Standing Around the Altar 


Although there is no precedent in Catholic liturgical tradition the question of whether it is permissible for children, youth or adults to stand around the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer continues to be asked. The argument often given by those who encourage this practice is to foster "community". In 1981 the Congregation for Divine Worship addressed this question in its official journal Notitiae. In an official interpretation of no.  101 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) it responded as follows: 

Query: At the presentation of gifts at a Mass with congregation, persons (lay or religious) bring to the altar the bread and wine which are to be consecrated. These gifts are received by the priest celebrant. All those participating in the Mass accompany this group procession in which the gifts are brought forward. They then stand around the altar until communion time. Is this procedure in conformity with the spirit of the law and of the Roman Missal?

Reply: Assuredly, the Eucharistic celebration is the act of the entire community, carried out by all the members of the liturgical assembly. Nevertheless, everyone must have and also must observe his or her own place and proper role: "In liturgical celebrations each one, minister or layperson, who has an office to perform, should do all of, but only, those parts which pertain to that office  by the nature of the rite and the principles of liturgy." (SC art. 29). During the liturgy of the eucharist, only the presiding celebrant remains at the altar. The assembly of the faithful take their place in the Church outside the "presbyterium," which is reserved for the celebrant or concelebrants and altar ministers. [Notitiae 17 (1981) 61]

The necessity of preserving the proper distinction of roles was again addressed in 1997, as part of a larger problem of growing confusion between the roles of the ordained and the non-ordained. In that year, the Roman Congregations of Clergy, Doctrine of the Faith, Bishops, Divine Worship, Religious, Laity and Evangelization, as well as the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, jointly issued a document intended to recall the Church to the practice of a clear distinction between the role of the laity and that of the clergy. Called the Instruction On Certain Questions Regarding The Collaboration Of The Non-Ordained Faithful In The Sacred Ministry Of Priest it noted the confusing practices present in the Church today which do not respect the theological distinction between those in Holy Orders and those who are not. On the one hand the activity of the laity is a sign of the vitality of the Church in attempting to live the teaching of Vatican II, which calls us to an active role in the liturgy and a greater role in the mission of the Church. On the other, it is a sign that some have forgotten necessary and basic distinctions that reflect the different sacramental meanings of different vocations in the Church.

Lets start with the role of the clergy. Those who have received Holy Orders have the sacramental role of representing Christ. The meaning of their vocation is that they are signs, masculine signs as the Pope has reminded us in recently years, of Jesus Christ, who is on one hand Head of His Mystical Body the Church, and on another, Bridegroom of His Bride the Church. Their sacramental role, and the authority that goes with it, is to constitute order within the communion of the Church. Thus, we speak of a hierarchy, an ordering of authority among otherwise equal Christian persons in the Church, just as there is a hierarchical order within the Trinity, despite the equality of the Divine Persons, each of whom is equally God. On the one hand we can speak of the imagery of the Head with respect to the Body; and on the other, of the Groom with respect to the Bride. Both images speak of hierarchical order within a communion of life and love.

The laity, by virtue of their baptism, are constituted members of the Body of Christ, or of the Bride. They are sacramental signs of Christ to be sure, but in relation to those in Holy Orders, as to Christ Himself, they are the beneficiaries of order. This enables the whole Body to work together harmoniously.

The situation of the liturgy is very special. In the Mass the roles and relationships within the Church attain their clearest sacramental expression. The church building has a presbyterium, sanctuary, that sets off the main body of the Church from the place where the priest offers the sacrifice. Thus, even architecturally, and even in the absence of the assembly, the distinction between Head and the Body is present. This was foreshadowed biblically  in the Temple, which had an inner court of the priests, and an outer court of the people. This becomes ever clearer during the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharist is the high point of the Church's life. It sacramentally reflects the whole Church, Head and Body, Groom and Bride, and it  brings it into being and nourishes it. When each person present fulfills their proper role, the unity, as well as the distinction of roles, in the Church is manifest. 

Consider the Chrism Mass of Holy Thursday, or any Mass where the bishop, all his priests and his deacons, are all gathered in the sanctuary, marvelously showing the complete hierarchical order of the local Church. When in the main body is seen both sexes, the variety of cultures, ethnic groups and races within the local Church, the universality of salvation as found in the variety of members, is shown forth. What if all the participants gathered in the sanctuary? The amorphous body that would result would not be a sacramental body. It would be a wonderful manifestation of human unity, but would be lacking the very sacramental character that sets the Church off from society, the Eucharist from a fraternal meal. These are the theological grounds which require all but the ministers necessary to the service of the liturgy to remain outside the sanctuary.

Among the practices which the above mentioned document criticized and asked to be ended were:

a. using lay extraordinary ministers to supply for ordinary ones by multiplying "exceptional" cases over and above those so designated and regulated by normative discipline,

b. assumption by the laity of titles such as "pastor", "chaplain", "coordinator", " moderator" or other such similar titles which can confuse their role and that of the Pastor, who is always a Bishop or Priest.

c. preaching of the liturgical homily, by other than the bishop, his priests or his deacons, or other preaching by the laity in a church or oratory that is not in accordance with the  prescriptions of the bishops' conference, as confirmed by the Holy See.

d. having non-priest members of presbyteral councils,

e. granting more than a consultative voice, to parish councils and finance committees; having someone other than the pastor preside

f. appointment of non-priests to head deaneries, or to assist in heading them

g. in liturgical celebrations:

     - pronouncing by laity or deacons of prayers reserved to the priest,
     - use of gestures or actions proper to the priest celebrant,
     - quasi-presiding by the laity, leaving only the essential priestly functions
        to the celebrant,
     - non-use of prescribed vestments by celebrants,
     - use by the laity of sacred vestments reserved to priests or deacons,
     - Sunday celebrations, in lieu of Mass, lead by the laity without the
        special mandate of the Bishop,
     - the insertion of elements proper to Mass in such celebrations, such as
        the Eucharistic Prayer,
     - extraordinary ministers receiving Communion apart from the other
        faithful, as though concelebrants,  [Note: The 2000 GIRM states that
        EMEs do not approach the altar until after the priest's communion and
        do not self-communicate.]
     - the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Communion at Mass thus
         arbitrarily extending the concept of "a great number of the faithful

h. in ministry to the sick, the laity anointing with the Oil of the Sick, or any other oil,

i. except where the necessary conditions are verified by the diocesan bishop, laity receiving marital consent on behalf of the Church

j. widely interpreting the reasons permitting the deputation of a lay person as an extraordinary minister of baptism.

From the abuses pointed out by these 8 Roman dicasteries, it is clear than a practice which blurs the distinction of priest and people, such as everyone standing around the altar, is contrary to the sacramental nature of the Eucharistic liturgy as a sign of the Christ and the Church.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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