Thursday, July 3, 2014


Below the photos Father Alan Griffiths, a liturgist of the Portsmouth Diocese in England gives a good apologetic for Mass ad orientem. The photos below are meant to illustrate his points.

This photo of the reordering of the altar at St. Joseph Church shows the view from the congregation that maintains the original concept of the unified reredos and altar. It is an optical illusion that is disturbed once the priest inserts himself between the new altar and older altar/reredos:
This is a photo from the 1950's which clearly shows the original more unified look of the altar and reredos an power iconography:
The next three photos show the reordered sanctuary, both Ordinary Form Masses, but one ad orientem and the others facing the congregation:
This is the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta as it appear in 1894:
And these photos show its reordering in the late 1990's maintaining the historic original altar/table but detached from the reredos:
The English liturgist, The Rev. Canon Alan Griffiths of the English Diocese of Portsmouth wrote a couple of comments at a recent Praytell post concerning the design of the altar and the position of the priest. Here is part of one of his comments with my comments at the end:

I think that the medieval combination of altar and iconographic reredos was a single piece, possibly developed on the idea of the Mass surrounded by the representational presence of Christ, the BVM and Saints, even relics or shrines, etc. This sort of arrangement was not decorative but iconographic. 

Then in the baroque the emphasis shifted to the Tabernacle, but still in express connection with the altar. In other words, clearly in the medieval reredos and differently in the later focus on the Sacrament you have a sort of locally realised eschatology, represented by a single object, namely, altar and surround.

Simply to separate these elements as so many churches did in the 1970′s does not take the original unity into account. I think that to my eye (and I stress this might just be me) inserting a priest between these two hitherto conjoined elements disturbs the ‘iconography.’

Some reorderings (and, worse, re-reorderings) retain (or replace) elaborate gradines (steps or shelves), thrones, candlesticks and other ‘bondieuserie’(Any devotional ornament or church object, especially one having little artistic value; a religious knick-knack) and then place an altar freestanding in front of all this. My eye goes straight to the elaborations behind and the focus on the altar is lessened.

I want the altar to stand out as the primary visual symbol of Christ in the Church. (Many)...reorderings (of churches) try to keep things looking as much like they used to be as possible, but when Mass begins you immediately see that this is a false vision, when the priest goes behind the altar.

Part of my thinking rests upon the fact that while (I am) very (pleased) with Mass in English, I have never been really comfortable with ‘versus populum’ celebrant’s position. I have been a priest for 40 years and in the last few years my acquaintance with the EF only makes me feel that discomfort all the more. 

My Comments: Father Griffiths captures my sentiments completely. In many renovated (re-ordered) churches after Vatican II a free standing altar of some type, sometimes matching the older altar in style, other times completely of a different style, beautiful or cheap looking, disturbs the original unity and iconography of the original design. Worse yet is when a beautiful, ornate attached altar and reredos is completely removed and only a cheap looking altar replaces it, one senses something has been disturbed and is missing and the free standing altar looks "cheap and rinky-dink" compared to what had been there.

Both at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity in Augusta and St. Joseph in Macon, the reordering of these churches tried to maintain the unity of what had been there even with the altar becoming freestanding.

At Most Holy Trinity, the original altar table was literally detached from the reredos to allow for the priest to insert himself between the altar and reredos to celebrate Mass facing the people. From the congregation's vantage point, it appears that the altar and reredos is still a unity until the priest arrives and inserts himself between the two.

At St. Joseph, the reordering of the sanctuary in 2005 placed a new freestanding altar in front of the older reredoes/altar. The new altar is not as long as the older attached altar and strives to match the style of the older altar except by the use of a brownish/red Polish marble as accents. This helps the freestanding altar to stand out more. From the congregation's viewpoint, it appears that the new freestanding altar and older altar/reredos are a single unit until the priest goes to the other side of the altar to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. But make no mistake, architecturally, the old altar/reredos remains the focal point of the sanctuary and it is clear that the new is a later addition and placed where it is simply so the priest can face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

At both Most Holy Trinity and St. Joseph, Mass has been celebrated ad orientem with the reordering of the altars. In these cases, the unity is preserved even with the freestanding altars, with the priest clearly a part of the congregation's position and not half hidden by the altar when facing the congregation.

Why oh why was it felt that the priest needed to face the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist? It was of course based upon a false archeologism and a Biblical literalism as it concerns the Last Supper. It is based upon a literal/fundamentalism concerning the liturgy and the "meal" aspect of the Mass. It is based upon a faulty theology that the Liturgy of the Eucharist facing the congregation is more like Jesus at the Last Supper and the congregation like the apostles at the historic event.

