Friday, May 18, 2012


The unity of the sanctuary of many beautiful cathedrals and churches is disrupted by the addition of an altar that is supposedly placed closer to the nave of the church and thus to the congregation so that people can see and participate better. But just what is it that they are seeing that makes them participate better and just where is one's eye drawn that makes that which is further away actually look closer?

Saint Patrick's Cathedral in New York has a marvelous free-standing altar under its magnificent Baldacchino. It is the focal point of the entire Gothic structure. But when you go there for Mass, Mass is not celebrated at the place where your eye is naturally drawn and creatively done so by the architect of this magnificent cathedral, no the Mass is celebrated on another altar placed in front of the altar intended for the Sacrifice which is closer to the congregation and lower than the one meant for the Sacrifice and in no way compares to the altar under the Baldacchino. In fact the "closer" altar looks further away because one cannot see it as well as the higher one which looms larger!

I'd prefer the Mass celebrated at the original altar, ad orientem or facing the people and in fact would make the Mass more accessible to the congregation in these behemoth buildings. Who comes up with these ideas for a faux altar in front of the altar intended for the sacrifice?

This photo at Archbishop Lori's installation as the Archbishop of Baltimore a few days ago captures what I mean. Look at the altar under the Baldacchino which is now used for floral arrangements only (how sad) and look at the altar that has been placed in front of it for the Sacrifice. Where is your eye drawn???????

This is Saint Patrick's in New York:
National Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, original altar no longer used:
Nice Faux altar:
1977 photo of side chapel of Baltimore's magnificent Cathedral of Mary our Queen, please note the reredos and inscription and the burlap and felt banner placed by the altar and the style of vestment used in this chapel! This says it all about post-Vatican II implementation of SC and not uncommon throughout the USA at that time and in many places, sadly, very, very sadly, still today!


Joseph Johnson said...

I don't know who comes up with (or, rather, came up with some time ago) the idea for these faux, often Ikea-style, altars which are used in place of the real, original ones in these older churches but I grow oh so weary of seeing this! Those who might still attempt to justify this practice are just as pitifully out of date (stuck in the 1960's-70's in their thinking) as those who insist that we should never use Latin in the liturgy (nor attempt to learn it)because we should only and always use currently spoken languages! This dated way of thinking goes right along with the older principle of vernacular translation, from which the Church saw fit to get away.

Two good examples of what should happen in these older churches are the Sistine Chapel and Archbishop Vincent Nichol's cathedral in London, where, in both cases, the cheesy faux altars were removed and the historic original altars used once again.

I have made it pretty clear in the past that I am no advocate of Mass facing the people and I see a much greater justification for ad orientem (versus apsidem) celebration. That said, I will note that in the case of the London cathedral, the altar is freestanding, under a baldachino, and could be used either way. In the case of altars attached to a wall or reredos--they should simply be used as intended (as the Pope does each year in the Sistine). Fans of versus populum just need to get over it!

ytc said...

Sometimes it angers me how collectively stupid and philistine we Catholics can be.

ytc said...

Joseph, great new term! I'm going to steal that if you don't mind, "Ikea altar." Yesterday I came up with "Participation Queen" and now you came up with a great addition!

I will note that at the National Shrine, a few years ago there was Pontifical Solemn Mass celebrated by the Bishop Slattery of Tulsa. This was done ad orientem at the high altar (which incidentally is a freestanding PRE-conciliar one that permits Mass in either direction) and he even wore a cappa magna!

