Turning the Tables

This was an commentary on an editorial article in Notitiae of May 1993, which I translated from the Italian original. The translation was published in the Winter 1993 issue quarterly journal Sacred Music and this commentary appeared in Spring 1994.

The article was "pirated" some years ago and put on line in various places without the permission of Sacred Music, or so the former editor Msgr. Richard Schuler told me. So, I feel entirely free to pirate it right back since I wrote it. I have cleaned it up a little, changing some of the "orthography" away from Sacred Music‘s 1990’s stylesheet. The online version was a mess and a half. If you don’t read Sacred Music, you ought to.

by Rev. John T. Zuhlsdorf

In his book, The Reform of the Roman Liturgy, recently published in both French and English translations, Monsignor Klaus Gamber said:

During the past twenty years, we have experienced a change in the accepted meaning of the Sacrifice. Personally, I believe that the introduction of the "altar of the people," with the celebrant of the Mass facing the people, is of much greater significance and poses greater problems for the future than the introduction of the new missal.

In the May 1993 issue of Notitiae, the publication of the Vatican’s Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, there is an editorial concerning the orientation of altars and celebrations of the Mass facing the people (See Sacred Music, Vol.120, No. 4, p. 14-17). In light of the increasing discussion overthese very matters, it is opportune to comment on this editorial.

It must be noted that Notitiae is the official publication of the Congregation. It relates various speeches of the Holy Father, minutesof plenary sessions of the congregations, various continuing scholarly studies accepted in manuscript or undertaken by the Congregation concerning the liturgy; provides the ordinary prayersfor newly beatified or canonized saints to be used in the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours; publishes decrees of the same congregation;from time to time responds formally and publicly to questions raised about the liturgy with official clarifications or interpretations;and also provides editorials or opinions. While some of the things in Notitiae have an official character, such as a decree or clarification, an editorial has no authority other than that derivedfrom the strength of its arguments and ability to persuade. People often mistake opinion for authority, especially in the liturgy. This leads to terrible problems for the use of music, observance of rubrics, construction/destruction of churches, and the like. In this number of Notitiae, one notes in the index the title of the editorial in question, but there is no indication that it is in fact an editorial until one glances at the top of the next page. While this may have been an oversight, it could lead to confusion and is best clarified.

After several introductory paragraphs (14), which establish the obvious point that all liturgy is oriented toward God, the editorial begins to address its topic. A clear attempt is made to argue that, at least in part, the arrangement of the altar, people and celebrant is historically and culturally conditioned. The motive here seems to be this: to prepare the reader later in the editorial to accept as preferable the theological/cultural criteria provided for a positioning of the altar in contrast to any historical/cultural criteria that would agrue for a different arrangement. In otherwords, if it can be shown that altars ad orientem are the result of historical or cultural conditions, rather than an organic outgrowth of Christian spirituality and theology, then the arrangement of the altar versus populum can be claimed as superior once a theological basis for it can be established.

However, the editorial’s argument reveals the first of a series of weaknesses. We read that "symbolism" as expressed in architecture is only proved with difficulty to be "an integral and basic part of Christian faith." While this is the first salvo designed to undermine support for an ad orientem altar, it likewise weakens support for a versus populum altar if convincing theological and spiritual arguments cannot be provided. Moreover, this is founded on a premise that is hard to admit, namely, that the historical or cultural influences on the development of the altar are to be set in contrast with the theological. Basically, the editorial has begun its bid to finesse the reader into being persuaded by what will, at its end, be admitted to be a matter of symbolic emphasis and even taste. It is furthermore ironic that later in the editorial numerous appeals will be made to "symbolism" to support a versus populum altar.

There follows a secondary section that continues to associate the ad orientem altar with historical and cultural conditions, even pagan influences. The editorial makes a particularly strange use of one of the fathers of the Church, St. Leo the Great. However, at the end of the paragraph, we find probably the real causa movens behind Notitiae‘s apologia:

In fact, the faithful entering the basilica for the Eucharist in order to be intent on the altar, had to turn their backs to the sun. In order to pray while "turned toward the east", as it was said, they would have had to turn their backs to the altar, which doesn’t seem probable.

