New Crucifix and Candles on the Altar

A Pray Tell Reader sends this in (lightly edited below) and wonders what you think. – Ed.

Bishop Paphnutius and the Cathedral parish have purchased a new altar crucifix and a new set of altar candlesticks to be placed on the altar in what is referred to as the “Benedictine altar arrangement” in imitation of the altar arrangement used by Pope Benedict XVI.  Our Holy Father has written extensively on the celebration of the liturgy.  He writes that there is a need in the modern liturgy for a “rediscovery of something essential” that has been lost, namely, the concept of “orientation” in our prayer during the sacred liturgy.

In the history of the major religions of the world, it is common for the position at prayer and the layout of the holy places to be determined by a “sacred direction.”  The Christian idea of a “sacred direction” or “orientation” in prayer developed out of our Jewish roots.  For example, the Jews in the Diaspora prayed towards Jerusalem, towards the presence of God in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, which opened toward the east.  For Christians, the practice developed of praying, not toward earthly Jerusalem, but toward the heavenly Jerusalem, which is toward the rising sun from where the Son of Man will come again at this second coming in glory (Matt. 24-27,30). Thus, in praying toward the east, there is the notion of “going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.”

The orientation of Christians praying toward the east goes back to the beginning of Christendom.  During the Eucharistic Prayer there was a common direction of both priest and people praying toward the east, that is, of praying “toward the Lord.”  Our Holy Father says that a common orientation of “turning to the east” in prayer during the Eucharistic Prayer is something “essential” to the Liturgy.  Where one looks at the priest or not is not essential, rather “what matters is looking together at the Lord” in “common worship.”

For the early Church Fathers, the sign of the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory from the east is the Cross.  From very early on, the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Our Holy Father says, “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith.  It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.  In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: ‘Conversi ad Dominum’, Turn toward the Lord!  In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.”  Thus, Pope Benedict believes that placing the cross on the altar, helps restore the essential orientation of the Liturgy of praying toward the Lord, symbolized by the cross on the altar.

For further reading on this topic, see The Spirit of the Liturgy by then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, or also Turning Towards the Lord by U.M. Lang, with a forward by then Cardinal Ratzinger.  Both books are published by Ignatius Press, San Francisco and can be ordered through the Cathedral Bookstore.


  1. I have my doubts.

    I’ve seen the “benedictine” arrangement on altars, live and by internet image, and it communicates to me not only an emphasis on the Eucharist-as-meal, but Eucharist-as-wealthy-persons’-meal. Consider where the celebrant places the corporal (is it a liturgical placemat?) and the Eucharistic elements. Are they at the center of the altar, as a traditional sacrifice might be? Or is it like a place-setting for a meal for one?

    I fully embrace the use of candles to highlight a place of importance, but an iconostasism made up of wax and brass columns?

    As for the crucifix on the altar, this strikes me as a devotional element with no place for a leader of the liturgy. I think we have only to ask which direction the corpus is displayed to know which orientation matters more in the eyes of the decorator.

    An altar with the Eucharistic elements: what more could we want or need? Is a faraway cross going to help us? Does it comfort us to know the pope is comforted and edified?

    And outside of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, an empty altar suggests that perhaps something or someone should be sacrificed there. Perhaps that is my bitter criticism of the six candles decor, or even my very self, struggling to maintain an orientation of charity.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #1:
      Now with Francis gloriously reigning, I think the trend towards the forest of candlesticks –Benedict’s Big Six–may start to fade, especially if Francis establishes his own preference or style of celebrating.

      I think two prominent, strikingly beautiful candlesticks either on the altar itself, or arranged one on either side of the altar (known as standards) is much more striking. Regardless of what side of the altar the priest uses to celebrate Mass.

      If additional candles or candelabra are needed for greater solemnity, they could be placed around the sanctuary. Banners, icons, hanging lamps, and flowers can always be used to give a greater appearance of festivity.

  2. We were led down the garden path when liturgists told us to build new altars more square than rectangle and small, so much so that when a priest extends his arms, the priest over powers the altar and the Roman Missal hangs off the side of it when placed to the left of the priest. These square like small altars need floor candlesticks and a small crucifix for the priest to see. The laity need one they can see easily also, perhaps behind the priest or just one crucifix suspended directly above the altar.
    The “Benedictine” arrangement looks best on long rectangular altars but when the priest is facing the congregation this arrangement does not look as nice as when the priest is joining the congregation in facing the same direction, ad orientem. I must admit I like the traditional look of it and in fact the crucifix in the center with the six candlesticks was a trademark of Catholic altars which was lost in the iconoclasm of the post Vatican II reforms. Most catechized Catholics know full well that the corporal cloth is not a “place mat” for the priest, but precisely to catch any particles that might fall from the host. Of course, in the EF Mass, the host is consecrated on the corporal cloth, not on the paten, so the corporal cloth had and has an added significance in the EF Mass. The two rinky dink candle sticks that many churches went to after Vatican II made the altar look as though it had been demoted. We went from a majestic, traditional look to a blah look that symbolically looked dumbed down.

