|ROME, 4 MAY 2004 (ZENIT).
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.
Q: At our Church, there are so many people on the altar for Sunday Mass,
that it is very distracting. There are two readers, one for each of the
readings; there is the deacon who assists the priest and reads the Gospel;
there is the priest who celebrates Mass and another priest who delivers
the homily, as well as two acolytes. Is it correct to have so many people
on the altar?
J.D., Syracuse, New York
A: I think that a distinction has to be made. On the one hand it is good
that your parish has a body of people willing to offer themselves at the
service of the liturgy. On the other, there is the question of the best
possible distribution of the various ministers.
Although the answer to this question largely depends on the structure and
size of the presbytery, the disposition must be carried out according to
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) No. 294 indicates some
of these principles: "The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other
ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should
also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should
be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar."
No. 310 of the GIRM also deals with this subject: "The chair of the priest
celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of
directing the prayer. ... Likewise, seats should be arranged in the
sanctuary for concelebrating priests as well as for priests who are
present for the celebration in choir dress but who are not concelebrating.
"The seat for the deacon should be placed near that of the celebrant.
Seats for the other ministers are to be arranged so that they are clearly
distinguishable from those for the clergy and so that the ministers are
easily able to fulfill the function entrusted to them."
From this it is clear that, if possible, the seats of the various
ministers should be within the sanctuary according to a certain hierarchy.
The chair of the priest and the deacon should always be in the sanctuary.
If there are few concelebrants they should also have seats in the
sanctuary as well as priests who are present in choir dress without
However, if for a good reason, such as the number of concelebrants or the
structure of the sanctuary, it is not feasible to fit everybody within the
sanctuary with decorum, then they may occupy the pews closest to the
In this case it is best that concelebrating priests should enter the
sanctuary after the prayer over the gifts so as not to impede the
faithful's seeing the sacred action taking place upon the altar.
Acolytes should sit within the sanctuary but in a place that differs from
the clergy. It is preferable, however, that they should not occupy seats
needed by concelebrating priests in the sanctuary and should be provided
with places near the sanctuary from which they may conveniently carry out
Even in this latter case there may be exceptions as some sanctuaries, such
as those which retain the altar rail, may be difficult to enter. Here the
dignified service of the liturgy might require that the acolytes remain
within the sanctuary even though there are concelebrants occupying the
Readers follow similar criteria to acolytes although since their ministry
is briefer they may enter the sanctuary only to exercise it and leave
afterward, especially during concelebrations and in sanctuaries with
In conclusion, although the general principle is that those who fulfill a
ministry during the celebration should ideally occupy a place within the
precincts of the sanctuary, this general norm is not absolute. It is
subject to the limitations imposed by concrete circumstances of place and
the specific celebration.
It is certainly understandable that an overly cluttered sanctuary could
constitute a source of distraction to the faithful, especially during the
Eucharistic Prayer, and it is probably best to avoid the situation if
At the same time, we must remember that the presence of a full complement
of ministers enhances rather than detracts from the overall dignity of the
celebration. It also allows for the performance of special rites such as
the procession with the Book of the Gospels and the incensing of the
Blessed Sacrament during the consecration. ZE04050421
Follow-up: Crowded Altars [05-18-2004]
Several questions arose regarding our comments on crowded altars (May 4).
One reader observed that often it is not so much the number of people in
the sanctuary as their behavior that causes distraction. He has a valid
Acolytes, readers and especially priests should strive to maintain a
general ambiance of reverence and recollection while within the precincts
of the sanctuary. They should avoid surveying the assembly, waving,
nodding and smiling to people they know, commenting among themselves
even falling asleep during the homily.
In other words, they should avoid any gestures that draw attention to
themselves and away from the sacred action.
A correspondent from San Diego, California, asked about the practice of
"Life Teen Masses." She wrote: "At my parish they are called up to the
altar just before the Our Father and don't leave until after they receive
Communion. Is this not in line with GIRM?"
Other readers had previously sent in questions about similar practices
although referring to gathering around the altar during the entire
I must admit to having very little experience regarding Life Teen. I have
encountered some excellent priestly vocations that have sprung from their
midst. But this does not mean that all of their liturgical practices are
commendable. From the point of view of liturgical law the practice
described would not be correct.
While it is true that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or other
recent documents do not specifically forbid the faithful from surrounding
the altar, this is understood by the general context and by the documents
determining the location of the ministers and the faithful.
With respect to the proper place for the faithful, GIRM No. 311 says:
"Places should be arranged with appropriate care for the faithful so that
they are able to participate in the sacred celebrations visually and
spiritually, in the proper manner. It is expedient for benches or seats
usually to be provided for their use. The custom of reserving seats for
private persons, however, is reprehensible. Moreover, benches or chairs
should be arranged, especially in newly built churches, in such a way that
the people can easily take up the postures required for the different
parts of the celebration and can easily come forward to receive Holy
Communion. Care should be taken that the faithful be able not only to see
the priest, the deacon, and the lectors but also, with the aid of modern
technical means, to hear them without difficulty."
Thus the practice described not only blurs the distinction between
sanctuary and nave but creates a visual impediment and distraction to the
rest of the congregation.
While not doubting the good faith of the promoters of these initiatives I
would question if they are really necessary for the goal of bringing teens
closer to Christ. Perhaps the long-term disadvantages with respect to
developing a true understanding of liturgy outweigh the short-term
benefits of an apparently greater active participation.
The very flexibility of the reformed liturgy surely allows for adaptation
to the particular needs of adolescents while fully respecting the laws and
nature of liturgy itself.
Another correspondent, from Los Altos, California, asks: "Our pastor has
recently begun a new format wherein the two people who bring up the gifts
are to stand on either side of the altar. The priest will then take the
bread, offer prayer, then the wine, offer his prayer. When he finishes and
sets the chalice back on the altar, the two people are dismissed. So,
directly at the altar in this time frame is the priest, the acolyte and
two gift bearers. Is this permissible?"
GIRM No. 73 states: "At the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist the
gifts, which will become Christ's Body and Blood, are brought to the
altar. First, the altar, the Lord's table, which is the center of the
whole Liturgy of the Eucharist, is prepared by placing on it the corporal,
purificator, Missal, and chalice (unless the chalice is prepared at the
credence table). The offerings are then brought forward. It is
praiseworthy for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They
are then accepted at an appropriate place by the priest or the deacon and
carried to the altar."
GIRM No. 140 stipulates that if there is no deacon, the priest receives
the gifts at a suitable place assisted by an acolyte.
Thus the practice described is not correct. Instead, the gifts should be
received together by the priest and then carried to the altar, preferably
by the deacons and acolytes so that the priest does not need to carry
anything while proceeding to the altar.
The appropriate place for receiving the gifts is usually standing at the
front of the sanctuary. The function of assisting the priest at the altar
belongs properly to the deacon and acolyte and not to those who have
brought up the gifts. ZE04051822