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A Deeper Look at the Altar Dedication
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A Deeper Look at the Altar Dedication

Dedicating a new altar is a special event in the life of a church. Rich in beauty and symbolism, the ritual reminds the faithful of the sacredness of Communion, the holiness of God, and their unity in the Catholic faith.

But the beauty of the ritual is perhaps magnified by its infrequency. “This is a celebration that many Catholics may never see in their lifetime,” said Anthony Camino, director of campus ministry at Notre Dame. “But it may feel familiar to Catholics because it is very sensual. Like other Catholic rituals, it uses sounds, images and scents to remind us that we engage God through all of our senses.”

There is purpose behind every action and symbol in an altar dedication, including who leads the celebration of the Mass. For the October 5 dedication of the altar in Christ the King Chapel, the College was honored to have the Most Reverend Richard G. Lennon, Bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland as the celebrant. “We are under the shepherding of the Bishop of the Diocese of Cleveland,” said Camino. “Because we serve in his name, he wanted to celebrate this Mass.”

The ritual of dedication begins with the singing of the Litany of the Saints. Although it is an ancient hymn, it is familiar to Roman Catholics as it is sung during the Easter Vigil, and also when new Catholics are baptized into the faith. It calls upon the communion of saints to join with the prayers of the congregants in dedicating the altar. “A foundational part of who we are as Catholics is our unity in the body of Christ with those who have gone before us and those who will come after,” said Camino.

Next, the celebrant deposits holy relics into the altar which are permanently sealed into a specially designed compartment. The relics in Christ the King Chapel are from St. Julie Billiart, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Saint Catherine of Siena and were provided by the Sisters of Notre Dame Motherhouse in Chardon. This part of the ritual connects with the early tradition of building a Church over the burial site of a saint. According to Camino, this soon became impractical. “With the Edict of Milan under Emperor Constantine, the Church was able to worship freely and Christianity began to spread. People moved away from burial sites such as the Catacombs. Using relics connects us to that early tradition of worship.”

The altar is then anointed with Chrism. This fragrant oil containing balsam and olive oil is also used in baptisms, confirmations and ordinations. “It marks something as sacred or sets something apart for service to God,” said Camino. “It is akin to anointing the altar to be a witness to the sacrifice that Christ made for us that we might follow the saints who are fed at the altar of God.”

The beautiful ritual concludes with the burning of incense and lighting of the altar candles. Scripture references the prayers of the Saints rising to God as incense. The candles are symbolic of Christ, the Light of the World.

Steve Ruic is the writer and editor at Notre Dame College.