QUAERITUR: Can a newly built church have an altar “against the wall”?

From a reader:

This is in response to your recent post about GIRM 299 and ad orientam worship.

I was just wondering, because of what 299 says do altars have to be built so one can walk around them? Or in a new church can you build a high altar the way they used to? I remember them saying that when they redo the chapel at Christendom College the altar would be attached to the tabernacle, the gradines and all the rest behind it.

We also had a discussion on ad orientem in the house in this seminary recently; it would be amusing if this was actually the same discussion spoken of in the earlier post.

My understanding is that new construction is to provide for a free-standing altar.  This would apply also if there is significant reconstruction.

However, I know that this has been set aside in the case of several altars in churches that have been completely reconstructed their altars in the process of restoration or redecoration.  Off the top of my head I can think of St. Agnes in St. Paul, back in the ’80s.  Also, two churches of the Institute of Christ the King in the USA, St. Patrick’s in Kansas City, MO and St. Mary’s in Wausau, WI.  I was at the consecration of the St. Patrick’s.  Bp. Finn did the honors.  It was an amazing experience, btw.

I am sure you readers can provide other instances.

Thus, I think that this is one of those situations where, beyond the architectural issues also play a role, the pastoral necessity is what counts the most.  This is certainly what is suggested in the CDWDS editorial I have posted about here from time to time.

The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out. (Emphases added)

GIRM 299 is clearly a strong suggestion rather than an absolutely mandate.

Sometimes traditionalists will complain that legislation from the Church is not clear enough these days, that it doesn’t spell things out without ambiguity.   Here is an instance in which this works to everyone’s advantage.

Technorati Tags:

FacebookEmailPinterestGoogle GmailShare/Bookmark

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Linking Back and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to QUAERITUR: Can a newly built church have an altar “against the wall”?

  1. kgurries says:

    Maybe this could all be resolved if we apply the new Google translator to GIRM 299?

  2. Solution: build the altar just far enough away from the wall so that it can be easily walked around (for incensing it and for celebration facing the people when deemed advisable).

  3. kjmacarthur says:

    The altar of Our Lady of Walsingham in Houston (constructed in 2003) is against the reredos in the end of the chancel. It is not fixed to the floor, so it can be moved away from the wall. As far as I know, the altar has only been moved out from the wall once, at its dedication, when Archbishop Fiorenza, who said the Mass, insisted on ad populum. Since then all of the Masses have been ad orientem, even when Archbishop Fiorenza or Cardinal Dinardo have celebrated.

  4. I am not sure why one would wish, in a new building, to attach the altar to the wall. Ancient and medieval altars were all free-standing. In fact, most Renaissance altars were as well. The fashion of attaching altars to the wall is a Baroque phenomenon, and even then was not universal. In the Baroque, as an anti-Protestant statement, altars against the wall were fashioned as “thrones” for the Reserved Sacrament. Take a look at the high altar of the Gesu and you will see what I mean.

    Now I have absolutely nothing against veneration of the Reserved Sacrament, Benediction, etc., but when the throne-like aspect of the altar becomes dominant, the sense of the altar as place of sacrifice can easily become secondary. I know this from conversation with good pious Catholics who complain about the moving of tabernacles because “I cannot adore Jesus in the Tabernacle during Mass.” The Mass is our highest act of worship, and it is NOT worship of the Reserved Sacrament.

    Nevertheless, I have no problem with a tabernacle on altars (including a free-standing ones–the Easterners do that all the time), but the throne-like altars of the post 1600 period can produce a confused piety about the Mass.

    I might add, that even though I think they are not the optimal configuration, I am opposed to changing them where they exist. To do so would be artistic vandalism.

  5. PaterAugustinus says:

    In the Latin Rite of the Orthodox Church (a very small movement, but it does exist!), we follow the ancient custom (of East and West) of having the altar free standing and cube-shaped whenever possible. However, we don’t use this for versus populum celebrations. Indeed, the common practice of building a Rood Screen would render such a celebration moot. I think it is a good thing to have the altar free-standing, because it does allow the priest to perambulate the altar for a proper old-timey censing. Our rubrics allow for an altar against the wall in a small chapel or side altar, but the norm assumes that the altar may be circled.

