The Privilege of the Privileged Altar
The bronze plaque at the base of the marble high altar reads Altare Privilegiatum. Sometimes the faithful (who have acute eyesight) and the altar servers (who are always in the sanctuary) ask what that means. We can decipher that Altare Privilegiatum is Latin for Privileged Altar, and a short explanation may suffice to calm passing curiosity, but for the devoted curiosity of more pious souls, the complete answer is a bit more difficult, especially in light of Rome's conciliar change of heart. Our sample here is actually from the St. Vincent de Paul Church in Kansas City. The church is a neo-Gothic structure built in the 1920s, and its high altar, the one with the Altare Privilegiatum plaque, was installed in 1944. There are privileged altars like this one throughout the world, especially in the old cities of renown like Paris or Rome. So what answer can we offer people who ask what a privileged altar is?
What Is It That Makes the Altar Privileged? When a priest offers Holy Mass, he gains many graces for the poor souls in purgatory, even more if he offers a Mass for the Dead. But when a priest offers a requiem Mass on an altar that is privileged, once a day he can gain for the soul for whom the Mass was said a plenary indulgence (should that Mass, however, be for more than one soul, he must specify to which soul it is to be applied). For this reason, a privileged altar is sometimes called altare animarum, or altar of the souls. Although there is no infallible guarantee that the soul is freed from its purgation, there is, however, a certain probability of deliverance (otherwise the privilege would have no value), which is ever at the discretion of Divine Wisdom. Since the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is the most efficacious of all prayers, the plenary indulgence obtained at a privileged altar is more efficacious than other indulgences applicable to deceased souls (e.g., the Way of the Cross, Toties Quoties, etc.). Therefore it is commendable and effective to celebrate Mass many times for the same soul at a privileged altar; and if it happens that the soul is already delivered, any extra Masses will go to benefit other souls.
Every priest who says Mass on a privileged altar may enjoy the privilege attached to it. But there are certain requirements for an altar to receive this privilege.
The Details of the Privileged Altar. In the beginning there was allowed only one privileged altar per church, but in time the Holy See came to grant additional ones for special reasons, so that now we can find churches like St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, which has seven. The privilege lasts as long as the church in which it is located, and if the altar is moved, the privilege lasts as long as the church to which it has been relocated. The altar must be fixed (the regulations for the construction of altars are rather lengthy and detailed: see the footnote below for a brief explanation of the difference in fixedness) or semi-fixed. There ought be an indication of the privilege located somewhere on the altar where the priest can easily notice it, but this indication is not necessary for the validity of the indulgence. Usually there is a bronze plaque located near the base of the altar, like the one, as we mentioned above, at St. Vincent de Paul Church. The privileged altar can be granted to a church either permanently or temporarily.
At first only the Pope could give permission for the erection of a privileged altar, but it happened that when a bishop was consecrated, he would request permission from the Pope to erect them himself in all the parish and collegiate churches of his diocese. Once accorded this permission, the bishop's privileged altar would be privileged for seven years. Since the 1917 Code of Canon Law, however, bishops have the power to erect permanent privileged altars.
Two Types of Privileged Altars. The two types of privileged altars are Local and Personal. A local privileged altar is the permanent altar we just described. There are also times when every altar temporarily becomes privileged, such as on All Souls' Day and its octave, or during 40 Hours devotions.
A personal privileged altar is not actually an altar, but a privilege attached to the priest himself, usually to cardinals (and sometimes to the priests of certain societies by special indult). Thus, whenever or wherever he celebrates Mass, any altar he uses (even if it is a portable altar) is privileged while he uses it. This can be granted to the priest permanently or temporarily. At one time, a personal privileged altar was granted to the priest who made the Heroic Act of Charity on behalf of the poor souls.
The Privileged Altar in History. The privilege goes back to times and places beyond St. Vincent de Paul Church in Kansas City. The most renowned privileged altars are those of the famous Seven Basilicas of Rome (whence comes the Way of the Seven Churches) and the Seven Privileged Altars of St. Peter's. We see that an altar was originally raised to the status of privileged when it was highly esteemed. It was as if the altar received a promotion.
"The custom of visiting the seven principal churches in Rome is of most ancient institution." For embarking on this pilgrimage, a special indulgence was granted to pilgrims who visited the privileged altar in each of the seven basilicas of St. Peter's (the Vatican), St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, St. Sebastian's, the Lateran, Santa Croce, St. Lawrence, and St. Mary Major. The custom of the pilgrimage was approved by Pope Sixtus V as early as 1586 in his Bull Egregia Populi Romani Pietas. We mention this here not because of the indulgence granted to the pilgrim, but because the pilgrims were required to visit privileged altars.
There are decrees from the Sacred Congregation of Rites that date back to the 15th Century. Pope Pius XII, in 1948, granted a privileged altar to priests for his episcopal jubilee. The main altar at Lanciano in Italy, where the miraculous Host and Blood are kept, was declared a privileged altar during the Octave of the Dead and during every Monday by Pope Clement X in 1672. In 1575, after the visit and request of two native Indian priests, Pope Gregory XIII declared privileged the altar of the Church of St. Thomas in Paravur, India.
