Altar Before and After: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Houston, TX

A reader sent in photos of an altar renovation, before and after, from Houston, Texas.


St Elizabeth-before


St Elizabeth

The reader opined that it was rather “awful” before, but wryly commented that he guesses that the rail in the renovated version will make the priest “feel safer up there.”

These two comments pretty well sum up my evaluation of the renovation. The previous version is a bit tacky and gimmicky, though with some beautiful materials and certainly not the worst post-conciliar sanctuary I’ve seen. The renovated version has a beautiful balance and inviting warmth to it, but an unfortunate retro ideology – why an altar rail, when the posture for receiving Communion in the U.S. is standing?

And so it goes in our communal, ecclesial journey: we take two steps forward and one step backward. Maybe someday we’ll reach a better synthesis of the best of old and new, artistically and theologically. Maybe someday we’ll renovate with less imposition of an ideology that is tied to the agendas of one generation and thus bound to be undone by the next.

The pastor wrote this in the parish bulletin about the nearly-completed renovation:

The painting to the left of the crucifix will depict the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph. The one on the right will contain images of Venerable Antonio Margil, a Franciscan friar who helped to evangelize Texas and who founded Mission San Jose in San Antonio, and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, our parish patroness. Taken together, the two paintings will represent the vocations of marriage, the religious life, and the ordained priesthood.




  1. Overall an improvement, but where is the ambo? That dark obscure object way off to the side? A more prominent position and materials would have been helpful. In pre-conciliar style, the altar and tabernacle dominate while the ambo and font are relatively insignificant and tucked off to the side somewhere. I wonder if the person who led this renovation would say that “the Mass is a sacrifice, NOT a meal” and that the Liturgy of the Word is a mere prelude to the main event.

      1. @Jay Edward:
        It is inside the sanctuary – or at least half of it is, considering that it straddles the rail. As I mentioned previously, the photo does not give the contextual perspective of the entire church. Even the before/after photos don’t match each other in perspective – in the “before” photo, you can see more of the wall to the right of the grille-work. In the space, the ambo certainly looks like it’s part of the sanctuary.

  2. I noticed in large new churches in Boise Idaho, the ambo was tucked away and the altar still front and center. When all these renovations started I used to say that if the altar were treated as a trivial artifact like the ambo all hell would break loose. There is a little bit of hell in both of the before and after shots.

  3. The photo does not show the full scope of the church, so in context the ambo is not off in a corner, and is more substantial than the previous ambo, so I don’t see how it is insignificant. In fact, it’s pretty massive; the photo makes it seem small, and the wood blends in with the grille behind it. Also, the tabernacle is not as prominent as previously, being directly behind the altar now.

    Yes, the materials used originally, at least in the sanctuary, were fine, which just goes to prove that fine materials mean little when used poorly out of balance. As for the altar rail – I don’t see how it is retro, considering that altar rails were never disallowed. Many very left-leaning Anglican congregations have altar rails, which just goes to show that the retro/progressive label is subjective, based on association. Having been born Presbyterian in 1970, I have none of those associations, so don’t really care. I do not consider kneeling to receive as pre-conciliar, and as time passes, I would think more would agree with me. Anyhow, people still have the option of receiving standing, so nobody is denying anybody anything. Consider that the parish is simply giving people the option, in fact giving an option that was impossible prior to the renovation.

    What is not shown in the photo is that the church is in the typical fan/auditorium shape. The acoustics were dreadful prior to the renovation; now that there is sheet-rock on the walls to the left and right of the sanctuary, the sound has been improved. It’s still not good, but better, and congregational singing has improved.

    From my knowledge of the situation, you might guess that I am associated with the parish, and indeed that is true. I started as Director of Music for the parish school in March, and have responsibility for two Sunday Masses, as well as school Masses, in that church.

    1. @Doug O’Neill:
      Congratulations on your renovation. Like many projects, it’s considerably harder to undertake the project itself than for commenters like me to toss in our two cents. The ambo blending into the wood behind it may have been an unintentional oversight, I see that it is the same material as the altar which is appropriate. Perhaps the ambo could be highlighted a bit more through the use of lighting, or by adding a decorative element to its front. Perhaps to compliment the beautiful gold Chi Rho on the altar, a similar design could be added to the ambo such as symbols of the four evangelists.

      1. @Scott Pluff:
        Well, I didn’t really have anything to do with it, but thanks anyway! The lighting will indeed be different, but they didn’t want to tinker with that until everything was in place; it should give more prominence to the ambo when complete.

