ASK FATHER: Priest tells people to stand around the altar during Eucharistic Prayer

From a reader…

As an avid reader of your blog please first be assured of my prayers.

I recently attended an Engaged Encounter weekend in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the priest who said Mass had the couples surround him at the altar during the entirety of the Eucharistic Prayer. [sigh]

In weakness my fiance and I did so during the first Mass but we remained kneeling in our pews during the second, I had hoped it was a one off thing.

I approached the priest about it, after we had received our certificate of completion, and he gave me some unfortunate explanations including: historical accuracy, and it not being ruled out in the GIRM.

I contacted the Archdiocese and received an unsatisfactory response. Namely a paragraph from the GIRM and Redemptionis Sacramentum which says nothing about the issue at hand. I would be happy to provide you with the full email if you wish.

I am looking for something to reply back with but all I can find is a dubium from the 1980’s that has a dubious web address, seemingly unofficial. Do you have anything I could respond with? I am frustrated and saddened.


In the 1990’s, I attended a lot of small, local theater productions. There can be a lot of fun in that – and good grist for conversations with friends afterwards, in assessing or deconstructing the experience. Most productions were fairly innocuous, and some were quite good.

What was a trend then, and I suspect is still done in some places, is a huge effort made to include the audience in the play. Actors broke the fourth wall, came out and interacted with members of the audience. On some rare occasions, this was effective, and in limited doses, it could be fun. Mostly, it was cloyingly inappropriate, overdone, and often disruptive of the theater experience. I did not need Hamlet tossing me the skull of Yorick to be drawn into the play, nor we need to have Orgon discover his box of incriminating letters under my chair and hand them to my friend with the side-whisper to keep them hidden from Tartuffe at all cost.

Now, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not mere theater, and the congregation is not a mere audience to this sublime moment. Still, mutatis mutandis, many of the efforts of modern liturgists to make the Mass meaningful and draw the faithful into the experience are just as cloyingly inappropriate and ineffective.

The General Institution of the Roman Missal does not explicitly ban the faithful from gathering in the sanctuary during the Canon.

Nor does it forbid the faithful from being fitted with wires and hovering above the altar, or laying on the floor underneath the table-altar, or standing amongst the statuary in the reredos. The rubric do not cover every absurdity.

A presumption (perhaps a naïve one) is that the Church’s liturgy will be carried out by reasonable men.

The General Institution does say that the Eucharistic celebration “affects the individual members of the Church in a different way, according to their different orders, functions, and actual participation.”

And further, “All, therefore, whether ordained ministers or lay Christian faithful, in fulfilling their function or their duty, should carry out solely but totally that which pertains to them.” (Article 91, citing Sacrosanctum Concilium #28).

Let us, instead of trying to clericalize the laity and layify the clergy, be who we are – who God has called us to be.

The document you might be looking for was a response issued by the Congregation and published in the Congregation for Divine Worship’s official publication Notitiae, (that is, Notitiae 17 (1981) p. 61):

At the offertory of a community Mass, some (religious men and women, lay persons) bring down the bread and wine to be consecrated to the altar, and these gifts are accepted by the celebrating priest. All the participants together accompany the procession in which the gifts are brought forward, and they stand around the altar until communion.
Is this manner of acting in conformity with the letter and the spirit of the Roman Missal?

RESPONSE. Certainly the Eucharistic celebration is an act of the community, which is carried out by all the members of the liturgical assembly. Yet each person ought to have and keep his own place and the role proper to himself: « each minister or member of the faithful, performing his own role, should exercise solely and completely what pertains to him according the nature of the matter and the liturgical norms » (« Sacrosanctum Concilium », n. 28).

In carrying out the Eucharistic liturgy, only the celebrant who is presiding remains at the altar; the assembly of those participating hold their place in the church outside of the sanctuary, which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and the ministers.

Reference HERE

It predates the current Missal and uses some imprecise wording (e.g. “the celebrant who is presiding…” but the point made is solid.


The priest who is doing this should be dissuaded, perhaps over a couple mugs of rich and aromatic Mystic Monk Coffee If he will not be dissuaded, then he should be compelled.  Either his superior if he is a religious and/or the local diocesan bishop, whose task it is make sure that the Church’s liturgical directives are followed, should be informed.

In 1997 several offices of the Roman Curia cooperated in an authoritative document called Ecclesia de mysterio, called in English “Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration Of The Non-Ordained Faithful In The Sacred Ministry Of Priest. This instruction clarified the distinct roles of laypeople and of priests. In that document, we find what Fr. Ferguson mentioned.  Let’s spin it out:

In liturgical celebrations each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy.” (SC art. 29). During the liturgy of the eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the “presbyterium,” which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers. [Notitiae 17 (1981) 61]

Bottom line: the lay faithful (except those in liturgical serving roles) are not permitted to be inside the sanctuary, that is, “standing around the altar” during Holy Mass.

Moreover, the Ceremonial of Bishops 50 states, (NB: Just about every parish everywhere with lay readers at Mass!):

“A minister who is not wearing a vestment, a cassock or surplice, or other lawfully approved garb may not enter the sanctuary during a celebration.”