    For those who want to discourage versus populum (the ubiquitous norm, contrary to all rubrical presuppositions of the older and newer Roman Missals), but still give a respectful nod to the GIRM 299 – and especially to the ancient practice of circling the altar during thurification – I think the answer may be found by tracing the historical development of an altar-against-the-wall arrangement.

    Specifically, this arrangement came from the development of the reredos, a large backing to the altar bearing appropriate sacred images. The reredos eventually became so grand and elaborate, however, that it became a sort of wall in its own right. Initially, little doorways were built into this large, wall-style reredos, on either side of the altar, so that the priest could still walk around the altar while censing. Eventually, though, the doorways were forgotten and the reredos became a solid wall… leading to the practice of simply building the altar against the wall even in large temples.

    So, perhaps a return could be made to the practice of building a largish reredos immediately behind the altar, either the same width as the altar, or with doors for perambulation of the same in a larger model. This would move the altar from the wall and allow it to be circled (fulfilling a substantial portion of GIRM 299′s “suggestion”), but would shut down versus populum celebrations with great efficiency.

  6. chironomo says:

    Christ The King in Sarasota FL (built in 2008 and dedicated in 2009) was built with a traditional High Altar against the wall. Of course, this is an FSSP parish dedicated to the EF. Is there some sort of “indult” or something that exempts them from GIRM 299 (other than it is the General Instruction for a different Missale) ? The building was a former Episcopal church, but was completely gutted and rebuilt for it’s present use.

  7. danphunter1 says:

    “…celebration facing the people when deemed advisable).”
    Jeffrey, may I please ask, when would “celebration facing the people” ever be deemed advisable?
    Maybe have the altar far enough away from the wall to allow the priest to encompass the altar and incense it [as I have seen in a church I assist at] but not far enough away as to offer Mass in the “enclosed circle”.

  8. Jeremy says:

    Isn’t up to the people having the church built to decide what kind of altar they want? And if not, why not?

  9. Fr. Basil says:

    \\I was just wondering, because of what 299 says do altars have to be built so one can walk around them? Or in a new church can you build a high altar the way they used to?\\

    Actually, having the main altar free standing (regardless of which way the celebrant faced) is “the way they used to”. Having the altar up against the eastern wall is a relatively recent innovation, as some previous posters pointed out.

    In the Western rite, a concelebration might look better visually with the concelebrants in the basilican orientation, unless the altar is more or less cubical, as Byzantine usage prefers. In this case, the main celebrant faces east with the concelebrants on the north and south sides, facing across (which is what happens).

  10. Tim Ferguson says:

    It’s not up to the “people having the church built,” because we are not congregationalists. Churches are built under the direction of the bishop, because he, the successor to the apostles in our midst, is the embodiment of tradition in our diocese, the living symbol of our connection to the apostles and to the Prince of the Apostles in Rome. As such, he is the moderator of our worship and of the churches we construct for that worship.

  11. profcarlos says:

    I am building a small chapel (technically an oratory) in my rural property. Perhaps I will ask Msgr. Rifan to attach it to the Apostolic Administration; I still don’t know. Anyway, I will try to convince the parish priest to say Mass there once a month, for the people who live nearby to attend. I think he will do it. A priest from the Apostolic Administration will probably say Mass there once in a while, too, as he spends some time in the small city nearby, where he is the chaplain of a convent of Apostolic Administration-attached Trad nuns.
    -=-=-
    BTW, they run a school for poor girls, and will be happy to receive toys and such at:
    Educandário Santa Cecília
    Al. Prof. Mário Neves, s/no.
    Bairro N. Sra. de Lurdes
    São Lourenço – MG.
    37.470-000
    Brazil
    Phone: +55-35-3332-5597, English probably NOT spoken.
    -=-=-=-
    (hey, they do not make coffee, but they deserve some advertising too!) :D

    In the chapel I am building, the altar will be built close to the wall, and there will be no electricity on the chapel, in order to prevent liturgical abuses. While it is certainly possible not to have liturgical abuses with electricity and a freestanding altar, the altar close to the wall *forces* the celebration to be ad orientem, and the lack of electricity prevents excessive amplification (a very common problem in Brazil, where more often than not the average Mass will give anyone above 20 y.o. a headache). Of course, there will be resonators (the shell-shaped thing behind the ambo), a high place for a choir above the entrance, etc.

