Fr Ray Blake is a conservative priest-blogger in Brighton. In this thoughtful article he carefully and respectfully criticizes the arrangement recommended by Pope Benedict in The Spirit of the Liturgy and used in most papal masses.
The linked post provides a picture that illustrates the papal style and neatly captures the problem that Fr Blake has identified.
He puts it very well, I think, when he writes that
The Missal calls for a crucifix rather than a cross to be on the altar, and yet the “Benedictine arrangement” calls for a crucifix to face the priest, unless one is to get the theological nonsense of a double-figured crucifix the people are faced with a Christless-cross and are left to view the priest, who has turned to be visible to the people, made less than visible by a standing crucifix. The cross becomes everything the cross is not meant to be, it divides and it obscures rather than unites and reveals.
In most churches we are often faced with the further absurdity of two crucifixes: one for the priest and one for the people, invariably the priest is sandwiched between the two. Again it is a source of division rather than unity, at the incensation which should be incensed, the priest’s crucifix or the people’s? When there is no tabernacle present which should be venerated, should the priest venerate “his” crucifix, and if so isn’t it somewhat absurd to venerate the obverse side rather than image of the crucified?
I don’t share Fr Blake’s view that the Pope’s altar arrangement should be seen as a transitional form, a step toward a return to the Mass with the celebrant facing the apse and standing between the people and the sacred elements on the altar. His assumption is that removing the hardware on the altar necessarily leaves the congregation focused on the celebrant. ‘As absurd as I think [the papal arrangement] is,’ he writes, ‘it is far less absurd than placing the priest at the centre of worship, without the crucifix.’
This certainly doesn’t fit my experience. My focus at Mass, and I suspect that of many worshippers, is not on the celebrant at all, but on the altar and the vessels there, holding the body and blood of the Lord. If anything, the old style, with the priest facing the apse, creates more, not less of a focus on the celebrant.
Of course if you believe that the congregation is irrelevant to the Mass, then the priest facing the apse is just fine. Evelyn Waugh repeatedly spoke of this in his diaries, letters and articles:
The priest stood rather far away. His voice was not clear and the language he spoke was not that of everyday use. … When I first came into the Church I was drawn, not by splendid ceremonies but by the spectacle of the priest at the altar. He had an important job to do which none but he was qualified for. He and his apprentice stumped up to the altar with their tools and set to work without a glance to those behind them, still less with any intention to make a personal impression on them.
(From A Reid, ed., A Bitter Trial, Ignatius Press 2011).
For me, at least, the style that Waugh praises creates more focus on the celebrant, not less. Unlike Waugh, I have little interest in ‘the spectacle of the priest at the altar.’
I certainly agree with Fr Blake that Pope Benedict’s arrangement is an ineffective compromise. The candlesticks and crucifix clutter the altar, obscuring the sacred elements and – if the candlesticks are tall, as the pope seems to prefer – making the celebrant look as though he is peering out from behind the bars of a jail cell.
The signs and symbols of the eucharist are too important to be taken away from the people in the Tridentine mode; even less so by hiding them behind a tangle of candlesticks, microphones, bookstands, multiple eucharistic vessels and books. What is needed is not a return to celebration facing the apse but a renewal of the ‘noble simplicity’ prescribed by Sacrosanctum Concilium, with neither the priest’s back nor a lot of liturgical hardware as the focus of the congregation, but the body and blood of Christ.
Jonathan Day is a consultant and writer; he is also a member of the parish council of the Jesuit Church of the Immaculate Conception (Farm Street) in central London.