PODCAzT 37: The position of the altar and the priest’s “back to the people”



Our PODCAzT today comes after a long break.  I had some technical problems.

This is the first PODCAzT since Pope Benedict XVI issued the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum.  On 14 September the use of the older form of Mass will be derestricted.

there are many opponents of the Motu Proprio.  They often express themselves through cliches such as “the priest mumbles in Latin, a language nobody understands” or also “the priest has his back to the people”.

We need to examine these cliches.

Put in a more positive way, these are things about the older form of Mass which people find rather strange.  They are puzzled at what looks like the priest having his “back to the people”.

In this PODCAzT we will drill into the issue of the position of the altar at the wall, and the priest having his “back to the people” with our guest Joseph Ratzinger from the pages of his book The Spirit of the Liturgy.

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31 Responses to PODCAzT 37: The position of the altar and the priest’s “back to the people”

  1. Augustine says:

    Superb.

  2. William says:

    Great Podcazt…

    My only problem comes when you speak of an opportunity, or of the need for, liturgical catechesis. My recent experience is that far too many self-described Catholics need basic catechesis far more than liturgical catechesis.

    We could probably get to the point of discussing the relative unimportance of the priest, and the advantage of facing Our Lord rather than each other, if only it were possible to first convince the average parishioner that the Catholic Church has some advantage over any other arbitrarily-chosen religion.

    The recent document of the Holy Father has brought these ignorant “practicing Catholic” dissenters out of the woodwork – each determined to “sincerely regret” the “offensive and unnecessary” statements of the Holy Father and to stoutly maintain that “no Catholic I know agrees with Pope Benedict’s personal opinion.”

    How beautiful it would be, if the average parishioner in the average parish actually knew and believed the Catholic faith well enough that one could assume a common foundation of faith, upon which one could build a higher level of discussion about the liturgy.

  3. William: My only problem comes when you speak of an opportunity, or of the need for, liturgical catechesis. My recent experience is that far too many self-described Catholics need basic catechesis far more than liturgical catechesis.

    Basic catechism and liturgical catechism are not mutually exclusive. This isn’t a zero sum game.

  4. Nick says:

    Well, your selection of music is certainly entertaining!

    Facing the same direction simply makes the most sense, it puts everyone on the same page with the same focus, the Altar, the Tabernacle and the Crucifix.

    I have begun to notice how uncomfortable (unconsciously) priests are when they have to say the Gloria for example and having to look directly at the people as he prays it. It is so much more fulfilling to be staring at the crucifix when you pray the Gloria and other prayers where Jesus is explicitly referenced.

  5. Maggie says:

    Speaking of the music, what is that beautiful piece playing at the very beginning of the podcazt? I love the organ!

  6. Fr. John says:

    Fr. Z ,

    Thanks for the readings from Spirit of the Liturgy. You mention the psychological impact of the priest facing the people, I’d like to offer my experience as a priest: I experience a profound difference within myself at those times when I say Mass toward the people, It is very hard to try to be transparent when you are (sadly) the focus of attention, the temptation to become overly and unnecessarily expressive is always there, especially when one sees the inattentiveness of the people, the temptation is to shake them up a bit or use vocal dynamics to keep them attentive. This approach creates a vicious cycle in which the “presider” becomes a kind of orator or entertainer, which consequently leads the priest out of prayerful attentiveness and turns him into a salesman. I find that the very nature of the Novus Ordo leads to this dynamic even when done ad orientem (which I do twice a week), because it is so talky, everything is done in fortissimo volume. Since I have returned recently from the training sessions with the FSSP I more clearly understand the genus of the extraordinary rite, even though my own experience of the extraordinary rite is quite limited, I can see obvious and real benefits. I am compelled to hold the conviction that the Novus Ordo is in need serious reconfiguring more in line with the extraordinary form of the the Latin Rite.
    God Bless Pope Benedict and thank you Father.

  7. Michael says:

    One thing that I think if curious about Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy is insistance that the altar be moved to the apse. Not only doe this interupt the architectural harmony of the structure, which leads your eyes to the High Altar and makes it the center of the architectural ensemble, but it puts the altar in the center of the building making it impossible for everyone to face east, so that during major celebrations the choir stands on one side, the people on the other.

    If you look at photographs of the great Gothic cathedrals taken in the 19th century, you’ll see that there are often beautiful portable altars that were placed in front of the choir in the center of the aisle but not at the crossing. They were also sometimes placed against a pile at the end of the nave, as was the case at Nantes. Since it was portable, it could be moved when the High Altar was used. It didn’t trump the High Altar in anyway, or try to compete with it as the people’s altars in all the French Cathedrals do now.

