Catholic History


THE Hebrew word which is usually translated "altar," means literally, "a place for sacrifice;" and in the New Testament its equivalent is thusiastërion The sacred writers avoid the common Greek word for altar, bömos,1 "a raised place," adopting the unclassical word thusiastërion, because by doing so they avoided the heathen associations connected with the common Greek term, besides expressing much more distinctly the purpose of sacrifice for which an altar is built. Whether the Christian altar is mentioned by name in the Bible is doubtful. There is some ground for supposing that it is referred to in Matt. V. 23, and in Hebrews xiii. 10. It has been argued that when our Lord imposes a precept of forgiveness before the gift is presented at the altar, he did not mean to give the Jews a new law with regard to their sacrifices, which were soon to pass away, but to establish the indissoluble connection between the Eucharistic Sacrifice of his Church and brotherly love. Similarly, it is urged that when the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews asserts "we have an altar, of which they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle," he is setting altar against altar, and declaring the impossibility of partaking in the Jewish sacrificial feastings and joining at the same time in the sacrificial banquet of the new law. It is certainly difficult to understand the "altar" as the altar of the cross, which is never once called an altar in the New Testament, and though, of course, an altar it indisputably is, still nobody ate of the sacrifice offered on it. At the same time, these interpretations are by no means held by all Catholic commentators.2

However it may stand with the name, the existence of the thing is implied in the New Testament doctrine of sacrifice, and the name occurs in the very earliest Christian writers. "There is one flesh," says St. Ignatius, the disciple of St. John, "one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one chalice for union with his blood, one altar (thusiastërion), as one bishop."3 So Tertullian describes Christians as standing at "the altar of God;"4 and the same word "altar" is used in the Apostolic Constitutions and in the ancient liturgies. These testimonies are in no way weakened by passages in Minucius Felix and Arnobius, who in their controversies with Pagans deny the existence of Christian altars. Obviously they deny that altars such as the Pagan ones were in use among Christians; just as one of these authors allows that there were no temples among Christians, though churches are distinctly recognized in the edicts of the Diocletian era, and are known to have existed at a still earlier date.5

In early times the altar was more usually of wood; and an altar of this kind is still preserved in the church of St. John Lateran at Rome, on which St. Peter is said to have celebrated Mass.6 But the tombs of martyrs in the Catacombs and elsewhere were also used for the Holy Sacrifice, the slab of marble which covered the sepulcher serving as the altartable; and for almost fourteen centuries, that part of the altar on which the Eucharist is consecrated has always been of stone or marble. After the time of Constantine, when sumptuous churches were erected, careful arrangements were made for the position of the altar. It did not lean as it often does now against the sanctuary wall, but stood out with a space round it, so that the bishop when celebrating Mass looked towards the people. Thus the altar looked in the same direction as the portals of the church, and often both were, turned towards the east. This ancient arrangement is still exemplified by the "Papal" altars in the Roman basilicas, but particularly in St. Peter's, where the Pope still says Mass on the great festivals, looking at one and the same time to the people, to the portals of the church, and to the east.7 The altars in the Catacombs were still employed, but even new altars were sanctified by relics, a custom to which so much importance was attributed that St. Ambrose would not consecrate an altar till he found relics to place in it. Then, as now, the altar was covered with linen cloths, which, as appears from a rubric in the Sacramentary of St. Gelasius, were first blessed and consecrated. It was surmounted by a canopy, supported by columns between which veils or curtains were often hung, and on great festivals it was adorned with the sacred vessels placed upon it in rows, and with flowers. The cross was placed over the canopy, or else rested immediately on the altar itself. The language and the actions of the early Christians alike bespeak the reverence in which the altar was held. It was called "the holy," "the divine table," "the altar of Christ," "the table of the Lord." The faithful bowed towards it as they entered the church; it was known as the asulos trapeza, or "table of asylum," from which not even criminals could be forced away.8 Finally, before the altar was used, it was solemnly consecrated by the bishop with the chrism. The date at which this custom was introduced cannot be accurately determined; but the Council of Agde, or Agatha, in Southern Gaul, held in the year 506, speaks of this custom as familiar to everybody.9

The rubrics prefixed to the Roman Missal contain the present law of the Church with regard to the altar. It must consist of stone, or at least must contain an altarstone large enough to hold the Host and the greater part of the chalice; and this altar, or the altarstone, must have been consecrated by a bishop, or by an abbot who has received the requisite faculties from the Holy See. The altar is to be covered with three cloths, also blessed by the bishop, or by a priest with special faculties. One of these cloths should reach to the ground, the other two are to be shorter, or else one cloth double may replace the two shorter ones. If possible, there is to be a "pallium," or frontal, on the altar, varying in color according to the feast or season. A crucifix10 is to be set on the altar between two candlesticks, the Missal placed on a cushion, at the righthand side looking towards the altar; under the crucifix there ought to be an altarcard,11 with certain prayers which the priest cannot read from the Missal without inconvenience.

