“Many now want to go back to pre-Vatican II but do we need to go back to pre-Counter Reformation?”

This came from a priestly reader:

Fr. Z,
I thought I’d pass along a piece of fan mail I received after instituting the Benedictine Altar arrangement in my parish. Never a dull moment!
Fr _____

Here is the note he received complaining about the "Benedictine" arrangement of the altar:

Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states that “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful be led to the full, conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people’(1 Peter 2:9), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism.”

How does the current configuration of the altar of Holy Cross Church encourage such participation? The laity must look through a screen of large candlesticks and face the BACK of the crucifix during the Offertory and Consecration. Since the 4th century, chancel or rood screens were placed in churches to denote a hierarchically differentiated space separating the clergy from the laity. Such enclosures served as a mark of the higher position of the priest and to minimize that of the laity. Most such screens were removed from Catholic churches during the 15-16th centuries.

Many now want to go back to pre-Vatican II but do we need to go back to pre-Counter Reformation?


I am rather interested to hear your responses to what that writer said.

The writer may be confused about his manner of participation at Mass, how the baptized share in Christ’s priesthood.  He seems to think that distinctions between the priesthood of the baptized and the priesthood of the ordained somehow "minimize" the laity.  That is, of course, not the case.

Clearly the writer has not looked at what Joseph Ratzinger wrote about this issue in The Spirit of the Liturgy.   I would steer that person to that book and also to my PODCAzTs on the subject.

037 07-07-18 The position of the altar and the priest’s “back to the people”
038 07-07-25 Ratzinger on “active participation”; The Sabine Farm; Merry del Val’s music
043 07-08-23 Benedict XVI on Mass “toward the Lord” and a prayer by St. Augustine

Perhaps you might have your own reactions or counter arguments/explanations which both the writer and the priest could find useful. 

We should be ready to explain these things, after all.


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  1. Commentator says:

    The writer has a point. Apart from a few Roman basilicas, the arrangement of the priest behind a screen of candles+crucifix was unknown until recent days. Father should simply go the whole hog and begin ad orientem celebration, where the priest is completely visible to the congregation, not blocked by candles, crucifix or altar. Though I doubt if his correspondent would really be satisfied with that either!

  2. Sean says:

    Well, I certainly don’t feel belittled or unimportant when I attend my local Byzantine parish. The priest has his “back to the people” throughout the liturgy and even hides behind a very large and very “divisive” iconostasis. Yet, no matter how hard to priest tries to “shut me out” of this holy sacrifice, somehow, just somehow I am able to participate.

    I guess I am simply satisfied with my role as a layperson even though I don’t prance about the altar carrying things, nor see every movement and expression of the priest. Perhaps I haven’t been properly educated in how inferior I am as a layperson who doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be an ordained priest.

  3. Ioannes Andreades says:

    Despite the parishoner’s exaggeration of returning to pre-Trent practice, a measured and reasoned response would be the correct approach of course. When the ehemaliger Joseph Ratzinger advocated the candle and crucifix arrangement, he did so as a solution for churches that wanted to continue a versus populum posture. I am not sure whether it is crucial which direction the crucifix faces; I don’t recall this question’s being addressed in Spirit of the Liturgy. The idea is that the attention of the priest, ministers, and laity must be focused not on each other but on the God we worship and the expetation of Christ’s return. The idea that some of the laity still want to see the priest and what he does is misguided; it is not a spectator event. There is nothing to see on the other side of the candles and crucifix, only something to adore, toward which we only are asked to face and worship. To our eyes, all we see is man, bread, and wine but to our intellects we perceive Christ’s sacrifice of body and blood. Does a blind person participate less fully, consciously, and actively at mass?

  4. Matt Q says:

    Most and humbly and respectfully I would like to clarify to the priestly reader that what the Holy Father is doing is restoring what never should have been lost in the first place.