    1. I think the article has less to do with the shape of the altar itself but rather the principle of placing these items on it.

      I’m also unaware of any document referring to the OF that states that a priest “needs” a crucifix to look at.

      1. There isn’t anything in the OF about the priest looking at the crucifix, this is an article on the Benedictine altar arrangement and Pope Benedict is the one that recommends it, hasn’t mandated it, but models it in every Mass he celebrates. His preference is that all face in the same direction, but rather than yanking everyone around again a compromise is to have everyone facing the crucifix. That’s what’s novel about it, not mandated, but modeled and others picking up on it.

    2. @Fr. Allan McDonald – comment #4:
      Unfortunately, there has been an unfortunate trend to piling extra candles on to some large altar no longer used for Mass. A big distraction from the smaller altar used for ad versus populum Masses.

      What’s worse is a large display of candlesticks one sees in many Baroque churches, but with only a couple of candles being lit at the lower gradine while the rest of the larger candles remain unlit for the EF Masses.

      As in going to a banquet where candelabra remain on the dining room table without being lit and two small candlesticks are the sole source of light for the Mass.

  3. “For Christians, the practice developed of praying, not toward earthly Jerusalem, but toward the heavenly Jerusalem”

    Entering the local Orthodox Church, I feel oriented toward the heavenly Jerusalem, everything speaks to me the words of the Divine Liturgy

    “Blessed is the Kingdom of God…”

    I just now figured out that when I look at its iconostasis I am facing East.” Obviously compass direction has not influenced my experience.

    The iconostasis does direct me, drawn me toward the Kingdom of Heaven.

    The ceiling and now sidewalls are slowly being “written” i.e. painted by a member of the congregation. My photography course professor reminded me that photography means writing with light.

    The light which began streaming out of the icon screen has been enveloping this holy temple surrounding and enfolding me as I pray.

    Behind the icon screen is the holy of holies. Since my attention has been focused on the holy ones who are coming to meet me, I am not really sure about the details: altar table, tabernacle, cross, candles.

    The priest being sometimes in front of the icon screen, sometimes praying in the midst of the congregation, sometimes incensing the icons on the walls gives me a strong sense that we all are together in this. He is not behind a podium or sitting in a chair, or facing me or even a common direction.

    The icons and many people (four part choir, reader, servers) needed gives me a strong sense that liturgy requires a diverse community.

  4. The pope may like the idea of a cross in front of him during the eucharistic prayer, but one notices in the televised Vatican liturgies that he never looks at it. Neither do the priests at the EWTN liturgies look at their cross. So what is it for? If one wants to focus on the risen Christ as we address the Father in the EP, then the altar ought to be enough of a symbol. The altar is THE symbol of Christ in the liturgy, and we all face it during the eucharistic prayer.

  5. Jan hit the nail on the head. Just where does the priest(s) look when he is praying facing the people? Symbols speak loudly when you can see the face of the person praying. Does he look squarely at the people establishing eye contact? Does he look down at the altar, thus giving the appearance that his eyes are closed? Does he have shifty eyes? Does is face look happy, glum, in ecstasy, bored? Our altar has a small crucifix facing the priest and it does help me to focus, but there are many places to look during praying. The person getting up to go somewhere, the back of the church where there is a lot of movement, the altar, the elements on the altar, the person truly into what is happening at the altar, the person who is looking at everything else but what is happening at the altar. When I celebrate the EF Mass, I’m not distracted or worried about what I look at and thus not concerned that my facial expressions whatever they are, are a distraction to the congregation. I really think that it is time to re-examine the novel and iconoclastic turning of the priest to the congregation and what it has done for good or bad to the Church’s liturgical prayer. The original intent was not only to emphasize “meal” or “table” but also for the people to see what the priest is doing with all of the rituals that the priest did at the altar in the EF Mass. Then all those rituals were stripped when the people could see them, gone from sight by mandate of rubrics. How odd.

    1. “I really think that it is time to re-examine the novel and iconoclastic turning of the priest to the congregation …”

      Interesting. I read lots of complaints about how the TLM is miscontrued for having the priest turning his back on the people. The move for greater visibility is a bit more involved than the priest merely facing toward the people.