"Most ancient also is the custom of visiting the seven privileged altarsâ€¦in St. Peter, on the Vatican; a record of this custom being found in the archives of this church as far back as the times of Pope Innocent II, who flourished in 1130." These seven altars in St. Peter's are the altars of: Our Lady (the "Gregoriana"); SS. Processus and Martinianus; St. Michael the Archangel; St. Petronilla, Virgin; Our Lady of the Pillar; the Holy Apostles St. Simon and St. Jude; and St. Gregory the Great. Ancient traditions don't die easily, and so people still make a point to visit these altars today.
Can the Privileged Altar Ever Lose Its Privilege? It can, but not easily. Sometimes we hear of the desecration of an altar, where the consecration of the altar is destroyed and Mass can no longer be said upon it. Now, the consecration and the privilege are two separate things. A privileged altar, however, that is desecrated does not lose its privilege, because the privilege is attached to the structure, not to the altarstone. It does not even lose its privilege if the church is desecrated. For a privileged altar to lose its privilege, either the very structure of the altar must be destroyed or Rome must lose its faith in indulgences.
Status of the Privileged Altar after the Conciliar Reforms. The privileged altar was codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, and the liturgical books used in church sacristies and seminaries drew from this source. Generally, anytime books describe the privileged altar, it will be according to this former measure. But in 1967, Paul VI released his Doctrine on Indulgences, which was revised in the 1968 Enchiridion of Indulgences (the new Raccolta). His reforms reduced the number of indulgenced prayers and modified how they were gained. But the death stroke to the privileged altar was rooted in a new viewpoint of the concept  of an indulgence.
According to traditional understanding, an indulgence  is the remission of part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin, and this remission was formerly the primary focus of a pope granting or bestowing an indulgence: it was the relief of this debt owed by the poor souls in purgatory which was the goal of the privileged altar. The new emphasis, however, is that indulgences serve rather to inspire fervor and charity in the faithful, and so the actual remission of temporal punishment is granted only in proportion to their devotion. To illustrate this it will suffice to show how a partial indulgence was formerly granted in terms of periods of time, i.e., 300 days, or seven years. As a loving mother, Holy Mother Church "indulged" the penitent by granting them the equivalent of 300 days of penance in three minutes of prayer. The new idea, however, is no longer that of "indulging" the penitent who sought to make reparation, but rather of "rewarding" the faithful soul for its act of faith and love. There is no longer a count of days or years because the faithful are not acting out of repentance so much as devotion, and only God knows the actual devotedness of the faithful. Even in the case of the plenary indulgence, it is now gained only as a reward for devotion and not precisely for the remission of temporal punishment. So the privileged altar became "unimportant" to the conciliar faithful  because the faithful could not make an "act" for which to be rewarded because only a priest who said Mass could gain the indulgence.
The Final Word. The privileged altar was abolished because it was not an act performable by the faithful and because the conciliar theology considered that the poor souls did not need more suffrage than what was provided through any holy Mass. Perhaps the change is a sad fact, but we as Catholics must recognize that the Holy Father is the keeper of St. Peter's keys, and he can change the discipline if he so wishes, and that even if we persist in saying the old indulgenced prayers, God is no longer bound therein by the power of Peter (although it is reasonable to hope that as God sees how we are abandoned by the hierarchy He will look kindly on our pious desires and nevertheless grant the indulgences linked with the old privileged altar).
So, for the case of the privilege of the Privileged Altar, the short answer is that there are no more privileged altars; the long answer is as complicated as history.
Brother Gabriel-Marie is a Brother of the Society of Saint Pius X and is stationed at the District Office in Platte City, Missouri.
1 Regina Coeli Report, No.186, Dec. 2005 (Kansas City: Regina Coeli House).
2 Rt. Rev. Msgr. Harold E. Collins, The Church Edifice and Its Appointments (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1954), Part II: "The Furnishings of the Church," Chap. 1: "The Altar." A fixed altar is a permanent structure made of stone, attached to a floor of stone or earth, where both the mensa (table) and the support are made of solid slabs of stone, and consecrated together (Canon 1197 §1, n.1) and inseparable. A semi-fixed altar is likewise a permanent structure but can be made of lesser materials like wood or cement, having an inserted altar stone. A portable altar is what we normally refer to as an altar stone, which is inserted into the altar structure of a semi-fixed altar.
3 Fr. Beringer, S.J., Les indulgences: Leur nature et leur usage (1925; translated for me from the French by Fr. Marie-Dominique, O.P., c. January 2007).
4 Code of Canon Law, Canon 97, §§1 and 2.
5 Quod Anniversarius, Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII on his sacerdotal jubilee, 1888. He bestowed the privilege to all priests as a special suffrage for the poor souls.
6 The Raccolta, No.140. The Heroic Act of Charity is a special vow dating back to a papal decree of 1728. The Raccolta says, "This heroic act of charity in behalf of the souls in purgatory consists in a voluntary offering made in their favour by any one of the faithful of all works of satisfaction done by him in this life, as well as of all suffrages which shall be offered for him after his death."
