Altars and renovations

Deacon Greg Kandra has posted before and after pictures of the recently renovated and rededicated Holy Name of Jesus Church in Brooklyn. I commented on Dcn. Greg’s Facebook page:

While it is clearly a huge aesthetic improvement, I wish they could have found some way of avoiding having two altars in the sanctuary. I am presuming that the “high” altar will only be used as a place of reservation and that its main function is to give a “churchy” feel to the place. Altars are places of liturgical action, not aesthetic accessories. Putting in an altar that will never be used for celebrating the Eucharist just seems wrong. If they insist on having the “high” altar, better to have only that and celebrate ad orientem.

I thought that it might be good to shift this topic to a more open discussion forum here on PTB.

We have grown accustomed to seeing old churches that have preserved their former altars and simply placed new altars in front of them. My own parish has this arrangement:

This arrangement seeks to preserve historic features of the building and also recognizes the significant expense involved to removing or adapting the old high altar. I suppose we could simply continue to use the old altar and not have a new one, but trust me, celebration ad orientem would be a serious non-starter in my parish. So we end up with a compromise solution that is often found in older churches — and compromise is sometimes (often) inevitable.

But it seems to me we’re in a different situation when the old altar is no longer in place and it is a question of reintroducing a second altar into the sanctuary. Even more striking is the situation when a “back altar” (as it is sometimes called) is inserted into a modern building that never had one. For example, Prince of Peace Church in Taylors, South Carolina is a recent construction with an altar on a platform in the midst of the church and, originally, a free-standing tabernacle backed with a polychromed triptych:

In recent years this has been replaced with a high altar salvaged from an old church:

Now some might find the new arrangement at Prince of Peace more aesthetically pleasing. I suspect many people in the parish like it. I myself think, taking the architecture of the building as a whole, it is not an aesthetic gain but is highly artificial. But whatever one’s aesthetic judgment, as I said above, altars are not primarily decorative objects, but places of sacrifice. Moreover, the altar is a symbol of Christ (that’s why we kiss it), and should be such a powerful symbol that having two within the same space should strike us as incongruous.

I am all in favor of repurposing liturgical arts from the past. But I am also in favor of observing liturgical principles and not sacrificing them for the sake of nostalgia or aesthetics. It is a shame that Holy Name in Brooklyn did not find a way to renovate their building without making it look like the compromise solution found in so many older churches. It is even more of a shame that Prince of Peace took an arrangement that had both liturgical and aesthetic integrity and abandoned it in the attempt to build a 19th century stage set within a 21st century building.


  1. It would be nice if the “high altar” were simply reconstructed with some space between the altar-table proper and the rest of the structure (reredos, tabernacle, etc.), so that the Mass could be celebrated facing either direction at the same altar.

  2. The original arrangement was very unattractive. The new arrangement is clearly an attempt to restore a bygone era. Such a traditional altar and the surrounding reredos fits in a church of its era. It looks entirely out of place here precisely because it is not The Altar.

  3. “If they insist on having the “high” altar, better to have only that and celebrate ad orientem.”

    Sounds like a decent solution to me.

      1. @Ben Yanke – comment #17:

        That clarification refers to not pulling altars off the back wall, not to demolishing existing additional free-standing altars.

      2. @Paul Inwood – comment #21:
        Maybe, maybe not, it’s not perfectly clear. The point is, GIRM 299 does NOT officially say what the english actually says.

        Also, maybe you should think twice and possibly do homework before snidely accusing an entire parish of liturgical lawbreaking without knowing the actual full details.

      3. @Ben Yanke – comment #30:
        Even as interpreted by John Zuhlsdorf, GIRM 299 says it’s a good thing for a church to have a freestanding main altar whenever it is possible. To be square with that provision, your parish would have to argue that the church cannot now have a freestanding main altar, although it rather clearly once could. Tough assignment, I’d say.

      4. @Paul Inwood – comment #41:
        Thank you for the kind words, Paul.
        There’s value to pointing out difficulties in the reasoning of those who disagree with us, but ultimately, I wish they’d see that if the authors of GIRM 299 are encouraging architectural adaptation for versus-populum presiding, the effect is to encourage versus-populum presiding itself. Cardinal Medina admitted as much in the response to which Ben refers in #17. The pro-ad-orientem folks have to interpret the authors of GIRM as saying “You should build for versus-populum presiding, but we’re indifferent as to whether you actually do it”—which to me makes no sense.
        We can be pretty sure that the present bishop of Madison isn’t worried about the rubrical violation you and I see being committed. But I find it hard to imagine such indulgence coming from his predecessor.

