Four Reasons Why Altars “Turned Around” and Why They Should Stay That Way

In sorting through old files, I ran across an article I penned for a conservative publication that was ultimately rejected. These days the conservatives seem to have given up on me, so I’ll post it here with the interest of sparking a discussion:

Few liturgical changes of the 1960’s were more noticeable than the “turning around” of altars, the reorientation of priests to face the people while presiding at Mass. There’s something of a clamor sounding these days to return to the past, citing everything from the problem of clergy who ham it up to the loss of reverence and awe in liturgy.

The church at my parish was built in 1964. In 1999 a renovation added a narthex on the east side, interior pathways, a baptismal font, and a chapel for Eucharistic reservation and daily Mass. A functional, long, and narrow nave was improved with more space, more light, and an opportunity for more fruitful liturgy.

I had assumed that the church had an altar at one end, choir loft at the other, and the people sat in between. However, the parishioners told me a more interesting story after I arrived. The founding pastor of the Iowa State Catholic Student Center had the first altar placed in the middle of the building. Two sets of seats faced each other with the altar in between. One Sunday he would celebrate Mass facing south across the altar from half the worshippers and facing the same direction as the other half—with his back to them. The next Sunday, he turned the opposite direction.

Today the antiphonal seating remains. The priest now actually faces ad orientem (to the east and toward the narthex) when praying at the altar. He neither faces the people nor has his back to them. Some of our new students and visitors find that a little disorienting. But of all possibilities our church gives us, I think it works the best.

One of the hallmarks of the Vatican II liturgy reforms was the so-called “turning around of the altars.” Before the council, a priest praying the Mass was not so much concerned with keeping his back turned to the laity as he was praying a common direction with them. Today a certain misperception persists: Vatican II was all about re-directing the priest to face the people. Wrong.

Why did things change and why should things stay as they are? Let me offer four reasons.

1. At its genesis, I suspect the change was more about an important conciliar principle: making the Mass more intelligible and understandable to the laity. One simple way to do this is to improve visibility. Show the people the Eucharistic elements, the gestures and handling of the bread and wine as the prayers proceed. More than ever, we live in a visually-oriented culture. Seeing is believing. It was true in the sixties. It’s still true today. Turn the priest back to the altar and lay people will start asking, “What are you doing up there? Speak up! Why do you hide the Lord?”

2. The Mass is a meal. It’s also a sacrifice, but liturgical theologians from Pope Benedict back to Saint Paul have affirmed it is also a meal. The Passover ritual meal Jesus celebrated with his disciples was prayed at a table in a house. The Jewish roots of the Christian Eucharist lie not in the temple or synagogue, but in the household. Historical reenactment isn’t the point of liturgical reform, but history does inform good liturgical practice. One table for as many as a thousand people isn’t really practical for a shared dinner, but we don’t want that image to dominate. A visible table with minimal obstacles communicates the meal aspect better than a cluttered altar–or worse: a shelf– mostly blocked from view by a priest in vestments.

A corollary to this is to note how priests “set” the altar. Is the corporal with the Eucharistic elements placed at the center of the altar? Or are the bread, wine, and vessels arranged in front of the presider like a place setting?

3. Focusing on whether the priest faces away from the people or toward them can keep the discussion off the more important factor: the careful and devoted celebration of the Mass. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy tells it: “Pastors of souls must therefore realize that, when the liturgy is celebrated, something more is required than the mere observation of the laws governing valid and licit celebration; it is their duty also to ensure that the faithful take part fully aware of what they are doing, actively engaged in the rite, and enriched by its effects.”

In my parish, the priest neither faces the people nor turns his back on them. The focus can remain on Christ, and we avoid the tussles over which exaggeration of liturgy is better: the indifferent priest or the performing priest.

4. For those who think we need a return to everybody facing the same direction to worship, I have to remind you we already do. Even when the priest faces the people, he and we are focused on the Eucharistic elements before us. Catholics worship in a radial geometry. Christ at the center, and the people on at least two sides. The priest facing the people is an accident of the architecture of long narrow buildings.

