New, Corrected Translation won’t be enough

Over at Vultus Christi Fr. Mark Kirby, OSB, is, with my editing, emphases (mostly) and comments



Mass Facing the People: The Single Greatest Obstacle to the Reform [That is what the great liturgist Klaus Gamber thought.  Turning altars around was single most damaging thing done in the wake of the Council.]

Here in Italy it is evident that churches were designed and constructed with an eye to the absolute centrality of the altar with priest and people facing together in the same direction. The placement, within perfectly proportioned sanctuaries, of secondary altars to allow for Mass facing the people has utterly destroyed the harmony, order, and spaciousness that the Sacred Liturgy, by its very nature, requires. [Isn’t it jarring to go into a church where the focus has been shifted?]

The Cheek-by-Jowl Ambo

Adding insult to injury, these versus populum altars are, more often than not cheek by jowl with a lectern (or ambo) that effectively impedes any movement around the altar, and positively discourages the incensation of the altar at the Introit and Offertory of the Mass. [Where there is a picnic table altar, yes.]

Crucifix, Candles, and Flowers

Here in Italy — and also in France — the traditional symmetrical arrangement of the candles and crucifix has all but disappeared in favour of a curious asymmetrical disposition that nearly always includes a bouquet of flowers place at one end of the altar, one, two, or three candles at the opposite end, and a crucifix somewhere in the sanctuary that may or may not be construed as having an inherent relationship with the altar.  [Yes… this is a strange thing, very prevalent in Italy.  I think it is a nun thing.  At least it is a woman-decorating-the-altar thing.]

The Priest Magnified

Apart from these considerations, the most deleterious effect continues to be the magnification of the priest and of his personality. The theological direction of all liturgical prayer — ad Patrem, per Filium, in Spiritu — is obscured, while the priest, even in spite of himself, appears to be, at every moment, addressing the faithful or engaging personally with them. [The Novus Ordo tends to place more emphasis on the priest anyway, since he is constantly yakking at you. Then, make him face the people and you get… ]

It’s All About Me

Certain priests and bishops, marked by a streak of narcissism, abuse their position in front of and over the congregation to soak up the attention and energy of the faithful, attention and energy that, by right, belong to God alone during the Sacred Liturgy.

Placed in front of and over the congregation, priests an bishops all too easily give in to an arrogant liturgical clericalism, subjecting the faithful to their own additions amendments, comments, and embolisms. The faithful, being a captive audience, are subjected to the personality of the priest, which can and often does obscure the purity of the liturgical actions and texts that constitute the Roman Rite.  [An even worse liturgical clericalism comes from the condescension behind clericalizing the laity.]

Translation and Business As Usual

The New English Translation of the Roman Missal will not, of itself, be enough to bring about an authentic reform and renewal of the Novus Ordo Missae. A deeper and broader reform is needed, one that must, necessarily, begin with bishops and with their priests charged with the care of souls.  [Which is why we need wide-spread use of the Extraordinary Form: to teach us the Roman Rite again.]

Where to Start?

What concrete steps might be taken? It is fully within the authority of bishops to mandate and prescribe, for example, that two arrangements of the sanctuary will be allowed in their dioceses.

The Altar

In churches possessing an ad orientem altar integral to the architectural genius of the original design of the apse or of the sanctuary, secondary versus populum altars should be removed, and the sanctuaries should be restored to the original order, harmony, and spaciousness that characterized them. [There was actually an editorial in Notitiae about that point many years ago, which I translated for Sacred Music.  The point being, that for the sake of the unicity of the altar, you don’t put an ironing-baord in front of the main altar. Use the main altar, for pity’s sake.]

In churches possessing only a versus populum altar, that altar should be so arranged as to place the crucifix, with the corpus facing the priest, in a central position with three candles at either side, following the Roman practice. [The so-called “Benedictine arrangment”.] Ideally there should be a space of minimally five feet on all sides of a free-standing altar, so as to facilitate the necessary ritual incensations and so as to allow, whenever possible, the celebration of the Mass ad orientem.

