QUAERITUR: altar and ambo

From a reader:

What is the significance of the ambo being elevated? Should it be as high as the altar? What should their positioning be relative to one another? I ask these questions, because I recently made the statement that if one had to pick between the two, it would be better to have the altar elevated rather than the ambo. I was challenged fairly convincingly that this would degenerate the Liturgy of the Word, which is in fact just as important to the mass as the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Who was right?


I suppose the ambo is elevated so, practically, it can be more easily seen.

However, if there has to be a choice between elevating the ambo or the altar, I would answer that the altar should be elevated.

This doesn’t, of course, rule out very high pulpits, as in older churches.

I am not sure if any official documents of the Church address this issue.  Perhaps some readers will know.

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  1. Eric says:

    Are we talking about the TOP of the alter or the Mensa?
    Certainly I’ve seen many ambos above the Mensa and even First & Second Gradines but not above the top of the alter.

  2. Boots says:

    The ambo is elevated not to be seen, but to be heard. Obviously in the days of no amplification, the reader would have to speak very loud, and of course obstructions limit that. The canopy over the ambo too is practical, and in many churches it’s called a “sounding board” which does just that, lets sound bounce off it to increase the power of the voice.

    As far as guidance about this, I would consult the Instructiones by St. Charles Borromeo. His mix of practical and theological recommendations for church design has sadly fallen out of use. Only problem is I think there is only one English translation that I’ve seen, which was a hand typed doctoral dissertation from 1979 or so.

  3. RichR says:

    Is there a church document that actually says the Liturgy of the Word is just as important as the Liturgy of the Eucharist? I mean, one part is where we read about Jesus and hear about him, and the other is where Jesus is made sacramentally present for us to partake of his Body and Blood. I mean, that’s tantamount to denying that Christ is most present at Mass in the Sacred Species.

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Historically, yes, the older churches (especially large Cathedrals, etc) located the ambo halfway down the nave, and to one side. If I’m remembering correctly my art history classes from 20 years ago, this was traditionally done in churches that had a cloistered area around the altar for the monks. The priest would come out of the cloistered “choir” and preach from the elevated pulpit so that the congregation could both see and hear what was being said (my professor said it had something to do with acoustics – there being no microphones, etc at this time). The same applied for much smaller churches, but the ambo would be up front.

    The only time I’ve seen this done in modern churches is in my old Parish where I grew up (it has since been renovated). There was a large high ambo on one side of the sanctuary that was reserved for the priest to proclaim the Gospel and to preach. The secondary ambo, on the other side of the sanctuary, was considerably smaller, and that’s where the laity would read the other readings, and from where the announcements at the end of the Mass would be given. Also, when I was growing up, the Parish didn’t use a Cantor up front, the whole choir remained in the choir loft at back. I rather liked this setup, because it gave a kind of “visual pedagogy” showing the difference between the role of the laity and the role of the priests.

    I hope this all made a bit of sense : )

  5. Jason Keener says:

    The ambo is certainly important because it is where the events of Salvation History are proclaimed; however, the altar should have a unique prominence in the layout of the church building because it is at the altar where the People of God again participate and witness in a real way the unbloody re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. The readings proclaimed at the ambo prepare the way and set the stage for what is the high point of the liturgical celebration when worshipping Catholics take their OWN place and actually enter into Salvation History FOR THEMSELVES by being present at the Cross through the Mass.

    There is no doubt in my mind the altar, which is also symbol of Christ, should be the most prominent feature of a church design. The readings proclaimed at the ambo and also baptisms carried out at the baptismal font all flow to or from the Source and Summit of the Catholic Faith, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist celebrated at the altar.

  6. dcs says:

    I was challenged fairly convincingly that this would degenerate the Liturgy of the Word, which is in fact just as important to the mass as the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

    I don’t see how one could possibly argue that the Liturgy of the Word is as important to the Mass as the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

  7. patrick_f says:

    A vatican II spirit of vatican II person will try to argue the ambo is more important.