    Unfortunately people have been too ingratiated with the false and unintended results of the Council no matter how sincere they believe them to be. We can see the results therefrom. Declining attendance at he Mass, dramatic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, all kinds of strange and odd teachings which in no way pertain to Catholicism. I would like to point out the Father vocations–male and female–are flourishing where solid teachings and an embrace of Sacred Tradition ( and use of Latin ) are found. This is a statistical fact.

    Such things as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people’(1 Peter 2:9), is their right and duty by reason of their baptism” is true but the context in which it has been promoted is false. This again is a fault of the erroneous V-II mentality which places all the emphasis on man in the life of the Church and worship, with God as an aside. Ad populum worship further emphasizes this.

    It is a courageous and obligatory effort on the part of the Pope to reassert that which never should have been lost in the first place and certainly was not the intention of the Second Vatican Council.

    God bless, Father.

  5. Patrick T says:

    It’s very helpful in these discussions to point to other passages of Sacrosanctum Concilium, to understand what is meant by the quoted passage, such as:

    “…[L]iturgical services pertain to the whole Body of the Church; they manifest it and have effects upon it; but they concern the individual members of the Church in different ways, according to their differing rank, office, and actual participation.” (26)

    “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.” (30)

    “The Liturgy makes distinctions between persons according to their liturgical function and Sacred Orders,….” (32)

    Clearly according to Vatican II, the clergy and the laity have very important, but different roles in the Sacred Liturgy.

    Also, I would bet that this congregation has only to look upward to see a large image of the crucified Christ above the altar. If they are able to gaze upon that image, shouldn’t Father have the same opportunity?

  6. Fr. Angel says:


    The writer has a point, but it is a fallacy. Active participation is not dependent on the priest being fully visible, but on how attentive one is to the Word of God and to the Eucharistic prayer. The writer has stated that by putting candles and a crucifix on the altar, he or she has been subjugated, lowered before the priest, and deprived of the “baptismal right” of full, conscious participation.

    And that is another fallacy. These actions, whatever supposed roots they have in “pre-Counter Reformation” times, communicate a negative intention only if the writer wishes to impose that negative intention. The writer is reading intentions, or inventing intentions, for actions which may have been done with the opposite intention. If this has caused heartache for the writer, no one else is to blame but the writer. St. Ignatius of Loyola cautioned us not to place a bad intention where a good intention is the reality. St. Francis de Sales says the same thing in “The Devout Life.”

    The actions are themselves neutral, and certainly do not rise to the level of putting up a rood screen. Speaking of the rood screen, this is where the writer is perhaps guilty of an uncharity. The allusions to Vatican II and medieval history are a lecture, a preaching to the priest, using “educated factoids” as a way of saying, “Be careful, because I know my stuff, I’m smart, and you don’t seem to know and understand what you are doing.” That is elitist and unfair to the priest. With that style of a letter, I ask, “who is subjugating who, and who is the one demarcating their space as a superior space, above the other?”

  7. Fr Ray Blake says:

    I do the “Benedictine arrangement”, but it does seem a temporary thing, aimed ultimately at celebrating eastward. [Exactly.]
    There is crucifix facing me during Mass, but there is also a crucifix facing the people and my back behind me on the tabernacle. At the incensation I tend to make a movement that incorporates both, standing on the peoples side. On great feasts we tend to put relics between the candles, I wonder which way they should face, me or the people, they face the people.
    If anything the “Benedictine arrangement” seems to emphasise the altar as a barrier, which it is always going to be when celebrating facing the congregation.
    I long for all this clutter to be placed on the gradine, and to have one big six rather than two, one behind on the gradine, the other on the altar.

  8. Fr Ray Blake says:

    I mean I long to celebrate facing east!

  9. RichR says:

    Lumen Gentium said that the ministerial priesthood, while interrelated with the common priesthood of all believers, is different both in essence and not merely in degree. I would ask this person if they first accept this passage form the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. If they accept that, then one can move on to other discussions. If they cannot accept this, then any further dialog is pointless.

