Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Liturgy is not "play acting"

I'm going to be blogging a bit about liturgy and priesthood etc. in the next few days, but to be getting on with, there is a marvellous article out of the Sydney Liturgical Office by Fr Tim Deeter entitled: "Not a case of play-acting, but praying". This is the first time that I have seen a diocesan official affirm the following:
This is the reason why the priest faces “away from” the people when celebrating the Mass according to the 1962 Missal, and why it is not inappropriate nor forbidden for him to do so even in the Novus Ordo. When facing the people, many priests feel the need to “engage” the people throughout the Mass, even during prayers that are obviously directed to the Father, or to Christ Himself upon the altar. Thus the “play-acting” that sometimes occurs during the Consecration.
Bravo, Fr Deeter! Now, all you priests out there: who's going to brave enough to do this on Sunday morning in the Parish?


At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 11:45:00 am , Blogger William Weedon said...

Here's a hearty Lutheran "amen" to your "bravo!" It is nothing short of amazing what facing the people during the consecration has done to the Lutheran liturgy as pastors lead it and people experience it. It was surely a misstep when Luther suggested and even more of a misstep when people misunderstood the council to mandate it!

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 12:47:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

DID Luther suggest it?

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 3:14:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...

Sadly, he did. Deutsche Messe. Though Lutherans by and large ignored it until Vatican II enacted it. And the rest is history. The same "casual" approach to the Sacrament that infected Rome spread to the Lutherans in half a generation. The East Wall altar became a thing of the past for numerous of our parishes. We still have one at St. Paul's, and our neighboring parish of Trinity, but I was catechized at seminary to fight for the free standing altar and sadly did so in my first parish. And I had Luther's words to back me up and the prevailing practice in Rome as well. But it was a mistake. A very sad mistake. Benedict XVI nails the subject in a couple of his works, as I am sure you know. Historically, Luther was wrong: our Lord and the disciples celebrated on the same side of the table. And to loose the looking together toward the Coming One has really transformed the assembly and invited a focus "on ourselves." May the Lord deliver us - both Roman Catholics and Lutherans - from that "closed circle" and open us out toward the future of the coming Lord.

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 3:15:00 pm , Blogger William Weedon said...

Grr. Lose, not loose. Pardon!

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 4:11:00 pm , Anonymous Tony Bartel said...

In a Lutheran parish many years ago I introduced the weekly celebration of the Eucharist. A neighbouring pastor agreed that this was important, but thought that my first priority should have been a free standing altar. Sadly such are the skewed priorities of some.

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 4:42:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

There was a time, and not so long ago, when a priest facing the altar at the consecration would have taken no particular courage -- it was how it was simply done, every time, every where.

In those days we were taught that the priest is a man but also a man who stands in the place of Christ, in loco Christi, therefore he is not facing "away" from the people, he as a man is standing with the people and Christ the true priest is in power, not some man.

Something like that exists in Lutheran liturgics too, even with a free standing altar, the priest facing the people when addressing them on behalf of God and facing the altar when addressing God.

Came the Revolution and in religion class in high school it was explained how bad that was, the priest facing the wall and speaking in a foreign language (as it was put in class) when what should be the community meal with Christ in our midst is supposed to be going on.

What do you expect, Brother? Face any way you want, and what happens? After this mind boggling, mind blowing event, when Christ becomes physically present on the altar, what do we do -- speak of him in the third person like he wasn't even there: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again -- a "memorial acclamation" not even in the Latin original novus ordo, all of which are addressed directly to God, and none of which exist in the real Western liturgy, where the phrase "mysterium fidei" is part of the consecration of the fruit of the vine.

God bless us! When Rome sneezes Lutherans catch cold. Stock up on the Triaminic!!!

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 6:15:00 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need to be careful not to equate free-standing altars with celebration toward to the people ("versus populum").

That's compounding the convenient erroneous interpretation.

The V2 constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) encouraged new altars to be built free standing, but said nothing about ripping out altars against the wall.

Sadly, few priests (should I say no priests) will celebrate Mass facing East this Sunday. Although, go along to St Brigets in North Fiztroy for that next week? People there have a monthly Novus Ordo Mass in Latin using Gregorian Chant. I think they do an admirable job that deserves more attention, given their limited resources,

At Wednesday, November 14, 2007 8:49:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Did Sacrosanctum Concilium call for "free-standing" altars, anonymous? Remind me, I forget that passage.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 4:18:00 am , Anonymous William Tighe said...

That huge two-volume 1968 Concordia Th.D. dissertation by Peters on Extra Usum Nulla Est Sacramentum contains a brief discussion on this matter. It seems that in the 1520s and 30s a few Lutheran churches in Germany did turn around their altars in accordance with Dr. L's recommendation -- but it didn't spread widely and was to some extent reversed during the Lutheran reaction to Reformed criticism of Lutheran worship as insufficiently purged of popery an dpopish practices.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 3:49:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

Well, again, why would anyone celebrate the novus ordo facing the altar when it was taught that that was one of the mediaeval blind alleys from which we were now emerging with the novus ordo.

