Preface note: If it looks like I stole this from Fr. Z, I’ll admit readily that I got the idea from him. But as you will see, I cite at least one source he did not; also, my translation of GIRM 299 is slightly different than his.
It’s not uncommon at all to see parishes from before Vatican II with their high altars, yet in front of the grand altar is a bland table, put there in the name of the Council. I’ve wondered often why this is. Or perhaps someone building a new church would like it to have a high altar against the wall, but feels that this is disobedient and, erring on the side of caution, either scraps that plan or puts a freestanding table in front of it “to be safe”.
I’ve come to realize, my friends, that the reason for all this is one, little part in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. Specifically, paragraph 299. Let me give you the Latin text of that paragraph first, and then I’ll talk about the English. You must realize that the General Instruction was first written in Latin; thus, whatever WE read is a translation, and it is indeed possible that the translation is faulty.
The Latin text reads, “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possible sit”.
Now, the “official” translation reads, “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible“.
Thus, when it’s translated this way, the “quod expedit” (which is expedient) of the Latin text seems to refer to Mass facing the people. But there’s another way this paragraph could be translated, which I present below:
“It is better that the altar be built separated from the wall, which is expedient wherever possible, so that it may be easily walked around and so that, on it, celebration facing the people can be achieved”.
However, seeing as the “official” translation puts “which is desirable” after the mention of Mass facing the people, what we do in light of this? Does this mean Mass must be celebrated facing the people?
Then, if the revised translation is right, it still sounds like the altar needs to be separated from the wall. Does this mean that if an old church has a beautiful altar against the wall, it must use the bland table instead? Does this mean that altars must, at all cost, be built away from the wall, and thus high altars with their reredos and Tabernacles will become a thing of the past?
No to both.
How do I say this so presumptuously? I’m not the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, right? Surely, if the GIRM says something, I can’t just override it!
This, my friends, is true. Yet we have it on good authority that the statements in paragraph 299, whether translated badly or not, don’t constitute an obligation. Let me prove that to you.
The official Church itself has sometimes seen fit to to ignore them.
I can be very brief as regards the question of Mass facing the people: the Holy Father said in The Spirit of the Liturgy that Mass facing East (not the people) remains ESSENTIAL. He even intensified that statement further by adding, as though anticipating objection, “This is not something accidental, but essential”.
As regards the supposed necessity of the altar being built apart from the wall:
For a first and most prominent example, Pope Benedict actually REMOVED the free-stranding altar which had been added to the Sistine Chapel and now uses the original altar attached to the wall! And he has not used that altar to celebrate the pre-Vatican II form of the Mass, to which the General Instruction wouldn’t apply. No, he has celebrated the new Mass. Faced away from the people, at an altar attached to the wall. He’s done this many times. Surely, the Holy Father wouldn’t do this and thus cause scandal to the faithful if the statement in the GIRM were binding?
Secondly, as regards the question of putting a new altar in a church in addition to its pre-Vatican II altar, so that church would have a free-standing altar at which Mass could be said facing the people, this question was cleared up in 1993 with the following statement from the Congregation for Divine Worship:
“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“.
From this we can infer two things: 1. As has been said, Mass facing the people and freestanding altars are not “mandatory”; 2. There should not be two altars in the same sanctuary, and generally, the typical post-Vatican II table should never have been added in the first place!
Now if only this would get into the ears of the common parish priest…
God bless us, everyone, and pray for the next Holy Father.