Sunday, April 30, 2006

Critical Mass: The View From Arlington

(Warning: The following, although part of a continuing occasional series, nonetheless employs various ecclesiastical references of an arcane and highly specialized nature, so as to cause an eventual glazing over of the eyes by the average reader. Discretion is advised.)

Today, for the first time since 1970, the form of the Roman Mass identified as "Tridentine"* was licitly and publicly celebrated in the Diocese of Arlington, at Saint Lawrence Parish in Franconia.

It was a full house. The schola "Canticum Novum" was on hand to lead the singing, and the faithful joined in the hymns and chants with fervor. The celebrant, Father Paul de Ladurantaye, gave a moving homily on the gospel parable of the Good Shepherd. He concluded by reminding us that, in the reformed calendar, today was the feast of Pope St Pius V, who codified the Roman Missal for normative use in the Western church in 1570.

But the real tip of the Black Hat goes to the unsung hero of this notable event for traditional Catholics in Northern Virginia. Ed Snider has been dilligently leading one petition drive after another, meeting personally with two bishops of Arlington, over the course of nearly twenty years. Finally, on this auspicious occasion, all that banging of his head against the wall has finally paid off!

There were a few surprises. A seminarian from the Fraternity of St Peter was on hand as master of ceremonies, as well as serving as the tonsured lector for chanting the Epistle. People accustomed to singing the Pater Noster in both English and Latin, were unaware that in the 1962 Missal, only the priest chants it. They still have yet to learn, despite a discreet attempt by one of the acolytes on the side to quell them. I've seen situations, though, where certain practices discontinued by the 1962 Missal, such as the Confetior before Communion, persist without challenge. That didn't happen here. In any case, and in light of such latitude in practice, singing the Lord's Prayer by the assembly doesn't appear to be the worst thing that could happen.

BUT... what surprised me in particular, was avoiding the use of the fixed free-standing altar, in favor of the edifice with the reredos and tabernacle situated behind it, that which would have been the main altar in a previous era. I've seen this practice adopted before, and so I'm sure there's a very creative explanation somewhere. I'd love to hear it.

But here's the thing. One of the conditions of the Indult is, that those for whom it is extended accept the validity of the reformed Roman Missal, also known as the Missal of Paul VI, or by that obnoxious pejorative term, "the Novus Ordo." Assuming it cannot be moved out of the way, the only reason not to use that which is officially the main altar in the sanctuary, in favor of something that would have served that purpose in another era, is that the former is unsuitable for offering sacrifice.

Since a free-standing altar can be used "ad orientem" (facing East, or by the misnomer "with the priest's back to the people"), its suitability cannot be questioned -- except by those who would disparage it as "the Cranmer table," a reference that would bely its sacrificial usage. But if you're going to take that position (and this happens in numerous other situations, so I figure this is nothing new), then it's a very short walk to questioning whether that which takes place upon it is indeed a Sacrifice -- and calling into question the granting of the Indult in the first place. If we're going to placate the legitimate sensibilities of people who are attached to the traditional usage, is this honestly where we wish to make it?

In his book The History and the Future of the Roman Liturgy (original French edition 2001, English edition by Ignatius Press 2005), Denis Crouan writes:
Contrary to what is sometimes supposed, liturgical tradition has always required that the altar be separate from the wall of the church so that it can be in a position of prominence [mis en valeur]. It was not until the medieval period that the custom began of providing the altar wit h a backing or "reredos," thereby making it impossible to walk around it. Then gradually, in parish churches on a smaller scale, the altar was moved twoard the back of the apse and, from the fifteenth century on, a tabernacle was added for the reservation of the Blessed Sacrament.
If the excerpt from Crouan isn't enough to convince anyone, surely what is in effect "the elephant in the sanctuary" looks damned ridiculous!


+ + +

* The Missal codified by Pope Pius V following the end of the Council of Trent (hence the name "Tridentine"), merely standardized practices already in use in Rome and the surrounding dioceses for at least two centuries, much of which developed gradually from earlier forms dating to the time of Pope Gregory the Great in the fifth century -- a lineage which gives rise to a lesser-known but more accurate term, "Gregorian."


Dad29 said...

