Gathered around the altar


“Without liturgical reform, there is no reform of the Church,” Pope Francis said emphatically last February during an address to the plenary assembly of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

His remarks came around the 60th anniversary of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy that was issued during the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

“‘Go and prepare the Passover for us’ (Lk 22:8): these words of Jesus,'” the pope said in his February address, “express the Lord’s desire to have us around the table of his Body and Blood.”

Significantly, gathering “around the table” is not an image of an auditorium or a lecture hall, it is one of intimate involvement around a banquet table.

No fan at a football (soccer) game wants to view the game from one end of a long, narrow stadium. And although we are not talking about football, but active participation in the Paschal Mystery, the same reaction is true.

In addition to some specific suggestions about formation for ministers, the pope noted that liturgical formation is not a “specialisation for a few experts, but rather an inner disposition of all the People of God”.

He also referred to formation paths for the People of God and the concrete opportunity for formation that is offered by “assemblies that gather on the Lord’s Day” and feasts during the year.

The beautiful Easter liturgies in which the global Church has recently engaged to celebrate the Paschal Mystery could not have been possible without the latest reform of the liturgy, now more than a century in the making.

Worship, thanks, and memory will never change. But due to the liturgical movement, the People of God have prayed in song and voice, and have celebrated the sacred mysteries, in their own language.

They have more actively and consciously participated in the source and summit of the Christian life than ever before.

The vision of a distant priest

praying almost privately at an altar

affixed to a far wall

with his back to the people,

separated by

all manner of architectural splendour and obstructions,

is now a distant memory.

Is that enough?

The vision of a distant priest praying almost privately at an altar affixed to a far wall with his back to the people, separated by all manner of architectural splendour and obstructions, is now a distant memory.

But the overhang from those days remains.

There is no doubting the essence of the sacred ritual and majesty that often attended the distant performance.

Nor can one diminish the reverence of the congregations that occupied pews far removed from the sacred action at the altar.

It is no wonder that “attendance at Mass” for many was an occasion of mostly private devotion with a focus on the reception of Holy Communion as the pinnacle of the sacred celebration.

But it is past time to centralise altars better, as the Council Fathers who crafted Sacrosanctum Concilium imagined.

If we want to move people

from spectators to real participants,

in an assembly of unity,

where they actively celebrate the sacred mysteries

they need to have genuine connection.

It’s time for churches to configure the altar table, the sign of Christ, so that, as Pope Francis asked the Dicastery for Divine Worship, the people truly are “around the table of his Body and Blood … so that we may together eat the Passover and live a Paschal existence, both personal and communal”.

As Richard Vosko writes in God’s House (Liturgical Press, 2006), “Catholic worship is not like a theatre or lecture hall.

“The liturgy demands active, conscious participation … A sociofugal seating plan (rows facing the front) does not work for our liturgy.”

I sometimes imagine a host who invites guests to dinner and then sits at the end of the room. Clearly not the hospitality of the Lord Jesus, nor a basis for social action by the guests!

“We are not simply human beings; we are human interbeings and share in the interrelatedness of all cosmic life,” says the American Franciscan theologian Ilia Delio.

While we recognise that in an increasingly secular society, we must more often step outside the brick walls (on the altar of the world, as the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin imagined), let’s properly reflect our sacred celebratory unity when we are inside.

The altar, truly at the centre

What happened to the directives about the faithful being gathered around altars that are central?

The most recent General Instruction of the Roman Missal (no. 299) specifies that “the altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns”.

That injunction is reflected in the official rite the Vatican issued in 1977 for the dedication of a church.

“Here may your faithful, gathered around the table of the altar, celebrate the memorial of the Paschal Mystery and be refreshed by the banquet of Christ’s Word and his Body,” it says in the prayer for dedicating the altar (Dedicationis ecclesiae, no. 62).

This has been the official position of the contemporary Church is since the time that Vatican II was still in session.

“It is proper that the main altar be constructed separately from the wall, so that one may go around it with ease and so that celebration may take place facing the people; it shall occupy a place in the sacred building that is truly central, so that the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful is spontaneously turned to it” (Instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, September 26, 1964, Ch. 5, II, 91).

