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.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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38 Responses to Four Reasons Why Altars “Turned Around” and Why They Should Stay That Way

  1. Jimmy Mac says:

    Ditto for my parish:

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

    (PS – the stars were part of Christmas decorations)

    • Dan says:

      YET another liberal, snowflake take on this. NO, the altars SHOULD BE REORIENTED TO CHRIST. That is logical on so many levels. While the Mass is also a meal, THE SACRIFICAL ASPECT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FOR WITHOUT THE SACRIFICE THERE WOULD BE NO REDEMPTION. The priest as presider is bogus and should be done away with. He is our advocate and we pray along with him when he is facing the tabernacle during mass. I could go on and on and on but what difference does it make to someone like you? If you want a cum-by-ah type liturgy, then go to the low church episopalians. They don’t know what they believe and you would fit right in.

  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.

  9. Vatican Council II did not instruct any changes to church buildings or altars. None! Neither did the Council instruct that a new mass be invented. None! Finally, do you realize how arrogant and pompous it sounds for anyone to propose discarding the time-honored, saint-tested, universally-acclaimed Traditional Latin rite of Mass at this point in time, over two thousand years after Christ instituted the Church? Do sane people fix what isn’t broken?

    Doesn’t all the devotion, love and reverence shown for this rite of Mass by so many of the Church’s confessors, doctors, saints, and holy pontiffs mean anything? Where do we leave our Catholic deference and respect for the judgment, prudence, and wisdom of the Church’s doctors, saints, and holy pontiffs on this and other liturgical issues? Honestly, I’m tempted to ask who died and left Alexander in charge? Yes, you can have an opinion, but if my opinion differed from the teachings and traditions of the great confessors, doctors, saints, and holy pontiffs of the Church, I would seriously consider abandoning my opinion or do what so many others have done: start my own religious establishment.

    • Todd says:

      Vatican II was a council that began reform. It wasn’t intended to direct it, complete it, or have the final word. Popes, bishops, theologians, priests, and people have largely accepted, embraced, and found great spiritual fruit in liturgical reform.

      That great saints celebrated in the 1570 Rite, or some previous variation of Greek or Latin tarnishes neither them, the various rites, nor us.

      I suppose it is audacious to reform the rituals and language of the Mass. But it was done lawfully. And it was only the beginning.

    • lmerosne says:

      But Judy, you seem to be wanting to start your own religious movement in going against the living magisterium of the Church which has given us the Mass, not a new Mass by the way-there is only one Mass. there is. It problem with the “both…and” approach given by our church.

      Also, the form of the Tridentine Mass is 500 years old, but THE MASS is two thousand years old! It was celebrated in forms that were different for 1500 years before Trent! What about the saints, confessors, martyrs, etc. who did not know the Tridentine form of the Mass? Should they be discarded?

      Let us humbly accept the gifts of Christ through Bis spouse, the Church.

      With love,
      Fr. Louis

    • catholicstrongblog says:


      • Liam says:

        Well, Harvard may have Veritas, but Yale has Lux et Veritas. Says it right there on the CT Route 34 overpass on the Wilbur Cross Parkway:

  10. catholicstrongblog says:

    You state the Mass is a meal on a table, first, a sacrifice mentioned only after.

    You’ve got that all wrong, but not according to Paul 6. Or Luther. Yes, they both cite “meal”, too.
    Council of Trent would anathematize so fast our skirts would blow!


    • catholicstrongblog says:

      “The general rule today is for Mass to be said “facing the people.” While this seems to be “pastoral,” in fact it is a circumstance of great theological significance. In the traditional Mass, both the priest and people face the altar, where the priest, on behalf of the people, offers the sacrifice. The fact that the priest stands between the people and the altar visibly shows the priest’s role as a mediator between the people and God. We can call this the “face the altar” orientation.

      When the priest stands on the other side of the altar, facing the people, his role as mediator is blurred. Both priest and people stand and sit around the same altar, which has had the tabernacle removed to look more like a table. This new “surround the table” orientation signifies the meal, and not the sacrifice. This orientation in what we do causes a slow shift in what we believe, from sacrifice to meal, and causes a loss of faith in the Mass as a sacrifice. The fact that this loss of faith is encouraged by the priest facing the people makes the New Mass a threat to our Faith and hence offensive to God. The threat to our Faith is very real, (you can’t continue to do something and believe the opposite) and continued attendance at the New Mass can make us lose our Faith in the Mass as a sacrifice and even in the Real Presence just as faith in these things has already been lost by millions of Catholics.”

      • lmerosne says:

        Dear friend,

        The Mass is not EITHER a meal OR a sacrifice. It is both! If you leave out one, you don’t have the Mass!

        If Jesus did not intend us to understand the Mass as a meal at all then He really messed up by celebrating it as a meal the first time He instituted it (Luke 22) and the second time He celebrated it (Luke 24, Emmaus).