    I recently Had a discussion in my own parish. Our ambo was replaced with a monstrous ambo, which in MHO really distracts people from the altar. That, and it doesnt fit either architecturally, or aesthetically. I mentioned this, said it reminded me more of how an Ambo in a protestant church was (I mean..its huge…… maybe my words could have been better….but ITS HUGE. It totally takes away from the Altar of Sacrifice, which should be central, per canon law.

    I was told about the spirit of vatican II, intended the Liturgy of the word, should be just as important as the Liturgy of the Eucharist… (Incidently, I dislike that term, liturgy of the Eucharist in MHO diminishes it to an abstract act. Its the Sacrifice of the Mass, but I digress).

    I too was told how salvation history is important, but when I asked the question, what was more important, knowing what happened, or seeing it recreated unbloodied, I had no answer from my friend.

    Perhaps I am guilty of truly preferencing the Sacrifice over the Liturgy of the word, but.. can you blame me? God is truly present in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, I would argue more so than in the Liturgy of the Word, simply because he is in a physical form, one that in our frail human body we experience with all the senses. I can hear the Body of Christ be cracked at the Ecce Agnus. I can taste it, I can smell the Precious Blood, I can touch it by way of recieving in my mouth, and most importantly, I see it at the Elevations. What more intimate encounter can one have?

    I can only listen to, read, or Live the Word. Without He who is present on the altar, there would be no readings, and most importantly, no church. So I think it should be thought of in terms of encounter. How fully does one act allow us to encounter the Lord?

    Perhaps I digressed, and strayed, but maybe the greater point is the Catechetical sense that one should have, thus not necessitating an actual “Rule” to be written

  8. Jason Keener says:

    Also, please see #275 of the “General Instruction of the Roman Missal” (GIRM) where it talks about bowing to the altar because the altar is a symbol of Christ. There is no similar rubric about bowing to the ambo, which is not a symbol of Christ.

    Even the notoriously bad document “Built of Living Stones: Art, Architecture, and Worship,” written by the USCCB’s Committee on Divine Worship, is pretty sane when it comes to the importance of the altar:

    The Altar
    § 56 § At the Eucharist, the liturgical assembly celebrates the ritual sacrificial meal that recalls and makes present Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, proclaiming “the death of the Lord until he comes.”70 The altar is “the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes”71 and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed.72 Since the Church teaches that “the altar is Christ,”73 its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it “signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.”74

    § 57 § The altar is the natural focal point of the sanctuary and is to be “freestanding to allow the [priest] to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people.”75 Ordinarily, it should be fixed (with the base affixed to the floor) and with a table or mensa made of natural stone,76 since it represents Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Pt 2:4). The pedestal or support for the table may be fashioned from “any sort of material, as long as it is becoming and solid.”77 In the United States it is permissible to use materials other than natural stone for a fixed altar, provided these materials are worthy, solid, properly constructed, and subject to the further judgment of the local ordinary.78 Parishes building new churches must follow the directives of the diocesan bishop regarding the kind of altar chosen and suitable materials for new altars.


    The altar cannot act as the natural focal point of the sanctuary if the ambo is given the same amount of prominence.

    Both the GIRM and Built of Living Stones are available on the USCCB website. Do not, however, trust everything you read in “Built of Living Stones.”

  9. MikeJ9919 says:

    I don’t really understand this elevation of the Eucharist over the Word. While I have the greatest respect for the Holy Eucharist and understand that it is Christ’s Real Presence and its nature as food which we can physically ingest is a special gift, is not the Word Christ as well? I thought the Lord (through John) made it perfectly clear that “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

    Am I missing something?

  10. MikeJ9919: Yes, I would say you are missing something. Christ is present in the Eucharist in a very different way than He is present in the words of Holy Scripture. They are not equivalent regarding “presence”.

    Furthermore, the altar is for the Sacrifice.

  11. FrA says:

    In my parish, the ambo and the altar are not only on the same level, they are equally distant from the center of the sanctuary. It’s the only place I’ve seen where the altar was not in the middle. I suspect that the church was designed with the “two table” theory: the table of the Word is equal with the “table” that is the altar. In fact, the original design of the church had the priest sitting where the tabernacle (thankfully) is now. Therefore, nothing held the central position (i.e., Christ is equally present in the priest, the people, the Word, and the Eucharist). Christ is certainly present in all four, but He is REALLY present in the Eucharist.