With regard to the number of altars in a church, Gavantus says that originally, even in the West, one church contained only one altar. On this altar, however, the same author continues, several Masses were said on the same day, in proof of which he appeals to the Sacramentary of Leo. He adds that even in the fourth century the Church of Milan contained several altars, as appears from a letter of St. Ambrose, and he quotes other examples from the French Church in the sixth century,


ALTARBREADS are round wafers made of fine wheaten flour, specially prepared for consecration in the Mass. The altarbreads, according to the Latin use (followed also by the Maronites and Armenians) must be unleavened. They are usually stamped with a figure of Christ crucified, or with the I H S. They are of two sizes: one larger, which the priest himself consecrates and receives, or else reserves for the Benediction with the Blessed Sacrament; the other smaller, consecrated for the communion of the faithful.

The practice of stamping altarbreads with the cross or I H S seems to be ancient and is widely diffused. Merati mentions the fact that the cross is stamped on the altarbreads used by Greek, Syrian, and Alexandrian (Coptic ?) Christians.


THE rubrics of the Missal require three fair cloths to be placed on the altar, or two cloths, of which one is doubled. They must be blessed by the bishop, or by a priest with special faculties. In the fourth century St. Optatus speaks of the linen cloth placed on the altar as usual in his time, and Pope Silvester is said to have made it a law that the altar-cloth should be of linen. Mention, however, is made by Paulus Silentiarius of purple altarcloths, and, in fact, both the material and the number of these cloths seem to have varied in early times. (See Rock, "Hierurgia," P. 503; Kraus, "Archæol. Dict." Altartücher.)


AMBO (Gr. anabainein, to ascend). A raised platform in the nave of early Christian churches, surrounded by a low wall; steps led up to it from the cast and west sides. The place on it where the Gospel was read was higher than that used for reading the Epistle. All church notices were read from it; here edicts and excommunications were given out; hither came heretics to make their recantation; here the Scriptures were read, and sermons preached. It was gradually superseded by the modern Pulpit. A good example of the ambo may be seen in the church of San Clemente in Rome. (Ferraris.)


A HEBREW word signifying "truly," "certainly." It is preserved in its original form by the New Testament writers, and by the Church in her Liturgy. According to Benedict XIV., it indicates assent to a truth, or it is the expression of a desire, and equivalent to genoito, "so be it."12

"Amen" signifies assent when used at the end of the Creeds. In the ancient Church the communicants used it as an expression of their faith in the Blessed Sacrament. Thus we read in the Apostolic Constitutions13 "Let the bishop give the oblation, saying, `The Body of Christ,' and let the recipient say, `Amen.'" St. Ambrose explains the "Amen" used thus in communicating as meaning "it is true."

At the end of prayers "Amen" signifies our desire of obtaining what we ask. Thus it is said by the server, after the collects in the Mass, as a sign that the faithful unite their petitions to those of the priest. In Justin's time, the people themselves answered "Amen" as the priest finished the prayers and thanksgivings in the Mass, and was about to distribute the Holy Communion.14


AMICE (Amictus. Called also "humerale," "superhumerale," "anaboladium," from anaballein, and, in a corrupt form, "anabolagium"). A piece of fine linen, oblong in shape, which the priest who is to say Mass rests for a moment on his head and then spreads on his shoulders. reciting the prayer "Place on my head, O Lord, the helmet of salvation," etc.

For many centuries priests celebrated with bare neck, as may be seen from many figures in the Roman Catacombs, and from the Mosaic at San Vitale in Ravenna. The amice, however, is frequently mentioned after the opening of the ninth century15. Originally, as Innocent III. expressly testifies, it covered the head as well as the neck; and to this day Capuchin and Dominican friars wear the amice over their heads till they reach the altar. It also was not at first concealed by the alb, as is now the case, and it was often made of silk and ornamented with figures. At present it is made of linen, and only adorned with a cross, which the priest kisses before putting on the amice.

Mediaeval writers have given very many and very different symbolical meanings to this vestment. The prayer already quoted from the Roman Missal speaks of it as figuring the "helmet of salvation," and a similar prayer occurs in most of the ancient Latin Missals.


