Central Focus at Mass

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Central Focus at Mass

ROME, 16 AUG. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: During the celebration of the Mass, where, who or what is the center of focus? Is it the altar or the tabernacle or the celebrant? I ask this question because, among other things, it has brought about disagreement/dissatisfaction and sharp division among a group in one of our parishes.

Priests who come and go also contribute to confusing the congregation; one would say this, and another would say that, based on their belief and conviction. I also ask because sometimes the settings at the sanctuary differ. In our case, the tabernacle is on the right, facing the altar. From the sacristy one passes in front of the tabernacle before reaching the celebrant's chair, the altar and the lectern. Kindly give an up-to-date liturgical teaching and perhaps your take on this matter. — V.C., Monrovia, Liberia

A: These is really only one true center of the Eucharistic celebration around which all the rest revolves, and that is Christ and his saving mystery.

This centrality of Christ is expressed in multiple ways during the celebration and in the structure of the church building.

From the architectural perspective the altar should be the central focus. The U.S. bishops' conference explains the centrality of the altar in its document "Built of Living Stones." To wit:

"§56 At the Eucharist, the liturgical assembly celebrates the ritual sacrificial meal that recalls and makes present Christ's life, death, and resurrection, proclaiming 'the death of the Lord until he comes.' The altar is 'the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes' and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed. Since the Church teaches that 'the altar is Christ,' its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it 'signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.'

"§57 The altar is the natural focal point of the sanctuary and is to be 'freestanding to allow the [priest] to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people.' Ordinarily, it should be fixed (with the base affixed to the floor) and with a table or mensa made of natural stone, since it represents Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Pt 2:4). The pedestal or support for the table may be fashioned from 'any sort of material, as long as it is becoming and solid.' In the United States it is permissible to use materials other than natural stone for a fixed altar, provided these materials are worthy, solid, properly constructed, and subject to the further judgment of the local ordinary. Parishes building new churches must follow the directives of the diocesan bishop regarding the kind of altar chosen and suitable materials for new altars.

"§58 Although there is no specified size or shape for an altar, it should be in proportion to the church. The shape and size should reflect the nature of the altar as the place of sacrifice and the table around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them. In considering the dimensions of the altar, parishes will also want to insure that the other major furnishings in the sanctuary are in harmony and proportion to the altar. The mensa should be large enough to accommodate the priest celebrant, the deacon, and the acolytes who minister there and should be able to hold The Sacramentary [The Roman Missal] and the vessels with the bread and wine. Impact and focal quality are not only related to placement, size, or shape, but also especially to the quality of the altar's design and worthiness of its construction. The altar should be centrally located in the sanctuary and the center of attention in the church.

"§59 During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the altar must be visible from all parts of the church but not so elevated that it causes visual or symbolic division from the liturgical assembly. Methods of elevation can be found that still allow access to the altar by ministers who need wheelchairs or who have other disabilities.

"§60 In the Church's history and tradition, the altar was often placed over the tombs of the saints or the relics of saints were deposited beneath the altar. The presence of relics of saints in the altar provides a witness to the Church's belief that the Eucharist celebrated on the altar is the source of the grace that won sanctity for the saints. The custom of placing small relics of martyrs or other saints in an altar stone and setting this in the mensa has changed since the Second Vatican Council. Relics of martyrs or other saints may be placed beneath the altar, as long as the relics are of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of a human body and that they are of undoubted authenticity. Relics are no longer placed on the altar or set into the mensa in an altar stone."
Although this document applies to the United States, it reflects universal Church teaching and guidance on this point.

The other focal points during the celebration are related to the altar: the ambo for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word, and the priest's chair from where he leads the community in prayer in the moments before and after ascending the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The tabernacle is not a center of attention during the Eucharistic celebration even though it should have a prominent and even central place in the church building for adoration outside of Mass. During Mass, if the tabernacle is located within the sanctuary, No. 274 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates, "The priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself."

If the tabernacle is within the sanctuary but not behind the altar, then the ministers genuflect toward the tabernacle.

The priest, although he acts in the person of Christ, is not really a focus of the celebration. He is indeed most effective when he manages to deflect attention from himself and guides the faithful toward Christ's mystery. Indeed, the use of vestments, song and special location are meant to emphasize the priest's ministerial role rather than his person. The priest is a "pontifex," a bridge between God and man, and a bridge may be admired from a distance but is only useful when we trample over it.

* * *

Follow-up: Central Focus at Mass [8-30-2011]

Pursuant to our Aug. 16 piece on the central focus of the Mass, an Indiana reader asked for a clarification. To wit: "Based on [the General Instruction of the Roman Missal] GIRM 274, it seems you are saying that it is not appropriate to genuflect at the tabernacle in the sanctuary during Mass except for when the clergy and ministers initially approach; i.e., the entrance procession, and depart; i.e., the recessional. Hence, following Communion, when the priest or deacon reposes the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, it is not proper to genuflect at that time since Mass is still under way and the cleric and ministers are not yet departing. This would also be the issue when approaching the tabernacle just prior to distributing Communion, to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament. […] Is this an accurate reading of what you stated? On this particular point I seek clarity since that is the practice of every Mass I have ever participated with a tabernacle in the sanctuary — to genuflect when retrieving or reposing the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle during Mass. I also realize it is a different issue if the tabernacle is not in the sanctuary."

The reference in our original piece, and the situation contemplated by the GIRM, was not this particular situation but regarded ceremonial actions and processions during Mass that might require passing in front of the tabernacle.

The situation of what to do when opening the tabernacle to obtain extra hosts for distribution is a separate question.

The overarching principle is that a genuflection is made whenever the tabernacle is opened and also before closing it after having reposed the Blessed Sacrament. This would also be true during Mass, especially if the tabernacle is at some distance from the altar of sacrifice.

However, I would be of the opinion that the genuflection should be omitted when hosts are taken immediately before communion in those cases where the tabernacle is located close behind the altar. This would not be in virtue of GIRM, No. 274, but because Christ is already really present just a few paces away upon the altar. Even in this case, the genuflection should be made before closing the tabernacle door when the ciborium is replaced there after communion. Another case of genuflection during Mass is when the torch bearers and thurifer leave the sanctuary after the doxology of the Eucharistic Prayer. In this case they do not genuflect toward the tabernacle but toward Christ really present upon the altar.

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