The altar of the Church and the altar of our heart ‘belong inseparably together’ and are ‘mysteriously the same altar’
By Bishop Richard F. Stika
“In your house I shall celebrate the Passover with my disciples.” – Matthew 26:18
The words of Jesus conveyed through His disciples to the homeowner where He celebrated the Last Supper are the same words He repeats to us every day. For not only is Christ the “great Priest over the House of God” — the Church — but by virtue of our baptism He also wants to be such of the sanctuary of our heart that there, too, He might “fill this house with glory… and in this place give us peace” (Haggai: 2:7,9).
Throughout the Church’s calendar year, and particularly in the month of November when it celebrates all its saints and prays for all souls, we are reminded, in the words of the zealous Catholic apologist Léon Bloy (1846-1917), that “the only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life is not to become a saint.”
This past Sept. 28, on the anniversary of the death of Servant of God Patrick Ryan, I officially opened the first session of the Tribunal for the Inquiry that will examine Father Ryan’s life and heroic sacrifice for love of neighbor during Chattanooga’s deadly yellow fever epidemic in 1878. Knowing the great likelihood of contracting the deadly contagion, Father Ryan nonetheless tirelessly attended to the corporal and spiritual needs of the many critically sick and dying and offered his life upon the altar of Christ of which there is no greater love (cf John 15:13).
How was it that Father Ryan, like so many martyrs and saints in the history of the Church, was able to give of himself so selflessly for the love of God and love of neighbor? It was because of his great love for two altars in his life — the altar of the Mass, upon which no greater worship and sacrifice can be offered to God, and the altar of his heart, upon which he lived his Mass as a sacrifice of love in Christ.
Servant of God Monsignor Romano Guardini (1885-1968), a favorite theologian and author of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, reminds us that the altar of the Church and the altar of our heart “belong in-separably together” and are “mysteriously the same altar.” He goes on to say that “the authentic and perfect altar in which Christ’s sacrifice is offered is the union of them both” (Sacred Signs).
Consider the similarities between the consecration of a new altar (as was done when our new Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus was dedicated) and that of our baptism. Father Douglas Martis, who has an excellent website, Elements of the Catholic Mass (watch.formed.org/the-elements-of-the-catholic-mass), explains this similarity.
The altar is first sprinkled with holy water. This constitutes a kind of washing or baptism; it is then anointed with Sacred Chrism. The altar is honored with incense, it is dressed with a white cloth, analogous to the garment of the newly baptized. Candles are brought and, in the celebration of the Eucharist, the altar receives the Body of Christ. The altar, like the Christian at baptism, is made another Christ. The altar is the permanent symbol of the presence of Christ for the Christian community” (Episode 26: The Altar).
When we are baptized, not only do we become a beautiful “house of God,” but also our heart becomes God’s inner sanctuary, and upon its altar we exercise our share in Christ’s royal priesthood. Consider the prayer in the Rite of Baptism when the newly baptized is anointed with chrism oil.
God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into His holy people. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of His Body, sharing everlasting life.
Though there is but one priesthood of Christ that we share in, there are different degrees of participating in it. The “baptismal” priesthood enables the faithful to participate in the sacred liturgy as members of Christ’s Mystical Body. The ordained priest, though, is configured to and acts “in persona Christi capitas” — in the person of Christ the Head. So when the priest pronounces the words of consecration in the Mass, it is Christ in the voice of the priest who says, “This is my Body … This is the chalice of my Blood,” and who says, “Your sins are forgiven” in the sacrament of confession.
So how best do we exercise our baptismal priesthood before the altar of our Church and that of our heart? There are two particular devotions of the Church that help us to be a “living sacrifice in Christ”—the Morning Offering and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. While there are different versions of the morning offering, I offer the following:
O my God, in union with the Immaculate Heart of Mary I offer You the Precious Blood of Jesus from all the altars throughout the world, joining with it the offering of my every thought, word, suffering, and action of this day. O my Jesus, I desire to gain every indulgence and merit I can, and I offer them, together with myself, to Mary Immaculate that she may best apply them to the interests of Thy most Sacred Heart.
When we pray the Chaplet of Divine Mercy that God has given us through St. Faustina, we exercise our baptismal priesthood and, in a sense, extend the sacred action of the Mass into our day and week. With its two main prayers (using the five decades of beads on the rosary), it echoes the “Great Doxology” of the Mass — “Through Him, and with Him, and in Him, O God, Almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever!”
Eternal Father, I offer You the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world (prayed on the “Our Father” bead).
For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world (repeated 10 times on the “Hail Mary” beads).
These priestly prayers help us to better attend to the altar of the Mass and the altar of our heart as the saints and the martyrs before us did. Upon these two altars we, too, must place our desire to be the saints we are called to be. Call upon the Holy Spirit frequently that the fire upon the altar of your heart may never go out and may always burn bright and bless and make holy all that you offer upon it (cf. Leviticus 6:6).
In the solemn blessing of the faithful at the end of the “Mass for the Dedication of a Church and an Altar,” the bishop prays, “May God who adorns you with a royal priesthood grant that as you exercise it in holiness, you may share worthily in the sacrifice of Christ.” Let us then, “like living stones … be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5).