ROME, 11 DEC. 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In our church it has become the custom in recent years to have a large lighted Christmas tree at the side of the sanctuary during the Advent and Christmas season. It is quite easily seen in the church. Because the tree is large and the lights twinkle in phases, it is quite distracting during holy Mass. An approach to the parish priest to turn off the lights has been unsuccessful, as it is seen opposing the spirit of the season. Is there anything which supports this view in the rubrics? — M.T., Wellington, New Zealand
A: Somehow, with so much to do, the Holy See has not got round to issuing any universal norms regarding Christmas trees in the sanctuary or anywhere else.
Regarding overarching principles the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 305, says:
"Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar. During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions.
"Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa."
The overall principle of moderation with respect to floral decoration logically extends to the overall altar area.
The document "Built of Living Stones" issued by the U.S. bishops has some other interesting observations even though they have no legal weight outside of that country:
"123. The tradition of decorating or not decorating the church for liturgical seasons and feasts heightens the awareness of the festive, solemn, or penitential nature of these seasons. Human minds and hearts are stimulated by the sounds, sights, and fragrances of liturgical seasons, which combine to create powerful, lasting impressions of the rich and abundant graces unique to each of the seasons.
"124. Plans for seasonal decorations should include other areas besides the sanctuary. Decorations are intended to draw people to the true nature of the mystery being celebrated rather than being ends in themselves. Natural flowers, plants, wreaths and fabric hangings, and other seasonal objects can be arranged to enhance the primary liturgical points of focus. The altar should remain clear and free-standing, not walled in by massive floral displays or the Christmas crib, and pathways in the narthex, nave, and sanctuary should remain clear.
"125. These seasonal decorations are maintained throughout the entire liturgical season. Since the Christmas season begins with the Vigil Mass on Christmas Eve and ends with the baptism of the Lord, the placement and removal of Christmas decorations should coincide with these times. Since the Easter season lasts fifty days, planning will encompass ways to sustain the decor until the fiftieth day of Pentecost.
"126. In the course of the liturgical year, the feasts and memorials of Our Lady and of saints with special significance for the parish afford opportunities to show devotion by adorning their images with tasteful floral arrangements or plants.
"127. Fabric art in the form of processional banners and hangings can be an effective way to convey the spirit of liturgical seasons, especially through the use of color, shape, texture, and symbolic form. The use of images rather than words is more in keeping with this medium.
"128. Objects such as the Advent wreath, the Christmas crib, and other traditional seasonal appointments proportioned to the size of the space and to the other furnishings can enhance the prayer and understanding of the parish community."
Once more, the general principles involved are that the seasonal decorations enhance prayer and understanding of the parish community.
I would say that a decorated Christmas tree in the sanctuary can hardly be billed as moderate decoration, even if the flashing lights are turned off. Rather than "enhancing prayer and understanding," the faithful are more likely to share our reader's experience of being distracted during Mass.
Like the universal documents, "Built of Living Stones" makes no mention of Christmas trees. This is because these are not usually found within a Catholic sanctuary.
Thus I reiterate what I stated in columns some years ago (Nov. 29 and Dec. 13, 2005):
"Christmas trees are preferably located outside the sanctuary and church proper, and are best left in vestibules or church grounds. This has been the practice in St. Peter's Square from the time of Pope John Paul II. ... Within the church proper, apart from the crib, Christmas may be evoked by using, for example, traditional poinsettias, holly and other traditional elements according to the culture."
And again: "I have no difficulty with Christmas trees, but ... I think that placing them in the sanctuary is not a common practice in the Church. It is not advisable because, as a ubiquitous symbol, it no longer has an exclusively religious meaning and can easily evoke the more material and commercial aspect of the holy season."