Can you imagine the money saved, the heartache reduced and the elimination of the misplaced focus of parish life and the nonexistence of decisions that were decisive in terms of church re-orderings after Vatican II that could have been if the theology of priest facing the congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist had not developed and been shoved down the throats of almost every parish in the world? We would not have become that enclosed circle focused on liturgical reordering and self-absorbed with liturgy and engaged in the liturgy wars to the detriment of parish life, spirituality and popular devotions as well as Catholic identity reduced to superficiality devoid of faith and the Church becoming a non-governmental social organization or worse yet a country club. We would rather be a Church that goes out to the periphery of our homes, workplaces, recreational venues and the poor after the eschatological, iconographic experience of ad orientem liturgy even in the Ordinary Form and the vernacular.


Joseph Johnson said...

Fr. McDonald,
Thank you for this post and your commentary--well said!

The THREE biggest problems with the way the Ordinary Form is typically celebrated in most parishes (a "triumvirate of liturgical discontinuity", if you will) are:

1. Versus populum praying of the Eucharistic Prayers (Canons). I've always thought it odd and inconsistent that Eucharistic Benediction is still done ad orientem but the Canon of the Mass is not.

2. The creation by American bishops (after VII) of the still current "norm" of receiving Communion while standing and the way the option for receiving in the hand seemed to be pushed as the favored way to receive (if you don't believe it was pushed--ask my 16 year old daughter about her First Communion experiece . .). Bring back altar rails and hand patens!

3. Inappropriate music starting with the "folk" Mass music in the 1960's and continuing with the "Glory and Praise" genre or with some of the music I've experienced at Spanish or bilingual liturgies. Inculturation is one thing but, c'mon, it's hard to endure a loud singing hispanic guy behind a loud electronic keyboard whooping and hollering while loudly exhorting everyone to "sing along" to music that even the hispanics appear not to know--(they didn't sing). Meanwhile, our pastor thought this was "great" and he had brought this guy in and probably paid him with parish funds for this bilingual First Communion Mass.

Many of the non-hispanic parents of the first Communicants later expressed their embarrassment (many had their protestant relatives present and they didn't want them thinking that this was the way we usually worshipped--which it is not) and displeasure that their children's First Communion Mass had been marred by this spectacle.

To paraphrase Fr. Z and to quote our own Gene: "Fix the Liturgy--Fix the Church!"

JBS said...

This all seems obviously true to me. The challenge is to convince the opposing 90% of clergy and laity to agree to it.

The present arrangement places the congregation at the center of the priest's attention, and the priest at the center of the congregation's attention. It'll require a serious break with the vice of pride to turn away from ourselves and direct our attention towards God.

John Nolan said...

From 1964 onwards the Mass was seen by the progressive liturgists who made up Paul VI's Consilium as a dialogue between a priest-presider and the assembly. This, and the adoption of the vernacular (by 1967 no part of the mass needed to be in Latin) virtually mandated forward altars and versus populum. Otherwise it simply doesn't work. You can argue till you are blue in the face that the GIRM seems to assume ad apsidem, and the preamble to the same document stresses that the Novus Ordo is the same Mass in faith and tradition as that of Trent (which in my opinion is the only thing that guarantees its validity) but the fact remains that those who were behind the changes intended otherwise. Pater Ignotus and the SSPX are at one here.

One of the most stupendous architectural achievements of mankind is Chartres cathedral. The post-V2 forward altar destroys the sight-lines completely, but it was put there for ideological reasons. A few years ago I read an article by a (non-Catholic) journalist who thought that attending Xmas midnight Mass at Chartres would be an awesome experience. She was bitterly disappointed. The over-amplified voice of the celebrant speaking (not singing) in French bounced tinnily off the walls, the music consisted of modern hymns/ditties which the congregation, who wandered in and out, showed no inclination to join in. She would have been better off staying in London and going to the Oratory.

All over Europe it is the same. Magnificent buildings, treasuries packed with sacred artefacts of unsurpassed beauty, sacristies stuffed with exquisite vestments, hosting a dumbed-down meretricious post-Vatican II 'liturgy' which quite honestly I would go out of my way to avoid. Philistinism is far too mild a word to describe it. No-one in his (or her) right mind could possibly want to join a Church which has so comprehensively repudiated its past. And the statistics confirm this.

Anonymous said...

Fr. JBS,

I don't doubt that a large majority of priests from the 70s and 80s prefer to preen and act up in the spotlight that versus populum celebration affords.

However, I'm inclined to question your 90% figure for the laity opposing ad orientem celebration. I might conjecture instead that in a congregation where the priest turns toward the Lord for the first time, a handful would object and write letters of complaint to the bishop, and of the remainder, about a third would approve silently, while two-thirds wouldn't care much one way or the other, some of them not even noticing.