If we want to move people from spectators to real participants, in an assembly of unity, where they actively celebrate the sacred mysteries they need to have genuine connection as Pope Francis describes.

Proximity, space, light and actions that enhance involvement are all part of that equation.

Entrance procession with the Book of the Gospels, thoughtfully selected participants for the Offertory Procession, the Word proclaimed from a suitably located ambo, lectors who read well supported by good sound amplification, a good homily, trained acolytes, a sonorous choir which leads appropriately selected hymns, among others, all contribute.

The need to gather around the central altar is talked about but reluctance to actually make the move in most places stubbornly persists.

Let’s delay no longer!

Need to advance awareness and to educate

But that’s not all.

The presider will have to give much more attention to his part, in persona Christi, at the Lord’s table and his communication by inclusive language with the co-celebrating congregation.

Artful presiding, as Paul Turner describes it in Ars Celebrandi (Liturgical Press, 2021), includes a real consciousness and the sense of the sacred that are intrinsic components of the celebration. There must be a focus on appealing to people to “grow in the awareness and joy of encountering the Lord (in) celebrating the holy mysteries”, he notes.

The awareness and joy that Pope Francis highlights require pastoral education apart from a physical setting that encourages connection.

Ensuring congregations have a clear understanding of Eucharist is essential.

I suspect that the multifaceted elements of the gem which is the Eucharist remain elusive to older congregations who are steeped in old ways.

A proper understanding of the sign of unity and charity, the significance of the assembly of the congregation present as co-celebrants, joining in the thanks to God the Father, listening to the Word and being part of the real memorial of Jesus and the Paschal mystery may still have a way to go.

Because they are then called to go out as missionary disciples: not to suspend the celebration until next week.

How many understand, as Sacrosanctum Concilium says, that

“… in the liturgy full public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and His members”?

Old misconceptions die hard, especially among Western congregations that have an aged demographic with strong recollections of old ways.

Fundamentally, communicants receive communion from the hosts consecrated at the Eucharist they are celebrating.

But this absolute essential is too often routinely breached in practice. No Eucharistic celebration should be make access to pre-consecrated from the Tabernacle. And where congregation size allows, communion from one loaf is most, even while recognizing the challenges involved in realizing this ideal.

Past reforms and those still needed

Reform of the liturgy has clearly contributed to reform of the Church.

Given we are no longer a Eurocentric Church that, in the West at least, serves a secular and increasingly entitled world, reform must continue by all participants.

The essentials of the Passover Meal that we memorialise are not the subject for reform, but how we celebrate as community is.

It is possible to enhance participation by ardently responding to people who seek engagement and active involvement in worshipping their God.

They do so for a reason.

Given the drift of young people away from regular attendance, a more engaging space, including the truly central location of the altar, will contribute to participation, as it will for all.

For too long have we suffered poor translation of key prayers, including the Eucharistic Prayers.

For example: “Consubstantial with the Father” in the Nicene Creed might sound meaningful for theologians, but it is not part of the language of the people.

Also the failure to move to gender-neutral language in the Lectionary given current parlance is plainly offensive to more than half the congregation.

A review of the Lectionary is, in my opinion, embarrassingly overdue.

How would Pope Francis have stimulated the world with Evangelii gaudium (Joy of the Gospels) to a people with poor knowledge of the scriptures?

How would they have responded to his incitement to embrace Jesus’ call to missionary discipleship?

The idea of a synodal Church and the adoption of synodality by the whole People of God would have been unthinkable.

Others will have additional preferences for reform.

It would be instructive to hear what they are because the pope has raised this matter fairly and squarely.

He has called for action. In a synodal Church now is the time to register your suggestions.

  • Justin Stanwix is a deacon at St Mary Star of the Sea Parish, Milton in the Catholic Diocese of Wollongong (Australia).
  • First published in La-Croix International. Republished with permission.
Additional reading

News category: Analysis and Comment.

Tags: , , , ,