      5. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #42:


        You are going well past what makes sense yourself. If the Church wanted to ban ad-orientem, it would have.

        It does not need you to make up rules it does not have.

      6. @Scott Smih – comment #43:
        “If the Church wanted to ban ad-orientem, it would have.”
        It didn’t, and I didn’t say it did. (I don’t write church rules. I read them, and I voice objections when I think other people are misreading them.)
        Encouraging versus-populum presiding is compatible with allowing ad-orientem presiding when the accommodations needed for the former are impossible. So said Cardinal Medina in 2000 (see #17). As he added then, there are several relevant varieties of “impossibility.” In the case of Ben Yanke’s parish, however, I don’t think removing a freestanding altar makes versus-populum presiding impossible. The parishioners could provide for it simply by putting the missing altar back.

      7. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #44:


        I don’t see where the Church restricts ad-orientem to only where versus-populum is impossible.

        I think both are allowed, and that alters should be set up accordingly, with space on both sides (i.e. I don’t think Ben’s solution is great either, I just think you are going to far the other way).

      8. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #44:

        Paul: The parishioners could provide for it simply by putting the missing altar back.

        Yes, but what if most of the parishioners don’t want a freestanding altar or versus populum celebration? Must they be forced to accept Mass facing the people despite the majority preference of the parish for ad orientem?

        Our bishop visited a parish recently which no longer has a table altar. Masses are said at the old high altar or ad orientem at a freestanding altar in a chapel. The bishop has not, to my knowledge, demanded that a table be set up in the sanctuary or that Mass be said facing the people (neither have come to pass since his visit). Perhaps he is a very generous bishop, or he does not interpret GIRM 299 to mean that versus populum is mandatory when architecturally or economically feasible.

  4. I like the first picture, the old high altar with communion rails creates a blessed sacrament chapel type space. Also the more contemporary styled sanctuary area doesn’t attempt to compete with the traditional backdrop – they compliment together well (although the ambo is too close to the altar.

    In the second picture – neither the original re-ordering or later re-ordering work well in my opinion for different reasons. The first works spatially but the altar fittings aren’t particularly attractive and appear oddly proportioned. The latest re-ordering attempt to traditionalise a contemporary space. I don’t mind the old high altar being there if it needed a home – but the new altar’s frontal, oriental carpet rugs and clunky altar crucifix / candle set (note the ad orientem setting) don’t blend with the contemporary space.

    There’s also the Brooklyn church re-ordering photos/video doing the rounds (formerly featuring pink plywood upside-down hockey sticks as a sanctuary backdrop). An old high altar has been placed there which completely dominates the space with a small scaled simple altar table and ambo in front. One gets the impression that it is hoped that these ‘new mass’ concessions can be removed in time!

  5. The usual sniping – how tiring.

    We have a VII ecclesiology that has impacted liturgy and thus how we both build and renovate church space.

    Sad to see some who begin not with the Eucharistic community and its needs but with a building (brick and mortar). Sorry, the Eucharistic community is not a museum piece nor is it a building – it is a living community. Thus, our understanding and experience of both liturgy and community develops, changes, grows.

    This is such a highly charged and emotional topic that can be very subjective. Have often found that renovating a pre-VII church *especially if built like this example* creates real challenges. My experience is that the diocese or parish do compromise – and most often you see this example with an extended platform with an altar that stretches into or up to the center of the *cross*. Have found that the altar rails are moved to other uses in the church and the high altar is left but moved to the back of the church and becomes a part of the church sanctuary boundary and decoration. It is not used nor emphasized.
    The person who lived through this experience and has *graphic* memories would be Rita Ferrone and Milwaukee’s cathedral. (and, no, Mr. Yanke, you would not like what happened there)