  4. “Taken together, the two paintings will represent the vocations of marriage, the religious life, and the ordained priesthood.”

    Sigh…because of course, no one would ever be called to the single life outside of religious life or the priesthood.

    1. @Elizabeth M Korves:

      No sighs from me, only exasperation.

      It truly is some pretty shallow thinking right there, isn’t it.

      That nobody in this parish challenged this pastor and his flawed thinking is rather curious.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        We just went through something similar in Texas, Ms. Ahn. How do you *challenge* the pastor when he moves a tabernacle into the back wall of the sanctuary from a eucharistic chapel set up 30 years ago – no announcement; he says he had discussed wiht the parish council (debatable and they are handpicked and would not push back). His announcement after the fact only focused on thanking the 92 year old, married, but former priest pastor who was against the eucharistic chapel transition decades before. Money and pastor trumps the parish every time. It is more than just altar rails in this renovation. Sorry, the prior set up could have been renovated to address sound issues, etc. This is an ideology taking front and center – it violates the basic principles of SC, a communal eucharist, the common action of a community gathered around the table of the Lord along with the table of God’s word (find the ambo placement to be questionable, at best).

      2. @Bill deHaas:

        The before church both the tabernacle and altar are off center on different sides in a way that is jarring. There’s nothing about the second that breaks the principle of “a communal eucharist, the common action of a community gathered around the table of the Lord along with the table of God’s word.” I think the ambo should have been where the acolyte is convening with somebody…but the 70s shopping mall wall and steps were tacky.

      3. @Bill deHaas #14:

        How do you *challenge* the pastor…

        Oh I don’t know. How about talking to him nonetheless? If you love your church and you believe your pastor is doing something that is unquestionably wrong and being dismissive of others who don’t share his thinking, shouldn’t you be even more insistent in doing so? Dismissing him likewise only to then badmouth him behind his back isn’t going to change a thing, is it?

        Personally, I’m not bothered so much by the structural changes, which, as others have argued, can be understood differently when viewed through different theological/liturgical lenses, as that pastor’s note in the bulletin. Had this been my church and he my pastor, I would certainly have said something to him.

        Well, I want to believe I would have.

  5. There is nothing awe inspiring about the first photo. The second one is artistically more appealing. Yet, it makes me feel uneasy.

    It reminds me of some of the renovations that I have seen where the priest / chaplain is connected to OPUS DEI. The altar design, the rail and the arrangement of candles are the hallmarks.

    I do not like the use of altar rails. They seem to say that there are those that are holy and those that are not.

    My guess is that the renovation is not the only theological statement that is new in this community.

  6. Altar rails don’t have to be divisive. Many high-church celebrations of the Ordinary Form will give communicants the option to stand or kneel. Usually standing communicants receive first, then kneeling communicants. I almost always stand, simply because it’s faster (in my non-empirical observation).

    I don’t begruge people for kneeling. However, it’s fair that standing communicants receive first. As Fr. Ruff notes, this is the normative posture in the United States.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      I think it is more than “normative”. It has been described as the determined posture in order to symbolize our unity by the USCCB.
      I always worry that those who come up and kneel (not at a rail) will cause an accident as they break the flow of movement of the procession. I’ve seen people nearly trip over them.

  7. Michael Bechard : I do not like the use of altar rails. They seem to say that there are those that are holy and those that are not.

    The One being received at the altar rail in Holy Communion is Holy, hence the opportunity to recieve Our Lord kneeling. It is a much less intrusive barrier than iconostases in use among our Eastern brethren.

    1. @Kevin Vogt:
      I’m not Father Anthony, but I worshipped there most of the 90’s and beyond, so I feel somewhat comfortable responding.

      Short answer: they aren’t now, and they were never used as intended, when the Abbey & University Church was built. I think I saw them used once at an Abbatial Blessing Liturgy, when some candles were put on one of them.

      Of course, I’m eager to hear from the expert if anything has changed.

      1. @Chuck Middendorf:
        Chuck Middendorf is correct. The communion tables were a good idea, but they didn’t have in mind Communion in both forms, and they must have had in mind distributing from a ciborium rather than a paten because the table is too low to hold a plate. So we don’t use them for distribution. Frank Kacmarcik advocated keeping them in place as part of the original architecture but using them for other purposes – e.g. putting relics on them on All Saints Day, which we do.

  8. Can I make a little guess? I venture to guess the tabernacle in picture #1 is not the original placement either, but some earlier renovation. If I’m wrong: eeek!

    I agree: the ambo needs something in the front that matches that altar.