One can accept Crouan's statement and at the same time regard the "back-wall" altar placement as an improvement, similar to adding the prayers at the foot of the altar.

Remember that the line of attack on the Old Rite was always "[evil] accretions," things added after the "pure" year (what? 50AD? 200 AD?)

That line of attack is silly on its face. At the same time, one can argue that SOME "accretions" are not useful--for example (also from Crouan's book) having the choir sing AND the priest say the Propers during a High Mass.

David L Alexander said...

If it is an improvement, you've still got this big thing standing in the way, which people recognize as the altar. The altar is the centerpiece of the sanctuary. Either you use it for that purpose, or you are seen NOT using it.

Not a pretty sight.

Rich Leonardi said...


Great, informative post. FWIW, Old Saint Mary's here in Cincinnati uses the fixed, free-standing altar for its indult Masses. I'm not sure whether there is a back altar available. When I visited St. John Cantius in Chicago, the celebrant used the edifice/"wall" altar for the "new Mass" celebrated in Latin. I do not believe that church has a free-standing altar, but I may be mistaken.

Anonymous said...

I've been to indult Masses here in England where the free-standing altar is used, and obviously it's OK. But the most beautiful and moving Mass I've been to was last year's Latin Mass Society annual Mass at Westminster Cathedral, where the administrator allowed the free-standing altar to be moved so that the Mass was said at the old high altar, under its huge baldachino (sp?) - it meant that the movement around the sanctuary - which was filled with about 20 priests and 15 or 16 acolytes) was unimpeded. It was a sort of liturgical dance - only done by priests, not middle-aged ladies in leotards and floaty chiffon.

Anonymous said...

This is a very odd objection, and one never seen in my long experience with the implementation of the Indult. Recapturing the sense of the sacred is part and parcel of the deisre to see the return of the old rite, and the various 'ad populum' banquet tables -- that tends to be how the people who installed them referred to them -- hardly fit the bill when the old high altar is still there. Plus most are awkwardly placed if the celebrant faces 'ad orientem'. Perhaps the best illustration of what a non-issue this is the Pontifical Mass at St. Patrick's celebrated by Cardinal Stickler in, I think, 1997. There were dozens and dozens of clergy attending in choir, and they simply walked right around the Novus Ordo altar to take their place in the stalls.

St. John Cantius has a re-moveable N.O. altar, which is the best solution when the two rites coexist (I'm allowed to use this terminology now after Cardinal Castillon-Hoyos' sermon of 2004).

David L Alexander said...

Just so you know, the free-standing altar at the church in question is fixed. It was installed as part of a beautiful re-renovation of an ugly-modern-on-the-outside structure about a decade ago. The place where the reredos and tabernacle are located was never meant to be used as an altar.

Hoyos has an impressive title, but it doesn't empower him to re-write history. There is no such thing as two Roman Rites. Whether the two forms of that rite can "coexist"... we shall see.

David L Alexander said...


Old St Mary's in Cincinnati returned to the use of its Old High Altar for the Latin Mass a couple of years ago. The free-standing one is removable, and is used for the German and English Masses. (Did I mention the one I described in Arlington was fixed?) The High Altar has the distinction of being "privileged," which means it contains the remains of a martyr given to the parish by the Pope. It also means that a Requiem Mass celebrated at this altar releases the soul for whom it is offered from purgatory. Not a bad deal.

Anonymous said...

Reposted from Open Book --

I have a question for all the "Trads" -- Do all the "Indult" Masses use the 1962 Missal? If so, is that sufficient to meet the many objections that so many Traditionalists have? Is the 1962 Missal the same rite used for the preceding 500 years, which so many Traditionalists insist that we have, or does it differ in some respects?

I have a Missal published in the 1940s, and it appears slightly different from one I have from 1961, which both are different from the 1990s Indult Missal that I also have (and different from the 1964 and 1965 Missals/Order of Mass I have as well).