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #6:
      But Bill, the point of the building is to serve the people…
      I think that throughout most architectural processes these days the needs of the community are kept in mind. It’s easy to point a finger at a style or design you personally disagree with, and accuse the designer of ignoring the needs of the community. It’s much harder to prove that that is actually the case. I think that most if not all proponents of a particular design (whether traditional or progressive in nature) would argue that their design does serve the individual and communal spirituality of a particular community. I don’t know that anyone just starts with a building without any conception of the community in mind…
      Even if someone says at the start of the process “a traditional style will be the most spiritually inspiring to the assembly, and the most conducive to healthy liturgy”, that person is starting with the needs of the community rather than the building. My own cathedral recently did a “reverse-Milwaukee” restoration, pushing the altar back to one end (while still freestanding) and adding a baldachino). It seems to work very well for the community, which banded together to raise the money and celebrate the process. There is not always a simple black-and-white answer to these architectural questions.

      1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #19:
        Jared – agree with your comment. Now, go back and re-read various comments and even the specific cathedral that is the subject of this post.

        Start with the community of faith – your example of a reverse Milwaukee – sounds fine.

        My context and reply was that the building is not the Eucharistic community – that renovations are made within a specific community and ecclesiology. Both of those change and develop over time. My *reaction* to some comments is that they don’t start with the Eucharistic community – they start with a building and stop with a building; meanwhile, passing judgment on anyone who begs to differ with what they feel is the ultimate liturgical style (even if that style if 15th century and both an ecclesiology and sacramental system that is Tridentine only).

        The example I am thinking about – St. Vincent’s Church in Chicago at DePaul University did exactly what you described and it has worked well.

  6. I think Deacon Fritz has identified a real problem, but I think Jeffrey Pinyan has identified the best solution.

    Jeffrey solution is also how the Anglo-Catholic movement generally solved this problem in times past.

  7. I have little more to add than my own opinion, but I hate seeing two altars in one sanctuary. I am fine with side altars, etc, but not two altars in one assembly space. Either use the high altar ad orientem (which shouldn’t be a huge, symbolic gesture in a liturgy war) or create one noble dignified altar (not a small table) and do something with the old one (convert it into a tabernacle if it can be done, perhaps).

  8. “It is a shame that Holy Name in Brooklyn did not find a way to renovate their building without making it look like the compromise solution found in so many older churches. It is even more of a shame that Prince of Peace took an arrangement that had both liturgical and aesthetic integrity and abandoned it in the attempt to build a 19th century stage set within a 21st century building.”

    Fritz hits the nail on the head. +10

  9. An article “Church Design after Vatican II” by Bethe Dufresne considers the issue of reusing old artifacts in new churches, among other things. It includes conversation with Lawrence Hoy and Robert Bambusch.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #13:
      Did you like the article, Ann? I thought it was a puff piece for Larry Hoy. Really, most of it sounded like something you’d read in an alumni magazine profile.

      On the other hand, Dufresne included some salty quotes from Bob Rambusch, one of my favorite people on the planet. I am glad to hear he is still going, at 90! — and with just as pungent a wit as ever.

  10. I’m of the opinion to work with the style of the architecture of the building. If it’s pre-VII, work with it. If it’s post-VIi, work with it.

    I just transferred to another assignment, moving from an 8 year old building to a 100 year old building. If renovating, I would never mix and match styles; it just becomes an eye sore. It also detracts, in my opinion, from worship.

    At my former assignment, the eight year old building, the Parochial Vicar (of all people) is demanding (not asking, not suggesting) that the present altar be replaced with a “real” altar, from a closed parish, one ornately carved and of stark white marble; the current marble is hunter green. Made by parishioners, the altar is round. It’s round because the theme of the church is the Trinity, which was the theme of the Bldg Cmte. He told the pastor that Mass celebrated verges on not being valid and that they immediately change it (he studied in Rome but doesn’t know his liturgical history about early altars in the Church). For Easter, he demanded an altar cloth with lace. The pastor capitulated, and now the altar looks like a big garter belt. It just doesn’t fit. In the end the soft spoken pastor just told him that he wasn’t changing the altar and that he can pack his bags if he doesn’t like it.

    My concerns are when pastors don’t do their homework and just change because of personal preferences or the personal uninformes preferences of the parishioners. Then the next guy is stuck with the mess.