    The point is that at the present moment in the liturgical wars, it is sometimes better to *force* some things (ad orientem, etc.), making the alternative impossible or hard to do. We have all seen what people can do, even in perfectly conceived liturgical spaces, and until the liturgy is back on its proper tracks, the less wiggle room for Modernism we leave in the construction of new churches, the better.

    The higher the status and position of the church, the harder it is to do it now; no Bishop would have the luxury of building a Cathedral with no freestanding altar. But a private oratory should have it, a small chapel may have it, a parish might do it, and so on. We do what we can. :)

  12. If I remember correctly, when Mother Angelica built her chapel down there in Alabama, the altar was originally fixed against the wall, but the bishop demanded it be moved forward. She eventually relented and the bishop came and consecrated the altar when the place was finished. But I remember a controversy. Does anyone recall the details?

  13. Mitchell NY says:

    While some of the reredoes are quite tall and ornamented and it is said to be a “Baroque” time period addition, I fail to see what exactly is wrong with that. Some of the most beautiful High Altars I have ever seen are of that type. And even if a later arrival why should that be reason to do away with that style? I even like the idea of it being “thronelike” for the tabernacle and also as a resistance to Protestant influences or ways in a Catholic Mass. If we are going to try to always go back to the first century or earliest time in terms of liturgical settings it may indeed get too bland. Simple yes, but the world has evolved and so has taste, style, but more importantly,materials and craftmanship. Maybe the year 1600 wouldn’t be so bad to see as a pinnacle of detail, beauty and some of the best use of materials to offer to God. I mean, how many an architect today can create such beauty and detail from simply the imagination and without the aid of computers. Whether you like Baroque or not the workmanship is often displayed in the details and to be marvelled at. Can a free standing Altar, pulled so far from the wall and designed for both Ad Orientem, and Versus Populum even have those tall statues and detailing reaching the vertical heights of a Sanctuary and mind? For example, wouldn’t it block the view of the Priest entirely for those celebrations Versus Populum? Of course that may be a good thing anyways as a way to return to Ad Orientem worship completely. I do think the V.P. option is OK as a teaching aid. Like once a month for people who are new to the Faith and feel the need to learn exactly what the Priests does when normally facing God during the Liturgy with the rest of the parish. Once the actions are observed and memorized, which happens quickly, then they could move on to the formal, normative orientation for Catholic Mass. Perhaps returning once in a while for a refresher. I do like the sensations of the verticality of tall, High Altars which draw the mind upwards toward the Heavens. It just feels proper. I also like the idea of another poster who spoke of the doors or “portals” kind of to pass through when censing the Altar. It allows for the best of all variations and seems to incorporate all the allowed options and rules. Are any of these type Altars in existence? Can they be built today?

  14. PaterAugustinus says:

    @ Fr. Augustine Thompson:

    There is actually a very long tradition of regarding the altar as the throne of Jesus Christ, the place of His Presence – whether the Sacrament is reserved on the altar or not. In the early Middle Ages, Latin Altars were elaborately draped with long and flowing cloths, which did not simply hang down the length of the altar, but actually flowed out a ways onto the floor. Apart from these cloths, and the chalice and paten, literally nothing was permitted to touch the altar (since it was God’s throne), and candles, crucifixes, icons, etc., were placed on ledges around the altar or on a reredos, etc. Baldachins were built over the altars, and often very elaborate curtains, lined with jewels and cloth of gold, were built around the baldochin’s perimeter. The Sacrament hung from above in a golden dove, surrounded by lamps. The Altar was very much considered the footstool of His feet, the place of His Presence, a sort of focal point in the juncture between Earth and Heaven and an epicenter or fount of “sacramentalization” of the creation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the “throne” concept of the altar at all. It is God’s throne, the ladder of heaven upon which the Angels ascend and descend, etc.