This is an unmistakable reference to the thesis of Klaus Gamber in his recently and posthumously re-published works that have all but dismantled the archeological arguments favoring the versus populum altars that have been the rage of liturgists and the bane of architectural integrity for decades. In Zum Herrn hin![1] Gamber argues very effectively that, regardless of the physical orientation of the building, the priest and people faced the same direction at Mass, symbolically facing the east. The fact that in Roman basilicas the altars were set between the priest celebrating and the people is not sufficient evidence for an ancient practice of versus populum celebrations in the modern sense. Put briefly, it is Gamber’s thesis, founded on historical evidence and well-documented, that at a certain point in the Basilica of St. Peter, the people literally turned around and faced the east with the result that the priest and people face the same direction, this time with the priest behind the assembly. As time went on and the practice of turning around faded,there were still no versus populum Masses (in the modern sense) in the Roman basilicas because of the presence of barriers between the congregations and the altar, screens, curtains, etc.[2]

Though revolutionary, Gamber’s well-researched argument is far more convincing than what has been provided in past decades. It is clear that he has frightened not a few people, even in the Congregation for Divine Worship. If Gamber is right, the destruction of countless altars, the violation of sanctuaries, the pain and "disorientation" as it were of the Catholic faithful, will have proved to be a sham founded on a false argument. Some of the people who pushed the reforms after Vatican II are still around, of course, and their spiritual offspring can be found still in the Congregation that provided the editorial in . But the full impact of the editorial remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it is patent that this editorial is a response to Gamber and his growing posthumous influence.

After having attempted to associate the ad orientem altar with aculturally conditioned practice that eventually faded away, the next paragraph goes on to state that, since the practice deriving from that outdated and even pagan symbolism diminished, the celebration of Mass ad orientem cannot be considered an "inviolable element" or a "traditional fundamental principle of the liturgy." Following this, the editorial uses Pius XII to show that a desire to perpetuate an ad orientem altar is merely archeologizing, and therefore unsound, even bad. This is a further attack on the thesis of Gamber. While appealing to Pius XII seems to be a rather blatant citation of a pope much revered by traditional Catholics, there is a yet more curious point to this. Gamber himself also cites the 1947 encyclical, Mediator Dei, which says that "one who wants to change the altar into the old form of the mensa is going down the wrong road."[3]

Changing tacks, the editorial goes on to give us this:

In effect, the validity of the liturgical reform is not based only and exclusively on the return to original forms. There can also be completely new elements in it, and in fact there are some, that have been perfectly integrated.

To this assertion several responses must be made. First, we can seehow nervous the defenders of the versus populum Mass (clearly the position taken by the editorial writer!) have become if they are now beginning to back-peddle on the very argument by which they justified their altar "revolution" in the first place. "Go back to the original forms!" they once cried, thereby casting aspersions on anything that organically and legitimately developed during more than a dozen intervening centuries. Now they say that a return to the original forms is not the point? Gamber has shown that they are probably wrong in the first place about what they thought original forms were. No wonder they say that the original forms are not the point…now. It remains for them to make that assertion on a scholarly level, however. Until then, gratis asseritur, gratis negatur.

Second, it seems that they (in the Congregation) are afraid that Gamber was right and that they have no evidence to the contrary. Why else would they now attack the "previous forms" argument when before they lionized it? The whole editorial shows that the proponents of the versus populum altar are now being forced to go fishing for a theology to support their projects. But isn’t that what they say happened in the intervening centuries of organic liturgical development? Liturgical reformers were ever ready to say that all those developments in the Mass were merely historical encrustations that were later justified with subsequent theological explanations. To this writer’s mind, the Notitiae editorial is doing precisely the same thing, but with a difference. Whereas the developments in the liturgy unconsciously acquired theological explanations over the years, the Congregation seems to be consciously stitching one together, ex nihilo.

