Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Noble Simplicity

The Detroit parish of the Assumption Grotto has had several blog sites quoting from its pastor's letter explaining why, with the support of his parish council, he has removed the "low" altar and restored use of the "main altar in his church.You can read at Te Deum Laudamus, the NLM, Fr Ray Blake's Blog and the Hermeneutic of Continuity. Here is part of what the pastor, Fr Perrone says:

The sanctuary now looks much as it did when the church was built in 1929, except for the two missing banks of ‘choir stalls’–those pews on each side, where altar boys sometimes now sit. (What could be done to restore the now absent stalls is a subject for another time). After the Second Vatican Council there was a popular movement in liturgical circles to have the Mass celebrated with the priest facing the people, even though this was never mandated by the Council nor by any subsequent directive of the Holy See. Grotto Church, like most others, began the practice with a temporary altar set up in the great open space before the high altar (which space had been created for the old solemn ceremonies of the Latin liturgy) so that a priest could celebrate Mass towards the people. While everyone could now see what was going on at the altar, the priest had his back symbolically to the Lord (the Eastward direction) or actually so (if the tabernacle were behind him). There were other logistical problems created by celebrating towards the people, such as in getting altar servers and concelebrating priests to look and perform decorously at Mass (which is one reason why so many Masses of recent decades have been celebrated so sloppily.) In 1978 Monsignor Sawher decided to replace the temporary low altar with a dignified and indeed beautiful marble altar that would in many ways be harmonious with the existing decor.

When I carefully studied the book The Spirit of the Liturgy by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), I realized that we ought to be facing East once again and not towards the people since that position inadvertently created a “closed circle” that did not aim towards heaven, towards God (East), but towards man (symbolically indicating that man and not God was the focal point of the Mass). In the early years of my pastorship here, the low altar was used variously: first, facing the people; then facing East; and then, with a move of the altar farther back some feet towards the main altar, with the priest still facing East. We were getting progressively more in line with an ideal. 

It struck me that the expanse of sanctuary now available for proper liturgical processions and activity is the ideal of noble simplicity referred to in the Document on the Liturgy from VII.  No matter what style the church architecture, even if it is ornate, seeing it through a broader prism, the eye is led to the most important place in the church - the altar on which the sacrifice of the Mass takes place.  Every eye-line draws you there, all the surrounding beauty is the context for where the eye is drawn and what happens there.

The facing the people position for the priest, rejected as far from the ideal by Pope Benedict in his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy", and never mandated by VII has become one of the most contentious areas of liturgical change.  Once a priest has returned to the ideal (as Pope Benedict describes it) there is no chance of the priest falling into the trap of "playing to the audience" for that part of the Mass, he is addressing God the Father, he looks at the sacred species of the crucifix.  There is a noble simplicity in where his attention is fixed.  My own experience of offering the Mass ad Dominum both in my previous parish of nine years and now here is that it is perfectly possible to do but more importantly, it is the major single thing that changes the sense of what is going on - for both priest and people.  This is, perhaps, why it is greeted with such antipathy by those so vehemently in favour of the liturgical innovations witnessed since, but not called for by, the Second Vatican Council.

Regarding the forward facing arrangement: "the whole scene is reminiscent of the studio set up for a television cooking show" which often has the effect of making the priest behave like Jamie Oliver and do a bit of explaining, entertaining and general banter while the cooking is going on. "From a sociological point of view, placing the priest behind the altar, facing the people, turns him into an actor, totally dependent on his audience and also into a salesman, offering his wares to the public." 

"The intended coming closer together around the Lord's supper table hardly contributes to a strengthening of the sense of community.  It is only the priest who is actually at the table."

(Quotes taken from Klaus Gamber's "The Reform of the Roman Liturgy" page 170/1.)

N.B. For readers from beyond these shores (25 from Turkey this week?!?) Jamie Oliver is a particularly ebullient TV chef.

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