    High Altars are often very far away from the choir too. Look at the plan of the church being built at Clear Creek. The altar is probably 50 feet away from the choir stalls. I don’t know why the architects did this, but it provides distance that can be interpreted symbolically. Distance might have been interpreted as a sacred boundary, like a veil, altar rail, iconostasis, or choir screen. I also think it’s just asthaetically pleasing to have the altar at the end of the building. In England, for example, there are portable altars carried into the crossing for ceremonies. They’re veiled and have a cricifix with two candles on them, and they’re moved aside when not in use. The High Altar remains the focal point of the architectural ensemble. There’s not people’s altar blocking view of the High Altar and trying to replace it.

    The modern people’s altar in Chartres is the worst example. The new altar obstructs the view of the baroque altar in the background, makes it impossible for everyone to be on the same side of the altar during major celebrations like the annual pilgrimage, and looks completely out of place.

    Here are some photos of early 20th century portable altars that do not take attention away from the High Altar and are in harmony with the architectural design. You can see that they’re never placed in the middle of the crossing (to be in the center of the building and symbolically in the center of the congregation) but against a pillar or screen:

    http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/full/e83c4759de2c45e59b2b4c3339f462ba2dc2c4a6.html

    http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/full/a245e5a33959d708f92b4315a4e7beb4f62318c5.html

    http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/full/a9fbfc920887db1ffe7e8a4154c3dcbf8d29d7c9.html

    http://www.artandarchitecture.org.uk/images/full/f5455cb1ab2eb3b5934b28a5247650eba3d48d8d.html

    I’d love to learn more about these portable altars and whether they’re a medieval tradition of a more recent invention. I remember reading that the Sarum Rite Cathedrals in England had special portable altars for celebrations in the nave without the choir of canons. Does anyone know where I could read more about this tradition of portable altars and when the High Altars were actually used?

  8. Michael: insistance that the altar be moved to the apse.

    He doesn’t do that.

  9. Legisperitus says:

    I can tell you this much about “versus populum” from my personal experience as a young Catholic child at the Novus Ordo:

    When I was six years old and started following along in the Missalette, I encountered the phrase “He took bread and gave you thanks and praise.” I wondered to myself, “Who is ‘you’?”

    It wasn’t capitalized, so I was doubtful whether it meant God. In the Epistles and Gospels, the Missalette would always capitalize “He” when referring to the Godhead (but not when referring to Christ, which would give me some other false impressions later on).

    Still confused about the “you,” I observed the priest and saw that he was LOOKING at the congregation while he said “you.” “Well,” I thought at the time, “that must mean us.”

    So, because of this incident in my own childhood, I am very sensitive to the importance of the “ad orientem” posture. It really does give the impression of worshipping the congregation.

  10. Legisperitus says:

    I meant to say, rather, that “versus populum” gives that impression.

  11. Dr. Peter H. Wright says:

    Maggie,

    The musical piece at the beginning is the Te Deum.
    But I don’t think I’ve ever heard it with organ accompaniment before …

  12. Is there some problem with the Podcazt’s connection to iTunes? I’ve tried to subscribe to it using the link on the left sidebar and it doesn’t seem to be working.

  13. Iosephus says:

    Better, they say, “the priest has his back to the audience“. I really like that one.

  14. Aventicus says:

    What bothers me is that when I go to Mass, everybody in front of me has their back to me and I feel guilty because I have my back to the people behind me. ; ^) Can’t we all just get along and stop backing one another?

  15. Hammerbrecher says:

    Fr Z,

    So in a church where the apse faces West, which is more important? To face East and verses populum, or face toward the altar toward the apse?

  16. Zadok: is there some problem with the Podcazt’s connection to iTunes?

    I tested the iTunes feed and it worked for me. You might click the “Update Podcast” item.

  17. Michael says:

    Fr. Z,

    You’re right. Insistance was the wrong word. But he does say that it is a good thing and seems to be in favor of having the main altar at the crossing so that’s it’s closer to the people. And this arrangement seems problematic for a number of reasons.

    When I went to my home town a year or two ago, my mother told me that the parish priest was moving the altar in a local church back into the apse, after it had been redesigned so that the altar was near the center of the congregation. When I asked her what provoked such a traditional move, she said that it was because Father didn’t feel right having his back to anyone. He wanted everyone to be able to see his face. A positive change for ALL the wrong reasons.

