It is with deepest sadness that we report another travesty perpetrated against the Most August Sacrifice of the Mass. On 2 November 2018, Mass was celebrated on top of a tomb in a cemetery. This is canonically forbidden.
The prohibition entered our canonical books after the First Provincial Council of Milan, convoked by Saint Charles Borromeo, archbishop of the see, in 1565, during the reign of Pope Pius IV.
The opening of these tombs that are afterwards to be built ought to stand at least three cubits away from the wooden stalls or the predella of the altar, but these tombs ought not touch the wooden stall. Wherefore, nobody is to be buried near altars or beneath the predellas, and if thither be found tombs that have been constructed, the altars are interdicted, until, having removed the bones of those buried thither, the tombs have been filled with soil, and barricaded with a wall.
Sepulchrorum ipsorum inposterum ædificandorum ostium longe ab altaris scabellis ligneis vel prædella cubitis ad minus tribus, sepulchra vero ipsa ad scabellum ligneum non pertingant. Hinc nemo sepeliendus est prope altaria seu sub prædellis et si quæ inibi reperiantur constructæ sepulturæ, interdicuntur altaria, donec amotis ossibus ibi sepultorum sepulturæ terra repleantur et muro obstruantur.
Thirty years later, on 10 November 1599, the Sacred Congregation of Bishops and Regulars issued a decree voicing the same prohibition.
Altars, beneath whose predellas were entombed cadavers, even though they may not lose their consecration for this reason, must nevertheless be interdicted until the cadavers have been transferred to another place.
Altaria, sub quorum prædellis cadavera sunt sepulta, licet propterea consecrationem non amittant, debent tamen interdici donec cadavera in alium deferentur locum.
One notices above that the prohibitions apply when the corpses are buried near the altar, not under the altar itself. If this is the case, how much more when the cadaver is beneath the altar itself? After the above decrees, clarifications and prohibitions came out one after another from the Sacred Congregation of Rites. Let us look first at the rescript issued to the Archdiocese of Sassari in Sardinia, issued on 11 June 1629.
The Bishop of Sassari petitioned: whether the Liturgy can be celebrated in an altar under which have been entombed the cadavers of the departed?
And the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded: “It cannot be celebrated.”
Episcopus Turritanus petiit : an possit celebrari in Altare, sub quo sint sepulta cadavera defunctorum ?
Et S. R. C. respondit : « Non posse ».
Next, we have the rescript to the Diocese of Tropea (now merged as one with the Dioceses of Melito and Nicotera) on 9 June 1657.
Antonio de Alulys of Tropea persisted to be enjoined by the Capitular Vicar that he remove the suspension from the celebration of the Liturgy imposed by the deceased Bishop on the altar of the chapel under his patronage, due to the reason that the cadavers of the deceased have been buried under the predella of that altar.
And the Sacred Congregation of Rites responded: “No suspension is removed.”
Antonius de Alulys Tropien. institit, iniungi Vicario Capitulari, ut amoveat suspensionem a celebratione in Altari Cappellæ eius patronatus positam a defuncto Episcopo, ex quo sub suppedaneo Altaris condita sint defunctorum cadavera.
Et S. R. C. respondit : « Nihil ».
Finally, the Sacred Congregation of Rites issued a general decree, clarifying certain points from the Missal, on 13 February 1666.
In an altar, under which or under whose predella the bodies of the deceased are inhumed, Mass must not be celebrated, until the bodies are transferred elsewhere.
In eo Altari, sub quo vel sub cuius prædella humata sunt corpora defunctorum, non debet celebrari Missa, donec alio transferantur.
And, on 7 July 1766, we read a specific rescript issued to Venice, concerning Masses said for the souls of the noble patrician family Renier.
Concerning the continuation of the celebration of Masses in the altar of the noble family of Renier in the Church known as Santa Maria dell’Orto, under which are found entombed the cadavers of its forefathers, etc.: “The Most Holy Father, in confirming by the Decree of the Congregation of Sacred Rites, concerning the prohibition of the celebration of the Most Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in an altar under which are entombed the cadavers of the deceased, commanded that Masses are not to be celebrated in said altar, for which reasons, during prayers, while there be cadavers under it and its predella, which should be exhumed according to the mind of the Decree, which the Supreme Pontiff Benedict XIV elsewhere granted to similar petitions: these having been explained orally by the Reverend Father Lord Secretary of the same Congregation, [the Most Holy Father] granted that, in the meantime, if Masses should be celebrated in it due to some obligation, it ought to be celebrated in another altar.”
Quoad continuationem celebrationis Missarum in Altari nobilis Familiæ Renier in Ecclesia S. Mariæ de Horto nuncupatæ, sub quo humata reperiuntur cadavera suorum maiorum, etc. « Ssmus, confirmando Decreto Congregationis Sacrorum Rituum de non celebrando Sacrosancto Missæ Sacrificio in Altari sub quo sepulta exsistunt cadavera defunctorum, mandavit Missas non esse celebrandas in Altari, de quo in precibus, donec sint sub eo eiusque prædella cadavera, quæ exhumari debebunt iuxta mentem Decreti, quod alias ad similes preces edidit Pontifex Benedictus XIV : his oretenus explicatis R. P. D. Secretario eiusdem Congregationis, concessit ut interim, si Missæ ex aliqua obligatione in eodem celebrari deberent, celebrentur in alio Altari ».
Holy Mother Church tolerates altars made of inferior materials, on top of war tanks, on planks and driftwood propped and balanced upon barrels and kegs, as long as gravis necessitas id urgeat. This is merely a question of ritual and ceremonial decorum. Paucitas is never a hindrance to nobilitas. But when one throws in a cadaver in the mixture, in whatever state of decomposition or preservation it may be, whether it be morally visible or perceptible, permanently entombed under and within the material of such makeshift altars, then the question escalates to the realm of the canonical. Such prohibition do not excuse materials and contraptions that were never meant to be an altar, such as a tomb. The moment one places an altar stone on that tomb for the celebration of the Mass, that tomb becomes an ad hoc altar, contrary to the laws and canons of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo.