Priesthood is for sacrifice. There is no sacrifice without priests. The place of sacrifice is the altar. The priest and the altar are intimately bound together, so much so that the priest kisses the altar when he arrives or when – in the traditional rite – he turns from it or when he leaves it. He – traditionally – dresses in ritual fashion to go to it. The altar itself – traditionally – is also to be ritually clothed in its own matching vestment, the antependium.
In 1969 – most people have never heard this and digging up information about it is hard – Paul VI issued an edition of missal for the revised “Novus Ordo” of Mass that had to be withdrawn immediately because there was heresy in the introductory comments. The distinction of the priesthood of the laity by baptism and that of the priest by ordination was blurred. Another missal would be released which cleaned that up. However, you can see what was going on back in the day.
In 1968 Paul VI issued a rite of ordination to the priesthood which – while valid – left out of the interrogation of the ordinations the questions explicit language about offering the sacrifice of the Mass and about hearing confessions and absolving sins, activities which pretty much sum up the work of the priest. In 1990 John Paul II issued a revision of Paul VI’s rite which corrected these lacunae, making these aspects of priesthood explicit. The problem was that the rites themselves should tell us what they are conferring. The Paul VI rite didn’t. It was murky. Some, therefore, argued that it wasn’t valid for holy orders. That was wrong. However, had that rite continued for a long time, to the point that even the bishops conferring the sacrament had murky notions about priesthood, then… well… problems. Michael Davies dealt with all of this in a good book (US HERE – UK HERE).
And now we turn to the issue of separation the priest from the altar in the Novus Ordo for significant periods of time in the Mass and the introduction of myriad of lay people into the sanctuary.
Keep in mind that when the Word of God is proclaimed, Christ is present. Christ is pre-eminently present in the Eucharist, but He is also present in the reading of Scripture. The Fathers of Vatican II wanted to expand and open up a greater use of Scripture. One way to emphasize the importance of Scripture was to give its proclamation it’s own place. In the ancient Church there was often in a large raised ambo, with steps up both sides, from which readings were sung. In the Solemn Mass of the Roman Rite, while the priest celebrant read the readings at the two corners of the altar, the Subdeacon and the Deacon would go to their proper places in the sanctuary and, in the case of the Gospel, facing liturgical north, for the readings. Thus, the traditional rite also emphasized the reading of Scripture by location and by singing. Alas, one of the things that – I think – pushed the ignorant and scholarly alike to implement radical changes to the Roman Rite is because they had gotten it into their heads that the LOW Mass was the paradigm of the Roman Rite and not the SOLEMN Mass. At Low Mass everything is kept strictly at the altar.
We could briefly touch on the “chair” of the “presider”. This is an echo of the “seat of Moses” whence the law was interpreted, the curule chair of Roman officials and Emperors, etc. It is a symbol of teaching authority and governance. The use of the chair by the priest embodies these aspects of the man’s priesthood. However, once again, the use of the chair was present in the Solemn Mass. At times the priest, with deacon and subdeacon, could go to sit when it was proper to wait for the choir to complete its chants. So, the chair was ever present in the sanctuary, but there was a desire to emphasize it. Unfortunately, this was exaggerated in many places. I think we all have seen churches in which the tabernacle was removed from the central position and the “presider’s chair” was put there, thus giving the priest a perch grander than anything where Caesar ever parked. We have seen altars offset from the center of the sanctuary (if it could still be called that) so that the ambo would have a place of equal dignity nearby.
That last point reminds me of something… that table of the word and table of the sacrifice. What most people don’t get today is that the reading of Scripture at Mass is itself a priestly, sacrificial offering. Reading Scripture at Mass is not a performance moment (ohhhh… how many dreadful readers are there?). Reading Scripture at Mass is not primarily a didactic moment, though it is also didactic. Readings are to be raised on high to God much like the cloud of incense that rises in an offering back to the Father. Christ is being offered to the Father, for Christ is in every word that is proclaimed. Hence, as we decorate the rest of the elements of Mass, it is fitting to sing the readings, as an act of sacrificial love.
It seems to me that we are slowly recovering from the enthusiastic madness of the 60’s and 70’s. Surely the side by side use of the traditional Mass, according to the vision of Benedict XVI and Summorum Pontificum, will bring these issues to the fore.
Finally, as a convert I am highly sensitive to the differences of Protestant and Catholic world views. I don’t recall the source off hand, but not too long ago I heard someone comment that the whole of the Protestant revolt could be summed up as an attack on the priesthood, and therefore on sacrifice. Surely the desire to bridge the gap toward Protestants influenced those who ran beyond the mandates of the Council Fathers. It is, in way, still functioning today, but in a subterranean way. What do I mean? This emphasis on “clericalism” today, as a way of dodging the real problems behind The Present Crisis, reflects a subtle attack on the Catholic understanding of priesthood, a reduction of the role of priest to “minister”, an attenuation of the vital concept of sacrifice and, therefore, the true meaning of the altar.
Perhaps some of these thoughts will help you as you gaze at the goings on the Novus Ordo sanctuary and the TLM sanctuary, how they overlap and harmonize, how they diverge and conflict.