I can't find a shot of the altar itself being used, but here you see the Bishop entering the sanctuary:

What I don't understand is why the Holy See won't send out an order to use the original altars at cathedrals. Revise the Pontifical and Ceremonial for the OF and make cathedrals use their original high altars ad orientem. I feel this would be a good first step; there would be a presence in every diocese, but nothing compulsory for the vast majority of parishes, only the cathedrals. That way the members of a diocese are exposed but they can't complain about things. And when they are sufficiently used to seeing these kinds of things (15ish years), take another step.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

In the dreaded late 70's when I was in the seminary, the "faux" altar was already in place where it currently is in the Shrine in Washington, however, the old high altar, much to the chagrin of modern liturgists, would be used for more solemn occasions with Mass on it facing the congregation. I was there for Easter Sunday Mass in 1977 and the high altar was used in this fashion and it was marvelous although I dared not say that to anyone in the seminary as I would have been suspect harassed and suspended by the liturgical intelligentsia of the day (a bit of hyperbole there)!

Anonymous said...


In regard to the high altar actually being used in the 2009 solemn high pontifical Mass at the National Shrine--with its table altar mercifully removed from the sanctuary for the occasion--you might be interested in the 3-minute preview

of the truly wonderful 3-hour DVD

Anonymous said...

In the May 1993 issue of Notitiae, the publication of the Vatican's Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, there is an editorial concerning the orientation of altars and celebrations of the Mass facing the people (See , Vol. 120, No. 4, p. 14-17). Fr. Zuhlsdorf's review:

Principal points near the end:

3. The principle of the unicity of the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating facing the people.

5. "Provisional arrangements" cannot be justified any longer.

Apparently, the principle of the unicity of the altar implies that tables placed in front of fixed high altars should be removed.

ytc said...

Make the cathedrals use their high altars exclusively.

Revise the Ceremonial and Pontifical.


Joseph Johnson said...

Actually, I did not invent the term "Ikea altar." I first saw the term used on New Liturgical Movement when Vincent Nichols was to be consecrated Archbishop. I believe he was responsible for the "Ikea altar" removal in that Cathedral (in advance of his consecration/ordination) when he said something to the effect that the original altar "looks like a good place for me" (Nichols).

John Nolan said...

In England, Catholic churches were built after the Emancipation Act of 1829 in both neo-classical (which Pugin hated) and neo-gothic styles. In the immediate aftermath of V2 'communion tables' appeared overnight in front of existing high altars. Then gradually, when funds permitted, sanctuaries were re-ordered and the high altars were often removed, as they were regarded as having no particular merit, whether architectural or historic. The situation in Europe was somewhat different, since the altars were often of high artistic merit and symbolic significance, particularly in baroque churches. So they were left intact, although Mass is almost invariably celebrated at a temporary forward-facing "altar". In many southern German churches I have visited these structures are often gimcrack and so obviously temporary that they could be easily removed (and indeed are when the sanctuary floor needs vacuuming).

In Nottingham Cathedral (AWN Pugin)the wreckovation began in the 19th century when the rood screen was removed and Pugin's simple 'English' altar was replaced by a 'wedding-cake' style structure. There was an on-the-cheap reordering in the 1960s but in the 1990s a much more sensitive makeover restored many of the Pugin elements. The altar is at the crossing with the choir behind, but is of a simple and dignified design and allows both versus populum and ad orientem celebration. However, in other places reorderings of the 1990s and even of the 21st century were still following 1970s fashions. The Jesuit fathers of Wimbledon removed the ciborium magnum and installed a horrible cube altar with two candles at one end an a vase of flowers at the other - ugh!

Gregorian Mass said...

Maybe the new commission or department that the Holy Father created some months back to manage design of Churchs and the Arts can have some impact here. I have read nothing about the dept. in the Vatican since it was announced. Anyone else hear anything? Use of the High Altar should absolutely be required in all Cathedrals and the continued wanton destruction that has been so highy debated and fought against for years should be halted immediately on what is left. With destruction of Altars, so went many people's Faith. The Altar is symbolic and such destruction is hard to bear in one's heart. Especially when unnecessary and unwanted. Very sad what has gone on inside Catholic Churches for decades now. I pray it will come to an end formally on some level from the Vatican and its' newly created Department.

ytc said...

Gregorian Mass, I've been wondering the same thing! I was hoping the Commission would murder the Diocese of Orange's plan to buy the nasty Crystal Cathedral.