Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Sacred Edifices

by Benedictine Monks of Buckfast Abbey


In this article, the Benedictine monks examine the first Christian Churches, many of which were built under Emperor Constantine's rule. The article also explains the tradition of placing relics in the altar.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, December 1926


One of the most eventful dates in the history of the Church — and for that matter, in that of the world — is the day on which Constantine became sole master of the Roman Empire. Under the reign, or rather the tyranny, of his immediate predecessors, the Christians had been virtually outlawed, and were allowed neither rights nor privileges. The first care of the new Emperor was to revoke the edicts of persecution and to grant the Church her first charter of absolute freedom and all rights to a corporate existence. Not only was the Church, as such, considered a persona, but local and particular churches were likewise recognized as persons in law capable of acquiring and holding property. The rights were shared by the pagans, for Constantine meant to extend toleration to all religions, so long as they were not subversive of the public welfare. The imperial decree commanded the unconditional restitution of their churches to the followers of Christ, if they had been confiscated: "This we further decree, with respect to the Christians, that the places in which they were formerly accustomed to assemble ... if any persons have purchased these either from our treasury or from any other one, these shall restore them to the Christians, without money and without demanding any price... And, if any have happened to receive these places as presents, that they shall restore them as soon as possible to the Christians... And since the Christians are known to have had not only those places where they were accustomed to meet, but other places also, belonging not to individuals among them, but to the whole body of Christians, you will also command all these... to be restored to the same Christians, that is, to their body, and to each conventicle respectively (Christianis, id est corpori et conventiculis eorum). Imperial munificence and liberality may be trusted to indemnify those who are thus compelled to give up what they may have acquired in good faith" (Eusebius, Hist. Eccl., X, 5).

But the Emperor was not content with merely granting full liberty to the Christians and securing the return to them of their lawful property. Moved by his own generous temperament and the religious sentiments of his heart, he bestowed considerable property upon the Church, whose faith he professed. If the Senate and people could see the finger of God in the events of 312 — for the inscription on Constantine's triumphal arch asserts that he had been moved instinctu Divinitatis — the Emperor also felt himself to be a tool in the hand of God. Without feeling ourselves compelled to admit without questioning the authenticity of the famous Donatio, the tradition of Rome is perfectly clear and constant, when it attributes to the first Christian Emperor the foundation of some of the most venerable of the basilicas which adorn the Eternal City. The churches then erected in Rome have all perished, and have been replaced by other vaster buildings; the only Constantinian basilica still in existence is the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem, erected over the cave wherein our Lord was born.

The Roman Breviary enshrines the traditional belief of the Mother Church. In the Lateran Palace Constantine turned the basilica (or royal hall) into a church; moreover, close by he erected a church to the honor of St. John the Baptist, a church consecrated by Pope St. Sylvester on November 9, 324. This day marks an important date in the history of the Liturgy of the Church. Although there had been, from the days of the Apostles, places dedicated to the service of God and called churches, none the less these edifices were not consecrated with solemn ritual, nor was there erected in them, as a permanent memorial, an altar anointed with chrism, to be a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is to us altar, victim, and priest.

However, the great and venerable basilicas of the Lateran, Sts. Peter and Paul, and others, which were now erected by the munificence of the first Christian Caesar, were not consecrated with the majestic rites, which are to be found in the Roman Ritual. But there was some solemn ceremonial with which new churches were even then inaugurated, and, above all, the altar was the object of a very special consecration, with rites reminiscent of the action of the Patriarch Jacob who, on the morning after his mysterious vision of the ladder, "took the stone on which he had laid his head, and set it up for a title, pouring oil upon the top of it (Gen. xxviii, 18).

We are fortunate enough to possess several accounts of a dedication of a church from about the time of the Peace of the Church. The most interesting is assuredly Eusebius' account of the dedication of the basilica at Tyre, which attracted a number of bishops. It will be interesting to give a rather lengthy extract from the priceless "History" of the Bishop of Caesarea: "The sight was afforded us so eagerly desired and prayed for by all, the festivals of dedicating and consecrating the newly erected houses of prayer throughout the cities, and after this the convention of bishops, the concourse of foreigners from abroad, the mutual benevolence of the people, the unity of the members of Christ concurring in one harmonious body... The mystic symbols of our Saviour's passion were celebrated, and at the same time every sex of every age... with the whole power of the mind, and with a mind and heart rejoicing in prayer and thanksgiving, gave glory to God, the Author of all good. Every one of the prelates present also delivered panegyric discourses, desirous of adding luster to the assembly, according to the ability of each" (Hist. Eccl., X, 3).

After this preliminary, Eusebius goes on to give the full text of a lengthy and rather pompous discourse, which he pronounced on the occasion of the dedication at Tyre. Unfortunately, he gives us no further details of a ceremony, an account of which would have been far more interesting to us than his long discourse.

