Crowded Altar?

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Crowded Altar?

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 certain principles.

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 concelebrating.

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 altar.

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 their ministry.

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 first pews.

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 limited space.

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 possible.

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

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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 point.

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 — or 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 Eucharistic Prayer.

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

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