In a terrific essay which appears on his parish website, Father Jay Scott Newman, pastor at St. Mary’s Catholic Church of Greenville, SC, catechizes his flock on the reasons for “turning towards the Lord together” by having priest and people face liturgical East on the same side of the altar. He addresses history, misconceptions about Vatican II, and what constitutes authentic participation. Fr. Newman also recommends Pope Benedict’s famous “Inner East of Faith,” a.k.a., the Benedictine Altar Arrangement, first explained in his modern classic the Spirit of the Liturgy. Although we don’t see it all that much around these parts, the Catholic Telegraph of Cincinnati recently captured Bishop Binzer celebrating an anniversary Mass at Dayton’s Holy Cross Church facing an altar crucifix. Since visiting priests and bishops generally take their cues from the host parish, this arrangement may have been chosen by administrator Father Eric Bowman. If so, good for him.
3. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was one of most thoughtful and respected critics of the unintended consequences which flow from the priest and people facing each other across the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. Ratzinger argued that this arrangement, in addition to being a novelty in Christian practice, has the effect of creating a circle of congregation and celebrant closed in upon itself rather than allowing the congregation and celebrant to be a pilgrim people together turned towards the Lord. And this closed circle, in turn, too easily renders the Eucharist more of a horizontal celebration of the congregation gathered than a vertical offering of the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. This flattening of divine worship into a self-referential celebration is, in part, why too many Catholics experience Mass as much less than the source and summit of the Church’s life, and the remedy for this malady is to open the closed circle and experience the power of turning together towards the Lord.
4. This can be done primarily in two ways: 1) return to the ancient and universal practice of the priest standing with the people on one side of the altar as together they face the East of the sacred liturgy, the place from which the glory of the Lord shines upon us, or 2) even when the priest and people remain separated on opposite sides of the altar, place a cross at the center of the altar to allow both celebrant and congregation to face the Lord. Pope Benedict, through his writing and by his example, encouraged priests everywhere to work towards these goals to enrich the experience of divine worship and free us from the danger of solipsism which is contained in self-referential ways of praying — a danger against which we have been repeatedly warned by Pope Francis.
Tip, the New Liturgical Movement.