As I tried out titles for this post, here were the runners-up:
Triumph of the Coffee Tables
Coffee Table of Plenty (of Indifference)
“Consignment sale, party of none, your table is ready.”
Masses Measured Out in Coffee Tables
Yet, considering that the ubiquitous versus populum Mass, where the priest is part ringmaster, part cooking show host, I thought about a title of In Persona Julia Child Capita. I ditched that because the production quality of the typical abuse-filled liturgy isn’t that good– more like watching Dierberg’s infomercial “Everybody Cooks”.
And really, that is the problem, isn’t it? Everybody “cooks”, and there are too many cooks in what should be a solo kitchen.
What am I talking about? Good question. Recalling the crime against God and humanity that was the systematic desecration, smashing, tearing, ripping out and destruction of high altars throughout the world’s Catholic churches, I would like to call for the smashing of the lowly coffee table altars that currently plague so many churches today. I was moved to issue this call by the following New Liturgical Movement article about the biggest keys to true liturgical restoration, regardless of form: Altar and Orientation:
We recently shared an article by Dom Mark Daniel Kirby, OSB, on the topic of sacred music. When reading that article this past Friday, I was also rather interested to see another posted by him — apparently the result of a present trip to Italy.
Dom Mark speaks to a few aspects, but of particular interest are his comments on the altar and orientation. He describes the problem as he sees it:
Mass Facing the People: The Single Greatest Obstacle to the Reform
Here in Italy it is evident that churches were designed and constructed with an eye to the absolute centrality of the altar with priest and people facing together in the same direction. The placement, within perfectly proportioned sanctuaries, of secondary altars to allow for Mass facing the people has utterly destroyed the harmony, order, and spaciousness that the Sacred Liturgy, by its very nature, requires.
Crucifix, Candles, and Flowers
Here in Italy — and also in France — the traditional symmetrical arrangement of the candles and crucifix has all but disappeared in favour of a curious asymmetrical disposition that nearly always includes a bouquet of flowers placed at one end of the altar, one, two, or three candles at the opposite end, and a crucifix somewhere in the sanctuary that may or may not be construed as having an inherent relationship with the altar.
The Priest Magnified
Apart from these considerations, the most deleterious effect continues to be the magnification of the priest and of his personality. The theological direction of all liturgical prayer — ad Patrem, per Filium, in Spiritu — is obscured, while the priest, even in spite of himself, appears to be, at every moment, addressing the faithful or engaging personally with them.
It’s All About Me
Certain priests and bishops, marked by a streak of narcissism, abuse their position in front of and over the congregation to soak up the attention and energy of the faithful, attention and energy that, by right, belong to God alone during the Sacred Liturgy. [NLM emphasis]
Placed in front of and over the congregation, priests an bishops all too easily give in to an arrogant liturgical clericalism, subjecting the faithful to their own additions amendments, comments, and embolisms. The faithful, being a captive audience, are subjected to the personality of the priest, which can and often does obscure the purity of the liturgical actions and texts that constitute the Roman Rite.
The matter as it relates to Italy and architecture has been rather well documented by John Sonnen over the past few years. A few examples:
The result of these arrangements is not only deleterious to the integrity of the architecture and the practicalities and focus of the sacred liturgy, it likewise hardly seems exemplary of noble simplicity.
Dom Mark moves to his proposed solution:
In churches possessing an ad orientem altar integral to the architectural genius of the original design of the apse or of the sanctuary, secondary versus populum altars should be removed, and the sanctuaries should be restored to the original order, harmony, and spaciousness that characterized them.
In churches possessing only a versus populum altar, that altar should be so arranged as to place the crucifix, with the corpus facing the priest, in a central position with three candles at either side, following the Roman practice.
(The only point I would here add, as it relates to the last paragraph, is that there would seem to be no reason to not also consider the possible use of ad orientem in these latter instances as well.)
As Dom Mark notes, the theological direction of liturgical prayer is primarily Godward; to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Put another way: the liturgy is divine worship and whatever we can do to help emphasize and teach this orientation, we ought to do. Similarly, whatever has the potential to obscure this or lead to confusion or ambiguity should be looked at very seriously and with due expediency.
On the architectural question, as we have commented here in the past, a strong centrality, substantiality and verticality with regard the altar is important in orienting our focus. Ciboria, reredos, substantive candlesticks and cross, antependia, these all contribute in this regard — as does symmetry.
Key as well for the Benedictine arrangement, where employed, is that we here too see a substantialityin 2008:
Provided the altar cross and candles are substantial, this will … help make clear that the liturgy is not a matter of the priest being oriented toward the faithful and vice versa, but rather the common orientation toward God, with the priest leading the faithful in the worship of the Father through the sacrifice of the Son. In this regard, if a priest is implementing this arrangement, I must encourage him to avoid being meagre or bashful about it — as might be represented in using an arrangement which might be less substantial. We should be robust and confident about it, not weighting the altar down with a “brass reredos” of course, but neither being insubstantial nor apologetic about it either.
And of course, outside these architectural and ornamental questions is the all important matter of the physical direction of the priest in liturgical prayer. While facing ad populum is not inherently inimical to the possibility of proper liturgical orientation, as Dom Mark rightly points out it is much more difficult in those instances even despite the very best of intentions — and what we say here not only applies to the priest, but also to the faithful. This is a point which merits serious consideration and should not be underestimated.
Altar and orientation are indeed key considerations for a new liturgical movement and, like sacred music, should be at the forefront of our considerations and actions.