      Given the roots of the Christian Eucharist in the Jewish Passover meal, I don’t think we can say it’s a novelty. At worst, it’s a misguided attempt at idealizing the ancient house churches. I suspect the reason why it has become a near-universal practice is simply that it makes the Eucharistic elements visible, and the West has always had an attachment to seeing.

      Ideally, we bypass the whole priest’s orientation kerfuffle by making it irrelevant. My parish sits antiphonally, and the priest faces East, but to neither half. Worship in the round is also laudable in that people recognize the common orientation isn’t an outward direction, but rather to Christ as central to our worship.

      And even when we get the occasional talk-show priest, a mature community makes his indulgences irrelevant by a proper interior orientation to the Lord.

      1. “…it makes the Eucharistic elements visible.”

        In most churches, most of the time (please excuse the casual approach to data), the Eucharistic elements are still effectively invisible to the majority of the Sunday assembly. They are still “way up/over/down there,” even if the priest no longer has his body in the way. We know they are there because he keeps talking about them and doing things with them, and occasionally showing them to us. But the tightrope for the priest is to be clear and effective whilst also being self-effacing, inhabiting the rite to such an extent that he is practically invisible. One priest I know said that the nicest compliment he was ever paid by a parishioner leaving after mass was: “Was it you presiding this morning?”

      2. Where the elements are “effectively invisible,” the priest clearly has a problem with the rubrics of the Mass, which instruct him to show at some times, and to elevate at another.

        The self-effacing element: I agree totally, and train other liturgical ministers with the same philosophy. It can be a challenge to instill the value, and for some extroverted persons, to adopt and use it.

  6. Placement of cross and candlesticks, facing east or west, front or back are trivial questions.

    In both the OF and EF the priest is the center of attention, the people are bystanders. They are not what the service is about.

    In Orthodox services the community is the center. However the community is the communion of saints exemplified by the icons, not just the people who are present or members of the parish. The community is transcendent as well as immanent. It is past and future as well as present.

    The orthodox priest is the servant of the communion of saints as exemplified by his facing the icons, and incensing them. He serves the liturgy rather than presiding over it.

    I pay little attention to exactly what he is doing. He seems to be always running about, in this door, out that door, incensing this icon, then that one, engaging in this dialog, than that one, starting the choir to do this, then that. He is like a waiter in a restaurant! Essential to getting the meal served, yes. Definitely not what the meal is about.

    My attention is dominated by the community, especially but not limited to the icons. The choir most often captures my attention. I look to their leadership more than the priest. The people outside the choir also capture my attention by reminding me when to make the sign of the cross.

    Whom and/or what do we want to be the focus of our attention? Hopefully the priest will focus on his job which is serving the communion of saints.

    1. I’ve con-celebrated the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom several times and have also sat in the congregation while this Divine Liturgy was being celebrated. But the first time I con-celebrated I was totally mystified by what was happening, and wasn’t really sure when the Liturgy had actually begun or actually ended. At one moment we were at a side table preparing the bread and chalice for the liturgy which I thought was like working in the sacristy and the next thing I know the liturgy really had already begun. I certainly could tell that there was a liturgy of the word and that this liturgy is also into what the Latin Rite Reform called “useless repetition.” But the Eucharistic prayer was facing the altar, that is behind the screen, which the laity are forbidden, but joining in the same direction. But the laity certainly participate with their spoken and sung responses, at least at St. Ignatius in Augusta. But I’d often tell the pastor of St. Ignatius, now deceased, God rest his soul, who was a former married Episcopal priest, but bi-ritual and my parochial vicar in my parish that his branch of the Eastern Rite needed a reform of the liturgy so it was more straight forward like ours in the Latin Rite. Of course he scoffed at me for suggesting such heresy and imposing Latin Rite insensibility upon the Eastern Rite. As he said, “the Eastern Rite Liturgy is the ancient one and is mystical as Jesus intended it to be, not pedantic and banal as the modern reformers of the Latin Rite have turned the Latin Rite Mass into. YIKES! Could that be true?

    2. I, too, like the Byzantine rites, and did serve as a deacon at one with a bishop during a retreat, which was an experience. But in general I find a great deal of irony when many who praise it get offended at the suggestion the priest “turn his back to the people,” not use extraordinary ministers, speak in a foreign language or an elevated vernacular…

      1. The three most valuable aspects of the Byzantine tradition for me have been

        1) the very different approach to much of the liturgical year in their Divine Office

        2) a very different approach to content of the hours of the Divine Office

        3) the experience of celebration of the Divine Office in Orthodox parishes which has convinced me of the value of the Divine Office for parish life not just my personal prayer.