  12. CarpeNoctem says:

    FrA and all– I am facing that very situation in my church building, which I am looking to, ah, “repair”. I am going to need lots of ammo and shielding to go up against the diocesan liturgy folks with whom I have already had provocative discussions on this matter.

    The earliest suggestion of this configuration that I can find comes from a work by Fr. Eugene Walsh back in the ’70’s in a little monograph called _Practical Suggestions for Celebrating Sunday Mass_, a curious little book where many of the ‘suggestions’ have been proven inappropriate- either by practice or by specific legislation. (In fairness, there are some few good suggestions as well, in and among the preponderance of junk liturgical musings. In any case his intent on what he was engineering the Mass to be is quite evident… and now humorously quaint and out-dated.)

    I am trying to trace the history of this configuration, to see if my theory is correct– that it flows from a willful misrepresentation of S.C. #7 on the presences of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy. I seem to remember seeing somewhere in a long-ago reading on the subject that this is the case, but I can’t find the article or the book that pointed me in this direction.

    IF I can demonstrate that the ‘two tables theory’ is a clumsy corruption of a proper understanding of SC7, and thus a manifestation of the ‘hermeneutic of rupture’, I think I can win this battle with armament and argument in favor of ‘continuity’…. the key is making sure that I know for sure the source of this arrangement and the intent of those developing this, um, ‘innovation’.

    Does anyone else have any historical or academic sources on this? Is anyone aware of literature describing this arrangement as an interpretation of SC #7?

    I know my parishioners are behind me, and that I am doing the right thing by rattling this sword. I can pretty much do what I want with support from above the bureaucracy, but I also think I have the high-ground here to do it by official channels… If I can make a robust argument on this point that cannot be refuted– and perhaps even is even grudgingly accepted by the liturgical establishment– it would help blaze a trail for a few other pastors here and elsewhere to follow.

  13. mvhcpa says:

    FrA wrote: “In my parish, the ambo and the altar are not only on the same level, they are equally distant from the center of the sanctuary.”

    I remember the EXACT same situation in the Eighties when our rather new parish south of Jacksonville, FL built a new ch–er, multi-purpose building. The altar and the ambo were made of the same materials, plus the altar was made (subjectively visually) TOO SMALL and the ambo was made (subjectively visually) TOO BIG so they were effectively the same size. Further, for some time, they were both placed equidistant from the center of the sanctuary. Our priest explained that the Liturgies of Word and Eucharist were supposed to be equal in the Mass, and the new architecture denoted that. What was interesting was that the throw-carpet in the center of the floor of the sanctuary was a little too wide/not wide enough for this set up, so that the altar sat half-and-half on the carpet and not level. I remember seeing the Precious Blood within the CRYSTAL chalice looking “crooked” when it was sitting on the altar. (“Abuse” piled on “abuse,” eh?)

    Being in my early teens at the time, I didn’t know much theology, but even I could tell something “just wasn’t right.” Saner heads finally prevailed after not too long a time and the altar was moved to the center and the ambo to the side. Still, the “equal” sizes of the two furnishings still made me feel like the altar was a dwarf and the ambo a steroid case.

    Michael Val

  14. Greg Smisek says:

    CarpeNoctem: …the ‘two tables theory’ is a clumsy corruption of a proper understanding of SC7

    An article by Fr. Bux and Fr. Vitiello addresses the “two tables” confusions (Italian, English, WDTPRS).

    First, in passing, they point out that even Dei Verbum, n. 21, the main Vatican II text that is cited to support the separate-but-equal “tables” for Word and Sacrament argument, speaks of only one “table”:

    The Church has always venerated the divine Scriptures just as she venerates the body of the Lord, since, especially in the sacred liturgy, she unceasingly receives and offers to the faithful the bread of life from the table both of God’s word and of Christ’s body.