In my parish, even the seats in the day chapel are set up antiphonally: two halves facing each other. The advantage of all this is that the direction of the priest is less relevant to the worshippers. In a true radial church with the altar in the middle, the people all face the same direction: the center. Whether the priest faces the people or has his back to them: not so important compared to an orientation toward Christ and the Eucharist.

What about the recent movement of priests to praying on the same side of the altar as the people? I’m not sure it has any theological or liturgical significance, to be honest. It does reveal a certain nostalgia for an idealized past. Looking at that past more closely, and we find by far the majority of the world’s bishops adjusting the placement of the priest and making the ritual more visually engaging to the people. There’s nothing wrong with a clearer communication of meaning.

I do believe that some clergy, both those in groups facing toward or away from the congregation, seem to have an inflated sense of performance. No doubt some priests facing their people have indulged the temptation to ham it up, be it in preaching or presiding. In this, I don’t see much difference from the many still shots on traditionalist web sites that focus almost exclusively on clergy and their vestments.

Ultimately, the direction of the priest praying is best determined by factors other than his personal choice. Architecture is the obvious framework into which he must fit. The expectations of the community are important as well.

The reform moving away from a clergy ad orientem was initiated by bishops and clergy mainly for visual and catechetical reasons. If we feel that Catholic awareness and understanding of the Mass is such that seeing or knowing is no longer important, then I don’t think the orientation of the priest at liturgy is of much relevance. If improving reverence is vital, many priests have more work to do with how they celebrate the Mass, not which direction is ideal.

My personal hope is that as long narrow buildings and the half-shell seating arrangements fade and outdate themselves, the real advantages of antiphonal seating or radial seating in round or cruciform buildings will come more to the fore. Keeping the focus on Christ is the most important consideration of all.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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10 Responses to Four Reasons Why Altars “Turned Around” and Why They Should Stay That Way

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Ditto for my parish:
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhr_sf/4383733020/in/set-72157623497196234

    And, when positioned at the altar for liturgies the presider is indeed ad orientem!

    (PS – the stars were part of Christmas decorations)

  2. I agree to a point. Two/Three/Full radial seating must be done in an artful way such that you would not find the facing people a distraction. It takes me out of prayer when I am looking at the eucharist in mass and seeing past it into a stranger’s face…

  3. Liam says:

    Acoustical issues are also important. PA systems can’t really “fix” how a building is designed to function acoustically.

  4. Dunstan Harding says:

    One solution is subdued lighting over the pews with the altar and ambo areas receiving more intense light. That way, when seated across from congregants facing you, you won’t be looking into their faces and vice versa.

    Horseshoe shaped seating works very well in moderately large and smaller churches. It helps to create a more intimate feel with many more people able to see and hear speakers at the altar, baptistery, and the ambo. If the celebrants chair is close to the ambo at one end and the altar is at the other end, the altar area is completely free of distracting furniture and each focal point (ambo, altar) stands out more clearly.

    A chandelier or corona suspended over the altar to provide light helps to anchor and emphasis the altar as the center of the parish’s liturgical life.

  5. Fr. Louis says:

    Beautifully said! Thank you!

  6. Jevon Liew says:

    Great article!

  7. Lee Cheshire says:

    Thank you for this article. Sideways facing doesn’t work for me, but the 4 reasons you give are very good. Here’s the 5th, spiritual reason we should keep it this way, i.e. facing the worshipers. When the Priest holds up the Eucharist, he now sees, and enacts, the two great commandments. Loving God, the Eucharist, and loving others, all his parishioners around the Host. He is seeing the Body of Christ is two forms, the Holy Host and the believers, the consubstantial Body of Christ.

  8. But we gotta keep in mind that Vatican II never said for Mass to be said facing the people. Just that the altar had to be able to be walked around.

    • Todd says:

      True. But we no longer need a council to tell us how to celebrate Mass. Mass facing the people comes from the same impulse of Adoration: show me Jesus, please.

      • Jim McCrea says:

        Treating people as children who need ordering about results in lots of children, but not many grownups.

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