    3. “Placement of cross and candlesticks, facing east or west, front or back are trivial questions.”

      I wish this were indeed the case, however, these are not trivial when they are used to push an ideological agenda, i.e “Reform of the Reform.”

    4. @Jack Rakosky – comment #14:
      Which may well explain why, unlike the western Church, there isn’t the idea of the priest acting ad persona Christi. It is the bishop who assumes this role in the eucharistic liturgy.

  7. I can’t recall having experienced the “Benedictine” arrangement, so my reaction is a purely theoretical one. But it strikes me as having the worst of both worlds. The people’s view of the elements (which is what I have always presumed was to be their focus in Mass celebrated versus populum, not the face of the priest) is obscured, as in ad orientem celebration, without the corresponding advantage of having everyone face the same direction for prayer.

    Even Popes can have bad liturgical ideas (turning the Second Sunday of Easter into Divine Mercy Sunday, anyone?).

    1. I can see you point about the altar arrangement, but Divine Mercy Sunday changed none of the readings or prayers of Mass or Office, only the name of the Sunday which encourages the Divine Mercy devotion later in the afternoon, which in my parish brings about 300 people for confession, the devotion and Benediction. But more to your point, would you extend “bad liturgical ideas” to post Vatican II liturgical documents approved by Pope Paul VI? Of course these were mandated whereas Pope Benedict’s novel approach is currently just a suggestion–more difficult to get your hands around therefore.

      1. Now that you mention it, even Pope Benedict seems to be questioning the advisability of many of the reforms that were mandated post Vatican II and by his predecessor Pope Paul VI. This seems to me to be novel too–so the door is open to evaluating great experiments like Pope Benedict’s suggested altar arrangement, facing the people, dumbing down ritual, etc. I didn’t realize that I was such a “modern” in these things!

  8. The novena of Mercy Sunday begins on the Friday before Easter Sunday, Hmm, anything else going on that day or the following?

    1. We pass out the novena pamphlets for those who find this devotion beneficial before Good Friday. They are to do the novena on their own , we simply conclude it on Divine Mercy Sunday, 2:00 PM with Exposition and Adoration with Confession (multiple priests) and the actual Devotion at 3:00 PM concluding with Benediction and then veneration of the Divine Mercy Icon.

    2. Yes, that’s exactly the point, I think.

      “For the sake of his sorrowful **Passion** have mercy on us and on the whole world.”

      If some clash is seen between Holy Week & the Octave of Easter and devotion to the Divine Mercy, I think it’s a result of missing the point of the Divine Mercy devotion.

  9. The article talked about more than cross and candle sticks, it talked about orientation in a larger sense, not only practically but in a very theological sense which the discussion so far has ignored.

    It gave the opportunity for me since my interest is in spirituality, lived Christian experience, to use my experience in an Orthodox church to talk about the very psychological experience of where our attention is focused at liturgy and to begin to explore that in relationship to theology and practice.

    I don’t think an iconostasis would solve our problems any more than the Benedictine arrangement or even the EF, but I have found it a way to think about these things based on experience, and avoiding tiresome repetition of clichés and appeals to documents, etc.

    It seems to me that Vatican II wanted the community not the priest to be the focus of the liturgy. I presume that is why they turned the altar around and the priest faces the people, because he is their servant.

    But that encounter all sorts of unanticipated problems because it continued to put the priest at the center of things, only in a very different way. It also led us to think in terms of the Protestant local congregation model of community rather than the community of saints.

    I am not interested in discussing priest versus congregation as focus. Assuming that the experience of the community of saints is central, and the priest is servant, how do we manage focus in ways that bring that out?

  10. As I read about facing “not toward earthly Jerusalem, but toward the heavenly Jerusalem” I thought of St Bernard’s wonderful Advent homily:

    We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men; he himself testifies that they saw him and hated him. In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved. In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.

  11. The Benedictine arrangement of cross and high candles — looked at without ‘devotional overlays’ — resembles the bars of a jail, so the priest is ‘grilled off’ from the congregation. To establish this usage in a parish just because it is the ‘preference of the reigning Pope’ is the worst sort of ‘ultramontanism’ which I thought the Church had outgrown after the First Vatican Council.