A good way to start.

Let’s reclaim our altars and our orientation!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Prof. Basto says:

    Here in my country, a country in which, in decades past, the overwhelming majority of the population was Catholic, a country that was even officially Catholic until january 1890, there are many Churches that have this arrangement of two Altars, often with a mediocre ironing board or wooden kitchen table Novus Ordo altar obstructing the full view of a magnificent traditional Altar, often built with great care and with the finest materials (silver, gold).

    Because the old Churches tend to be protected buildings, the traditional Altars were kept and are here to stay, but they are completely forgotten, in favour of the puny tables placed in front of it. Those Novus Ordo Altars indeed completely ruin the spacial arrangement of the sanctuary.

    Unfortunately, in several Churches that were still built before Vatican II but that were newer (Churches that, therefore, were not protected buildings) the traditional Altar has been removed and entirely replaced. For instance, I know a Church built in the Pontificate of Pius XII that kept its traditional Altar alongside the Novus Ordo one for decades; but, shortly after the year 2000 the entire sactuary was rebuilt and now only a mediocre Altar made of low quality material, and an ambo that seems to be made of glass stand in this Church. A void in the apex corresponds to the place where a massive Crucifix used to stand.

    Indeed, an important first step would be to reverse this trend: no more traditional Altars destroyed, and, where a sanctuary has two altars because a Novus Ordo one has been erected, the Novus Ordo altar must go and the Liturgical actions must be celebrated in the traditional Altar, be it in the extraordinary or in the ordinary form of the Roman rite.

  2. sejoga says:

    I went to a wedding this afternoon at a Lutheran church, and although I’m not very familiar with Lutheran practices and can’t say much about what’s considered normative, I’d would say it seemed like a pretty generic, mainstream Protestant-style service. And the minister said prayers at the altar with, gasp!, HIS BACK TO THE PEOPLE. And this crowd of mostly staunch Protestants (most of whom were not actually Lutherans, I’m sure, and certain not members of this particular church, so not necessarily accustomed to this prayer position) seemed to have not a qualm about seeing a minister lead prayer facing with the people instead of turned against them.

    It was perfectly obvious that the prayers were being directed by the minister at God on behalf of the whole congregation. I can’t fathom why people think Catholics can’t handle ad orientem worship.

  3. Geoffrey says:

    I attended a few “ad orientem” Masses in the Ordinary Form this past Lent for the very first time and what a difference it made! The faithful should not be scandalized by this practice, as it really only applies to the Liturgy of the Eucharist, when everyone should be focused on the mystery taking place.

  4. Ezra says:

    The number of Catholic churches which have been re-ordered in this manner is not negligible. This arrangement, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of the faithful a trial.

  5. Incidentally, here in Romania, it is only the Roman Catholic churches which have adopted the ironing-board. The Orthodox majority, of course, does what it has always done. The Greek Catholic community does likewise. While Lutherans and Episcopalians in the United States have generally moved toward free-standing altars in recent decades, the tiny Lutheran minority here has left all its historic altars (many quite beautiful) intact and in use. There is only one Anglican church in the whole country, and it does have a free-standing altar, but so far as I can tell this does not replace anything older.

    So while Roman Catholics are not by any means the only people celebrating versus populum in Romania (I believe the Reformed and Unitarians do it, for example), they are the only ones who have been required to begin doing it recently, and to mess with the furniture.

    The good news is that those mini-altars are very, very small, and will be easy to dispose of when the time comes. Which, at the present rate, may be awfully soon.

  6. I might add one comment: too often the priest in the new rite thinks he is there to engage the congregation rather than to offer the Mystical Sacrifice for himself and for the “people gathered here round>” The old rubrcis directed the priest to keep the eyes cast down when turning to the faithful, as a humble expression of his unworthiness. So often the Mass in some churches takes on the atmosphere of the circus rather than the Liturgical Action.

  7. RichardT says:

    Yes, a compulsory return to “ad orientem” is probably the biggest catechetical and liturgical improvement that the Church (or a bishop) could make.

