Msgr. Guido Marini on liturgical issues: the “Benedictine arrangement”

Again, I am pleased to link you to the site of NLM which posted the full text of a presentation by the papal MC Msgr. Guido Marini delivered to the wonderful clergy conference for the Year of the Priest which took place in Rome.

The text is long and I won’t give it all here.    

I said I would pull out a few sections in different entries and comment on them.  I did that here on active participation.

Here is Msgr. Marini on an issue we have dealt with many times on WDTPRS, namely, the so-called "Benedictine arrangement", that is, in lieu of the real goal of ad orientem worship, there should at least be a crucifix at the center of the altar so that it and not the congregation, not the priest, will be the center of focus.

My emphases and comments.

2. The orientation of liturgical prayer.

Over and above the changes which have characterised, during the course of time, the architecture of churches and the places where the liturgy takes place, one conviction has always remained clear within the Christian community, almost down to the present day. I am referring to praying facing east, a tradition which goes back to the origins of Christianity.

What is understood by “praying facing east”? It refers to the orientation of the praying heart towards Christ, from whom comes salvation, and to whom it is directed as in the beginning so at the end of history. The sun rises in the east, and the sun is a symbol of Christ, the light rising in the Orient. The messianic passage in the Benedictus canticle comes readily to mind: “Through the tender mercy of our God; * whereby the Orient from on high hath visited us

Very reliable and recent studies have by now proven effectively that, in every age of its past, the Christian community has found the way to express even in the external and visible liturgical sign, this fundamental orientation for the life of faith. This is why we find churches built in such a way that the apse was turned to the east. When such an orientation of the sacred space was no longer possible, the Church had recourse to the Crucifix placed upon the altar, on which everyone could focus. In the same vein many apses were decorated with resplendent representations of the Lord. All were invited to contemplate these images during the celebration of the Eucharistic liturgy.  [We are getting a precis of Joseph Ratzinger’s writing on this topic.]

Without recourse to a detailed historical analysis of the development of Christian art, we would like to reaffirm that prayer facing east, more specifically, facing the Lord, is a characteristic expression of the authentic spirit of the liturgy. [Does it therefore stand to reason that if we don’t  pray facing the East in our liturgical prayer, then we are not praying according to the authentic spirit of the liturgy?] It is according to this sense that we are invited to turn our hearts to the Lord during the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy, as the introductory dialogue to the Preface well reminds us. Sursum corda “Lift up your hearts,” exhorts the priest, and all respond: Habemus ad Dominum “We lift them up unto the Lord.” [Quaeritur: Does this dialogue, when we are a) baptized and b) actively participating constitute an adequate interior orientation? Such that we don’t therefore need exterior orientation?] Now if such an orientation must always be adopted interiorly by the entire Christian community when it gathers in prayer, it should be possible to find this orientation expressed externally by means of signs as well. [Of course it should be possible.  We know that it is possible.  However… there is a question still hanging in the air.] The external sign, moreover, cannot but be true, in such a way that through it the correct spiritual attitude is rendered visible[And since we are both body and soul this is a highly desirable way to pray.  Put this another way.  If we don’t think people need to face the liturgical East, then are we effectively denying the bodily dimension of the congregation’s humanity?  Do we ask of people to do something that is unrealistic?]

Hence the reason for the proposal made by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, and presently reaffirmed during the course of his pontificate, to place the Crucifix on the center of the altar, in order that all, during the celebration of the liturgy, may concretely face and look upon Lord, in such a way as to orient also their prayer and hearts. [What we commonly call the "Benedictine Arrangement".  However, His Holiness also, when writing of this, indicated that this would be a – how to put this – a second best choice.  The better choice would be ad orientem worship by which congregation and priest actually face the same direction.] Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, [Nota bene…] where this is not possible, [get that?] towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, [thus the "Benedictine Arrangement"] or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1) In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.” (trans. from the Italian.)  [There it is.  But remember… the "Benedictine Arrangement" is proposed when the it is not possible for both priest and people to face the same direction.  But there is a preference.]

Let it not be said, moreover, that the image of our Lord crucified obstructs the sight of the faithful from that of the priest, for they are not to look to the celebrant at that point in the liturgy! They are to turn their gaze towards the Lord! In like manner, the presider of the celebration should also be able to turn towards the Lord. [Note that he uses both "priest" and "presider".] The crucifix does not obstruct our view; rather it expands our horizon to see the world of God; the crucifix brings us to meditate on the mystery; it introduces us to the heavens from where the only light capable of making sense of life on this earth comes. Our sight, in truth, would be blinded and obstructed were our eyes to remain fixed on those things that display only man and his works.