But the bishop would likely take the handful of dissenters as representative of the whole congregation, and order the priest to cut it out.

I wonder where your actual experience indicates otherwise.

In any event, I’ve long thought it was not so much the laity that lost their faith in the decades following Vatican II, but more so priests and religious, and still more so a troubled generation of bishops who (with a few notable exceptions) to this day remain AWOL from their literally sacred duty to safeguard the Church's treasure of faith and liturgy.

Anon friend said...

The real problem now is that we live in a totally self-absorbed culture. The results are manifest in nearly every aspect of our living, including, but not limited to religious liturgy.
After a lot of years thinking about it, I believe the phenomenon actually was present in the "rugged individualism" that explored and settled this nation of ours. As the generations proceeded from this underpinning, the temperament didn't change, but the experimenting and manifestations looked different. As the cult of the individual evolved, we finessed the self-absorption to begin to look like it was meant for the good of all and therefore a very good thing. There are the occasional exceptions and exceptional people who fight this narcissism, but I believe we are all guilty to some extent. One has to wonder how that empowered addiction to self will ever change now that it is so entrenched in our mentality.
Sorry to be so self-absorbed here, just my mental ramblings...

Anon friend said...

...but then there is Henry's take which probably is true and takes far less mental gyration!

Anon friend said...

Does anyone else out there get tired of the "prove you are not a robot" challenge in trying to post?? My brain is fried, which only proves that I am addled, not robotic.

JBS said...


I think I see your point, but it seems a little off to me. The Catholic Church in the USA was perhaps the strongest anywhere in centuries by the 1950's. Surely the American Experience contributed to that vitality. I think the individualism you speak of, which pervades the West, is truly philosophical in origin, and began its final conquest with the introduction of the contraceptive Pill in 1960. Just as contraception leaves out an essential feature of the nuptial act, so too can the versus populum attitude during the Eucharistic consecration cause us to forget something essential.

Yes, the anti-robot test, which is, by the way, offensive and discriminatory towards robots, requires me to make multiple efforts sometimes. I do wish Fr. McDonald would install Disqus.

JBS said...


One need only survey a group of practicing Catholics to arrive at an answer. I have done so with parents of Catholic school students, and also with parishioners during a presentation on the Holy Mass. (I will not address the issue of reproach by a bishop.)

Because ad orientem is a direct assault upon our pride, there's just no soothing way to implement it, nor can there be an advanced consensus in favor of it. It is a battle tactic, which in the present ecclesial climate takes the form of guerrilla warfare.

Gene said...

Anon Friend, I hate that crap you have to type to get posted. Most of it is illegible, anyway,and you have to keep trying. Tech is not at all the wonderful world everyone thinks it is. Most of it is a pain in the apse.

Pater Ignotus said...

Radical Individualism explored and explained: "Habits of the Heart" by Robert Bellah, et al.

I take each "Prove You're Not A Robot" requirement as another chance to stick it to the man...

Anonymous said...

As to iconography, when the liturgy is being enacted, the priest becomes the primary icon of Christ - the alter Christus.

I am unaware of any icon of Christ in which we are shown the back of Christ or other sainted figures. In the traditional style of icon writing, at least one eye and one ear are to be visible s4o that the viewer can be seen and heard by the image.

If priests are to be the "icon" of Christ, seeing them in the face might be desirable.

Anon friend said...

Yeah strangely enough, the apse rules technology, I think...
Pater, not that I really know what you meant, but I am much more interested these days in surviving it than sticking it...
I'm about to Amazon (yes, I know I created a non-existent verb) "Habits of the Heart"...

John Nolan said...

Anonymous @ 2:48

Of all the arguments for versus populum yours is the most original and the least convincing. However, you deserve congratulations for your ingenuity. Henceforth I shall view Father O'Bubblegum's animated visage as he massacres the text and tramples the rubrics underfoot in an entirely new light - or maybe not.

JBS said...


The Eucharistic canon is oriented towards the Father, not towards the Son. The priest, in the person of Christ the Head, is oriented towards the Father, who receives the sacrificial gift of Christ. This is why the Roman Canon begins, "To you, therefore, most merciful Father..." The Son directs our attention towards the Father.

JBS said...

John Nolan,

It's really not at all original. Cardinal Ratzinger addressed this argument in chapter three of his "Spirit of the Liturgy".

Joe Potillor said...

The road of half copying the Byzantines has lead to a mass destruction of the Roman Rite, so to add on to Joseph Johnson's points

Strictly speaking the Liturgy involves everyone doing their "part" that belongs to them. There is a motion that occurs in the Liturgy of each doing the part that belongs to them. One of the reasons in Byzantium, there is no such thing as a low Mass, or often Daily Divine Liturgy is that everyone is necessary to do the parts that belong to them. The pieces of the Divine Liturgy are sung and each person.

