Built of Living Stones 118-121: The Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar

The bishops devote four sections to the considerations of the dedication rites. We reviewed those rites in depth earlier this year here. We are reminded that a faith community does well to develop or renew its familiarity with these rituals and the texts, especiallythe Scriptures, that accompany them.

§ 118 § In addition to containing the rituals of dedication, the Rite of Dedication of a Church and an Altar contains liturgies for laying the cornerstone, for commencing work on the building of a church, for dedication of a church already in use, and for the blessing of a church and an altar.(RDCA, ch. 5, no. 1) These rituals serve as a foundational resource for those engaged in designing and building churches. Just as the initiation of a person into the Christian community occurs in stages, so the construction of church building unfolds over a period of time. Rites are celebrated at the beginning of the building process “to ask God’s blessing for the success of the work and to remind the people that the structure built of stone will be a visible sign of the living Church, God’s building which is formed of the people themselves.”(RDCA, ch. 1, no. 1) At the conclusion of the construction, the church is dedicated to God with a solemn rite.(RDCA, ch. 2 no. 2) Familiarity with this rite and the context of prayer that it offers will help to prevent the building project from degenerating into a purely pragmatic or functional enterprise.

At minimum, the planning committees should engage this material in prayer. The parish at large, too. The physical experience of a building project generates excitement: we see a change in landscape, and progress is easy to track. What makes it different from a new building elsewhere in the community? That should be evident, and attended to by the pastoral leadership and committees.

Regarding the premature use of a new altar, BLS cautions against reducing the dedication to empty symbolism:

§ 119 § Since the celebration of the Eucharist on the new altar after it has been solemnly anointed, incensed, covered and lighted, is at the heart of the dedication ritual,(RDCA, ch. 2, no. 15) a new or renovated church is, as far as possible, not used for the celebration of the sacraments until after the Rite of Dedication has taken place. To celebrate the rite after the altar has been in use is anti-climactic and can reduce the rite to empty symbolism.(RDCA, ch. 3, no. 1; Cf. RDCA, ch. 4, no. 13) Use of a temporary altar in the period before the dedication is a viable alternative that can help to heighten anticipation of the day of dedication when the new altar will receive the ritual initiation that solemnly prepares it for the celebration of the central mystery of our faith.

This can be a difficult temptation. Worshiping in gyms, basements, and auditoriums can be tedious. The most difficult aspect is coordinating a busy bishop’s schedule with a construction project that may encounter delays. Most contractors and pastors leave leeway in case unforeseen delays clog and extend a timeline. If the parish is patient and declines anticipating the use of a new building, one would hope the bishop is reasonably flexible as well. That connection to the bishop is important:

§ 120 § When the people of the parish community gather to dedicate their new church building or to celebrate its renovation, they will have made many decisions, balanced a variety of needs, and overcome a multitude of challenges. As the diocesan bishop celebrates the Rite of Dedication and receives the church from his people,(RDCA, ch. 2, no. 33) the connection between the diocesan Church and the parish community is particularly evident.

Don’t neglect the points of anointing:

§ 121 § The Rite of Dedication provides that the walls of the church may be anointed with sacred chrism in four or twelve places depending on the size and design of the structure. These points can be marked by crosses made from stone, brass, or another appropriate material or carved into the walls themselves. A bracket for a small candle should be affixed to the wall beneath each of these crosses.(RDCA, ch. 2, no. 22) The candles in these brackets are then lighted during the ritual lighting at the dedication, on anniversaries of the dedication, and on other solemn occasions.

I confess I’ve forgotten the lighting of these candles on some of those solemn occasions. Aside from the dedication anniversary, what might they be? The patronal feast, certainly. Easter and Christmas? The Lateran Dedication feast? Any other possibilities?

All texts from Built of Living Stones are copyright © 2000, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Inc. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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