The First Step in Ecclesiastical Reform: Turn the Altars Around

Last night I enjoyed that heady sense of being on stage in front of a large, captive audience, aware of my presence and focused on my every word and gesture.

I was at Mass, leading the singing.

I’ve been in this position many times before, and over the decades I have tried to learn how to pray through it, because it is a huge distraction for me at Mass. What distracts me most is my concern that I should not distract anyone else. This leads to a secondary concern, whether I am acting prayerful or truly praying. I suppose anyone in this type of position has experienced these questions.

As a singer, the easiest fix is simply not to be in front of the congregation–not facing anyone. Stay in the loft behind, or at the far end of the nave. That is much easier because my role as a singer is to be heard, not seen.

The role of the priest is exponentially more complex. He cannot hide. His role is inherently, and in some regards primarily, visible, leading the congregation through the veil, into the Holy of Holies. We follow him, as he expresses in the highest possible way his conformity to Jesus, our advocate before the Father.

For centuries the symbolism of our “following” the priest was clear. However, in the postconciliar period, and without a direct referrent in the Council’s documents themselves, the character of the priest’s relationship to the people has been visibly distorted by the versus populum posture.

When people face each other, they aim to please. They make eye contact; they smile encouragingly. There is a word for such gestures: flattery. People flatter their priests and their priests flatter them, at an average ratio of, say, 500 to 1.

None of this is encouraged in the Council documents. The versus populum posture is specifically worldly. It sets up the priest, not as a model to follow, but as a talk show host to be flattered insofar as he delights us. There are no good reasons for this.

The lines of sight to God should be made clear in the Liturgy (see Pseudo-Dionysius’ Ecclesiastical Hierarchy for a beautiful exposition of how this should work), but instead our path towards God is obscured by the distracting cycle of eye-contact and feedback.

The Sunday liturgy is for everyone their primary and for many their only contact with the Church. As such, its symbols should express the truth, including the truth about ecclesial relationships, which should not be a matter of flattery but of service.

The Psalmist sings, “Let your priests be clothed with holiness/ The faithful shall ring out their joy.” Ad orientem posture lets priests be priests and the people be themselves too, all facing God together.

12 Replies to “The First Step in Ecclesiastical Reform: Turn the Altars Around”

  1. "None of this is encouraged in the Council documents."
    Actually, that is not quite true. In the liturgical reform the full and active participation of the people was to be considered before all else (SC14). How can the people participate that way when they cannot see what the priest is doing?

    Dionysius' " The lines of sight to God", is part of that "before all else", that is to say, that in the reforms the people came first, God second.

  2. I like to think I am “actively participating” when I am praying, not watching what the priest is doing. I problem with the post-councillor period is active participation has been deciphered as being in the sanctuary doing “priestly” things. If only all those laity I see standing around the altar each Sunday were actually out going two by two proclaiming the Gospel in the streets.

  3. I've wondered out loud and in print whether one of the reasons for the decline in priestly vocations has to do with this "performance" phenomenon. The priest's face (the deacon's to a lesser extent) is the one being seen, when, by contrast and as the psalmist prays, it is the face of God that we seek. So young men (whose greatest fear is often public speaking) will not consider a way of life that involves so much performance time. This is particularly true if the priest uses one of the thorough-composed Masses with a sung Eucharistic prayer.

    And, by the way, the word "actuosa" in the documents is translated "active" in error. The best translation is "engaged." In the Solemn High Mass, everyone is facing in the same direction, and the silence and the obscuring of the manipulation of the Sanctissimi by the three sacred ministers is the iconostasis that protects the mysterium fidei.

  4. And that was to be governed by SC 23: "Finally, there must be no innovations unless the good of the Church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing." Are any of these innovations and new forms foisted upon us (e.g.–versus populum, communion received standing and/or taken by hand, Cranmerian-style altars) genuinely and certainly required?

    "How can the people participate that way when they cannot see what the priest is doing?" Why is that important? Can you physically see Transubstantiation happening, or is your only clue the words of Institution, which are heard? Luke 11:28 comes to mind (with "observe" meaning "keeping, obeying, adhering").

    Your question also seems to indicate "full, conscious, and active participation" is more about doing. When this concept (including settling the "active/actual" debate), along with "noble simplicity" and "progressive solemnity" get properly and definitively defined, then the soil for liturgical reform will be ready for its 30-, 60-, 100-fold yield, IMVHO.

