"TURNED-AROUND" ALTARS Monsignor Richard J. Schuler
Father Klaus Gamber, who is recently deceased, has written for many years about the liturgical reforms that followed on the II Vatican Council. (available from Foundation for Catholic Reform, 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524, $23) has recently been translated from German into French and English, and has provoked considerable comment in the European press.
One of the points considered by Father Gamber is the position of the altar with reference to the congregation. One of the most evident reforms following the council is the practice of having the priest face toward the congregation. Much of the propaganda that brought about the priests' change in position alleged that it was only a return to a custom of the early Church. History and archeology were both cited (but without true facts) as evidence in the claims. Without much study or questioning, priests and parishes across the country accepted the stories and tore out their altars, replacing them with tables of wood and blocks of stone that allowed the priest to face toward the congregation. The designs of the original architects, the over-all lines and focus of the church were set aside and thrown out. In most cases the artistic results were bad, and at best the new arrangement looked like a remodelled dress or suit.
The destruction of the church and sanctuary was unfortunate and often costly. In some parts of the country, the damage done to the churches by the altar-bashing reformers was greater than what the Vandals did to Spain or North Africa. But the greater evil was the damage done to the liturgical presence and actions of the priest. He was told to make eye-contact with the people, to direct his words to them, to become the "presider" at the community assembly, the "facilitator" of the active participation of the congregation. The notion of the Mass as sacrifice was discouraged, while the idea of a common meal was promoted. The altar became the table, much like in the days of Archbishop Cranmer in England.
Among those asked to comment on Father Gamber's book was Cardinal Ratzinger, who was interviewed in the Italian journal, (April 24, 1993). He explained that there is no historical data, either in writing or from archeology, that establishes the position of the altar in the early centuries as having been turned toward the people. To look at the people was not the question in the early Church, but looking toward the east where Christ would appear in His second coming, the parousia, was most important. Thus church buildings and the altars were "oriented" (faced to the east) so that the priest especially would see Him on His arrival. If because of the contour of the land or some other obstacle, the church could not be so located, then the priest, always looking toward the east, would have to stand behind the altar and face toward the people. That he was looking at the congregation was only accidental to the eastward position he took. Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome is a good example of this, because the church could not have the usual west entrance because of the Vatican Hill.
The cardinal explains further that the almost universal change to altars facing toward the people is not a decree of the II Vatican Council. Nor was it impossible before the council to offer Mass toward the people. A tradition of fifteen centuries of priests' standing at the head of their congregations was swept away in a few years. That tradition admitted of exceptions. I, myself, probably had a record of celebrating Mass in Latin, facing the people, more than any other priest in the country before the council. The church where I had weekend duty had such an altar in the crypt, and I offered Mass twice each Sunday for nearly ten years, all prior to 1963.
The cardinal was asked if the Church would revert to the ancient tradition practiced before the council. He replied that there would not be a change "at this time:" He said that the people are far too confused now by so many changes so quickly introduced. But he did not say that it would not happen at a future date. Surely, a great boost in restoring reverence to the celebration of the Mass would be given by a return. Father Jungmann, whose work on the history of the liturgy () was in large part responsible for the introduction of the change, had second thoughts about the value of the change.
The interesting aspect of the discussion brought about by Father Gamber's book is that little by little the propaganda and false assertions invoked to bring about the liturgical reforms following the council are now being exposed and found to be without truth or basis, historical, archeological or liturgical. The errors swallowed by the clergy and laity alike in the sixties included such lies as the elimination of Latin, the forbidding of choirs, tearing out of communion rails, statues, tabernacles, and vestments-all in the name of the council or perhaps the "spirit of the council:" Thank God the truth is beginning to re-appear.
This article appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of "Sacred Music." Published by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55103.