When people think of the altar in a Catholic church, they often envision the entire front of the church - the “stage” in secular terms. However, in the Roman Catholic Church this large front area is actually the church’s sanctuary. It is in the sanctuary that the priest stands during mass and it is elevated from where the congregation sits. The church altar, on the other hand, is the table or table-like structure on which the sacrifice of Mass is offered and it is elevated above the sanctuary. It is from the altar that the Eucharist is celebrated.
The sanctuary is full of elements other than the altar. Candles are a required part of the Catholic mass, so they are always present. There is also the presider’s chair in which the priest or celebrants sits. There may be seating for altar servers as well. There may be a lectern from which readers speak or musicians sing. Certain decor items during holidays and special liturgical items may also adorn the sanctuary (such as an advent wreath).
Back to the altar - Catholic altars today are often stone or wood. In most US churches, the altar is set apart from the wall, so that the celebrant faces the congregation. It is where the Bible or other Holy Relics are stored. Some altars have canopies and most have stairs that lead up to them. An altar is kept fairly simple in order to serve its primary purpose of Eucharists preparation and celebration. A Catholic altar will have candles, altar cloths, and bread and wine. Behind the altar is a tabernacle (or secured box) where these items are stored outside of mass.
An altar cloth called a corporal is always used (corporal comes from the word corpus, or body). The corporal altar cloth is placed beneath the chalice and host during the Eucharist celebration. The purpose of this altar cloth is to ensure any blood or body that is spilled is absorbed or handled properly (as opposed to it simply falling on the table or ground). Another altar cloth item is the pall cloth which is a square of linen stiffened with starch, cardboard, or plastic. It is set upon the top of chalice or sacred vessel to ensure that dusts, insects, or other contaminants do not fall into chalices during celebration. This pall altar cloth is used less in modern churches where air conditioning or air purification are common and there isn’t much threat of contamination. A purificator altar cloth is used by the priest to clean the chalice and other sacred vessels; finger cloth altar cloths are used by the priest to clean his hands.
St. Patrick’s Guild’s Church Supplies department can help you find the sanctuary and altar items you may need. And if you’re a congregant, I hope this post helped you better understand a few elements of mass.