    Altar rail: disallowed or not disallowed, if the norm in the US is standing, and they aren’t needed anymore, it’s hard to see what use it serves besides creating an artificial border. And why’s the ambo outside then?

    For a possible parallel argument from the other side: quite a few churches were built without kneelers in the 70s and 80s. But times have changed. Allowed or disallowed, if the norm in the US is kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, then the lack of kneelers in renovations/new churches is also pushing an agenda, much like this altar railing is.

    1. @Chuck Middendorf:
      “For a possible parallel argument from the other side: quite a few churches were built without kneelers in the 70s and 80s. But times have changed. Allowed or disallowed, if the norm in the US is kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, then the lack of kneelers in renovations/new churches is also pushing an agenda, much like this altar railing is.”

      Funny, my nonagenarian father complained this weekend about this very issue when he attended a Catholic church built in that era while visiting his youngest son about 20 miles south of Rochester NY.

  9. I would agree about the ambo needing something a little more, but otherwise it is a vast improvement, and has less of an “ideological” air to it than the prior sanctuary did. More importantly, the new sanctuary appears to have good composition, proportions, and generally better aesthetics than the old sanctuary did. For those reasons alone, most people will likely think it feels more “right” even if they can’t explain why. The old sanctuary has no focal point whatsoever – and worse is that none of the objects in it seem to follow the lines of the building itself. The different elements don’t relate to one another even though they are all made of the same material. The new version seems to work better with the shape and lines of the existing building – it is more proportional and the materials seem to echo the pre-existing wooden walls. The colors and materials generally have better contrast too, so the different elements stand out.

    I imagine the renovation is popular with most of the congregation, as old-fashioned “churchy-looking” churches tend to be popular with average Catholics who don’t have a particular liturgical agenda. As for altar rails – I’ve heard plenty of not-traditional Catholics complain about their removal, but have only ever heard complaints about them being restored or added to new churches by a tiny minority.

  10. Outside of Mass, an altar rail creates a place to meet. It facilitates the devotional prayer of the faithful.

    During the Mass, it imposes restraint on the movement of the liturgical ministers as they pass into or out of the sanctuary; this helps to convey an image of peace and consideration.

  11. Thank you Jordan, for stating what needed to be said. Why indeed do rails have to be perceived as divisive?

    I think that the really sad aspect that we have reached in our communal, ecclesial journey is that everything has become this zero-sum game, where it is either X or Y.

    Ergo, altar rails *must* signify separation (and further, *inferiority* of the non-ordained people of God) within our sacred spaces. They *must* be used for kneeling for Holy Communion or, absent of this utilitarian purpose, be banished forthwith from our liturgical spaces to the accompaniment of snarky (or ‘wry’) comments about the minister feeling protected.

    But why? Is there really no other consideration at play? No other way of appreciation of the space?

    I am skeptical of seeing any renovation that can claim to be non-ideological. As I was once taught – “above all, do not so much as touch the wretched tabernacle wherever it may be placed in the space, because it will be seen as ideological”. “Ideological renovation” is a two-way street that doesn’t solely apply to the “reform of the reform”. The very fact of a renovation often presumes an overarching guiding plan.

    1. @Joshua Vas:
      I’ve often found it puzzling that altar rails are seen as separating the congregation from those in the sanctuary. If anything, they have the practical effect of bringing them closer together. Outside of Mass, the rails give visitors a place right at the foot of the sanctuary (closer to the altar and tabernacle, typically) to pray, rather than further away in a pew. At communion time, the rails actually allow the laity to *gather around* the altar *with* fellow communicants, rather than away from the altar in a single-file line. This was the biggest surprise for me the first time I received kneeling at a rail – I was side by side with other people at the altar.

      Also, most of the older churches in my neck of the woods tend to place the (original) altar and pews fairly close together (and indeed the freestanding altars tend to be somewhat cramped between the original high altar and the sanctuary steps). Those older churches had the railings to visually divide the space – newer and renovated churches tend to do this by just pushing the congregation away and having huge amounts of space between the the altar and people. One of the more popular local church renovations I’ve encountered involved the freestanding altar being pushed back into the original sanctuary, the platform it stood upon being removed, and the original pews being restored. It had the effect of making the altar closer to the congregation and created space where the elderly and handicapped could sit that wasn’t shoved off to the back of the church. The pre-renovation setup might have looked better to the “progressive” crowd, but the reality was quite different.

      1. Jack Wayne :At communion time, the rails actually allow the laity to *gather around* the altar *with* fellow communicants, rather than away from the altar in a single-file line. This was the biggest surprise for me the first time I received kneeling at a rail – I was side by side with other people at the altar.