Third, this editorial has surely and openly admitted that completely new elements were added to the reform of the liturgy and has implicitly placed the versus populum altar among them. Is this anything other than a tacit admission that, while they don’t like Gamber’s argument, they have to accept it? Whether these new elements in the liturgy have been "perfectly integrated" or not must be balanced against the concrete fruits that they have produced for the two or more generations of Catholics since they were introduced.

It is important to note the phrase, "The option for celebrations versus populum is coherent with the foundational theological idea discovered and proven by the liturgical movement…" The Italian implies the notion of "option" in the sense of "choose." One could say "the choice in favor of celebrations" or even "the choice to celebrate versus populum." The editorial is again tackling Gamber, who comments on these points.[4] At least Gamber went back somewhat farther than the last few decades (a century at best) of the liturgical movement. Why the author of the editorial would want to favor the recent liturgical movement, a clear example of the intertwining of cultural influence on the form of liturgy, over the practice of the ancient Church is puzzling at best, especially since he has gone to such lengths to undermine the historical and cultural criterion arguing for the altar’s orientation. Once again the specter of prejudice seems to be raising its head. Why do certain lines of argumentation concerning liturgical questions inevitably prefer the modern over the ancient, oppose the old to the new, create conflict between different periods of Christian expression? It is as if the authentic liturgy began only recently after centuries of benighted wandering and aberrations.

The last few paragraphs of the editorial have the flavor of a very self-conscious apologia. This section begins with the dramatic statement that "the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council did not invent the arrangement of the altar turned toward the people." This is odd in light of the next paragraph’s discussion of the "liturgical movement." It also seems to be protesting innocence when there had been no accusation.

Moreover, while this paragraph seems in one moment to defend the post-conciliar entity, Consilium and its Cardinal Lercaro, the interpolation of their names in this context has the side effect of drawing our attention to just exactly what they did after the Council. The editorial justly uses the argument abusus non tollit usum. Still, is this any better than the finger-pointing cry of "its their fault?"

Besides this, what can one make of the statement, "Changing the orientation of the altar and utilizing the vernacular turned out to be much easier ways for entering into the theological and spiritual meaning of the liturgy…" This is greatly to be disputed. One could conversely charge that changing the altar and eliminating Latin created confusion and ignorance. While running the risk of extremism, one could argue effectively both ways.

All of this begs the question, however, of why it is necessarily preferable to make everything "easier." Why reduce the sacred and the mysterious always and everywhere to the common denominator? At the beginning of the editorial it was correctly stated that "celebrating the Eucharist is never to put into action something earthly, but rather something heavenly." How does a versus populum altar and the vernacular facilitate that fundamental concept better than the previous forms? If once it was not "easy" to "enter into" the liturgy’s meaning at all its levels, it can hardly be stated that centuries of saints and martyrs, billions of unknown lay people, clergy, and religious throughout the world were unable to imbibe of the spirit of the liturgy which reflects the eschatological presence of the Lord of glory simply because Latin was used or the altar was ad orientem! The editorial’s statement is specious. In fact, the older form of liturgy proved itself by its fruits, and the newer form has yet to prove anything by the fact that we haven’t as yet seen it authentically implemented.

It has been said that the Church has bequeathed two things to humanity as its rightful heritage: art and saints. The centuries long use of the older form of liturgy certainly inculturated the Christian faith and gave thousands of generations a foretaste of our heavenly promise. This cannot be disputed. We have yet to see what the new-easier-form of the liturgy will give us. Despite the editorial’s disclaimer of abuses, if we have seen "something" since the introduction of the reforms, including the "new elements" cited, we have hardly seen a flowering of Catholic art and saints. Time will tell. We must give an authentic reform the chance to bear its own fruits.

