The Eucharistic celebration is called “the source and summit” of our faith—both the origin and epitome of what we believe—in church documents. The Table of the Lord, AKA the altar, is at the center of our lives as Catholic Christians. Everything we do emanates from that starting point.
So where that celebration takes place is of no small consideration. According to the General Instructions for the Roman Missal (GIRM 288), the People of God normally gather in a church. When the local building is too small for the assembly, as for a papal Mass, another “respectable” setting (auditorium or stadium) can be employed. Another lovely provision is this: “sacred buildings and requisites for divine worship should be truly worthy and beautiful and be signs and symbols of heavenly realities.” So all that floor polishing and statue dusting my mother does in her home parish with her friends is canonically approved.
Canon Law (n. 932) specifies that Mass is to be celebrated on a dedicated or blessed altar, as well as in a sacred place—unless “necessity requires otherwise.” Necessity has made the hood of a Jeep into an altar in wartime; wooden pallets or crates can be fashioned into a vineyard altar for farm workers; a hut can serve as a chapel in mission lands. In lands where Mass is prohibited, the celebration can be held in hidden places like mines, caves, or tents. Leading youth groups on hikes, Archbishop Karol Wojtyla (Saint John Paul II) celebrated Eucharist on a flat boulder in the woods. In any setting, the traditional cloth and corporal should be used to designate the table or surface commandeered for divine service.
Here’s a surprise: When the cause is just and with proper approvals, a priest can also celebrate Mass in an ecclesial community or church structure that is not in full communion with the Catholic Church “so long as there is no scandal.” (n. 933) The aforementioned scandal might include the confusion that results if some did not appreciate the difference between, say, the Lutheran host church and the Roman Catholic liturgy being offered. Such time-shares are often necessary when a Catholic church has been damaged or destroyed by natural disaster, terrorist attack, or military forces. The bottom line is that sacred space with an attention to beauty and respectful worship is the norm for Mass. But even more important than the venue is the necessity to make the Eucharist available to all under every circumstance.
Scripture: Mark 14:22-24; Luke 21:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:7-11; 5:1; 1 Peter 2:4-6
Books: The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011); The Liturgical Environment: What the Documents Say – Mark G. Boyer (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2015); The Ministry of Liturgical Environment – Joyce Ann Zimmerman (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016)