Ceremonial Trubute to Our Ancestors

That is what we had at our last Sunday Mass. We had it last year and I asked the Monsignor if that was in line with the Magisterum and he , IMHO, nervously stated that it was.

Here is the scene. On the main altar there was this traditional Chinese looking structure all red and gold - but it was sitting if not on the altar level then only one step down.

During the homily the Monsignor went trhoug a ritual where incense, flowers, wine and fruit were all offered up to - and this is lifted from the parish bulletin

“In a symbolic ceremony incense, flowers, wine and fruit are offered to the ancestors to express and our gratitude towards them and our communion with them in the Lord”

Am I overreacting or is this OK>

This is not licit at all. One could not even make an argument for inculturation in this case. Please read what Redemptionis Sacramentum has to say on this subject:

[11.] The Mystery of the Eucharist “is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured”.27 On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free rein to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved,28 and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ’s faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal,29 but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God.30 The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ’s faithful in this age of ours when Christian life is often particularly difficult on account of the inroads of “secularization” as well.31

Even if it does not specifically address the issue that the OP presented, it still unequivocably states that the celebrant has no right to add thingsn to the Mass on his own authority.

What is worse is that nothing should be on the altar only what is to be used for the Mass, namely the Roman Missal (Sacramentary), the candles, the chalice, paten, water, wine and hosts, and, if being used, a crucifix (the Pope Benedict set-up, if you will). These are the only things that are allowed.

Thanks for your quick reply. What would be the best coourse of action to rectify this? I do not think I will get anywhere at the parish level but yet do not want so to go war.I just think this sets the wrong example - especially this being the Family Mass.

I would send him a letter, a charitable letter, explaining that this goes against both the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and Redemptionis Sacramentum.

Here is a link to RS:


Here is what the GIRM says regarding the altar:

  1. Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal.

In addition, microphones that may be needed to amplify the priest’s voice should be arranged discreetly.

  1. The candles, which are required at every liturgical service out of reverence and on account of the festiveness of the celebration (cf. above, no. 117), are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful’s clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it.
  1. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.

Thus, only what is to be used for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should be placed on the altar, nothing else.

Oh, it was the family Mass. Well, in that case the rules don’t apply and you are O.K.


Benedictgal has given you spot on advice. The only thing I would add is to ask around. There have to be other folks just as offended. Hearing from a group may get your Pastor to see things clearer. If not, this clearly is something that should go to the Bishop.

P.S. - Is this something Father came up with? The Liturgy Committee? The Family Mass Committee? The “I Have A Great Idea For Mass Committee?”:hmmm:

Well, let me just suggest this may not be quite as bad as everyone else seems to think it is.

First, the OP states that this structure was “sitting if not on the altar level then only one step down.” I read this to mean that the structure was in the sanctuary, on the same level as the altar, or perhaps one level lower. This is similar to where flowers may sometimes be placed, etc. The documents that Benedictgal cited mostly pertain to prohibiitions against placing anything physically on top of the altar other than what is needed for Mass. I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here.

More to the substance, the fact that this happened last weekend and at a similar time last year suggests that it was intended to coincide with the lunar New Year, which is celebrated in China, Vietnam, and other Asian countries. My understanding is that the traditional new year celebrations in those countries include tributes to one’s ancestors.

This seems like an attempt to take a non-Christian cultural practice and incorporate it into a Christian understanding. The Church has done this for centuries. The idea expressed is not really that different from the Dia de Los Muertos/Day of the Dead celebrations in Latin American culture, which coincides with All Souls Day. Especially if the parish has a large Catholic population from a country where this type of ceremony is common, I don’t know that incorporating it into a Catholic context should be out of the question.

The only point I would make is that including this ceremony within the Mass itself is probably taking things too far. Why not suggest that the ceremony be done separately after Mass? Father could point out the structure during the homily or during the announcements and invite people to stay for the ceremony, but it is outside the context of mass. If there aren’t enough people interested in staying for it, then really, why do it?

However, inasmuch as you try to justify this, it does not belong within the confines of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Now, my doicese is mostly Hispanic, nearly entirely Mexican-American. The way we have always handled All Souls Day (even when we were part of another diocese) was to celebrate it in the manner the Church celebrates it. Whatever “altars for the Dead” were made have not (and do not) have any part inside the Church. This is usually done at the local Center for the Arts.

Even having something of that nature within the sanctuary is taking things a bit too far. Even though some may try to justify this as inculturation, it would stretch things a bit since this really applies to missionary territory. At least that is how I have understood the term to mean.

This kind of activity should have happened at the parish hall, not inside the sanctuary of the church.

Not by any stretch of the imagination does something like this belong in the Mass.

On the other hand, the more I think about it if it were to happen outside of the Mass, and indeed outside of the church building, I think it can be a legitimate form of enculturation–if it’s done properly.

I think most of us reading here can easily relate to placing flowers on the graves of loved ones. If someone posted a question about doing that, most of us would consider the question rather silly, and answer that of course it can be done. Well, why not fruit or wine or other items? I think the answer lies in just why we’re doing it. If we think that they need these things, or we think that these “grave offerings” will somehow feed or sustain them in the afterlife, then it would be anti-Christian indeed. To put that another way, it depends upon what is meant by “offered to the ancestors.”