  18. Michael: I don’t think that was his point, that is, to get the altar “closer” to the people. I think the point was to make the altar at least visible. The way some of those cathedrals were laid out, with an extremely long sanctuary stretching back to the apse, and fairly long transepts, the altar would be obscured from site. On the other hand, I have seen other churches, of the Baroque period, in Germany for example, that have the deep sanctuary to the apse but the altar, ad orientem is closer to the crossing point of the Latin Cross floor plan. This makes the altar visible. It may be that that is what H.H. had in mind.

  19. Fr Z: Not any more. It seems to be working perfectly now.

  20. Arieh says:

    Hammerbrecher,

    Many churches with a west facing apse still had priest and faithful facing the same direction, they would essentially create a liturgical east. However, in many ancient Roman and North African basilicas with west facing apses the celebrant would face cardinal east (towards the people). But as Klaus Gamber and U.M. Lang have argued, the congregation back then would turn their backs on the celebrant to face east during the Eucharistic prayer.

  21. Charles Robertson says:

    Hello Fr. Z! Great Podcast! Here`s a good one for you: My sister in law just got back from 2 weeks of liturgy classes at the seminary in Edmonton, and when the MP came out, a cononist explained to them that it was nothing to worry about, wouldn`t change anything, blah blah blah. Here`s the rub; he also told them that the rubrics of the `62 missal do not require that the priest celebrate . This, of course, ignores the fact that the rubrics of Paul VI`s missal presuppose ad orientem celebration. These experts really seem to have lost any kind of objectivity — for them, there is no such thing as an objective liturgical tradition. Priests in my diocese are under the impression that, for instance, on Good Friday we venerate a cross, not a crucifix, because the rubrics don`t mention the corpus. (they also remove the altar from the sanctuary in many parishes here for some unknown reason). A very selective obedience to the rubrics indeed. Ignore what`s there, do nothing that`s not there. Sorry to vent.

  22. Charles Robertson says:

    A crucial part of one sentence went missing when I posted:

    Here`s the rub; he also told them that the rubrics of the `62 missal do not require that the priest celebrate ad orientem (he actually said back to the people).

  23. Michael says:

    Fr. Z.,

    That probably is what Ratzinger intended when he praised the relocation of the altar at the crossing, but it most likely isn’t what most bishops intend to do when they build new altars right in the middle of the crossing. People seem to get antsy whenever there’s distance between the congregation and the altar. Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architectures didn’t seem to have a problem with distance, even between the choir and the sanctuary, so long as the people could see the altar and what was happening there during the liturgy. It could be 100 feet away from the congregation as long as everyone could see it. After Trent, most of the choir screens that blocked the view of the congregaiton were removed because that was all they had to do to make the Mass visible. But it seems to me that the movement of Cathedral altars after the council was for a completely different reason. If you can see these altars from any part of the nave, which was the case in almost all French Cathedrals (Amiens is the only one I know of that still had a screen), why move them? I think the goal here was to bring the altar closer to the people. I know that even in places where it was possible to say Mass facing the people on free-standing altars, new ones were inserted so that there was less distance between the people and priest. Look at St. Patrick’s in NY for example. The new altar doesn’t really improve the situation. It sits less than 40 feet in front of the original free standing altar and it’s Gothic baldachin, but it makes for a powerful symbol. A new altar, when a suitable and more beautiful one is so nearby, seems to be an expression of rupture. We can’t use the same altar because we’re not the same Church and this isn’t the same liturgy. Something has to change.

    I used to think distance was a problem and impeded active participation, but when I went to Fontgombault a few years ago, where the altar is VERY far away, I found I was just as easily able to hear and follow what was going on at the altar as if it had been right in front of me, and the distance made the entire liturgy more solemn. There was even a considerable distance between the choir and the altar, so that even the monk’s were far away. The chants sounded more ethereal, and the distance created the same kind of boundary a choir screen might without impeding visibility. As one monk explained to me, the High Altar remained in the center of a semicircular apse for a reason. The spot where it already was was the natural focal point of the structure, making it the most suitable place for the High Altar and the celebration of the Eucharist. Moving it forward would be like moving it off to the side. I think this is what Fontgombault’s 12th century architect had in mind.

    Of course, Ratzinger was at the Council, I wasn’t. If H.H. says moving the altar to the crossing was what the council intended, then it looks like that’s what’s going to have to happen. I don’t think this is necessary, but I’m not the one who gets to make the decision!

  24. Maureen says:

    There are a lot of different, appropriate things that _can_ be done. But you have to give some allowance for what works with the building, and what is in good taste. _Usually_ the altar should stay where the builder put it, unless there is a _very_ good reason for moving it.

    Unfortunately, very few renovators have good sense and taste. Those who do, deserve great praise. Those who don’t… well… fifty years from now, their work will be gone.