  5. Thank you for your interesting question, Ted.

    If the people can see the priest's actions on the altar, is that the same as seeing what he is "doing?" What is going on is a vast mystery. The post-Communion prayers often speak of "participating in the mysteries"–the sacrament, which has a specifically *hidden* meaning. The priest's actions, especially in the simplified postconciliar rubrics, are not very expressive of what the priest is doing. And those gestures which are telling can be easily seen from any angle: the elevations, the imposition of hands at the epiclesis, the sign of the cross, the genuflections…

    The lines of sight to God in Dionysius are a mediation or a kind of climbing of the clerical ranks, from the deacon who is closest to the people, to the priest, all the way to the bishop or hierarch, who is closest to God and spends all his time on divine things.

  6. I do not concede that anyones participation is ipso facto enhanced by being able to see "more."
    If this were true the spotlight would never have been invented, nor would film directors use close-ups.
    For that matter, we wouldnt have pericopes in the lectionary.
    Focus on the essential ofttimes requires blocking distractions, and looking at something all the time can serve to make it invisible.
    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  7. I agree, it is distracting. And the priest should not be distracted, he is prayying to God on our behalf.
    If the priest prays the Canon facing 'East' with the people, that is no more than seven minutes of the Mass. When the priest faces the people for the orations, he probably has his eyes on the Missal, similarly when he is reading the Gospel. When he is sitting, he is not the focus of attention. But when he says 'The Lord be with you' he should signal that he means it, by eye contact.

  8. Performance? It is an incredibly shallow point of view. We are praying as you are praying, you're not performing for us, we're praying together the most central mystery of the church. When we pray before Mass, do we not pray together, Why would our prayer of the Mass be any different or are the people not a part of what is being prayed? Seems to me, it our gifts being offered and we are most certainly being involved.

  9. There is an additional matter in SC14 that is relevant. Why should the faithful actively participate in the liturgy in the first place? The justification for this is in the first paragraph, which states that it is the duty of the faithful as a "Royal priesthood" to actively participate in the liturgy. This is the idea of the priesthood of believers which the Protestants stressed at the Reformation. It actually became a problem in the 1980's when it was taken to an extreme, when it was taken to mean that the ordained priest was a mere presider for the faithful who were all priests (on almost the same level as the ordained minister) by virtue of their baptism. St JPII condemned that. Nevertheless, the idea of the priesthood of believers, the Royal priesthood, requires, according to SC14. that the faithful fully participate and act in the liturgy as the ordained priest does, implying an ad populum stance of the ordained minister at the altar, so the Royal priesthood can be on he other side of the altar in concord with the ordained minister.
    As you can see, the Modernists were successful in surreptitiously planting seeds in SC that were not noticed at the time, but which quickly bore fruit in the radical changes they were able to effect in the liturgy once brought out and expanded.

  10. I haven't found anything in any church documents saying the priest should face one way or the other.

  11. I'm of the opinion that most of the liturgical changwes since Vatican 2 have not been helpful and the sooner they are undone the better. However, I just wonder, in view of the current disastrous revelations from different parts of the world, whether arguments about which way the priest faces is a bit like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. (I don't want to stretch that analogy too far, although the Church in some parts of the world has a decided list to one side or the other – which does not matter – and is in danger of sinking. Ireland, for example?)
    In reply to bhcordova is it not implied that in the absence of any instruction to do otherwise, the Council Fathers wanted things to stay the way they were?

  12. Thank you, Kathleen, for drawing our attention to the proper focus of the Mass.

    Ad orientem worship, for me, was the determining factor in leaving behind the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Or, rather, versus populum worship drove me away from the Ordinary Form. I attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass for several years, concurrent with the Ordinary Form, but an irrational anti-Vatican II attitude expressed by the parishioners there became oppressive and a constant distraction, a distraction that found its way into the Mass (via homilies, choir rehearsals). I now attend the local Ordinariate Mass (Divine Worship: the Missal), which is prayed ad orientem, and I have never been more at peace in the Liturgy. There is no doubt to Whom worship is directed in the Ordinariate Liturgy.

    Ad orientem worship has us facing God together, and avoids putting the priest in the role of "Father Celebrity" and the people in the position of worshipping each other.

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