    I think the problem lies in the increasing tendency to expose the Eucharist to the sense of sight, beginning in the Late Middle Ages. While most Christians could have seen the altar up until the 6th century, there begins immediately thereafter to be a universal tendency to emphasize the Mystery of the Mass in several ways. First, in the Eastern Church, developing from a small rail of icons, a small collonade with curtains was built near the altar to veil it during the Anaphora. In the West, curtains were hung from the Baldochins for the same purpose, and small chancel screens separated the nave and altar areas. In the East, this collonade eventually developed into the Iconostas, and in the West, the chancel screens developed into Rood Screens… for a while, the curtains on the baldochin also remained, and servers were expected to leave the altar during the Canon, up until the Supplices Te Rogamus. There was no elevation of the Host or the Chalice and no ringing of bells during the Words of Institution (indeed, local councils tried for some time to forbid this unauthorized innovation). In short, there was a universal development towards emphasizing the mysterious and super-sensory aspects of the Sacrifice and the Throne, by closing the Altar off from the attention of all but the celebrant during the most solemn moments of the Mystery. Some would say that this curtaining off of the altar was a prime example of clericalism trying to all but exclude the laity from the Holy Things, in which they have a share by baptismal right. But, I would say that there are and were legitimate reasons for emphasizing the mystery of the Sacrament in this way, profoundly rooted in Patristic teaching on the pros and cons of various senses, and in other more dogmatic elements of the Faith. At a minimum, it taught the people to go inside themselves and pray during and for the Anaphora, rather than to watch the Anaphora with bated breath.

    Following the Schism, this mentality gradually began to change in the West, via practices which were regarded as abuses, but for which popular piety kept pressing. Little holes were cut in the Rood Screens so people could peep in during the consecration. Eventually, the Rood Screens were torn down and the priests further acquiesced to the intense desire to “see,” and so began to introduce innovative elevations announced by bell-ringing where there had been none of either before. As the Renaissance gave way to the Baroque, as you say, the altars became gigantic showpieces for the tabernacle and Eucharistic adoration as Catholicism now knows it first began to be practiced. I would argue – though, this is by no means provable – that the versus populum and the “folkification” of the Latin Rite’s liturgy (musically, linguistically, and in the compliment and types of servers at the liturgy) is simply the end result of a long trend towards feeling like being included in the Eucharist, i.e., “active participation,” means having to see everything and be “right there” with it, without any literal or symbolic or cultural “barrier” to such “participation.” In other words, the “Spirit of Vatican II” is the continuation of this same spirit, which, during the millennium since the Schism, has often disobeyed official directives in order to pursue what it considered a “closer” relationship to the altar and its goings-on, through exterior, rather than interior activity.

    In other words, I don’t think the problem is that the later against-the-wall altars are “thrones,” generally, but rather, that they are show-pieces for the Tabernacle. That could be more or less what you meant, but I just wanted to put my two cents in, in favour of recognizing the altar as a throne… it’s just a matter of whether the altar is a throne for the Divine Sacrament, or a throne in its own right of the Deity, Who may also be Eucharistically present if the Sacrament is reserved there.

    I could go into the Orthodox view on Eucharistic Adoration, by way of discussing such altars as “monstrances” for the tabernacle, but that’s another post for another day.

  15. mark1970 says:

    I know this is slightly off-topic, but I used to attend a TLM in a 19th century chapel in the UK that had been restructured in the late 1960′s to allw Mass facing the people (with the original High Altar removed). In the 1990′s a new pastor applied to the bishop – and permission was given – for the original High Altar to be re-installed (the Altar had been kept although not in use or its original place) as part of a re-decoration of the chapel. Not quite the building of a new chapel but I wonder how many churches have been re-ordered to the extent of having the original altar removed, only for permission given for the process to be reversed?

  16. becket1 says:

    Quote: “The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.”

    In other words so that the priest and deacon can face the people, and be the CENTER of attention, and turn their back on the Most Holy Trinity.

  17. dominic1955 says:

    I don’t see the problem with continuing to build the “old” high altars w/ reredos. Yes, I know very well that this was a “later” development, but so what-so were a number of things like black vestments, crucifixes, polyphony, etc. (ehem, Mediator Dei).

    However, that should be acknowledged, it does no good to insist on saying that the “old” high altars w/reredos are the only “traditional” way of doing it or the way “we’ve always done it” because that’s simply not the case. Free standing altars can be very beautiful as well, but they need to be done right, i.e. have some sort of proper ciborium or tester over them.

    It should be emphasized (in a traditional way, not as it has often been done after VII) that the tabernacle is not the primary focus during Mass. There have been many ways of reserving the Blessed Sacrament throughout the years, and if done properly, one could even have the old Sacrament Houses and such again. I personally prefer the tabernacle being on the altar (whether its in the reredos or on the altar in a free standing arrangement) but it can be properly held to have it elsewhere.