  25. Marcus says:

    Nick: You’ve assumed that there is a crucifix and a tabernacle in the sanctuary! In our church, you’d have to visit the Eucharistic chapel to find either the tabernacle or a proper crucifix.

    Legisperitus: I had that same confusion growing up. Was Jesus giving me thanks and praise? Wow, I didn’t know I was so good!

    Aventicus: That is hysterical! Thanks for that gem.

  26. Dan O says:

    Fr. Z,

    I enjoyed the Podcast, however, I feel your explanation of the people and priest in St. Peter’s facing East is unconvincing. You say that only “apparently” are the priest and people in St. Peter’s facing each other. I’m sorry, but it is not just apparently, the priest and people DO face each other in St. Peters. I understand the idea of praying toward the East and it may be a correct idea. I don’t know all the history like Ratzinger and you. However, when you have a point you want to make it, but have to stand on your head and say things that do not on their face make sense, you weaken your point. It is better to admit exceptions to the point rather than to make nonsensical intepretations just for the sake of proving your point. Even if you take the figurative stance of priest and people both facing the Crucifix, (symbolic of the East), it is simply absurd to say that the priest and people only apparently face each other in St. Peter’s.

  27. RBrown says:

    Michael,

    I can find nothing in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” that indicates that high altars are to be moved out of the apse into the transept.

    There are different style churches.

    The Basilican style churches seen in Rome often have the choir and/or bishop’s chair) in the apse and the main altar in the transept. St Peter’s is an obvious example–I think also St John Lateran. Generally, the high altar is only used on special days.

    At Fontgombault, however, the choir is between the high altar and the people, and the altar is in the apse. The monks enter and exit via the transept.

    I think that JRatzinger was referring to those churches whose high altars were in the transept but then put up a temporary altar closer to the people.

  28. Dan O: I enjoyed the Podcast, however, I feel your explanation of the people and priest in St. Peter’s facing East is unconvincing. You say that only “apparently” are the priest and people in St. Peter’s facing each other. I’m sorry, but it is not just apparently, the priest and people DO face each other in St. Peters.

    First, it is not my explanation. It is that of Joseph Ratzinger, Louis Bouyer, Cyrille Vogel and Klaus Gamber. The salient point is that the priest is facing East.

    However, when you have a point you want to make it, but have to stand on your head and say things that do not on their face make sense, you weaken your point.

    I don’t see this as difficult at all. It is quite clear. There are no intellectual gymnastics involved.

    it is simply absurd to say that the priest and people only apparently face each other in St. Peter’s.

    Okay, so that’s a “no” vote from you, I guess.

  29. RBrown says:

    Even if you take the figurative stance of priest and people both facing the Crucifix, (symbolic of the East), it is simply absurd to say that the priest and people only apparently face each other in St. Peter’s.
    Comment by Dan O

    Not really. Because the papal altar is in the transept, there is seating in all four directions.

    But even if we were to assume that there was only seating between the altar and the entrance (missa versus populum), we would still have a unique situation, the pope being the Vicar of Christ, the Supreme Authority in the Church, and Pastor Pastorum.

  30. Dan O says:

    RBrown,

    The unique situation of the pope as vicar of Christ does not help your argument. One thrust of Fr. Z’s podcast was that the priest should be less important. I think that would even refer to the pope. The pope should not be the center of attention any more than a regular priest, presiding as an ‘alter Christus’. Following that line of logic, masses versus populum would be the better way to celebrate.

  31. RBrown says:

    The unique situation of the pope as vicar of Christ does not help your argument.

    It isn’t intended to help the argument but rather to define it. But you seem to miss the point.

    One thrust of Fr. Z’s podcast was that the priest should be less important.

    I agree. So does JRatzinger. But the pope is not just any priest.

    I think that would even refer to the pope. The pope should not be the center of attention any more than a regular priest, presiding as an ‘alter Christus’. Following that line of logic, masses versus populum would be the better way to celebrate.
    Comment by Dan O

    1. Generally, “In Persona Christi” is used when referring to a priest celebrating the Sacraments. “Alter Christus” is more of a moral description–it was applied to St Francis, who wasn’t a priest.

    2. As Vicar of Christ, there is no living man between the pope and God–that is why he is called the Pontifex Maximus. He is the visible head of the Church, and his authority, which is Supreme, Universal, Full, and Immediate, is not suspended when he celebrates mass. In fact, it is manifest. And so certain exercises of Pontifical Power, e.g., canonization of saints, occur in the midst of Eucharistic celebration.

    If every priest were the Pontifex Maximus, then I would agree with you that they all should celebrate facing the people.