    Facing the ‘Risen Lord’ — which is the reason given for standing on the same side of the altar as the congregation is a choice which denies the centrality of the altar in the Church. (Visually it is a nostalgia for the Baroque arrangement of the tabernacle in the middle of the altar. Note this is a 16th century arrangement, not before. This devotional consentration on the tabernacle only perpetuates the custom forbidden by Pope Benedict XIV and since of giving communion not from the Mass being celebrated but from the tabernacle) The altar is the same altar no matter which side one stands on. Facing of the priest and the congregation ‘across the altar’ centers consentration on where the ‘Risen Lord’ comes to touch and nourish us at the present celebration — and despite the arguments, it was the posssibility and the custom before the growth and dominance of ‘private Masses’ in monasteries, etc. It is interesting and instructive to read the understanding of Romano Guardini (and his group) about the practical meanings of the liturgy as both sacrifice and repast.

    1. I might be wrong on this, but I thought Ultramontanism was confirmed by the First Vatican Council which ultimately led to the formation of the “Old Catholics of Utrech” who opposed it and certainly Protestants oppose it. The Second Vatican Council expanded the understanding of collegiality, etc, but did not overturn Ultramontanism. From Wikepedia: At the Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) the debate on papal primacy and authority re-emerged, and in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium, the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on the authority of the Pope, bishops and councils was further elaborated. The post-conciliar position of the Apostolic See did not deny any of the previous dogmas of papal infallibility or papal primacy, rather, it shifted emphasis from structural and organizational authority to doctrinal teaching authority (also known as the Magisterium). Papal Magisterium, i.e., Papal teaching authority, was defined in Lumen Gentium #25 and later codified in the 1983 revision of Canon Law. So there is continuity and discontinuity at work, but the pope’s preferences still illicit interest and imitation.

      1. What I was referring to as ‘outgrowth’ from
        Ultramontanism is what you pointedly refer to as a
        ‘shift of emphasis’. The tempering and official nuancing of Ultramontanism is seen to be interpreted and nuanced officially immediately after the First Vatican Council in the exchange of letters between Chancellor Bismark and Pope Pius IX (DS 3112-3117).
        An extreme sort of Ultramontanism is ‘reinvented’ recently with the imitation of the ‘Pope’s personal preferences’ in the conduct of the liturgy. I have no objection to his personal preferences, but to imitate them in very different local circumstances betrays an unthinking approach to the worship of the living Holy Trinity.

      2. Priests and liturgists have a good way of imitating what they see and hear at workshops as it concerns liturgy and music and I think we can legitimately call this type of “mock” an “unthinking approach to the worship of the Living Holy Trinity. ” By this I mean examples in current modern liturgical architecture, vesture and improvisation. I guess we could call that “sottomontanism?” I’d prefer extreme forms of ultramontanism any day to the underground variety.

      3. I wish we could dispense with the caricature of opposing views, Fr McDonald. I get the sense you’re grasping at straws here, assuming people who disagree with you are too ignorant to get liturgical ideas from scholarly writings and study, that it must be some dumb workshop promoting these bad notions.

        Think triangulation here: poor architecture and vestments are part of doing liturgy on the cheap, because we all know that sprawling prep schools with athletic programs are really what the Catholic Church is all about.

        What you are hinting at is the divide between people who take the liturgy seriously, and others who think the Church has more important priorities.

        We also don’t have a black-n-white choice on one heresy or another. It is possible to reject extremism in favor of moderation, prudence, and good scholarship. Not to mention discernment.

  12. Is the Cathedral older than 45 years? Does it have a crucifix and candles hidden in a basement somewhere? Were they unceremoniously tossed into the trash by some liturgist in 1973? These are some questions every parish should look into.

  13. If you look at St. Peter’s Basilica’s papal altar, it is central and the Mass has been celebrated on it in the same direction for centuries until the present. It was just in that brief period from 1966 or so until about 2005, that the central crucifix was removed and the majestic candlesticks were replaced with the rinky-dink ones. Eventually Pope John Paul’s MC returned the larger candlesticks to the altar, but only four and off to the side with the large crucifix between two of the candlesticks but to the left side of the celebrant. Pope Benedict’s MC and I suspect at the approval of Benedict returned to the traditional set up used for centuries. I think the problem of moderns wanting to see the face of the priest and the elements of “food and drink” stems from the liturgical literalism that infected the liturgy shortly after the council, much like the quest for the “real” Jesus stripped off “made up” Gospel overlays after His resurrection. This sort of liturgical and biblical getting back to the real Jesus and the real Mass or Lord’s Supper, is what got liberal Protestantism in the early part of the 20th century into trouble with their form or “modernism” roundly condemned by the Popes of the time. It also led to liberal Protestantism’s demise. Protestantism’s answer to modernism was fundamentalism. Catholicism’s answer to its form of modernism is a return to tradition and reform based upon the hermeneutic of continuity not rupture with the past. Pope Benedict also takes a razor to the “historical, critical method” of Gospel interpretation in his book “Jesus” which was certainly much overdue.