The argument that a versus populum altar is verified because monks pray facing each other is ridiculous. Going on, the editorial reveals a clear theological bias even though a nod is given in the direction of the sacrificial nature of the Mass (which seems adequately expressed by an ad orientem altar) the notion of the supper and the meal is put in high evidence (favoring the versus populum). More absurd, and hardly to be understood, is the contention that the versus populum altar is "one of the strongest arguments sustaining the uninterrupted tradition of the exclusive ordination of men." One is almost embarrassed by this last point. After several blatant appeals to things revered by traditionally minded Catholics, Fathers of the Church, Pius XII, etc., now the need is felt to tack on a reference to male priesthood as something favoring a versus populum altar.

Moving from "theory" to "pastoral application," the final paragraph introduces what the Congregation proposes as "guiding points." First, the use of the title "Congregation" does not change the fact that Gamber’s argument has not been systematically addressed.

Nevertheless, as faithful Roman Catholics, it is still praiseworthy to consider and draw upon that which Roman Congregations publish, even if only at the level of an editorial. It is useful then to look at these five "guiding points" in order, and then consider their implications for our pastoral use. These "guiding points," reduced to their core and commented on here are as follows:

1. Priests need to acquire a better liturgical technique, based on a sound faith and theology, since celebrating facing the people is harder to do.

This is hardly to be disputed. Would that the Congregation had insisted on this point over the last thirty years since Sacrosanctum Concilium. If, on the other hand, it is true that one does not easily acquire a liturgical "presidential" style for Masses coram populo, the same is to be said for those ad orientem. It is not to be assumed that celebrating Mass with one’s back to the people is automatically easier. Still, this remains a very good point, even if it is partly a response to what Gamber says about the liturgical style prone to the turned-around altar.[5] In addition, one can use this point to draw many implications for other related issues of training for clergy.

2. The altar itself is not a mere table, and its placement makes a difference in how the sanctuary is used.

Certainly this is directed at the abuse or disregard of the altar’s special character. The very fact that a guiding point is given on this, shows how vulnerable to abuse the versus populum altar is. Also, if the position of the altar versus populum requires a rigorous and careful use of sanctuary space, this is no less the case when the altar is fixed to the wall and the sanctuary is more open. The other part of this problem is that the comment arrives at a time when, more often than not, people are asking "what’s a sanctuary?," so many have been eliminated. Also, the carefully worked out rubrics of previous missals are certainly more in line with this "guiding point" than the usual chaos seen in most sanctuaries today. This is partly because of the ambiguity of the rubrics remaining in the new books. If the Congregation wants a better liturgical presider and a better use of the altar and sanctuary, then it could start by giving us a clear and detailed ceremonial, even though one shudders at the idea of what we might get.

3. The principle of the unicity of the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating facing the people.

Although this should be an obvious point, in its own way it is the single most important point of the whole editorial. Here the entire argumentation of the editorial falls away only to reveal what everybody already knows, and has known all along. Despite all the talk of historical conditions and previous forms, aside from the theological dance done to persuade the reader that a turned-around altar is to be preferred, in the final analysis the versus populum celebration, and therefore all of the editorial’s argumentation, is not of absolute value. There are legitimate and obvious reasons why one should have an ad orientem altar. This is a most singular statement to find in Notitiae after the years and years of polemics throughout the world over this issue!

Reviewed briefly, the reason for this "point" is as follows. If the architectural layout or the artistic value of the versus ad orientem altar doesn’t allow space for a turned-around altar, keep the old one. The main idea is to defend the focus of attention on one altar. What implications does this have for the table altars that have been set up in churches both large and small where the clear architectural intention was to create lines of sight such that the worshipers’ eyes were directed to the high altar and the tabernacle? What conclusions are to be drawn from this "point" for cathedrals and basilicas, richly and beautifully decorated, that have placed a table altar in front of an artistic treasure that dominated the whole sanctuary? What does this mean for overly crowded sanctuaries that have coram populo altars squeezed in so that the space is cramped and the main altar, if still extant, turns into the shelf for plants? When in a church one sees nothing else but the high altar, beautifully decorated and by its location at the center of every attention, what implications can be drawn for the little table set up so that the priest can face the people? More sadly, what does this mean for all the altars, artistic treasures, architectural "wholes" that have been destroyed for the sake of versus populum?