    At my new assignment, the 100 year old, we are going to make renovations as a result of a big donation and a diocesan capital campaign. We are not going to remove the old high altar. We are planning to redo all the floors and pews, etc. but we are doing it in such a way to really focus on the Altar of Sacrifice. The present setup was poorly done when implimented in the 60’s (that’s the last time the parish looked at the Sanctuary). It will be such that the architecture of the old altar will accentuate the new and will not be in…

  11. In my local Catholic church the “new” pp (almost 4 years now!) immediately upon arrival established a Latin Mass at the old stone altar “ad orientem.” Initially he continued to say an English Mass at the free-standing altar, but in a muttered mumble and at breakneck speed.

    When the new English translation was officially enforced he moved the FS altar from the sanctuary to a side position at the back of the church , amid much puzzled consternation among Parishioners. We were told

    a) this will be happening throughout the diocese – not true

    b) The Holy Father wants this (Benedict XVI then gloriously reigning, it may well have been true)

    c) Vatican Council II is rubbish, a non-Council, with no authority.

    The Bishop ordered the return of the FS altar to its previous position within two weeks but so far the pp has not obeyed this directive.

    The FS altar was used for Votive requiems and dressed in deep black. But about 9 mths ago the FS altar “disappeared.” When asked what has happened to the FS altar, (parish property and never used for other purposes), the pp shrugged, declaring he does not know where it is.

    No one wants liturgy wars, least of all the Bishop who is a sick man but is not allowed to retire yet. The congregation would like an ordinary Mass that can be seen and heard and understood in the usual way. If that needs two altars in the sanctuary and a greater measure of mutual understanding, that could help. But division is our sad lot.

    1. @Mary Wood:thank you for saying about your experiences. You are not alone. Suggestion this week by traditionalist in our parish was ‘bring a sledge hammer’ to smash up our front altar. The Tridentine lay groups will resort to anything.

  12. I’m curious, Deacon Fritz, whether you would make a distinction between a true altar and what is essentially an elaborate housing for the tabernacle (leaving aside the question of whether the tabernacle is better housed in a side chapel). In other words, are there really two altars in these situations, or is the idea that the table portion of the altar is moved away (either literally or simply by adding a new table) from the elaborate housing for the tabernacle? Could the renovation process remove the table portion of the added or older altar to make this even more clear? Could relics be removed from the added altar to again clarify which is the “real altar”? If this is the mentality, then the added altar from an old church could be primarily decorative in nature, even if originally it served as an actual liturgical altar.

  13. Rita —

    As with most writing about aesthetics, I found the Dufresne article both interesting and not so very. But the whole field of aesthetics to me is a frustrating one. For one thing, beauty is a subject to which very few of the very greatest philosophers have paid much attention. I’d say that Plato and Kant are the two big exceptions. So far as I know Aquinas gives it no sustained consideration at all. So to me, anyway, the field is philosophically thin. (I say that even though I taught aesthetics.) There just aren’t as many profound answers there as we’d like.

    I suspect that one reason for the thinness is that Beauty is. to speak in philosophical terms, a transcendental — it literally relates to all sorts of things, and that’s where the troublesome questions begin. WHY do some things “go together” while others don’t? It seems we can’t universalize about that, so we can’t establish much in the way of aesthetic criteria. And, as Kant points out, we don’t *reason* to Beauty in the first place. So the arguments about criteria go on and on.

    On the other hand, there are Chartres . . . and Giotto . . . and Bach . . . and . . . all those wonderful creations which appeal very widely even to people of ordinary intelligence. Why???

    So what’s a church-builder to do when there are no designers of Chartres or Giottos or Bachs around? Don’t look for much help from us aesthetic teachers. Sigh.

  14. What does “the needs of the community” mean? Their need for concrete symbols they already understand? Satisfaction of their nostalgic longings? Satisfaction of their need for something new? Satisfaction of their need for what they *think* they do not need ? Their need for beauty?

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #23:
      Symbols? I’d say good is better than concrete. Nostalgia and satisfaction are wants not needs. A community needs to be praying, serving, worshiping, active, and most of all, evangelical. A community needs to spend less time navel-gazing (be it to find one’s reflection in a high altar or the backside of a priest or some canvas backdrop).

