ROME, 20 JUNE 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of
liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: Could you tell me the correct position for the
presidential chair in a normal, albeit small, sanctuary? Our sanctuary
is about to be reordered (long overdue!), but there is a difference of
opinion as to the correct position
and I cannot find an authoritative source for the answer.
R.E., Southwark, England
A: The precise location of the chair is not
definitively determined in any official document. It also will depend on
other factors such as the location of the tabernacle.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No.
310, regarding "The Chair for the Priest Celebrant and Other Seats,"
"The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his
office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. Thus
the best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the
head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other
circumstances impede this: for example, if the great distance would
interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered
assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the center behind the altar. Any
appearance of a throne, however, is to be avoided. It is appropriate
that, before being put into liturgical use, the chair be blessed
according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.
"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
"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
The U.S. bishops also touch on this subject in
their official guidelines, "Built of Living Stones," Nos. 63-65. Apart
from repeating the norms contained in the Missal, it adds some further
"§ 63 The chair of the priest celebrant stands 'as
a symbol of his office of presiding over the assembly and of directing
prayer.' An appropriate placement of the chair allows the priest
celebrant to be visible to all in the congregation. The chair reflects
the dignity of the one who leads the community in the person of Christ,
but is never intended to be remote or grandiose. The priest celebrant's
chair is distinguished from the seating for other ministers by its
design and placement. 'The seat for the deacon should be placed near
that of the celebrant.' In the cathedral, in addition to the bishop's
chair or 'cathedra,' which is permanent, an additional chair will be
needed for use by the rector or priest celebrant.
"§ 64 .The [chair] is not used by a lay person who
presides at a service of the word with Communion or a Sunday celebration
in the absence of a priest. (Cf. Congregation for Divine Worship,
Directory for Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest , no.
From these indications it should be possible to
decide the most appropriate location of the chair in accordance with the
concrete situation of the sanctuary.
In theory the most appropriate position, as the
documents state, is behind the altar facing the people. There are
certainly some fine examples of this distribution, especially in some
newer churches as well as some venerable ancient ones.
In practice, however, the position at the head of
the sanctuary is often impracticable. It can easily impede effective
communication because of distance, or because it becomes necessary to
raise the chair above the altar level to assure visibility and thus
assume a throne like aura. It is also not possible whenever the
tabernacle remains in the center of the sanctuary.
Thus, many places also opt to locate the chair on
the side opposite the ambo. According to the size and shape of the
sanctuary and in relationship to the seating pattern of the faithful,
the chair may be slightly behind, on an axis with, or slightly before,
the position of the altar.
Stylistically the chair may recall the design of
ambo and altar although this is not a strict necessity. Unlike the altar
and ambo, the chair is not a place within the sanctuary and, while it
should have a stable position, it is not necessarily fixed or immovable.
Indeed, pastoral experience shows that occasions do
arise when being able to move the chair a few feet can ease complex
Only in exceptional circumstances such as priestly
ordinations, and only if no other practical solution is available,
should the chair be placed in front of the altar. This position tends to
detract from the centrality of the altar of sacrifice during the
* * *
Follow-up: The Chair of the Priest Celebrant
Several readers asked for clarifications on the location of the priest's
chair (June 20).
A South African reader enquired if "the best position should be where
the presider can sit and preach from, in case he is to preach from his
Another priest, an associate pastor from New York, asked: "I am
wondering if comment could be offered on the location of the seating for
altar servers (acolytes) when serving Mass? In my parish, they are
seated on either side of the presider. I believe this is inappropriate."
If I may begin with a brief terminological comment. The word "presider"
has gained some currency among liturgists, but I usually refrain from
using it in the context of the Mass as it does not appear in the
official liturgical books.
The official translation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal
(GIRM) does speak of presidential prayers, texts, office or presidential
chair, but the person who presides is referred to most often as "priest
Returning to our main theme, GIRM No. 136 states: "The priest, standing
at the chair or at the ambo itself or, when appropriate, in another
suitable place, gives the homily. When the homily is completed, a period
of silence may be observed."
Thus the possibility of preaching from the chair is a factor in deciding
where to locate it, but hardly the most important one as other locations
are available. In most cases the basic criteria given last time for the
chair's location would also make it a suitable place for preaching.
I would also observe that only the bishop preaches while seated. Even if
a priest delivers the homily from the chair he does so standing.
The text of the GIRM quoted in the previous column clarified that only
the deacon's chair, or that of eventual concelebrants, may be placed
near the presidential chair.
The earlier custom of placing the acolytes on either side of the priest
should therefore be discontinued and another suitable place be found for
seating the servers from where they can exercise their ministry.
Churches that have installed fixed seats or benches beside the priest's
chair might have to continue the previous custom for lack of viable
alternatives. In such cases the norm might sometimes be fulfilled by
leaving a suitable space on either side between the servers and the
priest celebrant. ZE06070424