In any event, I didn't realize, before our Black-Hatted Correspondent reported it, that saying the Our Father out loud was reserved to the priest, with only a short response by the "people." Looking through these old Missals, I also did not know that throughout much of the Mass, it is only the priest that says anything. The Missal from the 1940s reports that there was a movement toward more of the "dialogue Mass," inferring that previously the faithful didn't say anything at all! Is that really what Traditionalists prefer?? To sit there silently, without active participation, letting the priest and server act alone? Or do Traditionalists end up engaging in some kind of hybrid-Mass, such that they are actively participating and speaking aloud more than is technically specified in the older Missals/rites because they want to do more than just watch?

Anonymous said...

By the way, respecting the position of the altar -- If you look really carefully at the high altar at St. Peter's Basilica, you will see that it is in a fairly centralized location underneath Bernini's baldacchino. This is consistent with the ancient practice of the Church (not merely post-Trent) of placing the altar over the grave of a saint/martyr and constructing the church building around it, such that the altar is centralized, not up against the far wall.

Anonymous said...

I understand from a priest in residence at St. Lawrence, Franconia, that "the edifice with the reredos and tabernacle situated behind it" is, in fact, a legitimate altar, complete with altar stone, installed by a former pastor well after 1970. The choice to use it for Sunday's Mass was made for convenience, there being insufficient space in front of the free standing altar, which is too substantial to reposition. It was also made for aesthetic reasons, and rightly so, I believe. Historical arguments aside, the fact is that the prevailing image of traditional Latin Mass following the 1962 Roman Missal includes the use of a fixed altar as it existed in many churches prior to 1962. One can certainly debate the theological seemliness of having two altars in the sanctuary (and I have encountered this elsewhere). But then, one could just as easily question the existence of multiple Roman Rites. Nevertheless, one would be as hard pressed to argue that Sunday's Mass was an exercise in delegitimizing the free-standing altar as to argue it was an attempt to renounce the new order of Mass. Neither position would be tenable, especially coming from Sunday's presiding priest, who is also the Director of Liturgy for the Arlington Diocese.

Anonymous said...

When my wife and I made a short visit to the St. Lawrence Church, it looked like the "table" was pretty hefty.

In Wash, D.C., at Old St. Mary's in Chinatown, the indult mass is said/sung at 9 am each Sunday. The marble altar is beautiful and looks like it is right at the rear of the apse.
There are NO masses done at Old St. Mary's, too. They use a simple wooden table placed between pulpit and lectern.
The main altar still has the pride of place there.

We were thrilled to see a regular altar at St. Lawrence, even though the banguet/table/altar looked like an immovable object.

The 1940s missal and the 1962 missal are mainly different in dates provided for movable feasts. And there is a small point of the followon of the low mass with Hail Marys. In the 1940s missal, it was obviously part of the mass. In the 1962 missal it is on the next page with a fine print note concerning it becoming optional.

As a converting Anglican, I looked closely at the Tridentine Latin Mass (English version opposite the Latin in old and new missals), comparing it to the Anglican service of Holy Communion, and the Novus Ordo rite in English from the Shrine of Immaculate Conception, Wash, DC. I think the Anglican service is closer to the TLM than the TLM is to the NOM. Interesting.

I enjoy the TLM, even though there I don't say the creed and Pater Noster--which I did in the Anglican churches. There is something a little more uplifting about it. Of course, I am greatly swayed by the Una Voce concept.

Anonymous said...

While it is correct that for many years St. John Cantius used the moveable free-standing altar for the one Sunday vernacular Novus Ordo and the one Sunday Latin Novus Ordo Mass, even then occasionally the moveable free-standing altar would be left in the sacristy and the Latin NO would be celebrated at the high altar ad orientem. The first time this happened after I started attending in 1994, a parishioner-friend commmented to me afterwards, "I didn't know this Mass was to be a Tridentine one." She was of an age to have grown up with the pre-Vatican II liturgy. She did not understand Latin but regularly attended the Latin NO, not the Tridentine. She took her cues from the different types of altar, not from the text of the Latin Mass.

I replied, "it wasn't Tridentine, it was Novus Ordo, but there's no requirement in the NO that it be celebrated at a free-standing altar."

About two years ago, the priests at St. John Cantius simply stopped bothering with the removeable altar entirely. As far as I know, all Masses, vernacular NO included, are celebrated ad orientem at the 100-year-old high altar. (Since I do not, in fact, attend every single Mass celebrated there, I could be mistaken, of course, and will willingly accept correction.) Cardinal George has celebrated the Novus Ordo in Latin that way, auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry regularly celebrates that way, as does Bishop Basil Meeking, bishop emeritus of Christchurch, New Zealand.

