Q. Are there any guidelines or rules about flowers or decorations placed in front the altar?
A. Mass is celebrated by following the Roman Missal, which is the book that contains the prescribed prayers for the celebration of Mass. At the beginning of the Roman Missal is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). The GIRM gives instruction for how the Mass is to be celebrated and about the roles that priests, deacons and other ministers may perform.
The GIRM also provides general norms in regard to the decoration on the sanctuary of the church. These norms are purposely “general,” as they are the norms for the universal church, allowing for the practices of some degree of local custom.
Since the Eucharist is the celebration of Christ’s spousal love for his Church, it is meant to have the full, conscious and active participation of the faithful. The faithful accomplish this by giving of themselves at Mass, and allowing themselves to be transformed by the power of the sacred mysteries. The general norms for the celebration of the sacred mysteries are meant to allow for a greater participation of the priest and the faithful at every Mass.
The GIRM gives direction about what should and should not be on the altar itself. In the celebration of Mass, there should be a white altar cloth as the only or uppermost cloth on the altar, the size and shape of which is determined by the altar’s design. Candles are to be placed on or around the altar, in a manner that is fitting with the design of the sanctuary, so that they do not distract the faithful’s participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice.
Every celebration of the Mass is required to have a cross bearing the corpus of the crucified Christ. The crucifix may be placed on or near the altar. It would be appropriate for the spiritual benefit of the faithful that a crucifix be made visible for the faithful during and outside of the Eucharistic celebration.
The GIRM mentions the proper uses of sacred images. It states, “images of the Lord, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Saints, in accordance with the Church’s most ancient tradition, should be displayed for veneration by the faithful in sacred buildings and should be arranged so as to usher the faithful toward the mysteries of faith celebrated there. For this reason, care should be taken that their number not be increased indiscriminately, and that they be arranged in proper order so as not to distract the faithful’s attention from the celebration itself” (GIRM 318).
While this does not directly address the question of flowers or decorations, the same general principle can be applied. Sacred images and objects have a legitimate place in the sanctuaries of churches, but they should not be placed immoderately or without orderliness. Merely decorative objects like flowers may also be used to focus on the solemnity of the Eucharistic celebration, but they should not be increased indiscriminately and immoderately, or be placed without order or purpose. There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity and personal taste in making these determinations.
The GIRM states that “Floral decoration should always show moderation and be arranged around the altar rather than on the altar table” (GIRM 305). In the season of Lent, it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated, with the exceptions of Laetare Sunday, solemnities and feasts. In the season of Advent, due moderation should be given in the decoration of the altar so that it does not overshadow the proper solemnity given to it during the solemn Christmas season.
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