QUAERITUR: Using the orginal “main” altar rather than the “table”

Ironing-boardFrom a seminarian reader:

My present church is thinking on having a EF Mass as well as a Versus Deus [Deum] OF Mass. The Original High Altar is still in place with the Tabernacle.

There is however a smaller “fixed” “table” Altar in place a few feet in front of this. The “table” Altar is too small too accommodate a EF Mass. Is is still O.K. to celebrate a Mass in the OF & EF with the Old High Altar, while disregarding the “table” Altar.

It is always good idea to ignore iron-board altars whenever the main altar is still there and still usable.  The next step is to get rid of the interloper-altar and use the original main-altar exclusively, as was intended in the church’s design.

There was never a directive that table altars were to be set up in front of main altars or that main altars were to be abandoned or destroyed.

Furthermore, in an issue of the Congregation for Divine Worship’s official publication Notitiae in May 1993 there was some years ago an editorial article which stated:

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

Clearly the main altar was intended to be the focus in the design of the church.  It is absurd to put up another altar, within the sanctuary, in front of the original altar.

But, yes, it is always appropriate to use the original, main altar of a church for either the Extraordinary or Ordinary Form.

As a matter of fact, celebration ad orientem is the way assumed in the rubrics of the Ordinary Form.  For example, in GIRM 154 we read that the priest turns to the people if he is going to use the option of inviting the people to make a sign of peace. thus: “… extendens et iungens manus, pacem annuntiat, versus ad populum, dicens… opening and then joining his hands he announces ‘peace’, having turned toward the people, saying….

Finally, as a seminarian, you should run, not walk, to get yourself your very own copy of Joseph Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy. In this useful book, the future Pope lays out the theological significance of ad orientem worship.  You will want to study this section carefully and commit it to memory.  I have a few PODCAzTs on Ratzinger’s view.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ASK FATHER Question Box and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Titus says:

    I think part of the concern here is that the consecration of the new altar somehow voided the consecration of the original altar, on the supposed principal that a single sanctuary could only have one altar at a time—so the “altarness” of the original shifted to the new and couldn’t be shifted back while it was still there. I know I wondered about this at one time, but subsequent experiences have shown the hypothesis, of course, to be utterly false.

  2. FrCharles says:

    Is that photo from the reader is just a stock image of misfortune? The lucite ambo is too much. Very interesting the quote from Notitiae. In practice, at least in my experience, the offering of Mass versus populum is an unassailable given for which no other possibility is imaginable. In contrast, actual rubrics and liturgical texts may be adjusted ad libitum according to taste. Curious the situation in which we find ourselves, no?

  3. Christopher Milton says:

    …if he is going to use the option of inviting the people to make a sign of peace.

    Wait, the sign of peace is an option, not a requirement?!?! How did I not know this? Am I bound by obedience to participate if the priest uses this option? Can I decline the invitation?

  4. TJerome says:

    In the photo, it looks like Cranmer’s table is about to tip over towards the people. Fr. Charles, I don’t know if its an “unassailable given” that Mass be celebrated versus populum. There are bishops and priests who are beginning to change that perception. In my opinion, we will eventually return to ad orientem, at least for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

  5. FranzJosf says:

    From what the seminarian writes, it seems that they are considering a TLM and an ad orientem Novus Ordo (presumably out of several a weekend), so they’ll still need the ironing board. It would be opportune if they could make the ironing board removable, thereby underscoring its temporary (one hopes) standing, simultaneously erasing its redundancy for the two aforementioned celebrations.

  6. Papabile says:

    I have an alternative question.

    Our parish is newly built in 2007. It has both a “high altar” for reservation of the Sacrament and a freestanding altar. Both are fixed altars.

    However, when the church was consecrated, relics were only inserted into the freestanding altar and not the ‘high altar’. Additionally, chrism was only applied to the the mensa of the freestanding altar.

    Hence, if one were to have the EF offered, where would it be more appropriate to offer it?

    Note: This is not an unusual circumstance in the Diocese of Arlington.