A THING devoted or given over to evil, so that "anathema sit" means "let him be accursed." St. Paul at the end of 1 Corinthians pronounces this anathema on all who do not love our blessed Savior. The Church has used the phrase "anathema sit" from the earliest times with reference to those whom she excludes from her communion, either because of moral offenses or because they persist in heresy. Thus one of the earliest councils that of Elvira, held in 306 decrees in its fiftysecond canon that those who placed libelous writings in the church should be anathematized; and the First General Council anathematized those who held the Arian heresy. General councils since then have usually given solemnity to their decrees on articles of faith by appending an anathema. Neither St. Paul nor the Church of God ever wished a soul to be damned. In pronouncing anathema against willful heretics, the Church does but declare that they are excluded from her communion, and that they must, if they continue obstinate, perish eternally.


An erection like a bier placed during Masses of the dead, when the corpse itself is not there, in the center of the church, or in some other suitable place, surrounded with burning lights and covered with black cloth. It is also called "feretrum," "castrum doloris," etc. (Merati's "Novæ Observationes" on "Gavantus," Part ii. tit. 13.)


A SUMMARY of Christian doctrine, usually in the form of question and answer, for the instruction of the Christian people. From the beginning of her history, the Church fulfilled the duty of instructing those who came to her for baptism. Catechetical schools were established, and catechetical instruction was carefully and methodically given. We can still form an accurate idea of the kind of instruction given in the early Church, for Cyril of Jerusalem has left sixteen books of catechetical discourses, explaining the Creed to the candidates for baptism, and five more in which he sets forth, for the benefit of the newlybaptized, the nature of the three sacraments (Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist) which they had just received. St. Augustine wrote a treatise on catechizing, at the request of Deo Gratias, a deacon and catechist at Carthage. When the world became Christian there was no longer the same necessity for instructing converts, but the children, and, indeed, the people generally, still needed catechetical instruction. Hence we find a council held at Paris in 829 deploring the neglect of catechetical instruction, while the English Council of Lambeth in 1281 requires parishpriests to instruct their people four times a year in the principal parts of Christian doctrine viz., the articles of the Creed, commandments, sacraments, etc. The treatise of Gerson, "De Parvulis ad Christum trahendis," gives some idea of catechetical instruction towards the close of the middle ages.

Catechetical instruction was one of the subjects which occupied the Council of Trent, and the Fathers arranged that a Catechism should be drawn up by a commission and be approved by the council. This plan fell through, and they put the whole matter in the Pope's hands. Pius IV. entrusted the work to four theologians viz. Calinius, archbishop of Zara; Fuscararius (Foscarari), Bishop of Modena: Marinus, Archbishop of Lanciano; and Fureirius (Fureiro), a Portuguese. All of them except the first were Dominicans. Scholars were appointed to see to the purity of style. St. Charles Borromeo took a great part in assisting the undertaking. In 1564 the book was finished, whereupon it was examined by a new commission under Cardinal Sirletus. Towards the close of 1566 the Catechism appeared, under the title "Catechismus Romanus, ex Decreto Concilii Tridentini, Pii V. Pont. Max. jussu editus. Romæ, in ædibus Populi Romani, apud Aldum Manutium." The original edition contains no chapters and no answers. This Catechism possesses very high though not absolute authority, and has been regarded as a model of clearness, simplicity and purity of language, of method, and doctrinal precision. But it was not fitted for direct use in catechetical instruction, being intended for parish priests and others who have to catechize rather than for those who receive instruction. Catechisms, therefore, of various sizes, have been prepared by bishops for their dioceses, or, as in England, the bishops in concert approve a Catechism for use in the whole country or province.


A NAME originally given to those who instructed persons preparing for baptism. Catechists were in early times also called nautologoi, because they brought the sailors on board the ship of the Church.

1 Bömos occurs only once in the New Testament, and then of a heathen altar; Acts xvii.?

2 Maldonatus ignores that given above. of Matt. v. 23. Estius, following St. Thomas distinctly rejects that of Heb. xiii. 10.

3 Philaa. 4.

4 De Orat. 19

5 Cardinal Newman's Development, 27

6 It is enclosed in the Papal altar of this church, except a portion of it, which is preserved in the church of St. Pudentiana: so, at least, say the writer of the article "Altar" in Kraus' Real Encyclopedia.

7 Rock. Hierurgia, 497 seq.

8 Synod of Orange, anno 441. Hefele, Conciliengeschichte, ii. P. 293.

9 Hefele, ibid. p. 653.

10 The rubric says only a cross, but a crucifix is prescribed by subsequent decrees of the Congregation of Rites. Liguor. Theol. Mor. vi. n. 393.

11 Tabella secretarum, in use since the sixteenth century. The rubric mentions one under the cross, but now two others are placed one at each end of the altar.

12 De Miss. ii. 5. He adds a third sense viz. consent to a request but gives no clear instance of this use.

13 viii. 12.

14 Apol. i. 67.

15 "It was introduced in the eighth," says Dr. Rock; but see Hefele, Beiträge zur Kirchengeschicht, etc, 11.

Return to Contents

Return to Homepage.