The Chair of the Priest Celebrant

Author: Father Edward McNamara


The Chair of the Priest Celebrant

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," states:

"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 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."

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 considerations:

"§ 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 [1988], no. 40.)"

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 liturgical logistics.

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 celebration. ZE06062022

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Follow-up: The Chair of the Priest Celebrant [7-4-2006]

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 chair."

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 celebrant."

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

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