In this way one can come to understand why it is still possible today to celebrate the holy Mass upon the old altars, when the particular architectural and artistic features of our churches would advise it. [This would be an understatement, right?  If it is best to pray ad orientem then when where it is possible, it is desirable.  The architecture always "advises it".] Also in this, the Holy Father gives us an example when he celebrates the holy Eucharist at the ancient altar of the Sistine Chapel on the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.  [And anywhere else there is a main altar for ad orientem worship, right?]

In our time, the expression “celebrating facing the people” has entered our common vocabulary. If one’s intention in using this expression is to describe the location of the priest, who, due to the fact that today he often finds himself facing the congregation because of the placement of the altar, in this case such an expression is acceptable. [The expression might be, but the arrangement is sub-optimal.] Yet such an expression would be categorically unacceptable the moment it comes to express a theological proposition. Theologically speaking, the holy Mass, as a matter of fact, is always addressed to God through Christ our Lord, [And the point is, our actual physical orientation should reflect that.] and it would be a grievous error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community[I like that "grievous error" part.] Such an orientation, therefore, of turning towards the Lord must animate the interior participation of each individual during the liturgy. It is likewise equally important that this orientation be quite visible in the liturgical sign as well. [Because we are not angels and we do not deny the physical dimension of our human nature.]

Here is an example of where the architecture does not make it possible that priest and people face the same direction. 

The "Benedictine Arrangement" is perfect for this situation.  However, in those churches where the main altar exists, or it could be repaired, the better option should be adopted.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Central Valley says:

    Everyone should forward this to their Bishop. I would send it to the diocese of Fresno, Ca., but they would just hit the delete key. I don’t think the director of worship in the diocese would enjoy reading this article. i love it and pray the American bishops open their hearts to the wishes of the Holy Father.

  2. ssoldie says:

    As a 73 year old person, I am amazed at how the we are trying to straghten out the crisis that Vatican II brought on the Church of Christ, when all that would be needed, is just to admit that Vatican II and it’s fabricated Mass, ambiguious language, novilties and experimentation of protestanting the Church was a mistake and has caused nothing but confusion, chaos and disunity that has been worse then the protestant revolution. As stated by then Cardinal Ratzinger in late 1984: “I am repeating here what I said ten years after the conclusion of the work: it is incontrovertible that this period has definitely been unfavorablefor the Catholic Church.” L Osservatore Romano Dec 24,1984 (english edition)

  3. Fleeb says:

    I know this is probably minor, but what about churches with crucifixes that are off to the side? We have a church that has the Franciscan style crucifix (which resembles a painting on wood rather than a true crucifix) off to the side over an exit door…does the church specify the appropriate siting of a crucifix?

    Also, our little church faces east and we have a nice crucifix on the wall in the center…right above the “presider’s chair” which sits a few steps above the altar. The tabernacle is off to the side on a shelf. It would be nice (and appropriate) for the tabernacle to return to the center and the chair off to the side?

    Is this a recent innovation or has the priest’s chair always been the centre of attention?

  4. Paul says:

    I am forwarding the complete article to several people. This is so powerful a statement that it makes me truly optimistic.

    Brick by brick by whole wall.


  5. FrCharles says:

    Amen. We have some of our daily Masses in small chapel wherein the altar used to be flush with liturgical east, but has been pulled out. Each time I unfold my corporal and see the relic stone across from me on the other side, I sigh a little inside and hope for the chance–one day–to offer Mass on the altar according to the intention of its makers.

  6. Ralph says:

    First I am dense. I admit it. With that said:

    Does this article say that we should normally be facing east phisically during Mass? And if this is not possiable due to the archatecture of the building, we should all face a crucifix, including the celebrent? And this posture is refered to as the “Benedict Arrangement”?

    Thanks in advance to those less dense then I who can explain.

  7. bruno says:


    First I am dense. I admit it. With that said:

    Does this article say that we should normally be facing east phisically during Mass? And if this is not possiable due to the archatecture of the building, we should all face a crucifix, including the celebrent? And this posture is refered to as the “Benedict Arrangement”?

    Thanks in advance to those less dense then I who can explain.
    Comment by Ralph — 11 January 2010 @ 10:45 am
    Pretty well, YES

  8. bruno says:

    Pretty well, YES
    Comment by bruno — 11 January 2010 @ 10:58 am
    ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++ [< - not sure these are necessary...]
    Opps, no the dense part, LOL

  9. bruno says:

    “…that Vatican II brought on the Church of Christ, when all that would be needed, is just to admit that Vatican II and it’s fabricated Mass, ambiguous language, novelties and experimentation of protestanting the Church was a mistake and has caused nothing but confusion, chaos and disunity that has been worse then the protestant revolution.”

    Dear ssoldie;
    I think it had more to do with people who
    implemented their perceptions of VII rather
    than VII itself.

  10. Jayna says:

    *sigh* I love this man.

