ASK FATHER: Bishop forces priest to use table altar instead of high altar for Extraordinary Form

From priest…


Recently my bishop refused to let me celebrate a Solemn High Mass at the high altar of the Church, insisting altar that is used in the Ordinary Form should be used. So I celebrated the Solemn High on that altar, ad orientem, in obedience. [Praiseworthy.] The argument given was that GIRM #303  [Ooops!] says that once a new altar is consecrated the old high altar should no longer be used for offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Secondly the bishop wanted there to be an expression that though there are two forms, the substance of the Roman Rite is the same: the Sacrifice of Calvary.

I’m wondering if that means that the Extraordinary Form must be celebrated on the “Novus Ordo Altar”?

My first though is that this rubric is from the GIRM and thus is for the Ordinary Form of the Mass and not applicable to the Old Rite. [Exactly.] Secondly, most of the time the space around the high altar is better suited for the celebration of say a Solemn High Mass, because the space was designed for that form of Mass.

So my question: is the bishop right that the Mass must be offered on the same altar, as GIRM 303 says?

Short answer: The bishop is wrong and you are right. However, that might not be much consolation because the bishop, if he is a bully, can hurt you in a thousand ways and you are pretty much defenseless.

Long answer.

You are correct in that the current GIRM does not apply to the Vetus Ordo.  The current GIRM applies to the Missal for which it was written, namely, the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.     The Rubricae Generales apply to the Missal for which they were written, the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

I assume that in this situation, there is an old “high altar” which has the requisite steps, and that the new altar, freestanding, is on the flat surface of the sanctuary.  Priests something try to make this work by standing just outside the sanctuary for the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, so that then they can step up one or two steps onto the floor of the sanctuary and thus approach the freestanding altar.  However, the former rubrics would normally not allow for a priest to be outside of the sanctuary once the Mass has begun.

Therefore, if there is an altar with the requisite steps, that is the altar that should be used for the Extraordinary Form, as that is the rubric which pertains to the EF.

The interpretive Instruction from the Holy See for the EF is Universae Ecclesiae.  Let’s have a look.

24. The liturgical books of the forma extraordinaria are to be used as they are. All those who wish to celebrate according to the forma extraordinaria of the Roman Rite must know the pertinent rubrics and are obliged to follow them correctly.


27. With regard to the disciplinary norms connected to celebration, the ecclesiastical discipline contained in the Code of Canon Law of 1983 applies.
28. Furthermore, by virtue of its character of special law, within its own area, the Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum derogates from those provisions of law, connected with the sacred Rites, promulgated from 1962 onwards and incompatible with the rubrics of the liturgical books in effect in 1962.

When it comes with ecclesiastical discipline, we follow the 1983 Code.  For example, who has faculties to say Mass in the Latin Church, etc.  When it comes to how the Mass is celebrated, the rubrics of the 1962 Missale (and now, it seems, previous – but not later editions) are to be followed.  Hence, Communion may not be distributed in the hand during Mass in the Extraordinary Form, and those movements pertaining to the altar should be observed.

What do the rubrics really say?  Let’s have a look.

VIII – The Various Parts of the Mass
A. The psalm Iudica me, Deus, the Confiteor and the incensing of the altar
424. The psalm Iudica me, Deus with its antiphon, and the Confiteor with the absolution, are said before the steps of the altar in any Mass, whether sung or low.  [Two altars?  One with steps and the other… none?  Hmmm.]

XI – The Preparation of the Altar for Mass  [For the rest, which does this more accurately describe?]
525. The altar on which the most holy sacrifice of the Mass is to be celebrated must be wholly of stone, and duly consecrated; or at least it must have a stone slab, or an altar stone, likewise duly consecrated, large enough to hold the host and the greater part of the chalice; or again, by apostolic indult, an antimension, duly blessed.
526. The altar must be covered by three cloths, duly blessed, of which one must be long enough to hang to the ground at the sides.
527. On the altar, at the middle, there must be a cross of adequate size with the image of the Crucified, and on each side of it candlesticks with lighted candles, to the number required by the kind of Mass. The so-called “tables of secret prayers” or altar cards are to be put on the altar also, but only for the time of the Mass; and, at the epistle side, a cushion or a lectern for supporting the Missal.
528. At the epistle side, on a table meant for this purpose, cruets of wine and water with a dish and a towel should be prepared, also a little bell, and a paten for the communion of the faithful.
529. Nothing whatsoever is to be put on the altar which does not pertain to the sacrifice of the Mass or to the adornment of the altar itself.
530. Where the custom prevails of lighting a candle, near the altar, from the consecration to the communion, that custom should be preserved.

Anyway, the local bishop appealed to the GIRM, which doesn’t pertain to the EF.  He might have argued from the principle of the importance of the unicity of the altar in a sanctuary.  That, however, doesn’t work very well in the Roman Rite in either form, given that the principle is regularly violated in Rome, the preeminent locus of the rite.  That suggests a certain praxis which goes against what the bishop demands.

Also, when there are two altars and one of them is best suited to the EF and the other is not, insisting that the EF be at the less suitable altar is not only disrespectful toward the Mass itself, and its ends (to which the bishop made an appeal – renewal of the Sacrifice of Calvary) but it’s just plain silly.