  10. Alli says:

    I see the reasoning behind the crucifix facing the priest, but I do wish there was a way to have a crucifix facing us (the laity) too. I’m not sure that it’s proper to have two crucifixes right next to each other for this purpose, but a back-to-back arrangement might be nice. Most parishes, though, have a crucifix over the altar already, so that helps as well.

    All of this is assuming, of course, that “Versus Deum” is for whatever reason unavailable or impossible at the time. The Benedictine arrangement is beautiful and meaning-laden, but I prefer my priest to have “his back to me,” thank you very much.

  11. Sean says:

    NLM has a great article by Aidan Nichols, OP that touches on the rood screen: http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2008/09/archi-liturgical-culture-wars-by-aidan.html

    I personally would love to see the rood screen return as a response to Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for the recovery of things lost due to the accident of history.

  12. Good heavens, Fr. Ray, do it. Your church has a very fine high altar and reredos. And celebration ad orientem is completely in accord with the liturgical norms. For pastoral reasons, you could always celebrate one Sunday Mass ad populum at a movable table altar for those of the faithful who remain attached to Mass “facing the people”.

  13. Trey says:

    Actually, weren’t most of those Rood screens
    that were removed “in the 15th / 16th Century”
    removed by the Anglicans when they appropriated
    the Catholic Churches of England?

    Not sure that makes the point the author intended,
    but it does make you think…

    Perhaps links to photos of Our Lady of the Atonement
    in San Antonio should be sent to the parishioner.
    Not only does the priest keep his “back to the
    people” but there is a real live Rood Screen to boot!

    The parish celebrates the Ordinary form in Latin
    in this way, in addition to the AU, I think
    once per week.

    PS – The DVD of the AU Mass that they sell is
    awesome!!! Can’t wait to get down there some day!!!

  14. richard says:

    The rood screen served to define the secular from the holy, to define the sanctuary as reserved to the sacred and mysterious. The benedictine arrangement suggests this seperation, but what I have read is that Pope Benedict has introduced it as a stopgap until the return to ad-orientem worship.This parishioner, deluded as to the true intent of VII, seems to feel as if he is sitting at the table, but the person at the head of it has walled himself off with the candlesticks, salt & peeper,and flowers, with all the food on his side. So it should be. The priest is praying FOR us as well as with us, and when we are deemed worthy,by God, we are invited to partake.

  15. Jordanes says:

    Ioannes said: I am not sure whether it is crucial which direction the crucifix faces; I don’t recall this question’s being addressed in Spirit of the Liturgy.

    Cardinal Ratzinger does suggest, or recommend, that when Mass is celebrated with the priest turning his back on God ;-) a crucifix can be placed on the altar facing the priest, to emphasise that the liturgy is oriented toward God and is not a community celebration turned in on itself. The priest thereby can focus on the crucifix and thus avoid making eye contact with the people when he should be focused on God.

  16. bobd says:

    I would tell him–Yes. We’re going back to pre Trent, pre Nicea, even pre Jerusalem. All the way back to Emmaus. Where the two disciples encountered the Lord on the way. How did they encounter Him? Two ways: listening and recognizing-but not with the senses but, rather, with the interior faculties of the heart. So we, as we assist at mass, meet the Lord by listening, with our heart, to the Liturgy of the Word and next by recognizing Him (truly present in the Holy Eucharist) through the breaking of the bread. Without this interior awareness, which is the real and authentic participation, all exterior sensory phenomena is just worthless noise.

  17. Maureen says:

    Hmm. Blind people and people sitting behind pillars apparently have no ability or desire to participate in Mass.

    According to this “you gotta see” theory, anyway.

  18. Joe says:

    one small point. My first priestly assignment was as assistant Priest in a good parish. I rummaged around the sacristy and eventually found the Chalice Veils, which I started to use. The sacristan said ‘Father, I’m glad to see at least one of the Priests who wants to do it like the old days.’ I appreciated what she said, but realized my catechesis had to emphasize the fact that this was not a matter of ‘the old days’ inasmuch as it was in the GIRM of the time.

