ASK FATHER: Separating priest from altar in the Novus Ordo

From a reader…

I have a question about the GIRM. If I’m reading it correctly everything except from the Offertory through Communion Rite must be done from the chair, and the missal and chalice placed elsewhere except for those times. Until recently, the parish priests said the collect, prayer after communion, etc. from the altar. Almost the whole TLM is said from the altar or the foot of the altar. From my pew, the instruction does not make sense in the context of liturgical tradition. In a larger sense, the language of the GIRM seems to make praying at the altar an act in some bigger play, which will negatively affect our understanding, especially when combined with the extra extraordinary (in number not office) ministers, and lectors walking all over the “worship space.” Am I reading the GIRM correctly? If so, what is the basis for the language of the GIRM?

You raise an important point.

Let’s consider a few initial points.

Priesthood is for sacrifice.  There is no sacrifice without priests.  The place of sacrifice is the altar.  The priest and the altar are intimately bound together, so much so that the priest kisses the altar when he arrives or when – in the traditional rite – he turns from it or when he leaves it.  He – traditionally – dresses in ritual fashion to go to it.  The altar itself – traditionally – is also to be ritually clothed in its own matching vestment, the antependium.

In 1969 – most people have never heard this and digging up information about it is hard – Paul VI issued an edition of missal for the revised “Novus Ordo” of Mass that had to be withdrawn immediately because there was heresy in the introductory comments.  The distinction of the priesthood of the laity by baptism and that of the priest by ordination was blurred.  Another missal would be released which cleaned that up.  However, you can see what was going on back in the day.

In 1968 Paul VI issued a rite of ordination to the priesthood which – while valid – left out of the interrogation of the ordinations the questions explicit language about offering the sacrifice of the Mass and about hearing confessions and absolving sins, activities which pretty much sum up the work of the priest.  In 1990 John Paul II issued a revision of Paul VI’s rite which corrected these lacunae, making these aspects of priesthood explicit.  The problem was that the rites themselves should tell us what they are conferring.  The Paul VI rite didn’t.  It was murky.  Some, therefore, argued that it wasn’t valid for holy orders.  That was wrong.  However, had that rite continued for a long time, to the point that even the bishops conferring the sacrament had murky notions about priesthood, then… well… problems.  Michael Davies dealt with all of this in a good book (US HERE – UK HERE).

And now we turn to the issue of separation the priest from the altar in the Novus Ordo for significant periods of time in the Mass and the introduction of myriad of lay people into the sanctuary.

Keep in mind that when the Word of God is proclaimed, Christ is present.  Christ is pre-eminently present in the Eucharist, but He is also present in the reading of Scripture.  The Fathers of Vatican II wanted to expand and open up a greater use of Scripture.  One way to emphasize the importance of Scripture was to give its proclamation it’s own place.  In the ancient Church there was often in a large raised ambo, with steps up both sides, from which readings were sung.   In the Solemn Mass of the Roman Rite, while the priest celebrant read the readings at the two corners of the altar, the Subdeacon and the Deacon would go to their proper places in the sanctuary and, in the case of the Gospel, facing liturgical north, for the readings.  Thus, the traditional rite also emphasized the reading of Scripture by location and by singing.  Alas, one of the things that – I think – pushed the ignorant and scholarly alike to implement radical changes to the Roman Rite is because they had gotten it into their heads that the LOW Mass was the paradigm of the Roman Rite and not the SOLEMN Mass.  At Low Mass everything is kept strictly at the altar.

We could briefly touch on the “chair” of the “presider”.  This is an echo of the “seat of Moses” whence the law was interpreted, the curule chair of Roman officials and Emperors, etc.  It is a symbol of teaching authority and governance.   The use of the chair by the priest embodies these aspects of the man’s priesthood.  However, once again, the use of the chair was present in the Solemn Mass.  At times the priest, with deacon and subdeacon, could go to sit when it was proper to wait for the choir to complete its chants.   So, the chair was ever present in the sanctuary, but there was a desire to emphasize it.  Unfortunately, this was exaggerated in many places.  I think we all have seen churches in which the tabernacle was removed from the central position and the “presider’s chair” was put there, thus giving the priest a perch grander than anything where Caesar ever parked.  We have seen altars offset from the center of the sanctuary (if it could still be called that) so that the ambo would have a place of equal dignity nearby.