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting. I said that the Last Supper was a meal offered at a table. Obviously, Jesus intended a transformation of that Jewish home ritual into something more powerful, ore grace-filled for the early disciples. Trent has a perspective, and the world and Church both have moved on. Mass is always celebrated facing God; the priest’s orientation doesn’t alter that, and is largely irrelevant.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        Trent is a dogmatic council. Aquinas is the Angelic Doctor of the Church. I think we’ll go with what they’ve declared rather than this “moved on” (aka Modernist) position.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        …and it stated clearly in the article, “THE MASS IS A MEAL”.

      • lmerosne says:

        I like everything in that comment but am puzzled by the “and the world and church both have moved on” phrase. Moving on from what? Not from the idea of the mass being sacrifice, because the church still and will always believe that the mass is a sacrifice AND a heavenly banquet (meal).

        “Mass is always celebrated facing God” AMEN!!!

  11. Todd says:

    Trent’s perspective was as Catholics and Protestants were approaching the most violent and antagonistic phase of their relationship. We have certainly moved on from intra-Christian bloodshed. We no longer have a need to identify Catholicism as something not-Protestant. It’s not that Trent is false. It’s that no council can hope to be complete. Trent is one piece of a puzzle, not the fully-assembled picture.

    • catholicstrongblog says:

      Trent did far more than address the Protestant issue.
      It codified and protected for all time the Mass of All Ages. It rendered any mass created after that ANATHEMA. (Session 7, Canon 13) (oopsie. Looks like Paul6 forgot to read his Trent when he invented his new mass and forced it on the world 30
      Nov 1969. You know the one, concocted with Protestants to please Protestants. Annibale “I am the liturgical revolution” Bugnini admitted it.)
      It stated any who say the Sacrifice of the Mass is but a meal is ANATHEMA. (DZ 948)
      It stated the Mass is not a community gathering and anyone who says the priest and mass is wrong in communicating sacramentally alone is ANATHEMA (DZ 955).
      I could go on and on…to disregard Trent as some phase the Church went through is downright scary. The Council has spoken.

      The Last Supper itself was itself the pre-enactment of Calvary, not a mere upgrade to a more powerful Jewish home ritual. There, besides the Royal and Ordained Priesthood, He instituted the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Not a meal. Not a gathering. Not a banquet at a table. We’re not Lutheran!

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        Not merely a meal*

      • Todd says:

        Vatican II was also a council of the world’s bishops, convened to address concerns that the Tridentine Church was no longer able to effectively address with any fruitfulness. You have offered a lot of firebombs here, but at best, there is no proof other than gossip at best, and calumny at worst.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        Nowhere have I falsely accused anyone of anything. I laid out facts.

        I gave you direct sessions/canons from Trent. Look them up. Are those firebombs? Calumny?

        Is this calumny:
        “We must strip from our Catholic prayers and from the Catholic liturgy everything which can be the shadow of a stumbling block for our separated brethren that is for the Prostestants.” – Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, main author of the New Mass, L’Osservatore Romano, March 19, 1965

        We can’t allow facts to be disregarded as “calumny” and “firebombs” when we don’t like what those facts show.
        It’s awful that a man-made mass with no apostolic succession (aka bastardized), invented with Protestants to soothe Protestants has somehow eclipsed the Mass of St. Peter.
        What’s worse is those who do not know, or refuse to know, champion this abomination of desolation as though it were Catholic. It’s an insult to God, an offering from Cain.

        You don’t even know what it is you don’t know.

      • Todd says:

        To be clear: Tridentine documents are hardly a first source of authority for the Catholic Christian. We have the Scriptures, the liturgy, as well as a wealth of documents in the Catholic tradition. Your comments about Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Bugnini: prove them. Offer an authoritative source. It is your moral duty.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        The Council of Trent is hardly a first source of authority!?
        To deny the authority of a dogmatic council is to deny SCRIPTURE, MASS AND TRADITION in and of itself!
        I’m going to assume you simply did not mean such an absurd statement.

        Further, V2 did not negate Trent, especially because V2 was not dogmatic, by admission and design. NOTHING NEGATES DOGMATIC COUNCILS. There is no waxing and waning of the Church’s Doctrine.

        As far as proving what Paul 6 did, are you not familiar with the origins of the New Order? Are you not familiar with how it came to be, it’s architects, its theology, its purpose? If you defend it, you should yourself know all about it. I can denounce it because I fully understand its architects, theology and purpose. I don’t make it up; it’s your duty as a Catholic to know it. Any source I give is refuted, as you did with Trent, accusing me of calumny!
        Research it. Do it. Read a book. Google bugnini’s quotes. Google the architects, even the very names of the Protestants that helped create the abomination. Here’s a start:
        1. A. Raymond George (Methodist)
        2. Ronald Jaspar (Anglican)
        3. Massey Shepherd (Episcopalian)
        4. Friedrich Künneth (Lutheran)
        5. Eugene Brand (Lutheran)
        6. Max Thurian (Calvinist-community of Taize)

        Just because the truth is ugly doesn’t mean it’s somehow false.

        Here is an extensive piece regarding the new mass. If you defend the new mass, you should know why and what its goal is. You already stated it was a meal before a Sacrifice. And you’re right. The new order is a meal, because it’s based in Lutheranism, not Catholicism. But the Catholic Mass of the Roman Rite is the Tridentine, where there is NO DOUBT it is a Sacrifice.