    I don’t think the Holy Father – or Holy Mother Church – intends to ‘go back to pre-Vatican II days’ or any other Council; he – She – wants to bring all of the history of the Church forward to the Church of today.

  19. Kellen says:

    Another vote here for the rood screen. I wonder if the Orthodox would respond well to its revival…

  20. Rubricarius says:

    Do not forget that there was often more than one screen in a Medieval church. In most Anglican Cathedrals there is still the rather solid pulpitum that seperated the name from the choir. In parish churches there would often be a similar structure to, as has been pointed out, separate the ‘secular’ part of the church from the sacred. Progressing Eastward there would then often be a ‘choir screen’ and a screen behind the altar (c.f. the altar screen/reredos at Westminster Abbey and Durham Cathedral). In the latter case there were doors puncturing the screen so that the altar might be censed all the way around by the deacons.

  21. o.h. says:

    It always seems to be men whining about not being able to see everything, all the time, doesn’t it?

    Try being a 5-foot woman. I see nothing, ever, but the backs of other parishioners’ heads (well, sometimes the cry-room wall for a change of scenery). Yet somehow I’m still able to participate in the Mass without feeling condemned to second-class-citizenhood.

    I had an epiphany when our priest once said a special Mass ad orientem, at the old high altar at the back of the church. Unlike the wooden mensa, the old altar is set up high, up some steps. I could actually see! The whole Mass! I felt like Zaccheus.

    I wish priests considering ad orientem, who have older altars at high levels, would think about all the folks in their congregation who can *never* see Mass “gathered around the table for our communal meal.”

  22. A young priest says:

    I got the same kind of argument from our chancery. For a while I opened up the 6 candle sticks a little but left the crucifix in the center. After all the rubrics (GIRM 307 and 308) do allow for a crucifix to be on the altar (308), and the rubrics also say that what is placed on the alter must be arranged in a balanced way (307). Thus the Crucifix can stay in the center. But the easy fix is for everyone to face the altar from the same direction. That’s what we’re doing now. But the chancery doesn’t know it yet. By the time they find out we will have been celebrating Mass ad orientem for months. Long live Pope Benedict!;)

  23. Commentator says:

    Young priest, well done! Fr Ray, courage!

  24. Sadly, I heard a bishop say the same thing about a priest’s similar altar arrangement.

    Gosh, what does that mean about Eastern Rites where they close the Holy Doors and you can’t see what’s going on?

    It’s like there’s two different Mass theologies now: the “old fashioned” theology of the Greogorian/Tridentine/Johannine Mass, and the “new” theology of the Novus Ordo.

  25. Gerald says:

    I have witnessed a mass with an altar with a crucifix with two candles placed on the side (i call it the benedictine low mass altar arrangement). But during the offertory, the crucifix is moved to the side of the altar and placed near one of the candles as if the crucifix has became a barrier for the people so it has to be moved to the side. It creates a very very wrong impression.

  26. Gerald says:

    It should have been “I have witnessed a mass with an altar with a crucifix and with two candles placed on the sides of the altar….”

  27. David says:

    If you look carefully at the crucifix on the altar during EWTN’s masses, it has a corpus on both sides. This would seem to be a fine solution to the issue of which direction the crucifix should face, but I’ll bet such a crucifix is pretty hard to find.

  28. Margaret says:

    I’m wondering if there isn’t a certain learned bias against this altar arrangement on the part of at least some individuals. The parish I attended from birth until leaving for college was reasonably orthodox, but arranged the altar with the basic two candles and simple altar cloths. The college chapel was vastly more Spartan, with the two candlesticks replaced by two small tealights, atop very cheap, canvassy altar cloths. Then I came into contact with Opus Dei, where this “Benedictine” altar arrangement is the way their Masses are always said, unless the Mass is being celebrated ad orientem. And frankly, because nobody had told me I was supposed to feel excluded or offended by this arrangement, I never even thought twice about it. I simply associated the six impressive candlesticks + crucifix with their overall manner of saying Mass– reverent, rubrical, and for lack of a better word, with a lot of class.