        A thousand times yes! I think there’s sometimes some stereotypical thinking about altar rails: perhaps a stern celebrant eyeing the ever-naughty faithful to make sure they come this close only and no closer. Meanwhile, how many times have I received Communion kneeling at our rail, elbow-to-elbow with friends and strangers, all brothers and sisters in Christ, and wondered how anyone could object to that setup? It’s bewildering sometimes.

    2. @Joshua Vas:
      Signs and symbols mean something – you are contorting this to meet your ideology. VII and SC tried to emphasize the power of signs and symbols and move us away from miminalist’s signs

  12. Re: the ambo, it may also be the angle of the picture? From my POV, it seems that the renovators made a genuine attempt to link the two through the use of similar dark materials, while also addressing issues of accessibility. Perhaps even tried to have it in the same line-of-sight.

    Even absent of that, however, I couldn’t disagree more with the comments on the prominence of the ambo. I do not contest that the IGMR insists on a certain prominence. But with all due respect to the idea of the ambo as the “table of the word” – IMHO the altar and the ambo are not equal: not in our wider liturgical history and not in our liturgical documents. Neither therefore can one really draw comparisons between how an altar is treated and an ambo is treated because there isn’t a parity.

    The altar that is, by itself, the symbol of Christ. It is vested and treated accordingly, and forms the focus even in many of our non-Eucharistic liturgies, & the non-Eucharistic parts of our Eucharistic liturgies. To cite another example, we do not place the Gospel Book on the ambo but on the altar; no one bows to the ambo, etc., etc. Personally, I find the very idea of a “single” ambo to be a bit of preferential archaeologism (again, not bad in view of consideration of the unity of the proclamation of the Word – as long as it is kept in mind that there were other considerations historically). One can always find an altar across the breadth of the liturgical tradition through the centuries, whereas spaces/forums for proclamation of the Word have been far more malleable.

    Again, I agree that the modern liturgy stresses a welcome need for a visible and tangible symbol of the proclamation and centrality of the Word. But I find myself mystified at the glorification of the ambo. Sometimes, I feel it has become (to borrow K.Liam’s favourite noun) a “shibboleth”.

    FWIW, I don’t really like the second picture. I find the style clashing, they are not my colours, I don’t like reredos, etc. That’s entirely subjective, and I think…

  13. Though I would characterize the original sanctuary as better than most, the new sanctuary has a beautiful balance and focus on the tabernacle that I would personally find much more conducive to prayer. As for the altar rail conversation – the “norm” is not a dictate or the only choice for the faithful and receiving on the tongue should never be denied. It is much easier to stand at the rail and receive in the hand than to kneel on the floor without. My parish recently introduced kneelers for those who wish and since doing so, the majority now choose to receive kneeling. Regarding the ambo – does this parish have a traditional Latin mass? If so, more space may be needed and the Gospel itself is often chanted outside the sanctuary facing liturgical “North”.

    1. @Tricia Kent:
      “Focus on the tabernacle”?? This is not a good thing or good Eucharistic theology! The altar, and the action of the Sacrifice of the Mass, is the focus! Reservation (which has its place and is done for a good reason) is clearly secondary in the mind of the church. Tabernacles were not in the center of the sanctuary for the first 1,500+ years of church history. The Order of Mas does not foresee genuflection to the tabernacle during the celebration of Mass, and for good reason – the priest genuflects to the consecrated Bread on the altar, which is the focus during Mass.

  14. Why an altar rail?

    Perhaps they celebrate the extraordinary form, or at least want the possibility to do so, where kneeling is not only an option, but a requirement.

    Perhaps that’s where the ambo went too: moved for an EF Mass where it really isn’t used.

    I know for my wedding (a pontifical Mass at the throne) we had to move the ambo for space reasons in our small sanctuary, since the readings are proclaimed by “freestanding ministers” so to speak, and just brought out a small lightweight lecturn for the homilist.

  15. Altar rails seem to me to be a fence and that is exactly what I was taught as a youngster. They were to keep the unordained out of the sanctuary area, except for altar boys. They are almost like a wall. Some older churches I was in while visiting Rome, they were walls. As Pope Francis says we don’t build walls between on another in reference to immigration but I think it applies here as well. Also, can someone tell me if the altar is fixed to the back wall? I can’t tell from the picture. If not, then that row of candles across the front of the altar is another “wall” of sorts. Another thing Pope Francis changed and did so immediately was that row of candles, the so-called “Benedictine arrangement”, of very large candles that was across the main altar at St Peter’s. I understand he has to be forceful with Guido Marini to make the change. There still remains at the pontifical Masses one more “wall”: this row of servers and a deacon who parade out to stand in front of the altar during the Eucharistic prayers. It screams to me “Non unordained not allowed beyond this point” much like the warning to gentiles in the Jewish temple of Jesus’ time. All of this just seems to me to be saying not all are welcome. As to kneeling for Communion and various arrangements to accommodate people, it makes for a lot of confusing manoeuvering. Forcing everyone to kneel is not the answer either with an aging population. I could not kneel right now to save me as it takes someone to help me up.