        I would encourage you to read every bit of the article. If you don’t believe what it says, cross-reference it. It’s based in Trent and Aquinas. Not fire bombs or calumnies. Catholic, to their core, forever in season, forever August. The Bride of Christ stands no chance of losing Her memory.

      • Todd says:

        Elevating a council’s documents to the same level as Sacred Scripture isn’t an action with the mind of the Church. Trent is hardly the final word on Scripture, liturgy, or even tradition. I think you can carefully read what I’ve written and feel free to disagree with me without mangling my words.

        It is not incumbent on me to prove my sources. You have offered gossip: what other people have said. If your sources are untrue, then you have cooperated with calumny, a very serious offense against the truth. Your link offers an article written by an anonymous author. It contains many errors in spite of its earnestness. Somehow, I would take the authority of Catholic bishops, those of the Second Vatican Council and those since, with a greater degree of seriousness. It’s a dangerous spiritual thing to be focused on what others do, and neglect one’s personal failures.

        Your testimony here suggests you find great consolation and spiritual value in the 1570/1962 Rite. I wish you well with that. What other hundreds of millions of Catholics do with their priests and bishops seems something beyond your control and of little personal consequence to you. Why not just leave it alone?

        By the way, it is customary to refer to popes with Roman, not Arabic numerals.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        We are bound by PAIN OF MORTAL SIN to accept all that every single dogmatic council has decreed: every single sentence, every single definition, every single anathema. What was condemned by prior councils REMAINS CONDEMNED TODAY.

        It is unfortunate you see Trent as a passing phase in the Church; it is especially unfortunate you declare we no longer need a council to tell us how to celebrate mass; Trent codified the TLM that had been in existence and organically developing since 300 AD, protecting it for all time by way of Quo Primum. (You know, Bull that Paul6 disregarded when he concocted him a farce of a mass.)

        I’ve given you Trent, you call it fire bombs and calumny.
        I’ve given the actual names of Protestant theologians who crafted the mass along side bugnini, I told you to research then on your own, and you call it gossip.
        I’ve given you the Vatican newspaper that quotes bugnini by date and name for you to research, and that’s calumny. There’s even an image online of the newspaper, if you can read Italian.

        The extremely well-written article I gave you to read is doctrinally sound, yet the person who calls the mass as firstly a meal and of the Last Supper “Jesus intended a transformation of that Jewish home ritual into something more powerful, ore grace-filled for the early disciples”. (More meal-centeredness) is going to find error in the article? What error specifically do you find in this Trent and Aquinas, other than they had their perspective and now it’s time to move on? (You know what PiusX says on progression of dogmas, yes?)

        So clearly, you choose not to research on your own, you choose also to reject what’s been given you. Do you think there’s some “official” magical Vatican document that exposes all these truths? No! Modernists don’t condemn Modernism!
        But every single thing you refuted is fact. Perhaps you’re just too stubborn to look for yourself. Willfully ignorant? Any one reading this blog can see it, look up what I’ve said for themselves.
        “Authority of the Second Vatican Council”?
        Sensus Catholicus.

      • Todd says:

        You are simply wrong. Trent had nothing to say about Pope Paul VI or Archbishop Bugnini. When you come to the comment box as a visitor, you don’t get to insist other people do your research for you. You have the obligation to find citations from councils, saints, and bishops. Not “well-written” anonymous articles full of philosophical cleverness but lacking a consistent theological wisdom.

        Your newspaper quote of Archbishop Bugnini has nothing objectionable about it, given its proper context as a specific answer to a particular question. Let’s move along on this topic.

      • catholicstrongblog says:

        >>>You are simply wrong. Trent had nothing to say about Pope Paul VI or Archbishop Bugnini.<<<
        Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the Papal Bull, Quo Primum? Or since they are not mentioned specifically by name, will you refute that, too?

        Again, and I guess we could go around in circles all 2018…I gave you specific sessions/ canons of Trent, and your comeback was "fire bombs and calumny".
        I gave you Aquinas and your "philosophical cleverness but lacking a consistent theological wisdom" shows your true Modernist colors. Again, what specifically is not Catholic?!

        So you can hide behind your "I don't have to do the research, you do" all you like. You've done no research to open your eyes; you're dug in and willfully ignorant.
        And you wonder why your article wasn't published by anyone other than yourself? Because you, my friend, are deeply and woefully theologically flawed. You've contradicted yourself, denied what you yourself have clearly written, exposed your colors with your attitude of evolution of dogma, denied its relevancy and even its authority, and choose to stay on the side of error. You've shown your hand in favor of Modernism, a heresy. Unlike the Angelic Doctor, Saint Thomas Aquinas, with whose Theology you take issue.

        A schism is coming…you may wish to re-think which side you're on, this conciliar counterfeit church with its own ape of a mass, theology, council, Pentecost, saints, rosary, code of Canon Law, catechism, saints, calendar, priests, Rites…or the Church Christ founded.

      • Todd says:

        Quo Primum has been superceded. The various rites of the Mass are not dogma. Catholics who reject Vatican II are the smallest of splinter groups; there is no schism. Just people who have wandered away from the Church.

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