      There are Giottos and Bachs around today. They’re mostly uninspired to work for the Church. They earn money building malls and skyscrapers. The peddle their music through crowdsourcing or get gobbled up by a corporation. Most of the best artists are no longer engaged by the Church.

  15. Ann asks some great questions about “what are the needs of the community.” I myself find that this is an extraordinarily slippery concept, and the answers seem to change depending on who is interpreting those needs. Surveys don’t help. They may tell you what people “say” their needs are, but self-evaluation is just as slippery as the pastoral council or the pastor doing that evaluation.

    Which is why, I think, the church offers norms for building and renovation. There remains a good deal of leeway, but the guidelines are based on liturgical principles.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #25:
      Rita – you have much more experience than I in this arena. As I said above, it starts with VII ecclesiology and, in my experience, when these types of projects are being introduced, the first step is educating the parish to both the diocesan art/architecture guidelines (usually based upon VII ecclesiology) and VII documents about *church*; *people of God*; *liturgy*, etc.
      Complex process – my reference to starting with the needs of the community has to do with the decision to either renovate or build…….this is or can be totally separate from the next step; once a decision is made to go forward.

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #27:
        You should be careful, Sacrosanctum Concilium describes the church building as a “house of God.” So does Built of Living Stones, and the Catechism.

      2. @Stanislaus Kosala – comment #28:
        And where did I say otherwise? My guess (and it is only a guess) is that your use and understanding of the phrase, house of God, and my interpretation and understanding of that same phrase are very different.
        Let’s see: guess one could quote any number of scripture passages of what Jesus did in the Temple (and that was also the house of God). And, ultimately, where does that get us?
        A church building in our faith understanding is and can be called the house of God….so, what does that mean? Does that mean that it can’t be renovated; that an old church can’t be replaced; and what about current bishops who are closing and selling churches off right and left?
        (BTW -always get a chuckle when someone resorts to mentioning or quoting the Catechism – as if that is the be all of our faith journey; as if it is the ultimate place of truth and wisdom)

      3. @Bill deHaas – comment #29:
        Did I give the impression that I believe the catechism to be the be all and end all of our faith journey? You mentioned looking at church documents to understand the proper theology of church buildings, last time I checked the catechism is such a document.
        When I refer to the church building as a “house of God” I simply mean that it plays more than just the functional role of being the setting for the celebration of the sacraments, but that it itself is an icon that points to the reality of the presence of God (though, of course without confining it). It does not take precedence over the Church itself but it is more than just mere bricks and mortar because it itself has been sanctified and discloses heavenly realities, becoming identified with them in a unique way.
        This does not mean that old churches can’t be closed, or renovated, but it does mean that it’s more than just a mere tool, or a mere setting for certain events. It’s not just a bunch of matter that can be shaped or reshaped at whim.
        Now that I’ve laid my cards on the table. How do you understand the phrase “house of God” when applied to church buildings?

  16. Of all possible phrases to describe a church building, I find “house of God” the most bizarre.
    What is it implying about our concept of God and how containable and tameable (possible neologism alert) he is?
    It is our house that we have built in order to meet God in a liturgical manner that suits us best at any given time/culture.
    By no stretch of the imagination is it the house of God.

    1. @Alan Johnson – comment #34:
      Be careful what you ask for, as it were. Reducing the place to function is a great way to ensure that people will gradually not find the function worth the bother. In the erstwhile name of something that might be called pastoral realism, it denigrates the natural tendencies of human beings to have layered associations of place. Ah, those people with benighted, bizarre understandings. If they only knew better.

    2. @Alan Johnson – comment #34:

      Not to be pedantic, but the word “church” etymologically comes from “κυριακός,” that is, “belonging to the Lord,” and therefore not a large leap to “The Lord’s House.” If you want to get away from calling a church the House of God, it may be time to find a new word. There’s always assembly, ekklesia, congregation. . .

      Also, given that Christ is really present in the consecrated elements, and the consecrated host is housed, if you will, in the tabernacle, is it really such a stretch to call a church with a tabernacle the House of the Lord? It’s not us containing God, but His own love and humility at play.

      I’m reminded, again, of that old hymn “Deck Thyself My Soul with Gladness.”

      “High o’er all the heavens he reigneth,
      yet to dwell with thee he deigneth.”

