(Photo by Rebecca Venegoni Tower of the St. Louis Review)

It is difficult to have a discussion about the differences in liturgical outlook between and among so-called progressive, conservative and traditional Catholics. Actually, it is quite easy, if you don’t care if you hurt anyone’s feelings. But as Catholics we ought to care. So, we should try not to do so.

The truth and charity are married, metaphorically speaking. They form one unified whole. Charity without truth is as insupportable as truth without charity. We strive neither for cold legalism nor for culpable treacle.

It is easy to claim that some of those that disagree with us are hypocrites. But hypocrisy is in good supply no matter what the shorthand type of label one adopts. I have seen error and exclusivity from the inclusive crowd; I have seen phariseeism among the traditionalists; and I have seen smug complacency among the conservatives. And in no way do I exonerate myself from the worst of it.

I lead with all of this because I am going to try to begin a discussion of an article in the Review from last week about a local parish and a particular parish project in which they are engaging. I am genuinely befuddled by it, but those responsible for it no doubt have the best of intentions in doing it. And I would love some input on this without drawing battle lines–because sometimes I think Catholics we are divided by a common faith.

This division is not caused per se by differences in liturgical praxis, but it sure seems that liturgical praxis is a good indicator of how one falls out on lots of issues. As you know, I have often posted here about the disastrous consequences of the divorce between faith and worship. After Vatican II, it seems that as long as one gives intellectual assent to a particular set of beliefs then the manner of worship is irrelevant. Perhaps that seems right when engaging in apologetics work with evangelicals, but such a concept would have been completely alien to Catholics of the 1,500 year period prior to 1965. As St. Prosper’s famous maxim states, lex orandi, lex credendi– or, the law of prayer is the law of belief.

How we worship reveals what we really believe.

And so,
the article.

Parishioners of St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood are sewing their names into an altar cloth that will be used at times for Holy Mass. The photo above shows the process of parishioners signing their names to the cloth, apparently on the part of the cloth that will cover the surface of the altar. This is being done, according to the article, to celebrate parish unity.

Stitch by stitch: Handmade altar cloth reminder of parish unity

By Jennifer Brinker

It can be said that Catholics become one when they are placed together before Christ’s altar.

A Kirkwood parish is placing its personal touch on that idea through the creation of a handmade altar cloth that will be used for special liturgical celebrations.

Last weekend, members of St. Gerard Majella Parish were invited after Masses to sign their family name to the simple, white polyester cloth, which was sewn by parishioner Jan Hinkebein, a member of the quilters’ group. Each name will be hand embroidered by members of that group and other volunteers.

“It will be unique in that it will be their own personal signature,” said Lisa Vienhage, who is helping to organize the effort.

Vienhage said the inspiration for the idea came from another archdiocesan parish, Our Lady of Providence in Crestwood, which created a similar altar cloth for its liturgical celebrations.


Hinkebein said it’s hard to guess how long it will take to hand embroider all of the names on the altar cloth. “When I did one, it took maybe about half an hour,” she said. The length of time spent sewing the names will depend on the number of people who can help with the project.

St. Gerard “is such a wonderful family parish, and it’s an amazing group of people, where everyone volunteers and gives a lot of their time and talent,” said Vienhage, who has been a member of the parish for the last 15 years. She and her husband, Michael, have five children.

The project is a perfect example of showing “families coming together. We’re all so different and unique, and different ages, but we all put ourselves before Christ at His table, and that’s where we become one. He is the source of our spiritual nutrition.

“As a mother, it’s crucial that my family has our meal time together. And the Mass is really the pinnacle of our faith as Catholics. We’re trying to celebrate that by dressing Christ’s altar.”


Promoting parish unity is a good thing. However, with all due respect I cannot see why this project serves the stated end. First of all, Catholic unity comes from the Catholic faith and membership in the one Church, visible and authoritative. The Church has authority to order her worship of God, and has rules for the various items used therein. What does she say about altar cloths, if anything?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304, states:

“Out of reverence for the celebration of the memorial of the Lord and for the banquet in which the Body and Blood of the Lord are offered on an altar where this memorial is celebrated, there should be at least one white cloth, its shape, size, and decoration in keeping with the altar’s design. When, in the dioceses of the United States of America, other cloths are used in addition to the altar cloth, then those cloths may be of other colors possessing Christian honorific or festive significance according to longstanding local usage, provided that the uppermost cloth covering the mensa (i.e., the altar cloth itself) is always white in color.”

Even according to the more recent norms governing the Ordinary Form, it is clear that the uppermost altar cloth must be white. It is possible, I suppose, that the St. Gerard altar cloth will be underneath another white cloth, but then one won’t see the names anyway. The traditional material for these cloths is linen (though polyester is not proscribed in the new GIRM), in part because Our Lord was wrapped in a linen shroud.

I think the final couple of paragraphs gives a clue to the theological issue here. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. And yes, we are nourished by Our Lord’s Body and Blood. But it is evident that in recent years the meal aspect has been more greatly emphasized over the sacrificial aspect. Many Catholics point to the dramatic decrease in the percentage of Catholics who believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as following naturally from this shift in emphasis. The family-meal theme of this project seems to be of a piece with this trend.

And like many well-meaning novelties in the way the new Mass is celebrated in our parishes, it has an ad hoc feel and is not designed to last. What happens when someone moves out of the parish? Or when someone moves in? Does there need to be a yearly altar cloth project?

I am not belittling the good faith effort of those persons responsible for this. They are trying to do something special. The point is that the Mass is already special enough when celebrated correctly. This type of project seems to be the type of closed-in, self-congratulatory practice lamented by then-Cardinal Ratzinger that so often banalizes the Ordinary Form.

The Mass is not the private property of any person or group. It is the gift of God to give due worship to God, entrusted to the custody and care of the Church. The way Mass is celebrated is of infinitely more importance than any building project or community-building exercise. The Mass is not “about” us.

So, I ask you, am I wrong in this? What do you think?