This sort of thing hs become quite common in parishes where there are Asians.
I objected to no avail that this seemed awfully pagan when one of these ancestor ceremonies was a part of a Mass, with all kinds of ceremonial red dresses moving around the church. The whole thing took a couple of hours, pushing suceeding Masses to later on Sunday.

In regions where known rites of veneration of ancestors has approval (whether ad experimentum or otherwise), it is normally placed at the end of Mass, rather than in the midst of the Liturgy of the Word. So it would seem likely that what was done during the homily was licit.

But some readers may be shocked to hear that such a rite where fruits, wine and flowers are offered as a sign of veneration of ancestors is even approved.

Extracted from the Archdiocese of Singapore’s Liturgy Website:


  1. Ancestors’ veneration refers to those rituals that are performed in order to express honour or respect for the deceased by the family members.

In those rituals, filial piety is, and always has been, at least to some extent, the motivating factor.

  1. On December 8, 1939, the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith issued a decree allowing Catholics to participate in ancestors’ veneration.
  1. This 1939 instruction, known as “Plane compertum est” was approved by Pope Pius XII. It declared that rituals performed on the occasion of funerals or commemoration for the dead are conducted to demonstrate honour and respect to the ancestors. It also stated, as a general acknowledgement: “Today, it is clear that, in the East, some ceremonies, although of great antiquity and originally connected with pagan rites, nowadays, on account of changing customs and ways of thinking, have come to have a merely social significance, out of respect for one’s ancestors…”
  1. Vatican II (1962 – 1965) called for the recognition of the native genius of each and every culture throughout the world as expressed through their indigenous traditions. It went beyond simply permitting Catholics to participate in native traditions, such as is allowed in “Plane compertum est” for Chinese ancestral rites:
  • The Decree on the Missionary Activity of the Church “Ad Gentes”, for instance, advised native Catholics to imbue their national treasures with the Christian message.
  • The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy “Sacrosanctum Concilium” called for the creation of new rites within the Catholic Church to express clearly the view of a particular race or culture. (“Inculturation” is the term used to describe these processes.)
  1. On July 18-19, 1964, seven Chinese bishops in Taiwan, had an official meeting with Mgr. Joseph Caprio, Pronuncio, and unanimously agreed to issue the following instructions on Ancestors’ Veneration:

*]In remembrance of the deceased, the setting up of a tablet (bearing his name without the addition of superstitious inscriptions) by the family members is no longer forbidden.
*]It is allowed to bow or prostrate in front of the ancestor tablet, photograph or coffin.
*]Offering of fruits or food in front of the ancestor tablet or at the grave is no longer forbidden.
*]Burning of joss papers for the deceased is forbidden, because of its superstitious character.

  1. Based on these instructions, liturgical texts, known as the “Proposed Catholic Ancestor Memorial Liturgy for Church and Family use” were issued by the Chinese Bishops’ Conference in Taipei, Taiwan, on December 29, 1974. These liturgical texts combined Catholic tradition with ancestor veneration.

From the Liturgy Commission of Hongkong (thanks to Fr. Henry Siew), here is how the Memorial Rites for Ancestors are conducted (according to liturgical books published):

  • Such memorial services can be held on All Souls, Quing Ming Day, Lunar New Year, after the Mass.
  • An appropriate table is set up, with a Crucifix, an ancestors’ tablet, fresh flowers, candles & incense bowl.

*]All bow once to the ancestors’ tablet at the beginning of the rites.
*]The main celebrant or the head of the family gives instruction on the meaning of the remembrance.
*]Intercessory prayers.
*]Offering of gifts: flowers, fruits, wine.
*]Offering of incense. If the group is small, all participants will offer incense in order of seniority.
*]Final prayer.
*]The whole assembly offers three bows.

Thank you for finding that. I have many Asian friends and know that ancestor honoring is very important to them. With that being said though, I still think what was done in the OP’s parish was wrong.

So, honoring ancestors = OK
Honoring ancestors with a separate liturgy = OK
Doing it in place of the Homily during Mass = Not OK (note that what is described from the HongKong Liturgy Committee is a separate memorial service, not Mass).

It’s one thing to honor our saints, including our ancestors who may be saints. It’s another to offer sacrifices to them. We’re only to offer our sacrifices to our Lord. We can thank Him for giving us our ancestors.

You have a great summation, Doctor. Furthermore, regarding the homily, it is supposed to be preached, not replaced with a ritual that is not even part of the Mass. Down here we have that same annual argument, especially when folks want to put on a play honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe or the Nativity in lieu of preaching a homily.

Opps, the last word should read illict. It’s amazing how 2 letters could change the whole content of the post.

quiet52, when Chinese Catholics use fruits and wine as a sign of their veneration of the ancestors, they are not offering sacrifices to them. It’s not different from using flowers really, just that flowers are not culturally important. (Just as Chinese use mandarin oranges when they greet each other during the New Year, not flowers.) There’s a significant distinction that admittedly, some people who are unfamiliar can misunderstand.

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