      1. @Shaughn Casey – comment #38:

        see LSJ sv. κυριακός. The late classical reading of κυριακός (kuriakos) refers to the imperial Roman court, and is used as an adjective. Per LSj, Paul uses κυριακός as an adjective in keeping with the classical usage. Per LSJ, the first time κυριακός is used as a substantive is in Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History 9.10 though in the neuter substantive τὸ κυριακόν (to kuriakon). Perhaps Eusebius uses the neuter because the masculine substantive refers to the occult.

        Given that the substantive τὸ κυριακόν is used in the context of a history of pre-institutional Christianity from the perspective of institutional Christianity, it’s not surprising that Catholics who follow a ressourcement-inspired reform would use ekklesia rather than kuriakon, as ekklesia is the preferred term in pre-institutionalized Christianity.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #39:

        No arguments here. That’s an approach consistent with my suggestion, though not one I especially agree with.

  17. Really Alan, “by no stretch of the imagination”?

    You are saying that a roofed building dedicated exclusively to the worship of God by his people in their celebration of the “sacred mysteries” and where the Eucharistic presence– God’s presence– is housed (sic) and revered year round cannot, by “any stretch of the imagination” be called “God’s house?”

    Instead of that compact and efficient term that has been used already for quite some time and communicates with ease that this building is set apart by the unique mode of the divine residence, you would insert “our house that we have built in order to meet God in a liturgical manner that suits us best at any given time/ culture”?


  18. There are two related issues here, presiding and altars. Paul has not expressed an opinion on ad orientem presiding, only on whether church law says that an altar should be free standing. If I read him correctly, he thinks the GIRM says the altar should be freestanding unless it is impossible for some reason.

    A free standing altar does not preclude celebrating ad orientem. It does not, in itself, encourage versus populum presiding. (other elements may, eg placement of relics) But only a free standing altar allows both ad orientem and versus populum presiding.

    Ultimately the decision is the bishop’s. If he decides to allow a community to ignore a part of the GIRM, and diverge from the Roman practice and recommendation, he is responsible. He may have a good, pastoral reason. It may be the leading edge of a chisel that will separate the community from Rome, or it may be something that allows greater diversity within unity with Rome. Hopefully it is the latter.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #47:
      Thank you, Jim, for your eloquent summary. For me, it covers all the issues—especially that while GIRM 299 admits of exceptions, bishops ought to explore why a parish wants one.
      Jordan, I don’t think we’d want the decision in these cases to come down simply to what a majority of parishioners want. The minority need to be heard, too, and there should be some worthy argument for the spiritual advantages of whatever way is chosen. If I were a bishop adjudicating in such a case, I would expect better from ad-orientem defenders than presumptions that to find God at the Eucharist we must keep our eyes away from each other, and that we should look for him in a place beyond the congregation, beyond the priest, even beyond the consecrated elements.
      In that response from 2000, Cardinal Medina tried to put the altar question into perspective. He counseled remembering that worshiping God in spirit and in truth is the real concern and that history does not provide unambiguous answers to such practical questions. Good advice, I’d say, the source notwithstanding.

      1. @Scott Smith – comment #49:
        That was just my line in the sand, Scott. I could have mentioned that I’m also suspicious of ad-orientem defenders who imagine that many worshipers have a strong sense of what compass direction they’re facing or the significance thereof.
        I hope there’s a better defense of ad-orientem presiding than any of those I mentioned. I’m just not sure where I should look for it.

      2. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #50:

        Try googling ad-orientem. There are plenty of defenses online, and none appear to rest on the matters you have raised.

      3. @Paul R. Schwankl – comment #50:

        Paul, a good number of possible apologies for ad orientem exist. I have often thought of writing my own apology for ad orientem (my work in linguistics might prove valuable here.) I’d propose this, tentatively: to some degree versus populum obscures the theological/metaphysical reality of the Mass as a whole which is more than a sum of its parts.

