Q: Can an antimension still be made in the Latin Church? The old Rituale Romanum specifies the blessing of one, and how it must be made, but I am unaware of any post-conciliar legislation. If obtaining new antimensia in the Western Church is not possible, could a priest request that a hierarch of the Eastern Church bless one, in accordance with their customs? — L.L., Worcester, Massachusetts
A: An antimension, from the Greek for “instead of the table,” is among the most important furnishings of the altar in Byzantine Christian liturgical traditions. It is a rectangular piece of cloth, of either linen or silk, typically decorated with representations of the entombment of Christ and the four Evangelists and scriptural passages related to the Eucharist. A small relic of a martyr is sewn into it. The Eucharist cannot be celebrated without an antimension that must be consecrated by a bishop and indeed is given to the priest by the bishop as a witness to his permission to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
The antimension is a substitute for the altar table. A priest may celebrate the Eucharist on the antimension even if the altar table is not properly consecrated. In emergencies, when an altar table is not available, the antimension serves a very important pastoral need by enabling the use of unconsecrated tables for divine services outside of churches or chapels.
In the Latin tradition, Mass was celebrated with an altar stone containing a small relic. When celebrating outside of a church with a consecrated altar, a portable altar stone was used. After the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire in 1454, however, many Eastern Christians, Greeks and Albanians fled to southern Italy. Some submitted to Rome while retaining their rite, but the faith of others was doubtful. Since some Latin priests began to use the antimensia there was a fear that celebrating on their antimensia was consequently considered as a communion in sacred things (Communicatio in Divinis) with heretics, and therefore forbidden.
Hence the popes, notably Clement VIII (1592-1605) and later the great canonist Benedict XIV (1740-1758), regulated the practice. Benedict XIV in his document “Etsi Pastoralis,” promulgated May 26, 1742, determined the following:
“If the Greeks wish to accept portable altars consecrated by Latin Bishops, it would be well; if they do not wish to do so, the placing of their antimensia, or thrones, on stone altars when they celebrate, may be tolerated. They should use Corporals like the Latins, unless they use their thrones also as Corporals. It is not lawful for a Latin Priest celebrating in the Latin Rite in churches of the Greek Catholics, if he lacks his own portable altar stone, to celebrate the Sacrifice of the Mass on the antimensia, or thrones, of the Greeks. Every Priest must celebrate with a chalice of gold, or only silver or at least tin [pewter?], using a Throne or Corporal of linen, white and clean, and an altar covered with clean altar-cloths or with decently prepared ornamental covering.”
These limitations were formally incorporated into the 1917 Code of Canon Law (Canon 823.2):
“In the absence of an altar of his own rite, it is fundamental that a priest can celebrate his own rite on an altar consecrated in another Catholic Rite, but not on the antimensiis (altar cloths) of the Greeks.”
In spite of these prohibition, however, many exceptions and indults were granted to individual bishops and priests and to missionary societies to use a form of antimension to celebrate Mass on portable altars.
During the Second World War, the Holy See granted to military chaplains the privilege of using for the celebration of Mass, instead of the Latin-rite portable altar stone, “a veil which had enclosed, and well fastened, authentic relics.” This was later extended to peacetime military activities. Since it was not always possible to obtain a veil with authentic relics, the use of an Eastern-rite antimension was considered an acceptable alternative.
Finally, Paul VI’s “Pastorale Munus,” a letter issued “motu proprio” (on his own initiative) in November 1963, gave to all local ordinaries of the universal Church (of all rites, Western and Eastern) the faculty to grant, for a just and serious reason, to all priests subject to them, who enjoy the faculty of the portable altar, the faculty of substituting for the portable altar stone the Byzantine or the Latin forms of the antimension.
Although this faculty has not been revoked, it has, in a way, been superseded by later liturgical legislation which no longer requires the use of an altar stone for portable altars and foresees the use of relics in fixed altars only if they are visibly part of a human body.
Finally, we present the text of the blessing of the Latin form of the antimension approved by the Congregation of Sacred Rites on March 12, 1947. The use of the antimension still required a special apostolic indult for it to be used in the celebration of Mass in mission territories, in place of an altar-stone or portable altar. It was reserved to a bishop but could be delegated to a priest.
1. BLESSING OF AN ANTIMENSION
The bishop (or a priest delegated for this), having ascertained the authenticity of the relics of holy martyrs to be used here, encloses them in a tiny sack which is sewn in the right corner of the antimension. Then he blesses the antimension, saying:
P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
P: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Let us pray.
Lord, we humbly appeal to your sovereignty, asking that it please you to bless + this antimension, made ready by our lowly ministry to receive the offerings of your people. For on it we are to offer the holy Sacrifice to you, to the honor of the blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, and in particular to the honor of Saints N. and N., whose relics we have enclosed therein. Grant that by these sacred mysteries the bonds of our sins be loosed, our stains blotted out, pardon obtained and graces acquired, so that together with your holy elect we may merit the joys of everlasting life through Christ our Lord.
He sprinkles it with holy water. [From the 1964 Roman ritual]
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