    Would it be too inappropriate to borrow a slogan from the “gay rights” brigade?
    “Orientation is not a choice!”

  8. BaedaBenedictus says:

    Turning the altars back around may be one of the last reforms to happen. Consider that pretty much everybody, from well nigh all bishops to the Pope himself, regularly celebrate versus populum. I would also add that most bishops seem to ban it de facto or de jure in their dioceses. I know many priests who tried it, only to get in hot water with their ordinaries. Because celebrating that way, after all, is such a horrible thing that bishops need to be extra-vigilant about preventing it! Perhaps in several decades, when the generations have turned over and the extraordinary form is more common, the restrictions on celebrating ad orientem will loosen up. But after 40+ years of near universal practice, it has cemented itself pretty firmly.

    Really, the whole thing is a diabolical disorientation, one NOT called for by the Council or even the Novus Ordo Missae, and no doubt Fr. Z is right that it is the single most destructive liturgical change that followed the Council.

  9. RichardT says:

    Fr Blake also has a good piece on this today:

    “Visiting a great and ancient cathedral where perspective, proportion, sculpture, painting point to a particular sacred focus, the altar or the tabernacle, something absurd seems to be being said when a priest quite literally turns his back on it all and says Mass on an ill suited johnny-come-lately liturgical carbuncle of an altar.”

  10. AnAmericanMother says:

    I can’t help wondering if when our parish church was built (ca. 1994) the architect or the pastor (who had a lot of input) didn’t contemplate a possible return to ad orientem worship.
    It’s a very traditional space, and there are three steps up to the sanctuary and then two more up to the reredos against the east wall. The altar is not insubstantial (three enormous slabs of Botticino) but with a large enough derrick it would be a relatively simple matter to relocate it against the reredos, which appears to have been designed to surround an altar with a minimum of revision.
    You could even put statues, flowers, and a large crucifix in the reredos.
    The chancel area could easily be extended and choir stalls put in, but since this is not a monastic foundation :-) and I like being able to rummage through my music without being seen by the congregation :-D maybe not. That’s just my Anglican heritage talking.
    The small chapel is another step in the right direction, with the Tabernacle centered in a gold-curtained alcove immediately behind the altar. The Benedictine arrangement is used.

  11. Gaz says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three crucial hallmarks of Catholic Liturgy which are more often ignored than observed. Orientation, Latin and Chant.

  12. amicus1962 says:

    Even if ad orientem is mandated in the Novus Ordo, it may not be enough. The culprit is the structure of the Novus Ordo. The ad orientem posture in the Novus Ordo will only take place during the Liturgy of the Eucharist; at all other times the priest faces the congregation from his chair, where he is at liberty to engage the congregation and make himself the center of attention. All in all the ad orientem position will probably take up 10 minutes or so out of an hour in a typical Sunday sung Mass in a parish church. That’s just not enough to inculcate into the faithful the significance of worshipping towards the liturgical east. On the contrary it would look completely out of place. Besides there are so many modern churches nowadays where the altar is so far out into the nave that it wouldn’t really matter which direction the priest is facing. True reform can only happen if you go back to the extraordinary form and start from there.

  13. RichardT says:

    amicus1962 – Given the current dire state of catechesis, a contrast between the priest facing East for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and facing the congregation for the rest of the Mass, might usefully emphasise the importance of the Eucharistic Prayer.

    But I agree with you that in some modern church buildings it is almost impossible to tell whether the priest is facing ad orientem or versus populum. My pet peeve is Brentwood Cathedral (particularly because a cathedral sets an example to the diocese).

    But that gives me an idea. Next time I have to go to Mass there I shall sit so that I am behind the priest, and then thank him on the way out for the ad orientem orientation.

  14. Patti Day says:

    @Richard T: Fr Blake also has a good piece on this today:

    “Visiting a great and ancient cathedral where perspective, proportion, sculpture, painting point to a particular sacred focus, the altar or the tabernacle, something absurd seems to be being said when a priest quite literally turns his back on it all and says Mass on an ill suited johnny-come-lately liturgical carbuncle of an altar.”