This constant motion that is in the Byzantine Liturgy, the chanting, the processions, etc, is absolutely foreign even in the Solemn High Traditional Latin Mass. That is to say in the Latin tradition, it is much more cerebral even at the most solemn of ceremonial, the Latin way was always precise, sober movements which served the Church (and still does) rather well.

In the well intentioned, but rather horribly executed movement to get rid of the low Mass/jansenistic/minimalistic mentalities that was in several places, the pendulum shifted to the complete opposite direction. Even for those that are not "Liturgical junkies" there's this sense that something is off even if they can't explain it, in the normal parish execution of the OF...hence the reserve tendency to not sing in particular with the unknown hymnody, and responsorial psalm (the most disjointed part of the present execution of the OF)....So indeed fix the Liturgy, fix the world.

But back to the topic at hand icons are windows into heaven. It's a good argument as for the why of Ad Orientem, but really it's rather simple, when we fail to be faithful to who we are, people leave. The Liturgy is included. (Hence the importance to celebrate the OF in continuity with what came before)

Anonymous said...

The Father is not "here" or "there." Nor is the Son, nor is the Holy Spirit.

I never see priests who place a crucifix on the edge of the altar during versus populum celebrations actually look at that crucifix.

"To you, therefore, most merciful Father..." describes the person to whom the sacrifice is offered, not the location/direction of the One receiving the sacrifice.

George said...

Priest as Icon (Orthodox perpective)-Read the last three paragraphs. I look on this as just an interesting theological insight.

Anonymous said...

Anyone else been to St. Mary's of the Seven Sorrow's in Nashville?

No disappointments there!


George said...

"Then in the baroque the emphasis shifted to the Tabernacle, but still in express connection with the altar. In other words, clearly in the medieval reredos and differently in the later focus on the Sacrament you have a sort of locally realised eschatology, represented by a single object, namely, altar and surround."

The reredos could be seen as representing the Heavenly Jerusalem, and the Tabernacle, the Heavenly Temple where God the Father is. Certainly it can be seen as iconographic, a representation of Heaven and all it contains with the faithful on earth joining in and uniting themselves with those in Heaven in worship and giving adoration to God .

George said...

Anonymous @ 6:42

Christ becomes immanently present at Mass under the appearance of bread and wine. He is "there", just as he is there in the adoration chapel where Eucharistic worshipers orient themselves toward the monstrance which contains His real presence.

Joseph Johnson said...

"The Father is not "here" or "there."

True, but the externals of the Mass are, more often, for the benefit of the Faithful who live in a world of here and there even if they are intellectually aware that the Father is not "here" or "there." The externals and rubrics are visual aids to our Faith in the Reality that is outside of the time and space world that we currently inhabit.

I hate when the "Please prove you're not a robot" picture is so dark that one cannot read what he is asked to type in order to post . .

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Sacraments are focused actions on Christ here or there. Sacramentals, such as the altar, crucifix, icons accomplish a similar focus for the eyes. It is true God is everywhere but the theology of Church, Sacraments and sacramentals/icons focus our attention in specific areas. I look at the central crucifix quite often during Mass and it is prescribed to motion toward it during the EF Mass, an unfortunate loss in the OF.

John Nolan said...

To qualify slightly the point made earlier by Joe Potillor, in medieval liturgies, where the rood screen functioned in a similar way to the Eastern iconostasis, processions into the nave, often with censing of the side altars, were a common feature. There have been some attempts to replicate this in the Novus Ordo with more elaborate entrance processions. In Westminster cathedral on major feasts there is a gospel procession out of the sanctuary and up into the pulpit. The GR Alleluia with its verse covers this, but it does mean that there has to be a procession back (recession?) for which there is of course no chant. For Pope Benedict's Mass in 2010 James MacMillan provided a piece for organ, brass and timpani which was a bit OTT for some people, who likened it to 'Star Wars'.

The so-called 'Offertory Procession' is not strictly speaking a procession at all, just people coming up two-by-two carrying stuff. And shuffling forward in a line to receive Communion isn't a procession either.

JBS said...

Joe Potillor,

Excellent comments. Thanks. Yes, while our ritual tradition must grow, it must do so in continuity with the past, because the past is personal.

George said...

Father McDonald:

"I look at the central crucifix quite often during Mass and it is prescribed to motion toward it during the EF Mass, an unfortunate loss in the OF."

In many Catholic Churches, the crucifix is prominent above the altar, whether it is part of the reredos or not. This is appropriate of course, to help us keep in mind what takes place on the altar. Unfortunately, in some modern churches this is not the case. For these churches, having a crucifix placed on the freestanding altar, while not the same, is better than nothing.