Should our churches have high altars?


What Vatican II says about Altars and Tabernacles:

“Altars for Mass ‘facing the people’ were not mentioned in any of Vatican II’s 16 documents.  Nor, as Msgr Klaus Gamber proves in The Reform of the Roman Lituirgy, Its Problems and Background, was there such a practice in the early Church. Similarly, Fr Josef A. Jungman S.J. said  “The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale” – quoted from AD2000, November, 1998.

Moreover, the priest facing the people over the altar may actually be hindering active participation in that the laity have become spectators and the Mass reduced to interpersonal relationships with the priest. See CNCC no.152 pp.10-11, September 29th, 1997, for “Mass ‘facing the people’ or ‘leading them to the Altar’.”

The latest word on the placement of the tabernacle comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church §1183. “The tabernacle is to be situated in churches in a most worthy place with the greatest honour. The dignity, placing, and security of the Eucharistic tabernacle should foster adoration before the Lord really present in the blessed Sacrament” cf  §1379. N.B. The CCC makes no mention of side-chapels for parish churches.

 Source: Newsletter Cardinal Newman Catechist Centre No. 161 p.5; 5th April, 1999. Editor/author The Rev. B.J.H. Tierney.

A Personal reflection

(From Remnant Child of Mary  who attends the Novus Ordo Mass, as well as the Traditional Mass when she can):

When the priest faces the altar, he prays with us and for us, as one of us, before Almighty God. I feel in reverence and awe of God, as I should – and my prayers and thoughts are ordered and directed to Him. 

Even when the priest faces us for the homily and Gospel– proclaimed to us, by him- again, it is appropriate. Afterwards, we all turn back to God, to Whom the Praise is owed. There is a joint sense of holiness and humility as we join together in prayer and attitude  not a sense of he (the priest) is up there and we just have to watch and give an occasional response- towards a man who is not God, and not above us. In this latter case (the Novus Ordo Mass), we are disconnected from the altar, as if it is a table,  and distracted- by the man looking back at us. Not deliberately so but lacking a more compelling concrete image, it occurs and so all we can do is close our eyes and try to imagine  it all in our minds.

 By contrast, at the high altar we see a man with altar servers and acolytes postured in the most reverent way towards God the Most Holy, his attention never straying elsewhere, fixed on the cross, the altar, the prayers of the Mass and the Sacred Species. 

And all this can be theorized as promoting worship, in one direction or another, depending on the underlying beliefs and interests but NOTHING can substitute for the difference in experience, no matter what the explained intention of moving the altar was. It has to be experienced (without prejudice) to be understood. 

Cardinal Ratzinger: The Church does not require Dismantled High Altars

Michael Davies, (an Irishman) wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger requesting clarification about a problem in his local parish where the bishop wanted to remove the “exquisitely beautiful high altar” and “ the Blessed Sacrament demoted to the side altar of our lady”. The letter was dated 12th June 1996. Cardinal Ratzinger’s letter was “published in full in The Nationalist of 10 January 1997” after a court case.

Part of the letter states:

 “With respect to the placement of the tabernacle, the instruction Interoecimenici  (26.9.1964) par 95, which implemented the decisions of Sacrosanctum Concilium, states quite clearly that the Blessed Sacrament be reserved on the high altar, a possibility envisaged also by Eucharisticum mysterium (25.5.67) par 54….

It is certainly true that a great number of churches since the second Vatican Council have been rearranged; such changes, while inspired by the liturgical reform, cannot however be said to have been required by the legislation of the Church….”

Source:  AD2000 magazine, October 1998 p.10

Another personal reflection:

I have always loved my Catholic Faith.  I remember the Latin Mass from  my teenage years, but then spent about 30 years being very involved in my local Novus Ordo parish.  I began to question some of the things which were being done in the name of Liturgy. One day, I started searching for answers. I was led by Providence, to the Traditional Latin Mass. It was new in our area. I felt right at home from the beginning. I still had my old Missal, and surprisingly, my husband and children also accepted it immediately. My husband and I felt right at home.

I would still (and still do, occasionally) attend a Novus Ordo Mass. One day, I had to take my granddaughter to Mass, as her mum was away. I took her to the parish where she and her mum usually attend, and which is a fairly conservative parish. It was Sunday evening, and after Communion there was a reflection (a meditation with  liturgical movement). At the time I thought that it was tasteful and thought that it was good for the teenagers to be so involved. I had no problem with what they were wearing or their demeanour. I said to myself “ It’s funny. At one stage,  I would have been really impressed, but today I feel nothing.” It didn’t move me. I wondered why it was so. Almost immediately, I heard a little voice (my guardian angel?) saying: “This Mass pleases the senses and the Traditional Latin Mass pleases the soul.” This made sense to me immediately. I understood! This explanation hit the nail on the head.  (Remnant Survivor)

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Remnant Disciple

Traditional Catholic; member of Jesus' Remnant Army; leader of a Jesus to Mankind Prayer group since 2010. Prayer group leader for about 25 years.