We may, however, argue that, simple as the actual rite of consecration must have been, it would not have been so rapidly and universally adopted at the Peace of the Church, had there not already been in use some elements of such a rite. In this respect we find a highly interesting item in the Acts of Sts. Tryphon and Respicius (cfr. Ruinart, Acta SS. Try ph. et Respic.), who suffered under Decius (that is, in the middle of the third century). We are told that some religious men and the priests of the Lord came together and "dedicated their martyrdom" (dedicaverunt martyrium illorum) --that is, consecrated a shrine or church over their tomb — when, "with every mark of honor and due reverence, they participated in the mystery of our redemption, commending their souls to the holy suffrages of the blessed martyrs" (cum omni honore atque disciplina reverentiae participaverunt mysterium redemptionis nostrae, commendantes animas suas sanctis beatorum martyrum suffragiis). There is nothing incredible, or even surprising in this, for we know that during the interval of peace which followed the Decian persecution, the Christians acquired property and erected a number of churches within the capital — as for instance, the site now occupied by the church of St. Maria in Trastevere (cfr. The Homiletic And Pastoral Review, November 1926).

When the Church of the Resurrection (the Holy Sepulchre) was dedicated, Eusebius tells us once more of the conflux of bishops and the eloquence of their orations. Those whose age or infirmities did not permit them to speak, took part at least in the holy mysteries and the prayers that were offered. "At the first glance," says a modern writer, "it appears very strange that the Christians of early times should have attached such slight importance to a rite which seemed to be suggested by the Holy Scriptures themselves." This anomaly, however, corresponds to that other of the absence at first of any distinctive dress or outward sign marking the clergy in the administration of the sacred mysteries, so that even today the Roman Pontifical in the rite for the consecration of bishops, remarks: "pontificalem gloriam non jam nobis honor commendat vestium, sed splendor animarum" (Schuster, "Sacramentary," II, p. 140).

We are probably nearest the truth when we look upon the primitive rite of dedication as a consecration, rather of an altar, than of a building. In point of fact, even in the glorious rite of today, the consecration of the altar is the chief feature of the dedication of a church. With the Romans already, according to Macrobius (Saturnal; III, 11), altar and temple used to be consecrated upon one and the same day (mensa arulaeque eodem die quo aedes ipsae dedicari solent). Moreover, the anniversary of the dedication was annually kept as the dies natalis, and observed with much solemnity. This fact shows once more how the ritual of the Catholic Church answers to the best and most universal instincts of the human heart.

There is, however, a real distinction between a simple dedication and a consecration. The former meant a solemn inauguration (or "opening," as we would say today); the latter implied various ceremonies, such as sprinkling with aqua lustralis, the singing of hymns, processions and, above all, sacrifices. An apocryphal decree, attributed to St. Hyginus (A.D. 140), though of a later date, bears at least testimony to a received notion: omnes basilica cum missa semper debent consecrari (Mansi, I, col. 631). The fact is emphasized that the building is erected for the sake of the altar and the sacrifice: the edifice is itself blessed and consecrated because of its relationship to the altar and sacrifice.


The early Christians, especially those living in Rome, had long worshipped under the soil of the city, having around them the tombs of their brethren who had sacrificed their lives for the faith. More often than not, the altar itself would be the flat top of some tomb enshrining the body of a more celebrated Confessor of the faith. What would be more natural, when peace had succeeded strife, than that they should wish to have the bodies of the Saints within the walls of the noble sanctuaries, which it was now possible for them to erect?

From the earliest document dealing with the rite of consecration as used at Rome — that is, from a letter of Pope Vigilius to Profuturus, Bishop of Braga (early in the sixth century) — it appears that a twofold form of consecration was used, according as there were relics of Saints to be placed in the new building or not. If there were no bodies of Saints, no holy water was deemed necessary, strange as this appears to us who hardly know of any blessing not accompanied by the sprinkling of Holy Water. The reason given by the Pope (that the celebration of Mass in a building was in itself sufficient consecration) is, however, well worth pondering, as showing what was thought of the virtue of the Mass in those early days: consecrationem cujuslibet ecclesiae in qua sanctuaria (viz., bodies of saints, or merely towels and other objects which had touched the body, or even only the tomb of a martyr) non ponuntur, celebritatem tantum scimus esse missarum; et ideo, si qua sanctorum basilica a fundamentis etiam fuerit innovata, sine aliqua dubitatione, cum in ea missarum fuerit celebrata solemnitas, totius sanctificatio consecrationis impletur.