    1. @Reyanna Rice:

      I don’t think the fact that some people have trouble kneeling means nobody should be allowed to kneel. In my experience, people who can’t kneel recieve standing, even at EF Mass.

      I don’t have a problem with a demarcation between the sanctuary and the nave (and really, an altar rail is not a wall compared to the iconostasis of our venerable Eastern brethren.) The Temple had the Holy of Holies… Even if they just had the kneel pads and not the “fencing” that would be better so people could exercise the option to kneel if they wish. I don’t think getting rid of the altar rails and kneeling has caused Catholics to grow in love of the Blessed Sacrament, and there is no church document saying to get rid/destroy altar rails, yet sacred furnishings were to be preserved.

  16. @Anthony Ruff, OSB I’m not looking to debate you. Let’s just say I prefer a church that lends itself to prayer 24/7. I travel a good deal and I’ve found that when I enter a parish where the tabernacle has been moved to a side chapel, I generally have to ask more than one person where the tabernacle is before I get an answer. Out of site out of mind.

    1. @Tricia Kent:
      That was one of the mantras used to justify our pastor’s decision to move the tabernacle – along with snark such as – we finally have Jesus back in the church. The chapel was easily seen; there was a sanctuary lamp, etc. Finally, why can’t one pray in a church – the table of the Lord is present; many of our parishes have the ambo with scripture opened, etc. Again, a very narrow viewpoint that is centered on Jesus as object.

  17. Also, further investigation of the pic reveals the ambo is on the extreme liturgical south side of the sanctuary.

    Furthermore, altar rails are even an option in the OF, because as the Vatican made clear, people are free to kneel to receive. If most the people kneel to receive, it’s only natural that it be done at the rail, for the convenience of all.

    In my parish, we have both forms, and both use the altar rail.

  18. @Ben Yanke it seems that perhaps the ambo has now taken the place of the music group (yah!) and that there may be a accessibility ramp on both sides. This would allow a lay person to speak from the ambo without entering the sanctuary as well as wheelchair accessibility to the sanctuary (the kind of “progress” that I support )

    1. @Tricia Kent:
      It’s not “progress” if the lay people are kept out of the sanctuary – note that in the Catholic liturgy there is no prohibition on laity in the sanctuary, and ample provision for lay people doing various liturgical ministries in the sanctuary.

  19. As long as we are airing our grievances with sacred architecture and church decor, I find the Benedictine altar arrangement fussy and ridiculous. Either celebrate Mass ad orientam or versus populam, but enough with this silly hybrid. It’s no less an innovation than a Clown Mass.

  20. In trotting out pictures of this renovation to critique, criticize, and make fun of it or by conjecturing how the renovation might help the pastor feel, did you ever stop to think: maybe the parishioners are happy with it this way?

    1. @John Kohanski:
      Sorry, John, but that isn’t the question. This is a site where we discuss theology and liturgy, and that involves doing some evaluation. I hope we do our evaluations fairly and charitably. But we’re surely not going to impoverish our discussion by thinking only about whether people are happy with something.

  21. I think the main problem is that the new altar is noticeably further removed from the people than the previous one. Surprised that no one has mentioned it yet. That, coupled with the large fenced-off area, gives the strong impression of wanting to hold the assembly at arm’s length.

    The altar is probably also the wrong shape — i.e. too long for the lateral space in which it sits. A cube-shape would be better, but would not look right behind the “fence”.

    The positioning of the ambo looks like an afterthought. Without being able to see the rest of the nave, might it have been possible to have the ambo in the midst of the assembly? That can be a good solution when you have a sanctuary area which, as now, is too narrow to cope with chair, altar and ambo;

  22. Anthony Ruff, OSB : @Tricia Kent: It’s not “progress” if the lay people are kept out of the sanctuary – note that in the Catholic liturgy there is no prohibition on laity in the sanctuary, and ample provision for lay people doing various liturgical ministries in the sanctuary. awr

    I’m pretty sure every parish that uses an altar rail also has a gate in said rail, usually opened and closed by lay altar boys.