        The adult human mind has the remarkable ability to understand actions and concepts in the abstract. We possess two sets of eyes, one sensory and one cognitive. One need not physically see the elements to know that consecration has taken place. This is especially true in many Eastern traditions, where the priest and ministers “disappear” behind an iconostasis for certain parts of the liturgy, including the anaphora. Why, then, do Eastern Christian believers know and trust that the eucharistic sacrifice has taken place, while (most) Western Christians perceive a need to see the elements? A viewing of the elements provides no extra reassurance of the totality of the sacrifice ritual. This reassurance can only be intellectually grasped. Indeed, one might say that a perception of the eucharistic sacrifice “through the mind’s eye” provides a deeper wellspring for understanding the eucharist, as the mind must struggle to comprehend the mystery which is beyond the senses regardless of the invisibility or visibility of the elements. praestet fides supplementum sensuum defectui, as the Angelic Doctor wrote.

        The celebration of the Holy Eucharist or Mass facing the people strikes me as a cop-out. This practice has taken hold as if because some people have difficulty with an intellectual apprehension of the sacrament or choose not to engage their intellectual capabilities. Should the intellectual spiritual growth of others be impoverished because some cannot or choose not to apprehend the Eucharist from the perspective of mind’s sight?

        I’d like to believe that Plotinus is right, but with each passing day my hope diminishes.

  19. Paul R. Schwankl :
    I would expect better from ad-orientem defenders than presumptions that to find God at the Eucharist we must keep our eyes away from each other, and that we should look for him in a place beyond the congregation, beyond the priest, even beyond the consecrated elements.


    Am I missing something? As far as I can tell, Paul has summed up your argument here.

    About the only thing that I can see added is your somewhat implicit claim that the theological metaphysical reality of the Mass is that God is not encountered physically. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you, but I don’t see that as the theological metaphysical reality of the Mass. The reality is quite the opposite, the Gosh chooses to be with us physically, first in the Incarnation and continually in the Eucharist. Eyes of faith see beyond what physical eyes can see, but God is present to us in what we see. That is part of what the Trinity means.

    IOW I consider your apology for ad orientem to be a strong argument against it. That puzzles me enough to wonder if I am misunderstanding you.

    1. @Jim McKay – comment #53:
      God chooses to be with us physically … continually in the Eucharist

      The use of the term “physical” to describe God’s presence in the Eucharist is a theological error. Fr. Anthony has made that clear on several occasions; at least, “physical” doesn’t mean the same thing when describing God’s presence in the Incarnation vs. God’s presence in the Eucharist.

    2. @Jim McKay – comment #53:

      First, I must say that my comment (at #52), “Should the intellectual spiritual growth of others be impoverished because some cannot or choose not to apprehend the Eucharist from the perspective of mind’s sight?” is arrogant and demeaning. Honest conversation requires charity.

      Jim, you are right that both a cognitive “sight” and sensory sight are both important to understanding the Eucharist in either altar orientation. The engagement of both cognition and sense together is necessary to understand any Mass. An argument for the necessity of cultivating both abilities can apply (and should apply) for both ad orientem and versus populum.

      I would say though that despite the fact that Mass is Mass regardless of altar orientation, the noticeably different spatial movement of the priest, deacon, and ministers in ad orientem worship versus versus populum worship radically changes one important layer of cognitive/visual understanding. Ad orientem worship contains a critical element for the most part lost in versus populum worship. In ad orientem, the turns and lateral movements of the celebrant communicate theological ideas which are obscured when all gestures are made facing the people over an altar or at a chair. Also, the abundance of blessings during the EF (and especially during the Canon), though not seen directly, are sublimated into the movement of an elbow, a more obscure but still significant window into liturgical actions. The joy of a cognitively-rich liturgy is contained in this and similar sublimations (I would say, “derivations”) of movement.

      Almost all of the activity of ad orientem is “flattened” into a two-dimensionality for versus populum. I would ask: why, then, is facing the people desirable when ad orientem effervesces with multidimensional semiotic communication?

  20. Jeffrey, you are right. “Physical” is inapt, but there is no good term for what I was trying to express. The physical items, the bread and wine, are transformed yet retain their physicality when the substance changes. I elided over some complexity that is central to the discussion.

    Jordan, thank you for your response. I have a better idea of what you are saying. I still disagree, because I think facing the people effervesces with multidimensional semiotic communication as well. Take the physicality of the bread, layered with the meaning of many meals and many tables, becoming a truer substance not just in the breaking, but in the moments sitting on the table while peace is shared, or when processing toward that physicality while the bread itself is shared.

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