  7. Whatever you do — don’t just throw out or “disappear” an altar (unless it’s really horrendous). It could be useful for a detached chapel (such as in the parochial school) or somewhere Catholic outside the parish (like a Catholic nursing home), or even for a brand new mission parish somewhere or a church that was destroyed. It soothes feelings, if people know things they cared about weren’t just thrown out. We don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the Vatican II generation.

  8. HighMass says:

    Since the N.O. is the O.F of the Holy Mass, by the Priest Celebrating it in English facing the Lord Makes A HUGE difference. Never had the change to see the “new Mass” Said facing the East.

    Still LOVE and always will the TLM, in especially the High Masses. just wanted to comment….

  9. ipadre says:

    It seems that the little, ugly altar in front of the beautiful high altar could be easily moved out of the way. While they are at it, they should get rid of the ugly plexiglass pulpit and get something that fits the beauty of the church!

  10. tzard says:

    Fr. Charles, The particular picture is certainly not for this particular seminarian, it’s being used as a “stock” photo. The source is in a previous blog entry: https://wdtprs.com/2008/11/whats-wrong-with-this-picture/

  11. Gregorius says:

    The main chapel on campus has a beautiful historic high altar with choir stalls in front, yet they have a free-standing altar (which at least looks like a real altar, if not a little square) placed in front of it all. Plus the celebrant’s chair is placed dead center blocking the tabernacle! The good news is somebody in charge has common sense and they are trying to restore some semblemence of order, and by next year the chair should be unbolted and moved, and the hideous carpeting removed. Though they won’t go so far as to move the free-standing altar to another of six chapels on campus.

  12. At a parish where I used to serve for the TLM, a recent renovation provided for a prominent free-standing altar of suitable materials. The “altar of repose” was behind it, and while it simulated a traditional against-the-wall high altar, it was essentially a shelf. Well, they ignored the real altar (by “real” I refer to the material, that it has relics contained therein, and it has been consecrated for sacrificial use), and celebrated Mass on the shelf. It looked perfectly ridiculous from any distance, and wasn’t too convenient up close either. I used to refer to the “elephant in the sanctuary.”

    It seems to me that some recent renovations are not doing sufficient justice to the celebrations of both forms of the Roman Rite, and that these difficulties in parish churches will be with us for years to come. One main altar for one sanctuary; that’s how it’s supposed to work.

    Barring all that, my attitude, to sum up, is “use it or lose it.”

  13. FrCharles says:

    Agreed. I just meant in the places and situations in which I have been thus far.

  14. TrueLiturgy says:

    Our altar set up looks pretty much the same as the picture, except for the fact that the wooden table in front for versus populum is not fixed, unless fixed means able to stand by itself. I can move it quite easily. Actually, it will be moved when I get a Priest to come celebrate a TLM. :-)

  15. St Chad says:

    Sometimes I wonder if we all live on the same planet. In the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and I dare say in MOST, if not every single one, of the dioceses in the United States, there most certainly was a directive from the Ordinary or his deputies that high altars were to be removed; or recycled; or hacked into pieces; or at least ignored; and that the ONLY place for saying Mass was to be at a picnic table facing the people. Moreover, the introduction of the ‘presider’s chair’ became, and continues to be, a point of serious liturgical consideration – believe it, or not. As for consecrating altars or installing relics — nothing could be of less concern to any Catholic bishop in the U.S.

  16. Mitchell NY says:

    A document demanding the retirement or destruction of High Altars in the US is something I would like to read. Any links? I can not undestand how in any way, shape or form this can be reconciled with directives from Rome about Altars. Didn’t Vat II promote and even insist on the preservation of the arts inside Churches? No where did it sanction the destruction of Altars. I can not imagine the pain this caused to Parishoners, many of whose relatives and ancestors helped donate, pay and work for those beautiful Altars. I pray that not one more High Altar that is left is destroyed. At the heart of the Sanctuary to destroy it probably destroyed the Faith of many. Often in newer Churches without High Altars the Sanctuary looks barren on the back walls. It always looks like something is missing. All the newer, tablelike Altars should at a minimum be movable.