  23. I attend a parish for weekday liturgies. The chapel is a rectangle and the altar was placed on one of the long sides and the chairs in 3 sections around the altar…worked pretty well until the new pastor came. Within 2 years, the chapel was painted and the room re arranged into the traditional nave setup and the altar at the far side of the room. It is cramped, awkward and older folks find it hard to hear the priest unless they sit up front. just a few months ago, a tabernacle was placed in the main church used only for weekend liturgies. The Blessed Sacrament chapel is less than 25 meters from the altar. Never mind that the Reserved Sacrament was brought to the altar during the Sign of peace. Perhaps placing the tabernacle “front and center” made getting Jesus easier and faster to the altar.
    In the posts asking about the people’s reactions to renovations, I think most people in the pews really don’t care. Maybe it from centuries of “Father is the boss” and just keep quiet.
    I am in total agreement with Fr Ruff as usual…..its no wonder the faithful are know as “sheep”….timid and quiet. So sad…….

  24. Well, I’m no big city liturgist, but the one in first photo looks like a real pile of crap.

  25. Anthony Ruff, OSB : @John Kohanski: Sorry, John, but that isn’t the question. This is a site where we discuss theology and liturgy, and that involves doing some evaluation. I hope we do our evaluations fairly and charitably. But we’re surely not going to impoverish our discussion by thinking only about whether people are happy with something. awr

    Despite our frequent differences, I can heartily agree with this, Father! How people feel about it is pretty much the last worry in a discussion like this.

    As I always say…Facts not feelings!

  26. I bring up the Ed Sövik example in at First Lutheran in Northfield, MN, and the communion tables at St. John’s Abbey Church to suggest that in some settings the “communion rail” may not have always been perceived as a barrier, but as an extension of the altar. This occurred to me also at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, where the still-existent-but-not-used altar rail (bearing a quotation of Aquinas’ O Sacrum Convivium) is made of the the same material as the old high altar.

    The connection is now obscured by the new front altar and the non-use of the rail, and it is undoubtedly perceived by most as a fence. I am nevertheless intrigued by both the aforementioned Sövik example and the remnants of the Breuer vision at St. John’s, and wonder if there might be a forward-looking way to think about reception of communion involving standing or kneeling next to brothers and sisters in Christ for lingering moment of communion rather than that which is experienced in most communion processions. I can imagine both vertical and horizontal dimensions enhanced.

  27. The designer of this sanctuary should have consulted “Built of Living Stones” of the USCCB. Paragraphs 90-91 would have advised them that the cross and candles on the altar should not be obstructing the central action at the altar.

    1. @Bryan Walsh:

      A hearty +1, Bryan. Thank you for Susan Sontag’s quotation.

      The central question of “nostalgia”, or in this case, traditional/ism, is not unrequited love in the sense of longing for a living person. Living people are born, live, change, and pass away. Rather, traditionalists are seeking a dead and static image, one that is the “changeless Church”, a ” ‘perfect’ Church” of nostalgia, as Jaroslav Pelikan has written. Here, in this journey to an endless horizon of unobtainable perfection, orthopraxis and orthodoxy can be followed in an automaton-like fashion.

      Nowadays I often go to a church where almost everyone receives in the hand. Recently I’ve been receiving communion in the hand after a twenty-five year hiatus. (I “make a throne” as in the Anglican tradition, because picking up the host with my left hand reminds me of self-communication. Compromises.) The first time I received in the hand, I almost thought that a thunderbolt of wrath would leave a scorched mark in the carpet. I’m surviving.

      When I practice the local custom, then I breaking the cycle of “loving” (pride) that infects the unrequitied longing. I am submitting to a living discipline, and not acting as if the community’s discipline is beneath my “piety” (sanctimony).

  28. For those inclined toward traditionalism, the Mass is all about the consecration of the elements by a priest whose sacred powers set him apart from those lacking Holy Orders. They speak of real presence as if Christ is only present in the consecrated bread and wine. Thus Mass is also about adoration which becomes associated almost exclusively with kneeling. Those poor Orthodox who forbid kneeling throughout the Divine Liturgy must be really out of it, huh. With all due respect for the sensibilities of traditionalists, it took twelve centuries for the tabernacle to find its way into the sanctuary. And this at a time when few of the faithful apprehended that Christ was present in the gathered worshippers, in the ministry of the priest, and in the Word proclaimed. They needed bells to alert them to the miracle taking place at the altar, but had little or no grasp of the importance of receiving Christ in Holy Communion. Less than 20 bishops failed to affirm the reform of the sacred liturgy called for in SC. May God be praised!