St. Ambrose, in a letter to his sister, St. Marcellina, recounts how the people of Milan asked him to consecrate the newly erected basilica Ambrosiana with the ritual that had been used at the dedication of another basilica (called Romana, probably because of its vicinity to the Porta Romana). Ambrose had, in effect, consecrated this basilica in honor of the Apostles (ubi pridem sanctorum Apostolorum reliquiae... depositae fuerant). The good Milanese entreated their bishop to consecrate the new church sicut Romanam basilicam. With his usual shrewdness, Leclercq remarks that one would fain translate these words thus: "like a Roman basilica or with the rite used at Rome," and former liturgists used so to translate the words. However, it is to be understood as signifying that the Saint was about to inaugurate the new edifice by the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. But the people would not be content with that and clamored for greater solemnity: "Faciam si martyrum reliquias invenero," the bishop replied. The result was the miraculous finding of the bodies of Sts. Protasius and Gervasius and their deposition under the altar. St. Augustine, who was then at Milan, recounts the event: "Then didst Thou by a vision discover to Thy bishop where the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, the martyrs, lay hid (whom Thou hadst in Thy secret treasury stored uncorrupted so many years), whence Thou mightest seasonably produce them... When they were discovered and dug up, and with due honor translated to the Ambrosian basilica, not only they who were vexed with unclean spirits... were cured, but a certain man, who had for many years been blind... begged to touch with his handkerchief the bier of Thy Saints... which, when he had done, and put to his eyes, they were forthwith opened" (Confess., IX, 7). The man, a well-known citizen of Milan, henceforth attached himself to the service of that basilica and that of the Saints. Many years later, when writing of the "City of God" (I, 22), St. Augustine said: "We rejoiced that he saw; we left him serving."

The bodies of the Saints remained exposed to the veneration of the people during two days. On the third day, Ambrose caused them to be placed in two coffers, which were then taken to the Basilica of Fausta amid chants of triumph. That night they remained there, and in the morning they were finally carried into the new basilica, where they were placed beside the altar. The Holy Sacrifice began, and, after the lessons from the Scriptures, Ambrose preached to the people. In the course of his homily he exclaimed: "Let the triumphant victims [viz., the holy Martyrs] come nigh to the spot where Christ is our sacrifice. But He is upon the altar, who suffered for all; they are beneath the altar, who were redeemed by His Passion. I had marked this spot for my sepulture, for it is meet that the priest rest where he was wont to sacrifice; but I yield the place to the sacred victims on the right side. It is due to the Martyrs. Let us now deposit the most holy relics and put them in a place worthy of them, and let us spend the whole day with true devotion."

The people begged the bishop to leave the sacred bodies exposed to their view until the following Sunday. But, after a day and another night spent in prayers and chants, the precious treasure was finally placed under the right hand side of the Altar, Ambrose now reserving the left side for his own burial.

So pious a custom spread rapidly both in the East and West. In Africa, the Fifth Council of Carthage in 401 had already ordained that altars without relics of Saints should be destroyed. Altar and tomb of Martyrs had become almost synonymous for the early Christians. Moreover, the Christian altar on earth is but the replica of that other altar in heaven, beneath which were "the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held" (Apoc., vi. 9). If it were not possible to secure the entire body of a martyr, a fragment even would be greatly treasured and deposited in the table of the altar (or under it) with as much pomp as might have accompanied the translation of the Martyr.

When it was not possible to obtain the body of a Saint (or even a fragment, or relic), cloths and other objects would be applied to the body of the Saint. These objects were called sanctuaria. It was this practice, which, no doubt, Pope Boniface IV had in view when, according to the Liber Pontificalis, he decreed ut acoluthus non praesumat reliquas Sanctorum Martyrum levare, nisi presbyter.

An inscription of the year 359, found in Northern Africa, furnishes us with a list of the relics which were deposited in a basilica on the occasion of its dedication: "Memoria sancta... de ligno crucis, de terra promissionis ubi natus est Christus, Apostoli Petri et Pauli, etc." Already then did people seek to obtain fragments of the precious wood of the Cross.

From inscriptions and documents, we are able to draw a twofold conclusion: the first is, that at no time was a church, or basilica, inaugurated without some ceremonial gathering, special prayers and discourses; secondly, from an early date also, the faithful sought to obtain the bodies, or at least some relics, of Martyrs, in order to place them under the altar of sacrifice. It is fairly certain that, at least in Rome and the churches that followed her ritual, there was no other, more elaborate ceremonial in connection with the dedication of sacred edifices. A church was held to be sufficiently consecrated when the Holy Sacrifice had been offered therein. Later on its walls came to be sprinkled with Holy Water. But that simple ceremony seems to have satisfied the Roman Church for quite a considerable time. When St. Augustine asked St. Gregory how he should treat the temples of the Anglo-Saxons, when these embraced Christianity, the Pope answered that they should not be destroyed but used for Christian worship, after they had been purified by the sprinkling of Holy Water; then an altar was to be erected containing the relics of Saints.

The rite now used at the consecration of our churches did not originate in Rome, but in Gaul, and is the result of the fusion of several rites.

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