Where Altar Crucifixes Should Face

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Where Altar Crucifixes Should Face

ROME, 2 MAY 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: When an altar crucifix is used during the celebration of Mass, ought the corpus to be facing toward the priest or toward the congregation? — D.V., Washington, D.C.

A: The indications in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are sparse regarding the direction of the figure of Christ on the cross:

"No 308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations."

Taking our cue from Monsignor Peter Elliott's liturgy manual, we might add that the crucifix should be located on, next to, immediately behind or suspended above the altar. It should be visibly related to the altar as viewed by the people.

As Monsignor Elliott comments: "The liturgical crucifix is not primarily for the private devotion of the celebrant but is a sign in the midst of the Eucharistic assembly proclaiming that the Mass is the same Sacrifice as Calvary."

Thus, strictly speaking, the altar crucifix is in relationship to the altar, and not just to the priest, and for this reason the "corpus" is usually turned toward the altar.

An altar crucifix can be somewhat off-putting for the faithful who can see only the reverse of the cross. This is a relatively new problem as, before the liturgical reform, the whole assembly, priest and people, faced both altar and crucifix in the same direction.

For this reason the best solution appears to be either the large crucifix permanently behind or above the altar.

If this is not possible, then the very flexibility of the norms would allow for a processional cross, or a larger but movable crucifix on a stand, which is placed near the altar in such a position that clearly relates to the altar while remaining visible to the faithful. ZE06050220

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Follow-up: Where Altar Crucifixes Should Face [5-16-2006]

After our column on the position of the altar crucifix (May 2), a priest from San Diego, California, asked:

"If the crucifix is on the altar — and if the priest is celebrating 'versus populum' — should the crucifix face the priest or face the people? Based on GIRM, No. 308: 'There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation.'

"Since the concern here is visibility 'to the assembled congregation,' it would seem also that a crucifix on the mensa of the altar should be turned to face the people."

I am not convinced of this interpretation. The mention of the figure of Christ in the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal was inserted above all to eliminate the nascent fashion for bare crosses. I believe that the visibility requirement refers above all to the cross itself.

The rubrics of the Ceremonial of Bishops in use before the conciliar reforms already foresaw the possibility of the altar "versus populum." This book, while mandating that the cross be visible to all, also prescribed that the corpus be placed toward the altar ("cum imagine sanctissimi Crucifixi versa ad interiorem altaris faciem").

Another priest suggested having an altar crucifix designed with a figure on both sides.

Although there do not seem to be present norms to forbid this practice, it was not permitted in earlier times.

Some manuals recommended the use of other images on the side of the cross (facing the people) such as the fish symbol or even another image of the Redeemer such as the Good Shepherd or King of Kings.

With regard to visibility many local synods established a minimum size of 40 centimeters (16 inches) for the vertical to 22 centimeters (8.8 inches) for the horizontal bar, although in practice the altar cross was often larger.

A decree of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) also established that another cross was not necessary if a large crucifix was painted or sculptured as part of an altarpiece.

Although this decree is no longer operative it helps us to give an affirmative answer to another question from Bloomington, Illinois, as to whether a large crucifix, suspended from the ceiling or placed on the wall behind the altar, is sufficient.

No. 129 of the present Ceremonial of Bishops recommends that the processional cross be used as an altar cross for the bishop's Mass. If, however, a cross is already present, then the processional cross is put away until the end of Mass. ZE06051620

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