In addition to momentous practical implications, this "point" has a legitimate and convincing theological aspect too: the one people of God should focus on one altar in their church. This does not mean destroy side altars, which also have significance. The artistic values and architectural space and integrity of altars and churches must be respected. Thus, common sense, theology and good taste converge at last.

4. Do not confuse topography with theology.

In a way, this "guiding point" extends point No. 3, above. Here we read that, theologically, every Mass is facing God. This is an attempt to say that an altar coram populo and one ad orientem accomplish virtually the same thing, provided, of course, that the celebrant knows what he is doing (point No. 1), the space is used well (point No. 2) and the practical and artistic aspects have been properly handled so that the people are focused on one altar (point No. 3). While this point tries to participate in the clear advantages of an ad orientem altar for all situations, it is a good principle and hardly to be disputed, even though the Congregation’s editorial keeps saying that versus populum is better.

5. "Provisional arrangements" cannot be justified any longer.

Thirty years after Sacrosanctum Concilium it is time to settle down. There are at least two ways to read this "guiding point," one superficial and one more reflective. First reading: movable tables should be quickly fixed to the floor as permanent altars, lest something happen and the table altar versus populum goes out ofstyle. In this way it will be harder to get rid of and just might weather the storm. Second, a comprehensive reading that takes into consideration some other principles provided by the editorial itself is possible. Take stock of how the liturgy is being celebrated: improve your celebrant’s style, get your ceremonies worked out, study your church’s design and the artistic value of the main altar and/or the table altar. If, when there are two altars present, the versus populum altar is clearly overshadowed and doesn’t work harmoniously with the space, get rid of it; use the high altar, and celebrate together facing God, priest’s back to the people. This would be the case with most older churches where the sanctuaries have not been "reformed." If on the other hand the versus populum altar is clearly harmonious with the space and there is no altar ad orientem, then keep things the way they are. This would be the case with most newer churches, designed to have a coram populo altar. Here priest and people could celebrate facing God, while facing each other. It is obvious that in churches where there is only one altar ad orientem and it works well, and that a versus populum altar would disturb the space’s organic whole, it should be shunned. Alas, too late for many…

This leaves unclarified the case of the older church in which the sanctuary has been reformed or the internal floor plan has been rearranged. In this case the high ad orientem altar may have been removed and a versus populum altar been introduced, but the result is a confusion of architectural lines and artistic styles that try to force the building to do something it was not designed to do.

Using the editorial’s guidelines, the Congregation seems to be saying that the church should be put back the way it was so that the space’s artistic and architectural harmony can favor the unicity of the altar and the people’s focus on it for the purpose of celebrating facing God. On the other hand, as Cardinal Ratzinger says, after all the upheaval endured in the last years and throughout all the various "renovations" that have been done, maybe it is prudent to give things a rest before putting them back the way they were. Many people already have the idea that the Church is no longer stable because of the last thirty years. Let us not contribute to that by rushing into "denovation" projects too quickly.

After looking at the strengths and weaknesses of this editorial in Notitiae, and reviewing with comments the "guiding points" it provides, a final word is in order.

