Vatican moves to save high altars: a bit late in the day

Vatican moves to save high altars: a bit late in the day

Simon Matthews

Coinciding with the 'AD2000' report last month on demolition work carried out on the historic high altar of St Francis' Church, Melbourne, an article appeared in Australia's biggest circulation newspaper, the Melbourne 'Herald-Sun' (28.9.94), titled "Altar alterations spark anger." Its findings confirmed those of 'AD2000.' Subsequent inquiries indicate that the Blessed Sacrament Fathers favour the eventual removal of the entire St Francis' high altar on the grounds that this is required by the Church's "liturgical directives."

As the following article by 'AD2000's' British correspondent, Simon Matthews, makes clear, the Church's directives (including a 1993 Vatican statement) point in the opposite direction to that sought at St Francis' Church, and in numerous other churches where beautiful church altars have been destroyed over the past 20 years.

A recent - and long overdue - Vatican statement has vindicated the efforts of those seeking to resist the ravages of the Catholic Church's liturgical vandals. Unfortunately, the damage has already been done in many of Australia's parish churches, but as last month's AD2000 report on historic St Francis' Church, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, indicates, the iconoclastic urge is far from diminished.

This seemingly irresistible urge to remove traditional high altars from churches, as appears to be the case with St Francis', is usually based on what are purported to be the liturgical reforms mandated by the Second Vatican Council. However, Vatican II most certainly did not mandate any destruction of such altars. From where, then, did this vandalistic practice originate?

Seeking to implement the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the administrative body Consilium, together with the Sacred Congregation for Rites, published the Instruction Inter Oecumenici in 1964, which stated: "The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking round it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there" (n.91, emphases added).

This directive became part of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal definitively promulgated in 1970 by Pope Paul VI (no.262), with the addition of the sentence "The main altar should ordinarily be a fixed consecrated altar."

Reading the documents, we see that there is a preference for a freestanding altar, and that Mass facing the people is permitted. Neither, however, are mandated. This preference and permission, combined with the sentence added by the General Instruction which reiterated the thoroughly traditional liturgical precept that there should be one fixed main altar (not to exclude other altars in side chapels, which post-conciliar documents clearly allow), has led to two erroneous conclusions.

The first is that Mass must be celebrated facing the people. This is simply untenable. The Second Vatican Council most certainly did not prescribe this practice. Moreover, in the light of the studies of liturgists such as Msgr Klaus Camber, the theological basis, let alone the liturgical, pastoral or psychological effects of this practice, can be said to be at least highly questionable.

Flawed banner

The second error is that churches must be reordered to conform with the above. It is under this flawed banner that the iconoclasts have marched into churches and destroyed altars, works of greater or lesser artistic and historical significance - altars nonetheless - frequently constructed from the bequests of the faithful so that the Sacrifice of the Mass may be offered thereupon for the living and the dead.

Recently, the Congregation for Divine Worship has "clarified" these issues.

In an unsigned Italian editorial in the Congregation's journal Notitiae (May 1993), published no doubt in response to the recent widespread publicity given to the works of Msgr Gamber, a number of "guiding points" are given. The third of these is a significant clarification (if one was needed), that calls for an end to the reign of iconoclasm in our churches:

"The placing of the altar facing the people is certainly something in the present liturgical legislation that is desirable. It is not, nevertheless, an absolute value over and beyond all others. It is necessary to take into account cases in which the sanctuary does not admit of an altar facing the people, or it is not possible to preserve the preceding altar with its ornamentation in such a way that another altar facing the people can be understood to be the principal altar. In these cases, it is more faithful to liturgical sense to celebrate at the existing altar with the back turned to the people rather than maintain two altars in the same sanctuary. The principle of the unicity of the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating facing the people."

The fifth "guiding point" of the same editorial points out that "Provisional arrangements cannot be justified any longer." This is only common sense, if we take the liturgy seriously.

In the light of this clarification. if one altar in the main sanctuary of a church has to go - and it appears that one must - it is clearly not the fixed, consecrated altar (the high altar). It is the table that has so often been set up in front of them.

Where does this leave St Francis?

The full text of the Congregation's editorial was translated by Fr John T. Zuhlsdorf and published in 'Sacred Music' (Church of Saint Agnes, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 55103, U.S.A: Vol 120, No. 4: Winter 1994). The Spring 1994 issue of the same journal contains Fr Zuhlsdorf's extensive comment on the editorial.

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