Or again, who cares what way you face when you're going to speak of Christ in the third person when "acclaiming" him who just became physically present on the altar?

Perhaps it is too soon. We need more scholarly literature, citations and references to affect the manner of "serious discussion" -- or, as Nietzsche, the only philosopher worth reading, said, they themselves no longer think but only think about what others have thought (citation lacking).

When I was in college, I had a summer job as a janitor in a world renouned medical centre. I remember being absolutely impressed with the office of the head of anaesthesiology. As distinct from the other offices, covered with degrees, his had but one -- a certificate a perfect attendance for the fourth grade.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 4:32:00 pm , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Sacrosanctum Concilium did not specify either that new altars should be free standing, or that existing altars placed against the eastern wall should be moved, or replaced with free-standing altars.

It simply specified, in paragraph 128, that the “laws and canons” dealing with “the worthy and well planned construction of sacred buildings, the shape and construction of altars, the nobility, placing, and safety of the eucharistic tabernacle, the dignity and suitability of the baptistery, the proper ordering of sacred images, embellishments, and vestments” were to be the subject of an “early revision”. And this was to go “along with the revision of the liturgical books” previously called for. Presumably, the intention was the the ordering of buildings, etc, would be in line with the practical requirements and theological underpinnings of the revised liturgy.

I do not know where exactly those “laws and canons” are to be found, or how prescriptive they are, or were. I do not know whether the previous laws and canons specified an altar against the wall. I presume that they did not, since there are many conspicuous examples of pre-Vatican II churches where the altar is placed at the crossing, e.g St Peter’s in Rome. And I do not know whether the revised laws and canons prescribe a free-standing altar. It may be more of a convention than a regulation.

I think Past Elder is wrong to suggest that the celebrant can face any way he wants. For the salient points of the mass the celebrant must face the altar (though whether this is a convention, a rubric or a law I cannot say). A free-standing altar, of course, lets him face it either from the same side as the congregation, or from the other side. But, either way, he is facing the altar, and this is the important point.

To my mind, the free-standing altar helps to underline sound Eucharistic theology. In most parish churches, the tabernacle is located in the sanctuary, usually centrally placed against the eastern wall. The result is that a celebrant who stands on the other side of the altar, facing the altar, is also facing the tabernacle, and there is an extraordinarily popular perception that this is the point of the ad orientem posture; that priest and people are together facing God, incarnate in the Sacrament reserved in the tabernacle. And this perception is intensified when, as is often the case in older churches, the altar is a vestigial projection under the tabernacle.

This perception is wrong. The proper physical focus of the Eucharistic liturgy is the altar, not the tabernacle. The eucharist is, after all, a sacrifice, and the altar a sacrificial altar. In those masses where incense is used, at various times the altar, the gospel book, the celebrant, the acolytes and the congregation are all incensed, but the tabernacle, not at all. The tabnacle is completely ignored, unless it is necessary to open it for the practical purpose of either taking out consecrated hosts for distribution, because not enough have been consecrated at the mass concerned, or putting in consecrated hosts, because not all those consecrated have been consumed.

When priest and people both face the altar from different positions – and in fact the acolytes or servers usually face the altar from a third position, to one or both sides of the sanctuary - the centrality of the altar, and therefore of the Eucharistic sacrifice is underlined.

Of course, the ad orientem posture can be fitting in other ways. When I read Fr Deeter’s comment about “play-acting” it brought to mind an experience I had earlier this year, in a small parish church in rural Tuscany. It served an almost completely depopulated village, and had a tiny congregation. Possibly for this reason, it had never been re-ordered. The priest therefore celebrated ad orientem.

When the moment of elevation came, the priest raised the elements high above his head, so that his arms were pointing straight upwards. This is of course necessary, if the congregation are to see the elements. This very high elevation, coupled with the sweep of his liturgical vestments, created a dramatic and striking image. You don’t get this when the priest stands on the other side of the altar, because he only has to lift the elements to about chest height, and in any case the sweep of his vestments is obscured by the altar.

The point is, here was a moment of visual drama of which, I assume, Fr Deeter would approve. But it is done for the benefit of the congregation, to engage them (by letting them see the elements at the moment of consecration). Why is this not also “play-acting”, in Fr Deeter’s phrase?

The problem with the particular instance that Fr Deeter points to, breaking the bread during the words of institution, is not that it is done to engage the congregation, but that it is in appropriate, since it muddies rather than clarifies the nature of the Eucharistic prayer. But we could equally say that the problem with ad orientem is that it muddies rather than clarifies the centrality of the sacrificial altar. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with a liturgy which seeks to engage the congregation; in principle, in fact, engaging the congregation seems to be to be a good thing. And there’s nothing intrinsically superior about ad orientem; it has its strengths – e.g. the dramatic moment I pointed to above – and its weaknesses – encouraging or at least facilitating an inappropriate focus on the tabernacle.