    Fleeb: I just went through this rigamarole with my parish. I did the research for the letter my pastor put in the bulletin to explain why we were getting a crucifix put in above the altar for the first time since the church was built back in the 70s. As far as I can remember, the GIRM specifies that there must be a crucifix above, behind, or very near the sanctuary/altar. I think the “very near” part is more an allowance for architecture that would prevent the above or behind configuration.

    I agree with your opinion on where the celebrant’s chair should be. It’s off to the side in the vast majority of churches I’ve been to. And that’s where it used to be in my church unless there was some kind of decoration that required they move the chair to put it up. Somehow (*cough*liturgist*cough*) it’s found its permanent place directly behind the altar on a couple of risers. I think putting the chair in that place is pretty indicative of the ideology of parishes who insist on verus populum worship with nothing in the way of the priest and the congregation. It’s a show, we need to see its star.

  11. Eadmer says:

    How many churches do we know where the main, eastward facing stone altar has been ignominiously abandoned for the last forty years or, worse, is now used as a platform for potted plants, or the annual site for the Christmas creche. Since the altar represents Christ himself, this abandonment of the old altars in favor of the now customary wooden table on wheels is a very distressing phenomenon that should be reversed as soon as possible.

  12. I can think of so many Churches where the old altar is there being igonred. I’m going to copy this….

    I love this guy

  13. jaykay says:

    Fr. Z said: “However, in those churches where the main altar exists, or it could be repaired, the better option should be adopted.”

    Oooohh, how I wish. But at least there are stirrings chez nous. Our main church still has its glorious mid-19th century perpendicular gothic High Altar and tabernacle, but the original mensa was “taken forward” about 12 years ago to become free-standing, replacing the wooden one that had been there since about 1967, and there’s little more than a shelf left in front of the tabernacle. A sort of wooden platform, or false floor, was installed in the sanctuary to raise the level of the whole, but in fact it could be taken away easily to restore the original arrangement of altar steps etc. and this was, I think, intended for conservation of the floor in the sanctuary. Maybe they knew something? ;)

    Anyway, in recent months the parish priest (pastor) has introduced a quite substantial (about 14″ high) and beautifully restored, antique brass crucifix according to the Benedictine arrangement – previously there was a smallish cross lying flat on the altar that no-one could see. And while only 2 candles are used they have done away with the 2-to-one-side thing, and have started lighting the original big 6 on either side of the tabernacle. The whole effect is very good and noticeably, but not intrusively, “different”. It gives the very definite impression of not being a major “look at me” change, just the re-introduction of things that were already there but not used for some time. He hasn’t ever, that I know of, made any comment on this, just gone ahead and done it and nobody has really brought it up or complained, that I have heard. Perhaps a good example of organic development? I think so.

    The altar rails are still there, so maybe the next development will be to reinstate HH’s wish for reception on the tongue? I hope so. There is also still more than enough space in front of the re-arranged altar for ad orientem. Hoping… hoping.

    I would hope also that the original sanctuary may be restored some day but realistically I think that may be a while away. In the meantime, there are all these positive signs, not-so-small shoots, and I for one am very grateful. After all, even 10 years ago I never thought we’d even be where we are today, with Liturgiam Authenticam, the new translations and of course the MP. I will write to Fr. thanking him. Brick by brick indeed.

  14. EnoughRope says:

    I was hoping Father or someone with a good deal of experience could help me on a issue at my parish. I am at a college campus and our student center/chapel is full of very liberal people. The priests/presider’s chair is facing the altar and crucifix and it is not in the sanctuary. The priest faces the same way the people do. I have brought this up numerous times. The priest would be ok with it changing, but the staff and congregation DO NOT want it changed. The cheap answer is it is a space issue (which is BS). I have quoted the GIRM (passage 310) to them before with little effect. Any extra help is welcome. I am bringing this up at Parish Council tonight.

  15. Ogard says:

    I see a shortcoming in the “Benedictine Arrangement”: it doesn’t consider the fact that the Blessed Sacrament is Christ, not only a symbol but the reality too; while the East and the Cross are only symbols of Christ.

    If a priest is turned with his back to the Blessed Sacrament, it is meaningless to insist on orientation toward the Cross on the altar. The situation is even more awkward when he genuflects toward the Consecrated Species: “two Christs”, the “active” one, who is adored, and the “spare” one behind, who is humiliated.

    A little “better” is if the Blessed Sacrament is side-promoted: at least, the priest doesn’t turn his back toward It. But we still have “two Christs”.

    On the other hand, with the traditional arrangement, when the priest is turned toward the Blessed Sacrament, the Cross, and the apse at the eastern side of the church, are important as additional symbols but their significance of the latter two, or one, is relevant only in the chapels in which there is no Blessed Sacrament.

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