    1. Wow. All that about placement of candlesticks.

      Maybe I’m just one of those rare people who doesn’t believe candlestick placement is all that important (either way), but is concerned that it has turned into a shibboleth issue.

      1. In the EF Mass there is a reason for everything and all is built brick by brick, or candlestick by candlestick,if you will, one upon the other. And sometimes it is like taking down one from the other. But I did have to look up “shibboleth” and like anodyne, I’ve added it to my vocabulary as I have consubstantial, gibbet and ineffable. Thanks. I’m better off knowing these hard words and sometimes what appears to be meaningless long sentences.

    2. Somehow I think the development of Eucharistic adoration is a bit deeper than wanting to watch food on display in an ostensorium. I can’t say I’m convinced by your caricatures of liturgical reform. In practically every parish I’ve served when candles were moved from altars they were placed on substantial stands.

      Now certainly, I’m sure some skinflint pastor here or there thought he could save a buck or two using flimsy paraffin sticks, but I think we’re talking a whole other dynamic than “modernism.”

  14. There have been quite a few comments here that suggest candles don’t matter, or orientation doesn’t matter, or a crucifix present or not doesn’t matter. None of these folks have given an argument for why or why not, other than personal preference.

    The point of Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy, (imho) is rooted in the point of the whole Liturgical Movement– really, what is worship essentially? I don’t think one can read Spirit of the Liturgy on its own and get a full idea of what this Pope is about… I’m thinking specifically about “Feast of Faith,” which is a more theological treatise about what worship is, and then building off of that, his proposals in Spirit of the Liturgy.

    I think that one can not truly give a good answer on whether a Benedictine Arrangement or not (why not just use the fluorescents if the candles are simply there historically to light the altar?) without answering the question of what the Mass is at its essence.

    Personally, I think the spiritual sense of interpreting the liturgy, candles, rubrics of the priest, etc, have a lot more influence than the historical-critical, which seems to merely reduce it to a function served. Spiritually, the beeswax candle represents something, just as the other appointments to the altar do.

    Really, this argument can’t be solved without the primary argument having been solved first. I only think there’s a reason these appointments have remained over time, and should be re-discovered before just chucking them out.

    1. The legislation on candles is given below. Candles are obviously important, but as a symbol of the liturgy they place far behind the Eucharistic elements, whose consecration is a sacrament, and the altar, whose dedication is a separate rite, not to mention a local solemnity (along with the dedication of the church building). Candles point to Christ. They represent his light. They are not Christ.

      An altar is both table and a “platform” for sacrifice. A crucifix placed on it is not part of the sacrifice, nor is it part of the ritual meal. That’s not to say a crucifix isn’t important at liturgy: we process with one, we venerate one, and we have a long tradition of having a crucifix on display in churches. If the crucifix is even intended for the edification of both celebrant and assembly, why would it not be visible to both?

      And as for the priest, both turning his back on the people and facing the people have become political hot potatoes to lob back and forth. For the sake of unity, perhaps it would be better to build churches in which it is clear the priest and laity both are oriented toward the altar.

      Chris, liturgy is always about a hierarchy of values. What is essential: this question Vatican II attempted to address. One theologian’s reflection is part of the Church’s discernment, to be sure. But others have sound, orthodox, and spiritually fruitful ideas also. Ideally, all of this will be considered as we move forward with liturgical reform.

  15. (As a PS, I think his “liturgical hermeneutics” are in continuity with his approach to his scriptural interpretation, as well…)

  16. I think that one can not truly give a good answer on whether a Benedictine Arrangement or not. . . without answering the question of what the Mass is at its essence.

    I am sure that the Mass in its essence has little to do with placing a crucifix between the celebrant and the people.

    As to no one having given a good reason, I think if you peruse the comments you will find plenty of good reasons. In case you don’t want to reread them (I know I wouldn’t) I’ll just re-mention one: putting the crucifix between the celebrant and the congregation (with the corpus facing the celebrant, presumably) undercuts one of the best things about ad orientem celebration: the sense that priest and people are offering the sacrifice together. The Benedictine arrangement serves to cut the priest off from the people in a way that neither ad orientem nor versus populum without an obstruction does.