At Thursday, November 15, 2007 8:47:00 pm , Blogger Schütz said...

Thank you, Peregrinus, for that contribution. I knew that the SC didn't have anything in it about free altars! I was trying to be funny!

Ratzinger has quite a treatment in his Spirit of the Liturgy about celebrating "towards the Lord". He too remarks on the mistaken idea that the celebration was toward the tabernacle, an idea he calls ridiculous because the presence in the tablernacle is exactly the same as the presence which is in the hands of the priest. However, he is a little more specific about exactly what the priest is facing. He is not "facing the altar". It is, of course, necessary that the priest consecrate over the altar (a little awkward otherwise). Nor, in all places, was the priest facing East, since at least in the west the Church was not always "orientated" toward the East. However, what the priest was apparently facing (according to Ratzinger) was the cross (or crucifix) which was either marked or hung on the "east" wall in front of the altar, or actually placed on the altar itself. This, says Ratzinger, was the meaning of the phrase "turning toward the Lord".

That's what he says anyway. Fr Z. has it on podcast at: and

As for "play-acting", your example of the drama of the elevation in the French parish church is not what Fr Deeter is talking about. Fr Deeter is refering to the attempt to "re-enact" the Last Supper in the Consecration by mimicing the actions of Jesus in taking, blessing and breaking. This is in fact a Reformed idea. His point is that this is a prayer not a re-enactment. The objection is not to the naturally "dramatic" parts of the liturgy.

At Friday, November 16, 2007 1:17:00 am , Anonymous Christine said...

The proper physical focus of the Eucharistic liturgy is the altar, not the tabernacle.

Amen to that. Even today it is difficult for some of the pre-Vatican II generation to cease stopping before an empty tabernacle from which all the Hosts have been distributed and make the Sign of the Cross, after having just received the Presence within themselves at Holy Communion. It's not their fault, it was the piety in which they were raised and it's hard to recollect that there could not be any closer moment between the Communicant and the Lord than when they have received Him in Holy Communion.

It is indeed the Holy Sacrifice that is the focus of the liturgy, not the tabernacle.

At Friday, November 16, 2007 11:31:00 am , Anonymous Peregrinus said...

Thanks, David.

“I knew that the SC didn't have anything in it about free altars! I was trying to be funny!”

It isn’t that funny. SC obviously saw a need for some rethink of these matters, and they thought it should flow from the parallel rethink of liturgy. Given the direction that was taking, and given the general ressourcement under way, I suspect that if you had taken the fathers of the Council aside and said to them “do you expect this revision to result in a move towards free-standing altars?”, the answer would have been “yes, that’s pretty much what we expect”.

Ratzinger has quite a treatment in his Spirit of the Liturgy about celebrating "towards the Lord". He too remarks on the mistaken idea that the celebration was toward the tabernacle, an idea he calls ridiculous because the presence in the tablernacle is exactly the same as the presence which is in the hands of the priest. However, he is a little more specific about exactly what the priest is facing. He is not "facing the altar" . . . However, what the priest was apparently facing (according to Ratzinger) was the cross (or crucifix) . . .

Thank you for pointing me to this. I bow, of course, to the superior knowledge, and the superior wisdom, of Cardinal Ratzinger.

This is very interesting. The cross or crucifix in the church is of course not the actual cross of Christ, but a representation of it. The actual cross on which Christ was sacrificed was, in reality, the “altar” of his sacrifice, albeit that it did not take the form of a block of stone. But it was the physical structure upon which he was sacrificed, which is pretty much the essence of “altar”.

And, of course, that sacrifice is re-presented on the Eucharistic altar. The altar is, therefore, the cross of Christ in a real sense, whereas the crucifix is merely an image or symbol of the cross of Christ. And so I find it surprising that Cardinal Ratzinger should lay more emphasis on the priest facing the symbolic cross than the real altar.

Perhaps the answer is that the priest will always face the altar, no matter which side he stands on (if only for practical reasons) and so there is no need to emphasise this. But if he also stands so as to face the crucifix, he focuses attention on a symbol which, in turn, points back towards a not-immediately-visible reality of the altar, namely, that it is becoming the cross upon which the sacrifice of Christ is re-presented.

I question, though, how effective this pointing was. This is actually the first time I have heard of this, and I have seen many justifications of the ad orientem posture which ignored it. I think it’s the case in most churches (both before and after re-ordering) that the tabernacle and it setting is much larger, more ornate and more visible setting than the crucifix, and people would not easily appreciate that the priest was facing the crucifix. So the symbolism may have been appropriate, but not very effective.

At Friday, November 16, 2007 3:47:00 pm , Blogger Past Elder said...

I did not say it makes no difference which way the priest faces. What I said was, with all this to-do about which way the priest faces, what difference does it make when regardless after the consecration the "community" will "acclaim" its mystery of faith in the third person as if it didn't just happen: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again -- a formula not even the revisionist novus ordo supports.

But then again now that Cromwell, er, Vatican II has removed the tabernacle, what the hey.


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