That last point reminds me of something… that table of the word and table of the sacrifice.  What most people don’t get today is that the reading of Scripture at Mass is itself a priestly, sacrificial offering.  Reading Scripture at Mass is not a performance moment (ohhhh… how many dreadful readers are there?).  Reading Scripture at Mass is not primarily a didactic moment, though it is also didactic.  Readings are to be raised on high to God much like the cloud of incense that rises in an offering back to the Father.  Christ is being offered to the Father, for Christ is in every word that is proclaimed.  Hence, as we decorate the rest of the elements of Mass, it is fitting to sing the readings, as an act of sacrificial love.

It seems to me that we are slowly recovering from the enthusiastic madness of the 60’s and 70’s.  Surely the side by side use of the traditional Mass, according to the vision of Benedict XVI and Summorum Pontificum, will bring these issues to the fore.

Finally, as a convert I am highly sensitive to the differences of Protestant and Catholic world views.  I don’t recall the source off hand, but not too long ago I heard someone comment that the whole of the Protestant revolt could be summed up as an attack on the priesthood, and therefore on sacrifice.   Surely the desire to bridge the gap toward Protestants influenced those who ran beyond the mandates of the Council Fathers.  It is, in way, still functioning today, but in a subterranean way.  What do I mean?   This emphasis on “clericalism” today, as a way of dodging the real problems behind The Present Crisis, reflects a subtle attack on the Catholic understanding of priesthood, a reduction of the role of priest to “minister”, an attenuation of the vital concept of sacrifice and, therefore, the true meaning of the altar.

Perhaps some of these thoughts will help you as you gaze at the goings on the Novus Ordo sanctuary and the TLM sanctuary, how they overlap and harmonize, how they diverge and conflict.



You might go back and listen to three podcasts I did some years back on the implementation of the Novus Ordo at Advent of 1969.

095 09-11-24 40 years ago… Paul VI on the eve of the Novus Ordo (Part III)
094 09-11-20 40 years ago… Paul VI on the eve of the Novus Ordo (Part II)
093 09-11-16 40 years ago… Paul VI on the eve of the Novus Ordo

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Thank you for your excellent analysis, Fr. Z
    One thing I would add is the fact that even according to the current GIRM, while it is envisioned that the introductory rites (up til the readings) will be done from the chair, nevertheless it is permissible for the priest to do everything from the altar.

  2. Suburbanbanshee says:

    St. Isidore of Seville was insistent that lectors should understand Scripture and be able to sing it with meaning, although it was also important to have a good singing voice, projection, enunciation, etc. He did not want theatrical gestures or singing styles, but he did want psalmists to sing the psalms in a way that made the congregation feel the meaning.

    If you are thinking deeply about the words you are chanting or reading, your voice will naturally bring color and meaning to what comes out of your mouth. That is one of the oldest tricks in the book. (I read it in a book by Lotte Lenya, but the observation goes way back.) If you can think about the sun or justice, or Jesus the Just Judge, while reading about the Sun of Justice, your voice will express what you are thinking. Experience and practice makes your voice more tasteful and exact about it. Enough practice and pre-thinking will make it automatic, so that you can sing with meaning under stress, without conscious effort (or with the conscious mind blanking out, as often happens in a flow of music).

    If you are not thinking about what you are reading (because you are nervous and did not practice enough), it is still an offering. But being prepared with knowledge and action is a fuller offering.

  3. Unwilling says:

    “The reading of Scripture at Mass is itself a priestly, sacrificial offering” not (primarily) didactic and not dramatic.

    A profound theology of the Readings!

    I admit that, until reading this today, I had understood the sacrificial character at best only intuitively — and that through gesture (entrance processional with Lectionary aloft, incensing, etc.) rather than by word. And having committed many years to the study of the Biblical languages (and all the antiquarian science that goes with that), I understand why I thought the Readings as primarily didactic. And I confess to being one of those lay readers (in my and perhaps most well-intentioned) who carefully prepared to re-present the original writing through oral interpretation. Now I see how wrong I was on nearly every point. The Readings as part of the Sacrifice makes much more sense.

    Thank you Fr Z. I hope your injuries are healed or soon will be.

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Forgot to.say that he talks about lectors and psalmists in De Ecclesiasticis Officiiis.