  17. Rob Cartusciello says:

    But Father! But Father! Doesn’t the old High Altar distract us from the Mass that is being celebrated at the “new” altar up front?

    I mean, that’s what the Jesuits at Immaculate Conception in Boston said, just before they carted off the statues & whitewashed the paintings on the old High Altar.

  18. St Chad says:

    To MitchellNY:
    Yes, the destruction of altars, stripping of sanctuaries, and burning of vestments (if a dumpster was not handy), was fairly widely carried out. For the most part, it was left to Parish priests and their lay advisory committees to plan and execute the renovation of churches to bring them up to code, so to say, with Vatican II directives – as dictated by local ordinaries. It is a misrepresentation to appeal to Vatican Council documents as having never condoned such abuse in writing. It is beside the point! The bishops told Pastors, ‘See thou to it,’ and virtually overnight, the destruction of Catholic churches went forward throughout the world. At least the 16th century English Reformers mostly destroyed statues, crucifixes, lead roofs, relics of saints, that sort of thing. Vatican II reformers attacked the most sacred symbol of Christ within the church — the altar. Such was the stupidity, impiety, vulgarity, and limitless bad taste of many of the clergy. In a notable church in Pittsburgh, the Priest had the altar, steps, gradine, and pinnacles ripped out and thrown into the school yard. When the people came to Mass the following Sunday, he allowed that they could take away pieces of the ‘old altar’ as souvenirs. People stood in the school yard and wept.

  19. St Chad says:

    As for the design of the church dictating the placement or form of the so-called ‘high altar,’ I encourage those interested in this subject to witness the examples of the Cathedral Churches of Detroit and Rochester. In both cases, churches that were recognized as among the finest models of Gothic revival architecture in the U.S. were literally stripped of all their interior furnishings down to the floor, walls and ceiling. From the exterior, they both look like beautiful Gothic churches; but inside, they have been transformed into model ‘Vatican II’ ‘worship spaces’.
    The interior of the Rochester cathedral was utterly and irretrievably destroyed — you could not imagine such violence done to a church building. In Detroit, the Cathedral is very restful, with clear lines and no clutter; the organ pipes arrayed across the east end above the altar like in many Presbyterian churches. There is a symbolic glowing light hidden down in the new altar . . . very atmospheric. There is a decidedly Swedenborgian flavor the the church now. A cardinal of the Holy Roman Church achieved this transformation Detroit’s Cathedral. He and his committee are full of self-praise about what they accomplished in modernizing this church and making it a model of Vatican II liturgical space. Completed in 2004, millions and millions of dollars were spent. Go see Rochester and Detroit cathedrals — and weep.

  20. reflector says:

    I think n° 303 of the IGMR is rather clear on this point: “[…] In ecclesiis vero iam exstructis, quando altare vetus ita situm est, ut difficilem reddat participationem populi nec transferri possit sine detrimento valoris artis, aliud altare fixum, arte confectum et rite dedicandum, exstruatur; et tantum super illud sacræ celebrationes peragantur. Ne fidelium attentio a novo altari distrahatur, altare antiquum ne sit peculiari modo ornatum.”

  21. St Chad says:

    Or, in English –>
    303. “In building new churches, it is preferable to erect a single altar which in the gathering of
    the faithful will signify the one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.”
    [But you can plop a second table altar in front of a old high altar? Go figure. All that powerful symbolism lost!]
    “In already existing churches, however, WHEN THE OLD ALTAR IS POSITIONED SO THAT IT MAKES THE PEOPLE’S PARTICIPATION DIFFICULT but cannot be moved without damage to its artistic value, another fixed altar, of artistic merit and duly dedicated, should be erected and sacred rites celebrated on it alone. In order not to distract the attention of the faithful from the new altar, the old altar should not be decorated in any special way.”
    [How a beautiful altar attached to the east wall of the church affects the ‘people’s participation’, is a mystery to me. What they truly meant was: “If the priest cannot get behind the old altar so that he can say Mass versus populum, then get a new altar.”]

Comments are closed.