    Do I hear an Amen?

  15. skull kid says:

    Ezra, I like what you did there. =p

    The good of souls demands the return of ad orientem worship.

  16. Gregorius says:

    I had recently been informed by my parish priest that the celebration of Mass in the OF ad orientem in our diocese is forbidden by the bishop. Should I as a layman attempt to write to someone in Rome, or do I try to go through the diocesan level first? If I am to write to Rome, where do I write to?

  17. L. says:

    Our parish church was built in the very early 1960’s, and was modernist/stark in decoration, but with a traditional orientation. A renovation was done about 10 years ago because our then-Priest and his buddies contemplated the possible return to ad orientem worship, and designed their renovation to frustrate it. This is something that they planned and carried out in many churches in the diocese. The marble altar rail was removed, the modern-style but marble altar was removed, and an olympiad-style platform constructed toward the middle of the church. $400,000 was spent to make what was merely unattractive into something hideous and impractical. When my mind wanders during Mass, I find myself daydreaming about the day I can take a jackhammer to the whole thing.

  18. EWTN Rocks says:


    Really, that sounds a bit harsh. It is a church after all worthy of some respect and reverence.

  19. TNCath says:

    Amen! Amen! Amen! In addition to Mass Facing the People and the narcissitic attitudes of many priests and bishops when celebrating the Novus Ordo, that awful business of candles on one side of the altar and a flower arrangemenet on the other drives me absolutely crazy. Fr. Z mentions it to be prevalant in Italy; I first saw it in France. Regardless, it does smack of a living room decoration scheme by women and is very distracting at Mass.

  20. EWTN Rocks says:


    I’m not sure the altar should be flanked by flower arrangements any time but holidays. I personally prefer candles on both sides of the altar.

  21. Joseph says:

    Yes, it is true, translation will not be enough, not even by a long shot. Re orientation would be wonderful, so would be communion on the tongue. But the most important change would be to have good men for bishops, who are fearless defenders of the orthodox faith. Just observe in which diocese are the largest numbers of vovations and then you can tell where there is a good bishop. We need pastors of souls and not politicians with manicured mustaches, who are off to the links with their golf bags on the weekend.

  22. EWTN Rocks says:


    That seems a little black and white. Don’t pastors of souls also play golf?

  23. Dr. Eric says:

    After 4 songs today at Mass all about “me,” a homily about “we really don’t know which day the Ascension was on as Matthew’s Gospel indicates that it was on the day of the Resurrection”, and 3 Extraneous Eucharistic Ministers for a congregation of less than 100, I’m really wondering if the whole Church isn’t in need of being razed to the ground and rebuilt like England in the 7th century.

  24. racjax says:

    Father Z’s blog always has the answers when I need them!

    I was just observing the flowers and three candles in front of the altar at the Poor Clares Monastery this morning and wondering what that was about! I thought ironing boards where the standard for the older churches.

  25. skull kid says:

    EWTN Rocks:

    “Priests must be pure, very pure. They should not busy themselves with anything except what concerns the Church and souls. The disobedience of priests and religious to their superiors and to the Holy Father gravely displeases Our Lord.”

    — Our Lady of Fatima to Jacinta Marta

  26. Pachomius says:

    Last time the Novus Ordo facing ad orientem came up, I was chastised for suggesting this was acceptable in the rubrics and not a case of a priest ‘tradding up’ the 1970 MR. Since then, I have taken a look at the Missal’s own rubrics. There are many references – at least in the opening rites – to the priest turning to face the people. I think this is significant: if the priest was already facing the people (i.e., celebrating versus populum), he wouldn’t need to turn around. ad orientem should, therefore, be understood as normative for both Forms of the Mass, I would argue.

    (NB: While the GIRM contains a (vague) recommendation for the altar to be built away from the wall so that Mass can be celebrated versus populum, containing the phrase “which is greatly to be preferred”, the CDW issued a clarification that the preference mentioned was for the altar to be built away from the wall, not for celebration versus populum.)