    Oh, and I recently noticed that Hoopla’s ebook app for libraries has a lot of TAN books, all of a sudden. I was reading De Sales’ Catholic Controversies. Right at the beginning after the foreword, they have a great section by the saint on how it is bad to allow oneself to be scandalized away from what is good, even by very scandalous things. Since the book is comprised of chapters that started out as pamphlets and flyers circulated by the saint, it has a very Internet feel in some ways.

  5. I think that one problem with the pre-Vatican II Church was that in most parishes (certainly the one in which I grew up), nearly every Mass was a Low Mass. I don’t know whether that was in the interests of speed (multiple Masses every Sunday morning for the huge numbers of churchgoers back then) or because the priests just weren’t interested in High Mass because they hadn’t been trained in any other way.

    I don’t recall ever attending a High Mass until the very last years before Vatican II, when our parish got a very holy and also very sophisticated (in terms of high intelligence and thorough Catholic learning in the best way). He instituted a kind of “liturgical reform” that essentially consisted of weekly High Masses (often with deacons and subdeacons), Gregorian chant, and a choir that sang Monteverdi and Palestrina (my young self was part of it). This was a brief, shining moment that was completely crushed in our parish as soon as the “liturgical reformers” of the post-Vatican II era and the radical younger priests with their big ideas stepped in.

  6. Father Z:

    Your essay is excellent, thank you!

    To reiterate what Father Kelly said above. There are not so many “musts” in the GIRM, both as a matter of the letter of the law, and also as a matter of how it is applied. Good or bad, this is the reality. Hence, a priest has a greater to lesser degree of flexibility in applying the norms, depending — very candidly — the priest’s own sense of how strict he is obliged to be.

    So, for example: when I offer the “ordinary form” of the Mass, there are several points at which I include some gestures and movements that come from the traditional form of Mass, but other points when I don’t do that. I do try to do this with good reason and and not be too “ad hoc,” but in the end, who knows, and sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who really cares?

  7. Mac in Calgary says:

    I’m pretty sure that the priests in your childhood parish were trained in high Mass as well as low Mass. I’m 66 so I’m old enough to remember the Latin Mass. There were almost always at least two priests in a parish and four Masses on Sunday morning. They were, in order, Low Mass with no music, Low Mass with four hymns, High Mass and Low Mass with four hymns. About 1962 or ’63 last one was becoming the youth Mass with more modern hymns but nothing over the top like you would have heard 10 or 15 years later.
    I rarely heard High Mass because we always went to one of the Low Masses with music, but that was Mom’s choice and above my paygrade as a kid in the ’50s and early ’60s.

  8. TonyO says:

    Fr. Fox, you are certainly not the only one who cares. I and many like me do definitely notice when our parish priest makes the effort to do certain gestures and acts, and does them carefully and with reverence – or the reverse, when a priest does certain acts in a slip-shod or unthinking manner. In one local parish, the priest “washes” his hands by literally flicking one finger through a one-half-second second stream of water by the altar boy. He probably is in contact with water for less than 1/4 of a second. It is extremely jarring.

  9. veritas vincit says:

    ‘“The reading of Scripture at Mass is itself a priestly, sacrificial offering” not (primarily) didactic and not dramatic.’

    I understand that Scripture readings are not supposed to be dramatic (as a reading of poetry or Shakespeare would be). But (as a former lector), I don’t understand the practical difference between a Scripture reading as didactic, and as sacrifice. Could someone explain a bit more? That would be appreciated.

    [Firstly, keep in mind that “lector” is a technical term for men who are installed in that ministry. That is also a point for understanding your question. When it comes to didactic v sacrificial, consider the madness that gripped the Church for so long in the mania to avoid the use of Latin and also having translations that were dumbed down so that everyone can understand everything without effort. That resulted, I’ll argue, in fewer and fewer people understanding what liturgical worship is. The work of sacred liturgical worship and participation in it is HARD.]

  10. William says:

    Father, I am also a convert from a Protestant something-or-other, and it makes me bonkers when I hear someone, especially a priest, espouse some sort of accommodation with Protestants. If I wanted to be a Protestant, I would have stayed a Protestant. No one goes to the Catholic Church to be a better Protestant. I came to the Church because I wanted to be Catholic, not Protestant-lite.

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