  18. robtbrown says:

    Augustine Thompson, op, wrote:

    I am not sure why one would wish, in a new building, to attach the altar to the wall. Ancient and medieval altars were all free-standing. In fact, most Renaissance altars were as well. The fashion of attaching altars to the wall is a Baroque phenomenon, and even then was not universal. In the Baroque, as an anti-Protestant statement, altars against the wall were fashioned as “thrones” for the Reserved Sacrament. Take a look at the high altar of the Gesu and you will see what I mean.

    Now I have absolutely nothing against veneration of the Reserved Sacrament, Benediction, etc., but when the throne-like aspect of the altar becomes dominant, the sense of the altar as place of sacrifice can easily become secondary. I know this from conversation with good pious Catholics who complain about the moving of tabernacles because “I cannot adore Jesus in the Tabernacle during Mass.” The Mass is our highest act of worship, and it is NOT worship of the Reserved Sacrament.

    There were other factors:

    First, I agree that there is Blessed Sacrament/Mass confusion line of sight confusion, but it is mostly a consequence of mass being celebrated versus populum on a picnic table in the middle of the sanctuary rather than on the high altar. When mass is celebrated on the high altar (even one of enthronement), such confusion disappears. Another angle was noted by JRatzinger, who wrote that versus populum celebration itself creates confusion by undermining participatio actuosa.

    Second, assisting at mass is not the only reason to visit a church, but almost all the orders founded since the 16th cent did not have community office as an essential part of the life. And so in places like the US, where these orders dominated and which never had cathedral canons, there has never been much of an opportunity to assist at Vespers or any other of the Hours. With the opportunity for the laity to participate in the Divine Office, what was left was private devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.

    It was not uncommon at Fontgombault for Vespers during the week to be well attended, and there was usually a crowd at Sunday Vespers.

  19. ocsousn says:

    There are really two questions here: (1.) The reredos and (2.) the question of space behind the altar, with or without reredos or gradines, sufficient for one to walk between it and the wall of the apse. It is clear from the rubrics in the Pontifical for the Consecration of a Church that the altar (at least the high or main altar) should be separated from the wall so that that the consecrating prelate can walk around it with incense and Gregorian Water. My own home parish, St. Catharine’s in Spring Lake, NJ, (Yes, it’s spelled that way for St. CathArine of Alexandria!) built just over a century ago, has a marvelous reredos of Corinthian columns with a good five feet separating it from the wall. This space is integral to the proportions and interior harmony of the church. My impression is that altars constructed in the 19th and early 20th centuries were put against the wall for reasons of economy of space more than anything else. Though there are exceptions in the case of small churches and chapels, a search of the great churches of the baroque era will show that the altars, however grand the reredos attached to it, are invariably free-standing. An instance of a free-standing medieval altar with a baroque reredos built behind it can be found at the Cistercian abbey of Poblet in Spain. The later reredos was not attached to the altar because in the Cistercian Rite the priest walks around the altar during the Sunday Asperges with holy water and in the primitive form of the rite the deacon walked around the altar at the offertory with incense. Check out the pictures of the new chapel at the FSSP seminary in Nebraska for an example of an altar that fulfills all the criteria of the traditional liturgical books. I appears to that such an altar with a ciborioum / baldachin is a fitting throne for the tabernacle BUT at the same time gives due prominence to the altar itself as the Place of Sacrifice. While I am a great admirer of all things baroque I must admit that in some instances the altar mensa itself give the impression if being, if not an after-thought, then at least a secondary aspect of the construction.
    Fr. Aidan Logan, OCso

  20. Supertradmum says:

    Two new churches with which I am somewhat familiar, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in LaCrosse, and the Church of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity at Thomas Aquinas College have free standing altars. The Benedictine order of Mary, Queen of Apostles, a traditional order, have begun a new building program and it will be interesting to see if their altar is against the wall. What has happened in some English Churches, is that the original churches have become a Eucharistic Chapel, with the altar against the wall, and the novus altar placed in a newly reconstructed area where the altar is free-standing, such as at St. Joseph in Sheringham. Most of the new churches I have seen in England have free-standing altars. Some of the FSSP churches have not had enough money to create truly beautiful, permanent, wall-facing altars, or they share churches-see St. Andrew’s in Edinburgh.