    It should be noted, though, that while it is normative, it is not the only option, in either Missal. Indeed, as far back as the 1570 Missale Romanum (at least, the online version I found), there are instructions for what the celebrant should do in those cases where he celebrates versus populum. I suspect this is because there are a handful of churches in Rome which are built on a West-East axis, rather than an East-West one: that is, the wall behind the altar is the West wall, and so to face ad orientem and to face versus populum, are, in fact, to face in the same direction: both the congregation, and the East.

    One of these churches is St Peter’s Basilica, but (I think) St Paul-Without-The-Walls is also built in this way, with a freestanding altar, too, so that the priest celebrates facing the people.

    This isn’t to say that the priest celebrating with his back to the congregation is a bad thing – far from it. Personally, I much prefer it. But celebration facing versus populum is not and has never been the only option.

  27. Pachomius says:

    Corrigendum: for “But celebrating versus populum…”, please read, “But celebrating ad orientem…”.

  28. shane says:

    Ad orientem posture will probably not ever be made mandatory in the Novus Ordo though it certainly should be. It was not (and is not) mandatory in the Tridentine Mass and had become quite unfashionable in parts of Europe after the war. Even the ‘reactionary’ Cardinal Ottaviani celebrated Mass facing the people at the International Liturgical Congress in 1953.

  29. AnAmericanMother says:

    Sounds like your pastor and my pastor saw the same thing coming . . . but had opposite reactions.

    I have never understood the “church in the round” thing. We’re not Unitarians . . . are we?

  30. Fr. Basil says:

    Seems to me that nothing should be placed on the Altar that does not directly relate to the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

    That means, basically, no flowers. Put them on the SIDES of the Altar.

  31. James Joseph says:

    When did lecturns make their way into churches? When did we start reading lessons and the Gospel from the lecturn?

    I suppose I’m being obtuse but isn’t it Theologically conducive to read from the altar?

  32. Consilio et Impetu says:

    Please correct me, Fr. Z, if I am mistaken, but I had thought that the Altar was to be free standing when constructed in new Churches when Pope Pius XII began the liturgical reforms prior to Vatican Council II, not after Vatican Council II. The tabernacle was to be placed in the reredos.

    As for what is allowed to be placed on the Altar, Cardinal Justin Rigali had sent a letter to priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia instructing them not to have anything on the altar; candles, flowers,crucifix, etc. as not not obstruct the view when celebrating the NO Mass. In the Cathedral Basilica, a new reredos has been constructed on which the Tabernacle, Crucifix, candles are placed. Before that (going back to when Cardinal John O’Hara was Archbishop renovated and expanded the Cathedral) the Tabernacle was always at the Side Altar (BVM).

  33. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    I agree with Nike…Just do it.

  34. Consilio et Impetu:

    In new construction the altar should be free standing.  But apparently there are exceptions to this.  I can think of half a dozen examples off the top of my head, one even before Ecclesia Dei adflicta, of altars against the apse of the sanctuary which were duly consecrated by bishops. Apparently this particular law is not entirely without its exceptions.

    As far as what you say His Eminence Card. Rigali has legislated… I can’t speak to that.  I had not heard that.

    I will share, however, a photo from the Holy Father’s Mass, today, in Croatia.


  35. Pachomius says:

    James Joseph: Some time in the Dark Ages? The Catholic Encyclopaedia is somewhat vague on the matter of dates, but cites lecterns as appearing in the church of St. Pantalaemon in Thessalonica, and also at S. Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna. Both of which are pretty ancient. IIRC, S. Apollinare Nuovo dates to the reign of Justinian the Great. The first date the CE article gives is the twelfth century, for an eagle lectern, similar to the kind seen in Anglican churches throughout England.

    Furthermore, in Eastern-rite churches, the Gospel is read at the Ambo, just outside the Holy Doors in the Ikonostasis.