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      Given this theology, plus the need in the real world for authentic, public, and missionary witness, perhaps we can ask less “What do the parishioners like?” or “What does the priest like?”. And more “What kind of liturgy provides the impulse to go out into the world and be a witness to the Gospel?”

      To be sure, traditional-leaning priests and laity don’t absent themselves from their respective vocations for kneeling and adoring and building altar rails. But pre-conciliar Catholicism as a whole relegated the laity to a narrow road. A select few missionaries in far-off lands (“some give by going and some go by giving”) were responsible for the non-believers, attaching to the baptismal fanaticism attributed to St Francis Xavier. We consigned non-Catholic Christians to the hell for heretics, so mission accomplished there. Mainstream Catholics were excused because Fulton Sheen was doing it on tv.

      Are many of those in the liturgical tug-o-war are missing the point, avoiding the harder tasks of evangelization? Or perhaps the bias in favor of the cultic role of the clergy is something of a drag (at best) or even a poison (at worst) on the mission of the Gospel?

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        The reflexive lapse into caricatures of traditionalist laity mirrors the caricatures of progressive laity. Active apostolates and ministries (and not just the Holy Name Society for men and Sodality or Altar Guild for women) for unvowed laity certainly existed before Vatican II, and I would suggest it’s more accurate to see a continuum.

        And then there’s the assumption (I don’t think that anyone’s yet fully established it as a evidentiary fact) that the form of liturgy is a salient rudder of this. It’s certainly an assumption many of the Council Fathers seemed to share in various ways, and I think it’s worth asking: where is this assumption demonstrated to be more plausible … and less plausible? (Assumptions are about plausibility more than proof by their nature.)

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Agreed. Traditional-leaning laity I know in person are certainly not of a same feather. On the internet, perhaps somewhat otherwise. On the other hand, there was a reason we had a council. Tridentine Catholicism was failing to work for most Catholics. Maybe the Council was too late for Europe. Maybe those of us in the US and other countries hanging on to the faith a bit longer didn’t see the importance of documents such as Ad Gentes or Evangelii Nuntiandi. Today there is dismay among my Filipino friends, who arguably have the most Catholic identity compared to any other nation. But they are also losing the young.

        But I note that a lot of energy is spent on such things as liturgical decoration or rearrangement. Has it helped, either in the 70’s or today? Maybe it has, and both ways, depending on the locale. I guess I’d ask if there are any evangelical fruits of either of the above images. If not, I’d hope my criticism is directed more across the board and not at one “side” or another.

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        Two small points.

        1. On matters of religion at least, the Internet is something of a barbell distribution curve, inverting the normal distribution curve of reality.

        2. Liturgical decoration is visual, material and particular- and thus lends itself to curt and prolix insta-critique on the Internet. Two thumbs up/down. Contrast that to: aural/acoustical matters (also material and particular, but not visual).

    2. @Jack Feehily:
      I find it odd that you would mention the Orthodox possibly finding the traditionalist fondness for kneeling off-putting, since I’ve often found it strange that people who criticize traditionalism harshly are far more frequently often criticizing things that would be considered hallmarks of Orthodox worship. Traditionalists, in contrast, will often look longingly towards the east for not changing their liturgical tradition even when it features aspects in direct opposition with traditional Catholic practices.

      I have often read posts here by those claiming to fully support the liturgical reforms of Vatican II claim that Catholics who prefer to receive communion on the tongue, worship “ad orientem,” candles, incense, and bells are spiritually impoverished, using the wrong ecclesiology, are emotional, or ignorant. Bells are unnecessary, and chanting the liturgy is “twee.” If a wimpy little altar railing that doesn’t actually block people from entering the sanctuary or prevent them from seeing the ritual is “building a wall” and shutting the laity out, then how much more horrible must the Eastern iconostasis or Oriental curtain be?

      I realize Vatican II called for the Latin Rite to be reformed, and for the Eastern rites to be preserved, but it’s odd that the Latin Rite would reform itself in a way that pushed it much further away from the eastern liturgical traditions the council said should be preserved and fostered. I’ve been to Orthodox and Byzantine liturgies, and they have far more in common with an EF High Mass than a typical OF. Perhaps I’m simply unaware of how eastward, chanted, smells-and-bells liturgy conducted behind a wall is perfectly in keeping with Vatican II when it’s the liturgy of St Basil, but a rejection of Vatican II when it is the Roman Rite of 1962 or a “reform of the reform” OF Mass. It ends up seeming arbitrary and contradictory.

