In regard to the photo posted here of the Holy Father saying Mass on Monday for his deceased predecessors, a question arose about the position of the Cross/Crucifix on the altar.
The altar is the "Altar of the Chair" in St. Peter’s Basilica. Alas, this is no longer Bernini’s glorious altar, rippped out in the 1990′s when Card. Noe was in charge of the Basilica (I was there that morning and saw it happen). The altar in use there is an awful picnic table altar set up during the time of Paul VI. So, at this newer Altar of the Chair, the celebrant faces geographical East, when also "facing the people".
A regular WDTPRSer, Roman Sacristan, sent a note to me about the placement of the Crucifix on the altar.
Here is what Roman Sacristan wrote (edited):
When Mass is ad orientem, this question really doesn’t arise, but when the priest says Mass "facing the opposite direction of the people" if there is a crucifix on the altar, is the corpus supposed to face the people or the priest?
Now, I hate to refer to the 2002 GIRM since it is either translated badly or ambiguous, but I have heard priests use #308 to say the crucifix has to face the people.
("308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations." [my emphasis])
It seems a bit ambiguous, since even if the corpus is facing the priest, the cross is visible to the people. And I always thought the crucifix was more for the priest to have a visual "reminder" of what he is carrying out. But I also have heard that the crucifix is to be a sign to the people of what is going on upon the altar at the Consecration.
I know it’s a minor technicality, but with these seemingly conflicting reasons that have been going on with the introduction of Mass "facing the people," I just want to know what the real liturgical principle is on this point.
Let’s take a look at what GIRM 308 really says (my emphases):
308. Item super altare vel prope ipsum crux, cvm effigie Christi crucifixi, habeatur, quae a populo congregato bene conspiciatur. … Likewise, on the altar or near it there is to be a Cross with the likeness of Christ crucified, which is easily seen by the congregation. …
The problem in figuring out the Latin revolves around what that quae refers back to. Since quae is feminine singular, it goes back to something feminine and singuar. There are two options, crux ("Cross") and effigies ("likeness"). So, that thing which must be easily visible to the congregation is either the Cross or the image of the Lord on the Cross. If quae goes back to effigies, then we should read this to mean that the Cross on the altar ought to be turned so the image of the Lord on it it is in the direction of the people.
However, I am sure that quae does not refer back to effigies. It refers back to crux. That little clause, cvm effigies Christi crucifixi, simply describes something specific about the object placed on or near the altar: it is to be a Crucifix and not just a Cross. Our quae must go back to crux because the adverb and verb bene conspiciatur goes back to the physical location of the crux on or near the altar.
In the PODCAzTs I did a while back, I read parts of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy and Feast of Faith. He describes the position of the Crucifix on the altar in the context of his discussion of why in the Roman Rite we ought to be facing the liturgical East (priest and congregation facing the same way, in expectation of the coming of the Lord). So, Ratzinger suggests that even in those places where Mass is still going to be said "facing the people", the Crucifix should be placed on the altar between the priest and people so that It becomes the common point of focus … not the priest himself. In that case, it seems to me that the image of the Crucified could be either way on the altar.
However, I would prefer that it be turned so that it is toward the priest. Why?
The role of the priest at Mass is of such importance that it is desirable for him to be firmly anchored in his focus on the Lord, and not on himself. This proper interior orientation of the priest will affect the entire ars celebrandi (the manner, style, attitude of how Mass is celebrated).