would likely sin if he did, to say nothing of causing wonderment.)

Here is an excerpt from the very useful manual known as Pohle-Preuss (third volume on the Sacraments), which explains this in greater depth – the paragraph that begins “Theologians generally hold” is the relevant part:

Click to enlarge.

A further clarification about what I published before. I said that it would probably be valid if the form “I forgive you” were used instead of “I absolve you”. In fact, some traditional manuals and weighty theologians say that this is probably invalid. However, I do note that the approved translation of absolution in French is “Je vous pardonne…”, not “Je vous absous…”; in other words, French has a verb for “absolve” (absoudre), but instead they use the verb for “pardon” or “forgive” (pardonner). (‘Pardon’ and ‘forgive’ may have different nuances but they are the same etymologically.) My take-away from this is that the Vatican, if questioned on this matter, would have to come down on the side of saying that “forgive” is valid, since it is what is used in one of its approved translations. However, vaticinating about what the Vatican might say is probably not a good use of time – and what you have here is my opinion against that of weighty theologians. You decide.

Some scoffed at my last post because all of this is just so legalistic. You went to confession, the priest was nice, so who cares? To such individuals I would say: Christ gave us the sacraments precisely so that we could have moral certitude that the graces that we seek and that he wishes to give are actually conferred. The Church, using the authority given to her by Christ himself, therefore establishes set formulae so that we can know that what Jesus promised has been given. I can think of any number of other situations in life where such individuals (or any sane person) would certainly not settle for “close enough”… why allow for it in the far more serious circumstance of a sacrament?

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Thanks Again

Thanks to a kind reader who sent some books from my Amazon wish list. I don’t know who you are — but God does. Prayers!

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Formula of Absolution

Please note that I have written an update to this post here. You may want to read this post first, then go to the new one for some further precision on this matter.

A friend was commenting to me at dinner recently about an experience he had with a priest who did not use the proper formula of absolution when he went to confession. The formula that he used, in fact, was invalid.

I have had a similar experience on one or two occasions (incidentally, in foreign countries, though I knew the language and knew that I had not been properly absolved). Why a priest would do this is beyond me, and it is needless to enter into speculation or hand-wringing about this.

There is absolutely no good reason that a priest should be unfamiliar with the proper sacramental formula for each of the sacraments he celebrates. In other words, there is no room for non-culpable ignorance in such questions. There could be, however, simple human reasons that enter in, such as fatigue or forgetfulness. (If a priest is too tired to “do confession right”, he should probably go rest rather than force the issue, but anyway…)

So what must the priest say to give a valid absolution in the sacrament? The basic, bare minimum is:

I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit.

If a priest were only to use this short, bare-minimum form, he is probably being abusive in his administration of the sacrament. Ordinarily (like, most of the time) he should be using the full long form (which, incidentally, is printed in Catechism # 1449):

God, the Father of mercies, 
through the death and resurrection of his Son 
has reconciled the world to himself 
and sent the Holy Spirit among us 
for the forgiveness of sins; 
through the ministry of the Church 
may God give you pardon and peace, 
and I absolve you from your sins
in the name of the Father, and of the Son, + and of the Holy Spirit.

Of course, since in the Latin/Roman Church it is permitted also to celebrate the sacraments using the “older” books (i.e., those that were in use in 1962), a priest could give absolution in that form alternatively:

Misereatur tui omnipotens Deus,
et dimissis peccatis tuis,
perducat te ad vitam æternam. Amen.
Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum tuorum
tribuat tibi omnipotens et misericors Dominus. Amen.
Dominus noster Jesus Christus te absolvat:
et ego auctoritate ipsìus te absolvo
ab omni vinculo excommunicationis, [suspensionis], et interdicti,
in quantum possum, et tu indiges.
Deinde ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis,
in nomine Patris, et Filii, + et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.

It says in the old ritual that “for a good reason” the priest could omit the first five lines above (i.e., he would just start from the words “Dominus noster Jesus Christus”). The word “suspensionis” is in brackets because it is only used when the one being absolved is a cleric.

It’s especially important to note that in the older form, the priest would often say everything up to the word “Deinde” while the penitent was reciting his/her Act of Contrition. So, in effect, the penitent would often only hear the words, “I absolve you from your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” – that is, the essential form of the sacrament.

If a priest does not say “I absolve you from your sins” and invoke the Trinitarian formula, then it’s possible that no absolution has actually been given. Here we must be careful about jumping to conclusions, because it’s possible that he changed a word or two but the formula was still valid (i.e., if its meaning was unchanged). Thus if he said, “I forgive you your sins in the name of etc…”, that is probably valid (there is not agreement among theologians on this, though). However, if he were to say something like, “I forgive you your sins in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier”, this would not be valid, because it changes its meaning so greatly, involving a Trinitarian heresy.

Priests must NOT mess around with the formulas of the sacraments!

There is much more that could be said about all of this, but let’s try to wrap this up. So what do you do if – God forbid – a priest does not use a valid formula? You ask him politely if he would use the proper formula. And if he doesn’t or won’t? Then you write a letter to his Bishop or Superior stating charitably and concisely that you went to confession with him, he did not use a valid formula (you include the formula he DID use, if possible), that you asked him to use the correct one and he declined (i.e., just the facts, no airing of dirty laundry); then you go to confession again to a priest who will do it right.

There are possibilities for further recourse if, again God forbid, recourse on the local level does not produce favorable results. However, I cannot imagine that a Bishop or Religious Superior would not take such a matter seriously. Although I can’t imagine why a priest would use an invalid formula either.


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Eucharistic Prayers in Spanish

Several years ago I made recordings of the first three Eucharistic prayers in Spanish, for a brother priest (fellow native English speaker) who wanted to practice. For some English speakers who are learning Spanish, I think, it can be easier to comprehend what one is hearing better when it is read by another native English speaker. Sometimes when we are learning a language and we hear native speakers, the speed with which they speak or the particularities of native pronunciation become an obstacle to progress in learning.

I was just reminded of these audio files and thought I should make them available for the benefit of any other priest or seminarian who might be preparing to say Mass in Spanish. Of course, they still name Benedict XVI as pope and they have the name of our Bishop of Birmingham in Alabama, but those can easily be heard and substituted with “Francisco” and whatever the name of the bishop of the place is. Since I cannot embed audio on my blog, I made the files into Youtube videos and posted them there. Here they are:

Eucharistic Prayer I – The Roman Canon


Eucharistic Prayer II (with its proper preface)


Eucharistic Prayer III


Hopefully these will be of use to someone!

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