  29. The sweetest little Episcopal church was across from our dorm at UTexas at Austin where the ACL convention was held this year.

    At first the altar with its large cross seems ad orientem but is so built that the celebrant can face the congregation. Nothing on the mensa but linen? Standard candlesticks are used. An aumbry for the sacrament reserved is on the epistle side.

    Stained glass windows play a role not unlike eikons in orthodox churches in creating that je ne sais quoi religious atmosphere.

    I noticed a S. Francis window that incorporated images of a bird, squirrel etc whose descendants I encountered daily on campus all week. The local influence at its best.

    Traditional with a progressive edge seems to be working there in that the parish seems to be quite dynamic.

  30. Railings are used as dividers…try to sneak into another section at a ball game, you have to jump over the railing. The railing here is not a visual sign of inclusiveness. It is used like all other railings in keeping out or keeping in. Can we admit that the railing is just a fence but shorter, and that fences were also used to protect the sanctuary. If we cite that the gate could be used as a welcoming sign, we are simply strengthening the assertion that a railing is meant to separate and not include.

    I know this from experience…architecture always wins. The worship space at St. John’s Collegeville is a prime example. The second picture above also is a good example. Architecture always wins.

    1. @Ed Nash:

      Of course, the absence of an altar rail isn’t a sign of inclusiveness to those wishing to recieve Our Lord kneeling.

  31. But the laity are supposed to stay out, save the few specially designated people allowed to read, serve, or distribute communion (who have no problem getting past the “barrier”). It’s not like the rails were torn out after Vatican II and suddenly the congregation was invited to enter the sanctuary whenever it pleased – indeed to do so would likely cause the ushers to escort you away because you’d be perceived as either mentally unstable or malicious. People can’t take their seat at the altar and communion isn’t even distributed in the sanctuary. Entering the sanctuary outside of Mass is taboo too, unless where I live is not typical. So not having a rail is kind of a false symbol of inclusiveness – like a house covered in “all are welcome” signs with a guard dog hiding around the corner. I’m not sure how that is so much better than a house with a picket fence and an open gate.

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      In a recent town meeting in my parish where the upcoming renovation was discussed, the father of a young boy spoke eloquently for a separate Eucharistic chapel that would permit him to take his son and be close to the tabernacle. The church here has never had altar rails–the steps up are barrier enough.

      Outside of Mass, I don’t know why it wouldn’t be a good idea for ordinary people to enter that raised or railed area. Is it really disrespectful to see a five-year-old sitting in the priest chair, pretending to deliver a reading at the ambo, or even crawling under the altar? If so, why?

  32. Note that Fr. Godfrey Diekmann OSB noted regarding the off center altar in “Church Architecture: The Shape of Reform” in 1965 that:

    “It should, moreover, be pointed out that the wording of the Instruction [Inter Oecumenici] about the centrality of the altar lends no support to a minority opinoin of liturgists who have recently been arguing for an off-center altar. … it is a parallel of subordination, not of equality.”

    pg 41.

  33. Kevin Vogt : I bring up the Ed Sövik example in at First Lutheran in Northfield, MN, and the communion tables at St. John’s Abbey Church to suggest that in some settings the “communion rail” may not have always been perceived as a barrier, but as an extension of the altar. This occurred to me also at St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, where the still-existent-but-not-used altar rail (bearing a quotation of Aquinas’ O Sacrum Convivium) is made of the the same material as the old high altar.

    It’s often been seen as an altar actually in traditional practice, and it’s something important not to forget. That is most notable in the traditional practice of candlebearers coming down and standing on either side of the rail, as well as the local tradition in many places of a housling cloth (an altar linen) being placed over it during communion time.

  34. A great step in the right direction.

    As with any renovation, may it spur a great amount of catechesis from the pulpit, on the meaning and significance of Symbol — and in particular, of these symbols — in our sacred spaces.

    I find the Pastor’s choice for the upcoming artwork to be a beautiful narrative of the type of things we should expect to learn in Church, and of the values the Church should uphold during these days of cultural and political devastation.

    I find this a stellar move forward, and thank the Pastor and his Community for the courage and the conviction it always takes to be Catholic, boldly.

  35. I could send you a photo from July of 2000 (Baptism for my youngest and First Holy Communion for my older son) which shows the recessed area where the Tabernacle is contains nothing but a Crucifix and the chairs for the priests. At that time, the tabernacle was in a small chapel in the back of the church. The “After” version is a fairly major renovation. Things change slowly…except when they don’t.

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