Meanwhile, I guess you have to tug your forelock to your clerical overload, because he holds power and you don’t.

Thanks for being diligent and trying to do the right thing!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, Mail from priests, SUMMORUM PONTIFICUM, Universae Ecclesiae and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. BrionyB says:

    If the bishop feels it is important to use the same altar for both forms of the Mass, surely the best solution would be to use the high altar for both. The OF might have to be ad orientem, but there is nothing in the GIRM to say it shouldn’t be.

    That way, the EF can be celebrated correctly and conveniently, while preserving the symbolism of unity within the Roman rite. Everyone’s happy!(?)

  2. rally1042 says:

    Little do I know of Canon Law and GIRM and Rubrics. However, I have noticed that often those who want to discourage TLM and such, cite the Codes, etc. to support their position. However those Canons and such were not consulted or used when making wholesale changes to the Liturgy other than reference to “the spirit of Vatican II.”

  3. Ad Orientem says:

    I would file this under the heading of Oikonomia. That’s a concept more widely understood and applied in the Orthodox Church, but still applicable here. The priest is right, but the bishop has both authority, and very importantly, responsibility before God for the exercise of that authority. In this case we are not talking about heresy or even a grave liturgical abuse. Or to put it in simpler terms, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. Pick your battles. If you throw down over every issue, life is going to be rough. My advice to the priest who having made his objections known, is to salute, say “aye aye sir,” and carry on smartly. This is not a hill worth dying for.

    [As I said.]

  4. Clinton R. says:

    Sigh, these are the times we live in, when a good and faithful priest must obey a modernist bishop and use a table altar instead of the high altar. The former is a Cranmer table suitable for a meal and the latter is for the True Sacrifice offered to God. Thank you liturgical “reformers”. Where would the Church be without you? (face in palms)

  5. Sieber says:

    We had an identical situation in Hollywood several years ago. A requium missa solemnis had to be celebrated with the ministers of the Mass huddled around a Cranmer table while the magnificent high altar stood ignored. I was told by a parishioner whom I met in the sacristy that the controlling Jesuits had only recently been prevented from jack hammering up said marble masterpiece. Shades of the Altar of the Chair.

  6. APX says:

    FWIW: we have both forms of the Mass at our parish. Those of the Latin Mass Community use the high altar, the OF uses the other altar.

    Perhaps, if the bishop in question is of goodwill and reasonable, he might be open to discussion about the priests’ issues and the rubrics, especially having been obedient to the bishop initially.

    The bishop might not even be aware that the GIRM doesn’t apply to the EF and might just need to be made aware of these things.

  7. matt from az says:

    It would be a shame If vandals were to break into the church and steal the table altar. Then all masses, new and old, would have to be offered at the high altar.
    I shudder to think…

  8. Hidden One says:

    Clinton R., I don’t think it’s prudent or charitable to default to “modernist” bishop. “Mistaken” bishop is all that we know.

  9. OrangeBlossom says:

    At our parish, the table altar just disappeared one day …. now Father only celebrates Mass on the high altar. OF is ad orientem and then TLM is where it should be.

    We attend both masses, though I would love to attend just the TLM. It’s only been a year since I’ve been introduced to it (I’m 44). What beauty and reverence!!

  10. Sonshine135 says:

    Perhaps the better way to look at this is to just be thankful that the Bishop didn’t throw up a roadblock to doing the EF Mass at all. If only more Bishops would meet their Priests halfway as it were, we’d be in much better shape.

  11. Sword40 says:

    About 13 years ago, our local pastor asked me if I could help him complete the last wishes of a parishioner who had just passed away. Seems he had gotten permission for a Requiem Mass. But our pastor had no knowledge of the TLM. The deceased had three sons one of whom was a Benedictine priest who had agreed to say the Requiem but had to learn how to do it. I was asked to assist in finding the vestments, altar missal, and candleholders, etc.. I was able to borrow them from friends in Seattle. Even had the black funeral pall. However, by the time it was all over, tempers had risen beyond belief. The Mass turned out to be a “Hybrid” sort, inexperienced people trying to keep “dad’s” wishes can really mess things up. I finally just shut up and sat in the back of the church.
    One thing that really stuck out was that the priest son, wanted me to move the Novus Ordo “table” up on the level of the old high altar, where it used to be located. Once done it made a beautiful High Altar. The local pastor attended out of curiosity to see how we were doing. He exploded in anger after the Mass at me for moving the N.O. altar. However, all in all, it opened the way for our first monthly TLM Mass two years later.

  12. Matt Robare says:

    A couple of times I’ve been to Masses (one EF, one Ordinariate Use) where the High Altar was used, but the Table Altar was left in place. I also know of a wealthy, suburban parish that, so I am told, has a rather elaborate mechanical apparatus for placing and removing the Table Altar.

  13. AA Cunningham says:

    An Extraordinary Form Solemn High Mass was celebrated at The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver last night offered by Father Mason Fraley with Father Joseph Hearty and Father Daniel Nolan FSSP assisting. The low altar was used.

  14. William says:

    How would these rules work when a Mass was celebrated outside the normal church (such as a military chaplain celebrating on a hillside)?

    Would those situations be applicable to here at all since it is, in a sense, outside what the traditional rubrics assumed?

Comments are closed.