The Congregation, startled into action by the thesis of Klaus Gamber to which it reacts in this editorial, has clearly been forced into a massive retreat. If the Congregation is seen as perpetuating the innovations of the Consilium, then the article in Notitiae is doubly astonishing, like a trusted rifle backfiring, exploding. If the Holy See’s Notitiae can be argued to be the balanced and genuine "central line," neither too conservative, nor too radical, then the liturgists of the world will still have a great deal of thinking to do. In fact, it probably lies somewhere in between. Nevertheless, the "experts" of the Congregation have gone back on the principle of returning to original forms, because it is clear now that the forms don’t bear out what has been done in their name. While trying to state that historical conditioning is not a central criterion for the arrangement of an altar, they have referred to the liturgical movement of the past few decades. This is a great contradiction. Abandoning historical criteria, they set out to create a theology in order to justify a celebration facing the people, the same organic process which was the bugbear of reformers concerning the older form of liturgy. Having lost every other support, they are reduced to defence of the "unicity" of the altar, in whatever form, in order to salvage the versus populum. "Point," set, and match.

Notwithstanding all of the above, the "guiding points," though they have no authority themselves, can provide food for thought to all those who for so long have thought themselves to be secure in their exclusive use of a versus populum liturgy. It seems to be a gentle way of breaking the news and giving some guidance.

This editorial of Notitiae was in a way an immense concession to those who for decades have been saying that the Church’s artistic treasures must be respected and used wisely. Although it deals mainly with the position of the altar and the celebrant, the editorial opened itself up to wider considerations when it brought up the vernacular and various "new elements" in the liturgy. Therefore, we can conclude that if the "guiding points" given can be applied to altars, we can also apply them to liturgical language as well. If the liturgy reflects heaven and not earth, mystery and not commonplace, then the position of the altar, the language used, and the music and other arts employed must foster this. If they do not, they should bechanged. This is a solid argument for the use of Latin and the treasury of sacred music at our disposal, so intimately joined to Latin and the liturgical space itself.

The great works of sacred music that we have inherited over the centuries were conceived and born into a certain kind of liturgical space, namely, one that was open, acoustically favorable, and adequate for a solemn liturgical function proportioned to the lofty values and the greatness of the music’s own artistic expression. Therefore, the discussion of the altar and Latin are themselves central to the music, for they impact on the space and the language in which the music is performed.

Even the notion given in "guiding point" No. 2 is vital and applicable to a discussion of Latin and music. If a good liturgical style is important to celebrations, and if it must be worked on, practiced, studied, acquired by training, it is even more important to have the Church direct the training of priests particularly in Latin, music, and the other arts. Without Latin, how can a Latin rite priest function authentically? How can he know what music is suitable for the liturgy? Similarly, if the Church does not assure that there are justly paid church musicians with the proper training in their special field, as well as some work in Latin, architecture, theology and liturgy, how can any of our "liturgical spaces" realize what the Congregation says in the fourth paragraph of the editorial:

celebrating the Eucharist is never to put into action something earthly, but rather something heavenly, because (the Church) has the awareness that the principle celebrant of the same action is the Lord of Glory.

The Second Vatican Council could provide the background for a new renaissance in the third millennium of the Church’s pilgrimage toward the Lord of Glory in the heavenly Jerusalem to come. Editorials such as the one in Notitiae, though conditioned as they are by many factors, reveal Rome’s unchanging desire to guide us, get us to admit mistakes and use common sense, roll up our sleeves and then… just do what the Council asked.

Reverend John T. Zuhlsdorf


1. This is published in English as Facing the Lord: On the Building of Churches and Facing East in Prayer in a single volume together with another work (which gives the title to the volume) The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: its problems and background, Una Voce Press, 1993.

2. op. cit., pp. 159-161.

3. ibid., pp. 142-3.

4. ibid., pp. 142 sq.

5. ibid., pp. 171 sq.

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One Comment

  1. CDB says:

    I cannot help but think that much of the interest in a return to the ad orientem celebration by lay Catholics (at least in the U.S.) has been their exposure to the oriental rites of the Church. In many places in the U.S. it is easier to find a Byzantine liturgy within a decent driving distance than a TLM. Younger Latin rite Catholics, after having experienced these ancient liturgies begin to desire that their own liturgical heritage be restored.

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