Stripping the Altars on Holy Thursday
Fr. Edward McNamara
Q: Is the stripping of the altar following the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday limited only to those altars upon which the Mass was celebrated? Do altars in churches and chapels (e.g., chapels in rectories, convents, hospitals, etc.) where the Holy Thursday Mass was not celebrated have to be stripped and the Blessed Sacrament removed as well?
A: The indication in the circular letter on the Easter celebrations, Paschalis Sollemnitatis, is quite brief: “After Mass, the altar should be stripped. It is fitting that any crosses in the church be covered with a red or purple veil, unless they have already been veiled on the Saturday before the fifth Sunday of Lent. Lamps should not be lit before the images of saints” (No. 57).
This is slightly amplified is the Roman Missal: “At an appropriate time, the altar is stripped and, if possible, the crosses are removed from the church. It is expedient that any crosses which remain in the church be veiled.”
This brevity is probably because the norms are presuming the existence of only one altar in the church. Nothing whatsoever is said about side chapels or places where Mass was not celebrated.
Peter J. Elliott (now a bishop), basing himself on earlier customs, elaborates on the practice in his excellent handbook “Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year.”
On “stripping the altars” he writes: “[C]ommencing with the main altar, all the altars of the church are stripped and their candlesticks and crosses are removed. Any portable crosses are removed from the church. Other crosses should be veiled […], unless they have already been veiled on the Saturday before the Fifth Sunday in Lent. This severe symbolism should extend to the whole church. Until the Gloria in the Easter Vigil, no candles or lamps burn elsewhere in the church, so lamps or votive lights must not be available at shrines or side altars. The sacristans remove all holy water from the stoups at the church doors.”
Although nothing is said here regarding how to proceed with small chapels and oratories, it would appear that they should follow the same basic logic. The tabernacle should preferably be emptied before Holy Thursday, unless required for bringing Communion to the sick. The altars in small chapels and oratories should be stripped, as indicated above, after Mass is finished at other locations.
If the Eucharist remains in the tabernacle, the sanctuary lamp remains lit.
In some places it is the custom to lock these oratories so as to concentrate Eucharistic adoration upon the altar of repose.
This is probably recommendable but does not appear to be an obligation. The rubrics of the missal for Holy Thursday indicate that “If the celebration of the Passion of the Lord on the following Friday does not take place in the same church, the Mass is concluded in the usual way and the Blessed Sacrament is placed in the tabernacle.”
Admittedly this rubric deals with something else, but the fact that it contemplates returning the Eucharist to the habitual tabernacle in a church which would logically remain open, leads us to conclude that it is not strictly required to shut a chapel where the Eucharist happens to be reserved during these holy days.