Ceremonies of the Consecration of Churches: The Writing of the Latin and Greek Alphabets on the Church Pavement

A tapestry depicting Pope Urban VIII writing the letters of the Latin alphabet in the ashes during the consecration of the new St. Peter's Basilica
The traditional ceremonies associated with the consecration of churches have always spawned a great deal of interest, no doubt in part for their relative rarity, but also because of their particular antiquity, symbolism and majesty. Like the ceremonies of Holy Week, they leave an impression. One of the ceremonies that always draws a great deal of interest in this regard is the act of the prelate inscribing the letters of the Latin and Greek alphabet onto the pavement (i.e. floor) of the church with his crozier.

I. History and Symbolism in Brief

The tradition of consecrating churches is thought to date back to the first century, and the antiquity of the specific ceremony we are treating today is already attested to already by the time of St. Gregory the Great.

The Catholic Encyclopedia comments:
Before the time of Constantine the consecration of churches was, on account of the persecutions, necessarily private, but after the conversion of that emperor it became a solemn public rite, as appears from Eusebius of Cæsarea (Church History X): "After these things a spectacle earnestly prayed for and much desired by us all appeared, viz. the solemnization of the festival of the dedication of churches throughout every city, and the consecration of newly-built oratories." The passage clearly indicates that churches were consecrated before, and that accordingly the anniversaries of the dedication might now be publicly celebrated.
Of course, what the precise form of this consecration was is not entirely clear, but "we find occasional notices of the vigil kept before the consecration, of the translation of the relics, and of the tracing of the Greek and the Latin alphabet on the pavement of the church... Often only the Greek alphabet or the Latin was written twice; and sometimes to the Greek and Latin the Hebrew alphabet was added (Martène, De Antiquis Ecclesiæ Ritibus, II)." (Source: Catholic Encyclopedia)

In short, there was some variety in this regard, but also a remarkable unity and continuity that was preserved down the ages.

The particular form of this ceremony sees some other minor variations as well, at least in the modern age. In some instances a smaller cross is laid out before the sanctuary in the nave as follows:

In other instances the entire nave is covered by this ashen cross, such as is shown in this photo of the consecration of Westminster Cathedral in London:

The question that naturally arises, of course, is what the particular symbolism of the Latin and Greek alphabets is? Like so many ceremonies that are steeped in antiquity, there is a certain amount of conjecture that naturally (and necessarily) occurs but one school of thought is that the two languages symbolized the Jews (Greek) and gentiles (Latin) respectively and the universal call to the Christian Faith -- as well as the catechesis given to the baptized in faith and piety.

II. A Ceremonial Description

Turning now to the actual ceremony, here is a description from Fr. Augustine Schulte's excellent book, Consecranda: Rites and Ceremonies Observed at the Consecration of Churches, Altars, Altarstones, Chalices and Patens (readers will note that the description provided here represents the more ambitious form of this ceremony as shown in the photo from Westminster Cathedral above).

First, the preparation of the cross itself:
On the pavement of the church two parallel lines are marked with chalk extending from the left corner of the front of the church to the epistle corner of the church near the communion-rail, and two others extending from the right corner of the front of the church to the gospel corner of the church near the communion-rail. The parallel lines should be about 9 in. apart. Instead of these lines 48 chalk-marks about 8 in. square may be made on the floor, i.e., 24 from the left of the entrance to the epistle corner of the church, and 24 in the other direction, corresponding to the number of the letters of the Greek and Latin alphabets.
At the appropriate point in the liturgy, following the chanting of the Veni, Creator Spiritus and Litany of the Saints...
The bishop resumes his mitre and receives the crosier. Preceded by the cross-bearer and acolytes, accompanied by the deacon and subdeacon and followed by the mitre, crosier, book and candle bearers, he goes to the corner at the left (gospel) of the main entrance and with the lower extremity of the crosier, which he holds in both hands, he delineates the letters of the Greek alphabet in the ashes spread on the floor from this corner to the epistle corner of the church near the altar. Then he goes to the corner at the right (epistle) of the main entrance and delineates in the same manner the letters of the Latin alphabet in the ashes spread on the floor from this corner to the gospel corner of the church near the altar. The cross-bearer and acolytes stand opposite to him and move with him along the line. As soon as he begins to write the Greek alphabet the chanters sing the [Benedictus].
During the chanting of the Benedictus, the following antiphon is sung: "O how fearful is this place; truly this is no other than the house of God, and the gate of Heaven."

From the consecration of Benedictine Abbey of Le Barroux
From the consecration of the North American seminary of the FSSP
In this rare image taken from the consecration of Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary, you can still see the completed alphabets, written by the bishop with his crozier:

The ceremony as it appears in the traditional Pontifcale Romanum

Join in the conversation on our Facebook page.