    Against a reduction of everything “to Word and Assembly,” they cite Pope Benedict (who speaks of “the Word” more than any Supreme Pontiff in living memory) and draw their conclusion:

    “Jesus is not just the teacher, but also the redeemer of the whole person. The Jesus who teaches is at the same time, Jesus who saves” (J.Ratzinger-Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 65) and this [salvation] comes about effectively only through the Eucharistic Sacrament.

    (The proof-text for the “two tables” principle is a paragraph from The Imitation of Christ which speaks of “the two tables…of the holy altar” and “of divine law” (Book 4, chap 11). However, this same paragraph describes the latter table as “leading steadfastly onwards even to that which is within the veil, where the Holy of Holies is.” Sounds an awful lot like the ambo leads to the altar, no?)

    Then the good Fathers address the confused notion that our Lord is equally present in the Blessed Sacrament and the Book of Holy Writ:

    Another theory, widespread due to the customary phenomenon of substituting and exchanging one thing for another, equates the presence of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament with the presence of the Word in the Book of the Scriptures: this [latter presence] occurs only “when the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 7). It is necessary to reaffirm that Christ’s presence in the Word exists on two conditions: when the reading is done “in the Church”, not privately, and when Sacred Scripture is “read”. Therefore it is not enough that the holy book [simply] be on the ambo or the altar for there to be this presence. [Emended translation.]

    Ah, but surely this overstates the case? After all, the celebrant or deacon does kiss, bow to, and incense the Book of the Gospels. Even in the older form of the Pontifical Mass, the Book of the Gospels was carried in procession by subdeacon and deacon, placed upon the altar, incensed by the deacon, and kissed by the bishop (twice). Yet the fact that the book is kissed and incensed only while opened to the beginning of the day’s Gospel would seem to confirm that this veneration is directed in the first place to the words which will be or have been read, rather than to the book as such.

    Returning to sacred architecture and expanding on what Jason Keener pointed out above, we can observe that whereas the altar is venerated with a bow, kiss, and incense, the ambo, all by itself, is never so venerated (only the Book of the Gospels upon it receives such reverences).

  15. Greg Smisek says:

    Jason Keener: The altar cannot act as the natural focal point of the sanctuary if the ambo is given the same amount of prominence.

    The GIRM presents both altar and ambo as natural focal points, but neither equal nor competing:

    299. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.

    309. The dignity of the word of God requires that the church have a place that is suitable for the proclamation of the word and toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns during the Liturgy of the Word.

    At first glance, these seem pretty much the same. But only the altar is “to be truly the center” [ut revera centrum sit] and only it is to be a natural focus without further qualification, whereas the ambo is the natural focus “during the Liturgy of the Word” (inter liturgiam verbi).

    Another GIRM cue to their relative rank is found in the fact that the altar is “dedicated” (n. 299; usus antiquior: “consecrated”), whereas the ambo is merely “blessed” (n. 309).

    More from the GIRM regarding the construction of the ambo:

    309. It is appropriate that this place be ordinarily a stationary ambo and not simply a movable lectern. The ambo must be located in keeping with the design of each church in such a way that the ordained ministers and lectors may be clearly seen and heard by the faithful.

    And lest the ambo be seen as foreign to the usus antiquior, the Caeremoniale Episcoporum (1886), book 2, chap. 8, n. 45, states that if the church has a lectern, pulpit, or stone ambo, the Gospel of a solemn Pontifical Mass may be sung at it.

  16. ssoldie says:

    Why don’t we just look back to the way the older Churches were done and then find out why they were done that way, ( Duncan Stroik) or we can read Ugly As Sin, or just build some more like the Yellow Armadillo.

  17. lorakeidel says:

    Why is the Ask Father Question Box dormant? [Because I want it to be. When I get the time, energy, money and help to make it work again, it will work again.] I don’t know where to submit my question so I am asking it here – sorry if I am messing things up! I am wondering about the significance of an Apostolic Blessing from Pope Benedict at Senator Kennedy’s funeral when he is married out of the church and is pro-choice, to say nothing of the funeral masses. What am I missing?

  18. twherge says:

    To better understand this question, it would be good to look at how the ambo, historically, was placed in churches. I am not very familiar with it, though I recall that the ambo of old was a very large thing. I never have seen the altars of those same churches in comparison, however.

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