    So I’m wondering if this whole “screen” complaint (which has never, ever crossed my mind after all these years of attending Mass with those large candlesticks) isn’t of the same line of thought as “the priest with his back to the people” to describe ad orientem— a somewhat manufactured complaint fostered by people who already have a bone to pick with the Church’s understanding of the nature of the priesthood, the sacrificial quality of the Mass, etc…

  29. I’d be all for going pre-Trent… ;-)


  30. Larry says:

    How about “Mass” and “Mass Lite”

    The strange thing is that no matter if it is a Low Mass when I attend I feel and KNOW that I’ve been to Mass; but with the NO there are many times I have to intellectually convince myself that I have been to Mass. I don’t think that is how it is supposed to be nor do I believe that is how Paul VI intended it either. But as they say “the best laid plans of mice and man…”

  31. dhatchen says:

    Joe wrote:

    I don’t think the Holy Father – or Holy Mother Church – intends to ‘go back to pre-Vatican II days’ or any other Council; he – She – wants to bring all of the history of the Church forward to the Church of today.

    SUPER point! This hits the nail right on the head. I like it because this answers both Rad Trads and Uber-Liberals. Thank you.

    May our Holy Father be granted many years to engineer this.

  32. Richard says:

    Yes, we should “go back to pre-Counter Reformation”.

    Catholicism should be truly Catholic – it should be the norm. We have thought ourselves into a ghetto mentality, and sometimes seem to be trapped there. The medieval peasant didn’t think of himself as part of a minority for going to Mass. We need to reclaim the world for the Church, and that starts with an internal assumption that we are normal.

  33. Tamara says:

    At the Episcopal Church I attend, there is a rood screen. The Anglo-Catholic movement brought this concept back. Look at the Eastern Church and their iconostasis. Mass is also celebrated ad orientem.

    Well, at the primary 10:30 service, that is. During the 9:00, a portable altar is drug out in front of the rood screen and the service is much lower. I can’t tell you much, I went once and was disturbed, it felt so Protestant. I left feeling like I hadn’t attended Mass.

    But here is a point – both services use the modern Rite II from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. But the effects are completely different. Rite II and the 1979 BCP in general are quite flawed liturgically. However, even a flawed rite can be performed with respect, reverence and solemnity.

    The Roman Catholic parish here is modern, a large white blank, empty space. The altar is in the center, but without context and lower, it seems smaller and further away, even though it is physically closer. I have the feeling that I am looking down on the altar, which bothers me even more than holding hands during the Lord’s Prayer…

  34. yeoldeacolyte says:

    I recently visited a Catholic Church with a vested, cube shaped altar under a dome covered with mosaics, raised on three steps, with simply two candlesticks on either side of the vested altar, and a processional cross used as the altar cross. All the appointments were in silver, and from the dome there were seven silver oil lamps surrounding a hanging eucharistic dove. The hanging dove and lamps gave the altar a much needed verticality for a large church with high vaulted ceilings.

    The dome was deep and functioned as a ciborium/baldequin. Supported on four corners by pillars. A processional path separated the sanctuary from the pews. One was struck by the fact that the congregation wasn’t left out in any way. Yet the sanctuary was given its special treatment–not just a raised step from the church floor– complete with a cancelli (chancel screen) containing carved biblical scenes and a beautifully wrought set of brass central gates which reminded me of the Byzantine royal doors.

    The pews were arranged outside the four columns supporting the dome. Permitting congregants to sit close to the sanctuary on both the north and south sides as well as in the nave. There were no impenetrable barriers, but the low, decorated chancel screens (not altar rails) served to define the sanctuary area. Giving the appearance heaven and the holy of holies have been separated from the world of the mundane. A principle dear to the hearts of many medievalists and, hopefully, will become popular again. As more and more of us grow tired of endless churches resembling enlarged Taco Bells and bank lobbies.

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