February 29, 2012

Between Porch and Altar

Something struck me while I was offering Mass this morning, which, I'm surprised to say, I had never noticed. Like many of the churches and chapels where I say Mass these days, a free-standing altar is set up in front of a tabernacle set centrally in the sanctuary. Thus, in order to offer the Mass versus populum, the priest must place himself in between the altar and the tabernacle. All of a sudden, even though I have offered Mass this way hundreds of times, from the Mass of my priestly ordination on Our Lady's birthday in 2007 down to today, I felt uncomfortable to find myself with my back to the Blessed Sacrament.

It's funny; the common objection to the liturgy celebrated ad orientem liturgicum is that the priest has his 'back to the people.' But isn't it more troubling for the priest to turn his back on the Presence of Christ in the tabernacle?

So now I'm going to throw out an alarming suggestion and see what happens. If you are going to have the tabernacle centrally placed in the sanctuary, and there are any number of reasons and intuitions to support this, then the Mass ought to be offered ad orientem. If instead the Mass is offered versus populum, then our immediate ancestors were right in their decision that the Blessed Sacrament ought to be reserved somewhere else or in Its own chapel.


Barb Szyszkiewicz said...

That gives me a whole new way of looking at the setup of our "spaceship-design" church (half-round, altar forwardish in the middle, Tabernacle to the side underneath a gigantic and beautiful stained-glass window). I have other issues with the design, but the placement of the Tabernacle makes sense in light of what you say here.

michael said...

Brother Charles,

Certainly Pope Benedict XVI would agree with you. His preference for this orientation although motivated by a different reason is well explained in The Spirit of the Liturgy.

Judy Kallmeyer said...

Funny, I've always thought that the President's chair should not be directly in front of the tabernacle, but rather off to the side. But I never thought of celebrating the Mass. I really hate the thought of "ad orientam" because I feel that the with the priest facing the people, the visibility of the Liturgical action is most desirable. There is also a sense of being gathered together, indeed drawn together by the outstretched arms of the celebrant, around the altar of sacrifice. With the "ad orientam" configuration, it is more as if the celebrant is doing his own little thing with his back to the congregation. Rather than moving the tabernacle to another chapel, an off-center placement of the tabernacle might be better.

pml said...

a fairly new church in Lakeville, MN a design answer that I think is done well. Google All Saints and see the interior.

GirlCanChant said...

As someone who has been to both versus populum and ad orientam Masses, I have to say that I prefer the latter. When everyone faces the same direction, it presents a unified image. Sometimes, when the priest faces the people, things can get a little theatrical. I am not trying to say that it's impossible to have a reverent versus populum Mass, but I do think it is harder.

For those who are worried that they aren't "seeing" everything - you will still see the host and the chalice at the elevations, which is the most important part of the Mass. When other things are obscured, it helps people to focus on what is truly important. Also, the priest will still turn around and face the people at the Lamb of God/Agnus Dei. It might take some getting used to, but it is well worth the effort. :-)

If anyone was wondering, I'm 28, so I grew up in the post-Vatican II world, and came to the old Mass on my own. Can't convince my parents to go for anything. Interesting times, interesting times.

Anonymous said...

Good observation. In recalling all of the churches I have been to lately, I have to wonder if your reason is why many of the ‘new’ churches place the tabernacle to the side. I had always thought it was suggestive of the side altars present in some older churches: one to Mary and the holy family and the other for the Blessed Sacrament. Having the tabernacle centrally located does keep a parishioners focus in the right place, but a respectful placement should also be a concern.

Anonymous said...

Bravo Father Charles. In some places suggesting ad orientem worship is like touching the third rail. I happen to agree with you and believe that it could be accomplished in most places with adequate explanation and instruction for the faithful.

Anonymous said...

In our parish church, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a tabernacle slightly off to the right side. It is a vast improvement. Prior to this, He was relegated to a former closet off the entrance hall.

Personally, I prefer the ad orientam Mass myself, and would be quite happy if we went back to it. More God-centered.