    1. Although as a child I loved for the priest to face the people and I have for the most part over the course of my priesthood defended its use, I have undergone a hermeneutic of conversion toward Ad Orientem for a number of reasons, primary that it puts most priests at least liturgically on the same playing field. I prefer too for the priest to be on the same side of the altar, cross, candlesticks as the laity in the pews. But you could also make the case that the priest behind the altar with only his top half visible cuts him off from the congregation. The altar itself becomes the great dividing edifice, not only the cross that it placed upon it. But with the ongoing scandals in the Church, the priest can at least see snipers out for him and duck behind the altar if needed, whereas ad orientem this would be impossible and he would be shot in the back.

      1. “whereas ad orientem this would be impossible and he would be shot in the back.”

        Not if the sacred vessels were made of a reflective metal and were kept clean and shiny! 😉

  17. It is interesting that the level of discussion on this topic has barely risen above practical or personal preferences, despite the very theological content of the post.

    That is true not only of the candlestick issue but even the broader ad orientem issue.

    Attention, focus, and orienting are all very important areas in psychology. Seems to me what we attend to, what get’s our attention and what maintains our attention are very important parts of the liturgy. Yet we aren’t very interested in thinking systematically about this.

    We have some disconnected observations, and some grand theological theory which does help us much in talking about the psychological experience of attention, even if we were inclined to do so.

  18. The one thing I don’t understand is the blatant disregard for #307 of the GIRM:

    “The candles… are to be appropriately placed either on or around the altar in a way suited to the design of the altar and the sanctuary so that the whole may be well balanced and not interfere with the faithful’s clear view of what takes place at the altar or what is placed on it.

    The fact of the matter is that the GIRM is what governs liturgical celebrations in the United States, not a book that Ratzinger wrote 10 years ago.

      1. I’m not sure how one takes the phrase ”clear view,” but my interpretation would be “completely unobstructed.”

        It seems to me that this paragraph indicates that the importance of the liturgical action at the altar, as well as the visual presence of the Eucharistic elements are such that the faithful should easily be able to access them visually.

        Sacrosanctum Concilium makes it abundantly clear that during the Eucharistic Liturgy, Christ is truly present in the priest, in sacred scripture, in the assembled faithful, and preeminently in the Eucharist. It’s well known that the altar itself is the primary liturgical symbol of Christ. Why, then, would we substitute or obscure these very real manifestations of Christ’s presence with gilded ornaments?

      2. Is it permissible, in your opinion, that the priest should be between the people and the Eucharistic elements? In other words, is ad orientem posture acceptable? Is it acceptable only because the priest, as an altar Christus, is a mode of the presence of Christ?

        Taken from another perspective, one could regard the candles and crucifix as a loosely-woven “veil”, a very see-through iconostasis, far less imposing than those traditionally found in the Eastern rites. The veiling of the sacred is a traditional Christian practice.

      3. No, I do not feel that an ‘ad orientem’ posture is acceptable. Neither does the GIRM:

        299. The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.

      4. The CDWDS has provided an authoritative interpretation of GIRM 299 (and Father Z. has raised a question about the current English translation).

        The Missal and the GIRM tell the priest at times to face the altar or to (turn to) face the people. Why would they do so if facing the altar and facing the people were necessarily identical?

        Ad orientem worship in the modern form of the Roman Rite is entirely and absolutely licit.

      5. Even if such an orientation is technically licit, the document you cite still indicates a clear preference given toward versus populum.

        Furthermore, the near universal adaptation of a versus populum Eucharistic liturgy surly speaks quite loudly as to “…the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.

  19. If the Mass is a meal, rather than sacrifice, or as Ratzinger argues, it is not an either/ or but a both/ and– a common ground found in how he describes what the is Mass essentially–“eucharistia”– then this has a lot to do with orientation.

    Indeed, Ratzinger argues that a meal is not “presided over” like a lord, but rather is of equal footing between friends. And if sacrifice, then the priest should lead the people toward adoration of Christ crucified, rather than to be a magic show where the priest stands on a stage, making it all happen.

    In “giving thanks,” is it not most appropriate for the priest to be the leader of the people, in directing that thanksgiving versus deum?

    Finally, he submits that what is truly happening in liturgies today is that the priest and people form a closed circle, where prayers are offered toward each other, rather than ~liturgically~ towards God.

    Which ever is the correct interpretation, to have or not have the crucifix or candles (and where) says something, but what?

    Why not just have a cross, with no corpus, hanging in the church? What is the focus of the Mass? Should the Mass (or the parish) be dependent upon the personality of the priest?

    Truly, I believe that our Catholic identity is at stake in the correct or incorrect answers to these questions, and where the implications lead us.

    Last, is this something that we can decide or make up and change at will– or is the liturgy given us by God, and our responsibility to safeguard?

