At Mass, Saints Are With Us, Body and Soul
Here is an interesting fact that I suspect many people are not aware of: Embedded inside the altar at your parish church there is a small fragment of a saint’s body.
Yes, most altars have a small, square piece of what appears to be a gray stone, and embedded in it is usually a bone fragment. These gray stones are simply called “altar stones.” When a parish church closes, one of the things that has to happen is that the altar stones are removed to preserve the sacredness of the relic and because of its association with the sacrifice of the Mass.
In our diocese, if you were to go down to the archives of at the Pastoral Center, you would see a stack of altar stones that have been collected from decommissioned altars over the years. But even more interesting than the stack of altar stones is a small black box on one of the many shelves. Inside this very unassuming box are two substantial relics: large bone fragments from St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop and martyr, and from St. Donatus, one of the ten different saints of that name.
These large relics were given to the Diocese of Duluth by the Vatican soon after the diocese was established by Pope Leo XIII in 1889 to be placed in the altar stones throughout the diocese. So chances are your parish altar has a fragment of one of these two saints. We may even call them secondary patrons of our diocese, since in a very real way they are present when we gather to worship at the altar.
But what’s the point? Why do we have these body fragments in our altars? Well, there are two reasons — a historical one of ancient tradition and a theological one.
In the earliest centuries of the church, it was illegal to be a Christian. We all know that Christianity was persecuted and that countless people were put to death for simply believing in Christ. Many of the people who were martyred were soon considered to be saints, and with some of these saints their popularity grew very quickly, so much so that when other Christians would die, their loved ones would bury them as close to the tomb of the martyred saint as possible. You can still see this evidenced in the catacombs of Rome: several tombs crammed in above and alongside the saint.
Eventually what happened was that these popular martyred saints would be buried in a tomb that could also act as an altar. And so it became a common practice for the early Christians to celebrate Mass over the actual tomb of a saint.
To keep that ancient and noble practice, the church started to take relics of the saints and place them in the altar stones so that churches throughout the world could have that same close connection to one of the saints that the Christians in Rome were able to have.
From my perspective, it’s the theological reason for the relics in the altar that is most compelling.
Perhaps the most basic tenet of Christianity is that Jesus came to save us so that we could be with God forever in heaven. The doctrine of heaven in its most basic format is that it is a state of being in complete union with God. Jesus’ death and resurrection opened the gates of heaven for us. So the saints in heaven are with God. They are closer to God than those of us who are still on our pilgrim journey.
If the saints (and the angels) are in perfect union with God, then where do you suppose they are? At Mass with us!
We Catholics believe that the Eucharist is the fullness of the presence of Christ, body, blood, soul and divinity. If Christ is God, the Second Person of the Trinity, then by default the angels and saints are at Mass with us because they are with God in heaven. This is one of the reasons why the Mass is called the heavenly liturgy: God the Son is here with us, along with the saints and the angels.
So St. Irenaeus and St. Donatus are not only in the altar, they themselves are actually present at the Mass with us, along with the other 10,000 canonized saints and the myriad other faithful people who have made it to heaven.
As an aside, it makes more sense, then, to go to Mass instead of the cemetery if you want to get as close as possible to a deceased loved one. Their remains are in the cemetery, but their souls are present with God, who also happens to be present in the Eucharist.
So at some point you may want to ask your pastor to let you see the altar stone that is in the altar of your parish. It may not look like much, but its significance is huge, both historically and theologically.
St. Irenaeus and St. Donatus, pray for us! –Father Richard Kunst