Walking recently in a country that was Catholic until the Council, I saw a large, medieval village church and tried to go in. The nave was barred by a locked iron gate, but from the narthex one could see the high altar with its fine marble baldachino. In front of it stood a little altar set up to face the congregation upon which, I suppose, the holy sacrifice is offered on days when the nave is not locked. And I marveled, as I always do, at the silent testimony these things bear to a revolution; and I mused on how many Catholic altars there are throughout the world, once consecrated by a successor of an apostle, now gathering dust.
What would Pope Innocent III have said of it? Writing of the mystical meaning of our ceremonies, he says that the altar-stone in which the relics of saints are enclosed represents the Church; the priest kissing it when he begins Mass, is the Bridegroom showing his love for the Bride. How many of our altars never receive this mark of tenderness, but remain unreverenced from year’s end to years end? Some serve as stands for pot-plants, or worse. Some stand naked, as if a decree had gone forth that it should be always Good Friday and never Easter. Others again, if little heeded by the priests, are tended still by some faithful sacristan who waits in silence for a change of days. But alongside each unused altar, a heavenly power stands, untroubled yet unforgetful.
And as I thought of these things, and thought also that he spoke rightly who said one should kindle a light rather than bemoan the darkness, I determined to compose a prayer for the restoration of our altars; and you also, good reader, may recite this prayer if you think like me about these things:-
O God, who hast granted to thy Church to set up altars throughout the world consecrated by holy oil and by apostolic power, and hast commanded thy angels to stand guard beside them until the end of time, grant we beseech thee to thy bishops and priests a new love of these holy altars, that the everlasting sacrifice of thy Son may daily be perpetuated upon them, and that thy girded people may ascend to that sublime altar which is in heaven, Christ thy self-same Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.
And a Latin version, mostly literal:-
Deus, qui dedisti ecclesiae tuae ut potestate apostolica oleoque sanctissimo altaria per orbem terrarum erigat, quique angelis tuis praecepisti ut usque in saeculi finem iuxta eadem adstantes pervigilent, tribue quaesumus episcopos sacerdotesque tuos altaribus ita nova mente delectari ut Filii tui sacrificium crebrius in dies offeratur atque ad sublime altare in coelis populus accinctus tuus ascendat, eundem Iesum Christum Filium tuum Dominum nostrum, qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti, Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.