    If I recall correctly, there was a video on YouTube of a 1940s American High Mass at which the priest chanted the Gospel at the foot of the altar, facing the people, with the deacon or subdeacon holding the Gospel-book up for him. I’m far from an expert on the Old Rite, but isn’t reading the readings at the altar a Low Mass sort of thing? From the tone of the Catholic Encyclopaedia article, it sounds as if lecterns were still in place prior to V2, but largely used just to hold gospel-books, and for the exsultet, and so on. There’s no mention of where the priest gives the homily; the lectern would seem the natural spot, though.

  36. Consilio et Impetu says:
  37. Centristian says:

    I think the advocacy for the “ad orientem” posture of the celebrant can be used against our aspirations if we overstress the importance of facing East.

    The parish to which I currently belong is situated such that before the liturgical reforms, Mass was actually celebrated facing due West. Only since the introduction of the versus populum table has Mass been truly celebrated “ad orientem”. It’s odd to think that celebrating Mass facing the geographical East, however, does not constitute an “ad orientem” celebration, as my pastor is only too keen to make note of.

    My parish is just one example of many Catholic churches that are not oriented. Some face North, some South, some Southwest, &c, &c, &c. Perhaps we need to begin to speak of restoring celebrations of Mass at our churches’ original altars, rather than refering to orientation. Clearly, authentic “ad orientem” celebration was not a priority for the Church before the Council, so I think we shouldn’t force the issue that to face East when celebrating the liturgy is somehow more desirable, today. It’s hard to persuade minds that East is best, even when East is West. A “return to our altars” seems a better strategy to me.

    In the case of a church in which the original altar has been preserved but with a versus populum table placed in front of it, I think a liturgical monster exists. The idea of two altars within a sanctuary is liturgically impure. It’s much better to simply use the original altar than to permit two altars to endlessly compete for our focus and attention.

    The other solution, of course, was to remove the original altar in favor of the versus populum altar. That usually produced very disappointing results, however, as we have all seen. A greater tragedy ensued when the original altar that was removed was a genuine work of art. They weren’t always, of course, but often they were.

    Somebody above mentioned Lutherans being not at all vexed by celebrations at their original altars. I have experienced the same traquility in Episcopalian churches. At our local Episcopal cathedral, the Holy Communion service is celebrated “ad orientem” (which is actually Southwest, in this particular case) every day at either one of two side altars. Neither the celebrant nor the congregation has an aneurism about it; they use the original altars because they’re there. No need to spend six figures renovating the spaces in order to erect a table in front of them; they just use them as is.

    Why should it be that Protestant clergy can calmly approach their original altars without even giving the matter a second thought whereas Catholic clergy are absolutely neurotic about the idea of using theirs? Odd…and sad to think that Catholic priests can take a lesson from Protestant ministers regarding a better way to offer Mass.

    At any rate, adopting this “Protestant” practice of offering lightly-attended weekday liturgies “ad orientem” at side altars might be a good place to start for priests wishing to reintroduce the concept of celebrating Mass at their churches’ original altars.

  38. Sam Schmitt says:


    In common parlance ‘ad orientem’ refers to mass being celebrated by the priest facing the same direction as the people the pews, not to celebration facing geographical east. I can’t remember anyone arguing for the geographical interpretation – they just don’t want the priest facing the people.

  39. AnAmericanMother says:

    “Liturgical east” is sometimes determined by necessity. In our parish, ‘ad orientem’ is actually northwest, but there was really no choice because the area available for the church was determined by lot size, topography and the presence of other, older buildings (including two former church buildings that had become a parish hall and gym).

  40. donantebello says:

    recently I was in Avila, only to see the magnificent Cathedral sanctuary floor newly wreckovated. I almost wept to see the ancient stone floor, which contains the graves of many historic bishops, fully covered over by “office blue” carpet, Star Trek space chair smack dab in front of the majestic retablo, and reprehensible “fold up poker table.” The good news is that the under 40 priests in Spain have no taste for these deformations, and see right through the “false interpretation of Vatican II” clown show.

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