The Catholic Sanctuary
and the Second Vatican Council

 by Michael Davies

Pope Paul VI's Rubrics Presume Mass 
Facing the Altar

There is, in fact, irrefutable proof that, whatever the intentions of the pseudo-liturgists, the mind of the Pope was that the New Mass should not be celebrated facing the people. [Partial emphasis added]

   The rubrics of the New Mass, approved specifically by Pope Paul VI, presume that the priest will be facing the altar in the traditional manner as the norm for its celebration. The rubrics of the 1970 Missal instruct the priest to turn to the congregation at specific moments of the Mass and then to turn back to face the altar, e.g., Nos. 2, 25, 104, 105, 111 and 113. These rubrics can also be found in the General Instruction, Nos. 107, 115, 116, 122, 198 and 199. Where the rubrics governing the actual celebration of Mass are concerned, both in the Order of Mass and in the General Instruction, there is not one which envisages a celebration facing the people!

   Msgr. Klaus Gamber, quoted earlier, stated, "One would look in vain for a statement in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council that said that Holy Mass is to be celebrated facing the people." [Gamber, op. cit., p. 142.]


   Anyone wishing to see a famous church which has stuck to the letter of the law in reordering its sanctuary and made only those changes which are mandatory should visit the Brompton Oratory in London. The Oratorian Fathers are certainly the most liturgically literate group of priests in Britain, and they have not made a single change in their sanctuary because there is no law requiring them to do so. Their magnificent altar stands just as it always has, with the prominent tabernacle in the center.

    Cardinal Ratzinger-----who as head of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is second only to the Pope in his authority in the Church-----stated recently that the change to Mass facing the people was a mistake. Asked to comment, Paolo Portoghesi, one of the greatest architects in the world, with a specialized knowledge of ecclesiastical architecture, said he was in full agreement with the Cardinal and admired his courageous stand. [30 Days, June 1993, pp. 67-68.] It may well be that we are on the verge of a return to liturgical sanity, what Cardinal Ratzinger has termed "a reform of the reform."

   On Friday, October 21, 1995, I visited the chapel of the American College in Rome where, at the request of the seminarians, the tabernacle has recently been restored to its traditional place of honor in the center of the high altar. This would certainly not have been done if mandatory legislation existed requiring it to be situated elsewhere.

   On Saturday, October 22, 1995, during a meeting with Cardinal Ratzinger, I informed him of what had happened in the American College, and he expressed great pleasure at the news. I asked the Cardinal whether any sanctuary changes had actually been mandated by the Liturgy Constitution or post-conciliar legislation. He assured me that in this legislation there exists no mandate, in the primary sense of the term as a command, to rearrange sanctuaries. While such changes may have been inspired by the liturgical reform they could not be said to be required by the legislation of the Church. The Cardinal gave me his permission to quote him to this effect.


   Another argument in favor of altar-smashing can be disposed of easily. Article 271 of the General Instruction states that the celebrant's chair should draw attention to his office of presiding over the community and leading its prayer, and hence the place for it is the apex of the sanctuary, facing the people. One must state immediately that this is a description of the function of a Protestant minister and not of a Catholic priest, whose office is not to preside over the community but to offer the Holy Sacrifice in persona Christi ["in the person of Christ"]. But leaving that aside, Article 271 states specifically that there are circumstances which might militate against the presidential chair being at the apex of the sanctuary, and therefore this cannot be considered mandatory.

   There is thus no mandatory legislation within the Church today requiring that Mass be celebrated facing the people, let alone that sanctuaries be vandalized. Bishops who emulate 16th-century Protestant Bishop Ridley in smashing hallowed altars built with the pennies of the poor do so not because they have to, but because they want to!


   Modern liturgists may claim that these changes bring us closer to the way the first Christians worshipped. This may be true, but as I have pointed out, the early Christians worshipped in the way they did-----using a table, for example-----because they were a persecuted
minority, forbidden to build places of worship. Once the persecution ended, they built churches which were a fitting setting for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which was offered in an increasingly elaborate rite inspired by the desire to render the greatest possible glory to God, to whom all honor is due. The way one worships in a time of persecution cannot be considered the norm for a time of freedom. [Emphasis added]

   The theory that the older a liturgical practice is the better it is was condemned unequivocally by Pope Pius XII, the greatest and most erudite Pontiff of this century, who possessed an unrivaled knowledge of the principles of sound liturgy. In his encyclical Mediator Dei, published in 1947, he wrote:

      The liturgy of the early ages is worthy of veneration; but an ancient custom is not to be considered better, either in itself or in relation to later times and circumstances, just because it has the flavor of antiquity . . . The desire to restore everything indiscriminately to its ancient condition is neither wise nor praiseworthy . . . It would be wrong, for example, to want the altar restored to its ancient form of table; to want black eliminated from the liturgical colors, and pictures and statues excluded from our churches; to require crucifixes that do not represent the bitter sufferings of the Divine Redeemer . . . This attitude is an attempt to revive the "archaeologism" to which the pseudo-synod of Pistoia [1794] gave rise; it seeks also to re-introduce the many pernicious errors which led to that synod and resulted from it and which the Church, in her capacity of watchful guardian of "the Deposit of Faith" entrusted to her by her Divine Founder, has rightly condemned. It is a wicked movement, that tends to paralyze the sanctifying and salutary action by which the liturgy leads the children of adoption on the path to their heavenly Father [pars. 65-68]. 


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