7 The Raccolta, No.147
8 Index Generalis in Decretis Sacr. Rituum Congregationis (Rome, 1901), V, 15. This is a book of decrees from the Sacred Congregation of Rites. It contains decrees concerning the privileged altar that fall in the category of being between the years 1588 and 1705. Also, P. Innocentius Wapelhorst, O.F.M., Compendium Sacrae Liturgiae (Cincinnati &amp;amp; Chicago: Benziger Brothers, 1904). In this book there are rules dating from 1867, 1846, and 1836 concerning the privileged altar.
9 Collectio Decretorum ad Sacram Liturgiam Spectantium ab Anno 1927 ad annum 1946, 2nd ed. (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1947). Conceded by Pope Pius XII was an indult of a personal privileged altar for the suffrage of souls who fell in war, No.110.3. He also granted to all priests for his episcopal jubilee a privileged altar from May 12-13, 1948.
10 This is recorded in the general history of the Eucharistic Miracle of Lanciano. It can also be found in the book This Is My Body, This Is My Blood: Miracles of the Eucharist I, Book I, by Bob & Penny Lord. See also the article by Maria D'Andrea at www.acfp2000.com/miracles/eucharistic.html.
11 History of St. Thomas Kottakkavu Forane Church, North Paravur, India; founded by St. Thomas the Apostle. See their website at Kottakkavuchurch.org.
12 The Raccolta, No.147.
13 In August of 2000, the SSPX District of Asia made the voyage to Rome, and in the course of the pilgrimage they visited with great faith the Seven Privileged Altars of St. Peter's. Although the indulgence attached to visiting these seven altars is in the old Raccolta, it is not in the new Enchiridion of Indulgences. You may visit their site at http://www.sspxasia.com/Newsletters/2000/Sep-Oct/Rome-Pilgrimage-Day-5-6.htm.
14 In this instance, desecration refers to the destruction of the altar (i.e., if the relics are removed or if the altar stone is cracked or broken) as opposed to the violation of the altar (i.e., if the altar is used improperly). Desecration destroys the consecration, rendering it invalid for Mass, but violation does not destroy the consecration.
15 In every altar a reliquary is inserted (the hole is called a sepulcher) into either the mensa or the altar stone and sealed with a single solid stone cover. This reliquary contains the relics of at least one martyred saint as well as three grains of incense. It is this stone upon which Mass is said. To desecrate an altar is to cause a noticeable fracture in the altar stone or to disturb the relics. See note 2.
16 This is taken from the Sacred Apostolic Penitentiary Decree. It states, "All general grants of indulgences, not included in this same Enchiridion, are hereby revoked. Revoked also are any ordinances concerning indulgences, not included in the Norms on Indulgences given below, whether in the Code of Canon Law, or in Apostolic Letters, even if issued 'motu proprio,' or in Decrees of the Holy See." This Decree is contained in the book Enchiridion of Indulgences.
17 In order to understand the full scope of the conciliar changes, see Fr. Marie-Dominique's article in The Angelus Magazine, Vol. 27, "Indulgences in the Life of the Church," Part One, September 2004; Part Two, October 2004; and Part Three, November 2004.
18 Baltimore Catechism No. 3, Nos.436-40.
19 From Preliminary Observations, a sort of foreword for the Enchiridion of Indulgences: "...The Enchiridion of Indulgences is to be revised with a view to attaching indulgences only to the most important prayers and works of piety, charity, and penance."
20 Enchiridion of Indulgences, Norm 21. The Enchiridion states, "Holy Mother Church, extremely solicitous for the faithful departed, has decided to apply suffrages to them as abundantly as possible in every Sacrifice of the Mass, abolishing every particular privilege in this regard." Thus, since the privileged altar was not in the new Enchiridion, then it was abolished. This is given in the Doctrine of Indulgences, Norm 20; Documents on the Liturgy, §3213; and reaffirmed in The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, commissioned by the Canon Law Society of America; edited by James A. Coriden, Thomas J. Green, and Donald E. Heintschel (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), pp.991-92. Chapter IV on Indulgences: "Of specific historical interest are the suppression of the so-called toties quoties plenary indulgences, understood as available with unlimited frequency, and the suppression of the so-called privileged altar, to which plenary indulgences for the dead were attached on the occasion of Eucharistic celebrations. The privileged altar had been defined in Canons 916-918 of the former Code."
21 Fr. Sélégny, while General Secretary of the Society of Saint Pius X, declared the official position of the Society: "Concerning indulgences, the position of the Society and of Bishop Fellay in particular is very clear cut. We recognize that the Pope has the power of the keys and hence the power to change the discipline in this matter. We can miss the former discipline and hope that heaven might make up in some way the 'loss' experienced by the disappearance of so many indulgenced prayers, but we accept the new [discipline]..." For a copy of the entire letter, please refer to Part Three of Indulgences in the Life of the Church (see note 8).