  20. “Finally, he submits that what is truly happening in liturgies today is that the priest and people form a closed circle, where prayers are offered toward each other, rather than ~liturgically~ towards God.”

    I have always believed this to be a slander, denying the sincere, God-directed prayer of millions of Catholics. I believe he has never repeated this view in his capacity as pope, nor is it incumbent upon the faithful to believe it is true.

    1. I don’t think it is a slander to describe some Masses as closed circles. When I travel, I attend Mass as a lay person and to keep my sanity I have to close my eyes or look elsewhere so that I don’t have to witness the priest looking directly at me and others as he “proclaims” the Eucharistic Prayer and the other prayers of the Mass as though he’s preaching a homily or making announcements. The symbolism of praying toward the congregation, gesturing to them with the unconsecrated host and wine as he consecrates them all suggest symbolically that this is a Broadway type reenactment of the Last Supper and the priest is an actor engaging the audience. It does not come across as prayer, although certainly when we apply “ex opere operato” it is, but sad that we have to resort to this to protect our prayer tradition in Liturgy.

  21. Before we argue about candle placement, perhaps we could first make sure that actual candles are being used, not cheap pieces of white plastic with a fuel cartridge underneath?

    1. Ha! A good, practical question. I detest those fake things. Stage props belong in theaters, not in churches!

  22. In comment #26, I quoted St Bernard: “The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved.”

    This is what we face when we face each other, the Lord in our midst. It is based on the first coming, when Christ was in Jerusalem. It looks forward to the final coming, when Christ will come in glory. But the Eucharist is about this middle coming, when we join with the first and last for a transformation within us.
    The hidden Lord manifest in our midst is all the justification I need for facing one another. I do not need to face the rising sun, as if the Lord is not already here. I do not need to face Jerusalem, where he once was. We need to face the Lord where He is now, within us and among us.

    1. Jim,
      The Portuguese have a profound response to the greeting
      O Senhor esteja convosco.
      The Lord be with you.

      Ele está no meio de nós.
      He is among us.

      referring of course to the the Lord, the Spirit, the giver of life.

    2. Jim,

      Thank you very much for the homily of St. Bernard, the idea of this (hidden) middle coming of Christ in our hearts (in spirit and in power), and your application to the Eucharist.

      These are thoughts worthy of the liturgy not simply its rubrics.

      Discovering the hidden presence of Christ in our own hearts and the hearts of others seems central to life in my experience.

      Your comments have been very helpful to me.

  23. Jack,

    Thank you for your kind words. I originally posted St Bernard’s remarks in hopes that someone would explain what they might mean in this context, and only attempted to find something when you asked for a more meaningful discussion of liturgy. Thanks for prodding me. Let me add a little more of what I am struggling to express.

    The emphasis in St B is on mystery, what is hidden. That is the nature of sacrament, as the East has long told us. When we focus on Christ among us, it is not on anything we see, but on what is within each of us. Perhaps it is visible on our faces sometimes, but we do not know what is happening inside every person present. IOW, who and what we see does not change, but who and what we are does. Like Transubstantiation.

    The ‘Hidden’ quality is important, because we are not focussed just on the people gathered, but on Christ within and among us. Facing Jerusalem or the East can be helpful, but not if it takes our away from the hidden coming. “Why are you standing there, looking at the sky?” Acts 1:11 It is the interior transformation, not the outward appearance, that we ‘face’.

    I can’t quite express it.

    1. Jim,

      Spirituality: Eastern Christian by Alexander Golitzin).Published in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Fitzroy Dearborn publishers (Chicago:2000), vol. II formerly on this website

      “Perhaps no polarity in Eastern Christian spirituality is more striking and more apparently contradictory than that of the hermit’s stark poverty and simplicity, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the gorgeous splendor of the late Byzantine liturgy, dripping gold and conducted in the presence of mosaics and murals fabricated with all the expense and subtlety available to a millenial civilization. Yet, neither the hermit nor the episcopal celebrant would at all accept this as a paradox, let alone a contradiction. The former would — and does — understand the magnificence of the earthly church’s liturgy as a mirror, both of the angels’ worship in the heavenly temple before the throne of God, and of the divine presence within the purified heart. The bishop and, perhaps even more so, the devout laity see in their turn the Kingdom of God reflected equally in the glory of the Church’s common worship, and in the hallowed ascetic elder, the geron or staretz, bright and fragrant already with presence of the world to come.

      The first conscious coördination between the liturgies of heaven, earth, and the heart can be found in the ascetic literature of, especially, fourth century Christian Syria and Mesopotamia.”

      Two other articles and the website explore the last statement.

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