Think about that every time someone gets up from the pews and troops up into the sanctuary to read.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Think about that every time someone gets up from the pews and troops up into the sanctuary to read.

    Wasn’t the traditional placement of the pulpit, ambo, lectern, etc outside of the sanctuary? At the Anglican Use Ordinariate church the lectern for the readers isn’t even in the chancel, let alone the sanctuary, but on a little platform outside, and the pulpit is outside as well.

  2. ChesterFrank says:

    In some diocese this is common for first communion masses. You mention those that go from pew to sanctuary to read whilst wearing unapproved liturgical garb, or street clothes. Lets not leave out the extraordinary ministers entering the sanctuary in sweats.

  3. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Re: lay readers, that is why a lot of parishes had one of the two lecterns set outside the sanctuary, or still have one of the microphones outside it for the cantors. The reduction of two lecterns to one ambo has taken away that kind of solution, even though it got the readings back inside the sanctuary.

    I could kinda see readers wearing albs, except that a lot of adult laypeople end up looking like pouter pigeons in them. Nothing that a better fit could not fix, though.

    The scary thing is that the “other” clause means those parishes who give ministers stupid pendants as a badge of office… are within the rules. Big points for obedience, even if no points for style!

  4. The Astronomer says:

    When I was an undergrad at the Catholic University of America, the presider & head of Campus Ministry would routinely invite the students to stand around the altar and recite the Eucharistic Prayer with him. He told us we were taking part in the Lord’s Supper as part of the ‘Royal Preisthood of Believers.’

    Never did figure out if those Masses were valid.

  5. Gaetano says:

    I’m an Instituted Lector, but my pastor would have a full meltdown if I insisted on vesting in cassock & surplice for Mass. It’s tough to do this without top-cover from higher ups.

  6. There is a very important facet to this that is often overlooked. Namely, that these abuses are not merely annoying peculiarities. Yes, they are often the product of a muddled mind, or even no real thought whatsoever; and they call for patience and charity on the part of others who endure them. Nevertheless, these abuses are often damaging to the faithful.

    A priest celebrates Mass on a coffee table, in someone’s home, while everyone is told to relax on the couch. Maybe the priest wears shoes, an alb, a chasuble. Maybe the sacred vessels are whatever can be cobbled together (and if this were a prison camp, that’d be an entirely different matter). However well intentioned, this damages people’s faith.

    Similarly, compelling (even a soft sort of compulsion) folks to stand around the altar is an attack on people’s faith. When I was in the seminary, this was exactly what happened. We were told to stand around the altar. Most of us hated it; some guys really struggled with it: were they sinning? They did not want to be irreverent to the Lord. Did we have a choice? We sometimes talked of defying it, but we backed down. That doesn’t feel good. (Thankfully, that nonsense came to an end.)

    When I was a young man, a friend invited me to be a groomsman. He was marrying a Protestant, and with all proper permission, the wedding was to take place in the Protestant church. A priest was going to be present, and — we were told — take a minor role.

    At the rehearsal, the Protestant minister said there would be communion. I explained I was a Catholic, and wasn’t going to receive communion. Fine. Then, during the wedding, after the vows, who steps up to lead the communion? The priest! He proceeds to pray what sounded, to me, like the Eucharistic Prayer (I wasn’t knowledgeable enough at the time to recognize which one). I cannot put into words how shocked I was. He was celebrating Mass! In this setting!! Now the Eucharist was on the altar! Then the Eucharist was distributed to everyone. Worse, the bread was leavened, and there were crumbs everywhere! No one was showing any reverence.

    After the wedding, all I could think about was the Eucharist, and I was trying to gather the fragments. I went to the priest and asked his help. That’s when he told me not to worry; he hadn’t actually confected the sacrament. He admitted he had deliberately changed the words just enough. What seemed to have been the Eucharist, wasn’t after all.

    I really can’t give words to how profoundly upset I was. This was my friends’ wedding, and everyone wanted to celebrate; it was all terribly awkward. I was upset all that night, and for several days after. When I got home, I sought out a priest I trusted, and asked him about it. What was worst was the thought that I had taken part in a sacrilege. I was crying about it, to tell the truth. Thankfully, I chose a wise priest, who assured me that I had not committed any sin.

    Still, it affected me for awhile. It affected my friendship. I lost all respect for the priest who was responsible.

    These aren’t just liturgical abuses; they abuse the people who are supposed to be sanctified by the liturgy.

  7. Joy65 says:

    “Think about that every time someone gets up from the pews and troops up into the sanctuary to read.”

    Am I understanding this to mean that lay faithful are not to be readers at Mass?

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Those old churches that have their little ambo tower-style pulpits in the middle of church — they would be okay to use unvested! Ha!

  9. Joy65 says:

    Also if possible where is the “clown instance” in that picture taking place? What kind of Church did that happen in?

  10. Henry Edwards says:

    Gaetn0 – He insists you wear an alb instead?

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