Friday, February 5, 2010


I like snooping around churches. At my first assignment I was going through the basements seeing what I might find down there hoping to find some valuable or at least interesting thing long forgotten. The most startling find was a couple of marble slabs on top of which were stacked paint cans. The paint cans were stacked on them to protect the cement floor lest they leak.

The stones were about a foot square, had crosses carved into them and a round space that had something plastered into them. These were not random pieces of marble but the altar stones from the old church. The spot in which something had been plastered were the relics of some martyr! And these were being used to protect the cement floor from paint!

The altar at that church was not considered a canonically permanent altar and so did not have relics in it. I was hoping to be able to use these relics in that altar but was told that until the altar was replaced with a permanent one it could not contain relics and so the relic stones must be returned to the diocese for proper storage.

It is an ancient custom that Masses in usual circumstances be said over the grave of martyrs. Even St. Peter Basilica’s altar is built directly over the tomb of St. Peter. This is a tradition going back to the very early Church and eventually became law.

There are not martyrs tomb’s on every street corner – particularly in the United States so the practice of placing relics in the altar became the norm. The altar then is a kind of tomb and on that martyr’s tomb we pray the Mass. This is a wonderful reminder of the one Body of Christ, how we are all united – heaven earth – when we celebrate the Mass.

If you go to a Pre-Vatican II altar and find the place where the priest stands you might be able to see under the altar cloth the place where a martyr’s relics are. Post Vatican II there is the practice of placing the relics in the floor (like a grave) and constructing the altar over it. There is supposed to be on record somewhere who the martyr is in a particular altar but I have found unfortunately that many parishes have lost this information.


Anonymous said...

Fr V

What martyr is in St. Sebastian altar?

Norah said...

I read somewhere that the tradition of Masses being offered over a martyr's tomb is just a myth. Do you have a source for the truth or otherwise of the tradition?

Fr. V said...

Well anon, remember what I said about files being lost????? We are doing our best to try to locate it here hoping that it was neglected and misplaced somewhere in this cavernous building rather than gone forever.

Norah - here are a couple of places to look:


Skip down to "form of an altar."