While I agree that ignoring the presence of a fixed free-standing altar is problematic, in most cases, the space in front of the freestanding altars (i.e., between the congregation and the altar) is less ample than the space behind them because they are in fact designed for the priest to stand behind them, facing the congregation. So I could understand that it could look almost equally odd to celebrated ad orientem at a free-standing altar, depending on exactly how it is situated in the sanctuary. So I would not be so quick to come down hard on the decision to celebrate at the high altar with reredos without knowing more about the layout of the sanctuary in this particular church.

Rick Lugari said...


I've been to a Dialog Mass numerous times and there's nothing wrong with it, but I still prefer the standard Mass - inparticularly Low Mass (which incidently was intended to be more utilitarian of a celebration - I just find it most pious for my taste).

What I would like to correct you on - or offer as a different perspective anyway - is that active participation has nothing to do with responding to the priest, shaking hands or doling out Communion.

Pope St. Pius X exhorted us to pray the Mass. When one is silently following the Mass with one's heart and mind and offering it along with the priest, he/she is most definitely actively participating. I find it to be a most sublime experience, and I do my best to particpate fully at the NO Mass too, but I actually find having to articulate the responses, the dreaded Sign of Peace and such things to be a distraction that prohibits me from fully participating.

I know it's a matter of perspective, but look around most parishes where the people are very active participants and you may find that they are not indeed participating fully.

David L Alexander said...

Richard, thou hast writ:

"Historical arguments aside, the fact is that the prevailing image of traditional Latin Mass following the 1962 Roman Missal includes the use of a fixed altar as it existed in many churches prior to 1962...."

...which was without a considerably larger free-standing altar in front of it.

More space between the altar and the tabernacle than in front of the altar? I was there, and it's not by much.

By the way, I know who the "presiding priest" is. He is a good man, and I do not dispute his intentions (which are not the ones gauged in the process of permitting the Old Mass under the Indult). I dispute its appearance. And yes, sir, the appearance matters. It matters to you, I'll wager. You think if that altar was on wheels, you wouldn't give it the heave-ho in a heartbeat?

The Sacrifice of the Mass deserves better than to be largely obscured by a large immovable object that is neither a rood screen nor an iconostasis.

Buy, hey, maybe that's just me.

David L Alexander said...

Sacerdos15, thou hast writ:

"The free standing altar is fixed, dedicated, and has relics placed within it, the altar against the wall has none of these."

...which is a polite way of saying that the latter is not a real altar, eh?

Cathy said...

With regards to St. John Cantius, my parish, I can report
that the old freestander has gone, completely and permanently,
and that ALL Masses are said facing Ad Orientem.
I've been at Cantius for 3 years now, and I never even knew
there used to be a freestanding altar until I saw an old photo
from there, circa late 80s.

Anonymous said...

For the record, there was one previous licit, non-private, Trid Mass said in Arlington Diocese in the last decade. Bishop Keating granted a special exception for a wedding Mass, to be celebrated by the brother of the bride, who was of the Confraternity. It was very well attended.

M. Alexander said...

On important factor to take into account is the barren look that free standing altars have. There is usually very little decoration and I've even seen trestle tables set up as altars sans linens.

Secondly, the proximity of the tabernacle to the Mass is I would think very significant. For the priest and altar boys to know they are so close in proximity to the dwelling of the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity is I would think very moving and inspiring.

Thirdly it seems to me that the design of the reredros (sp?) usually brings the mind and soul upwards- to heaven. The freestanding altar is like the horizon resulting in feelings of vast emptiness.

Finally, the freestanding altar looks as if you could pull up a few bar stools and play cards, or have a cup of cocoa. The altar and tabernacle do not give that same impression.

Anonymous said...

Regarding Sue Sim's posting, the old high altar at Westminster Cathedral is actually free-standing, except that the space between the altar and the wall behind it is too narrow for a priest to stand comfortably, never mind genuflect.

The moveable altar also used to be shifted out of sight on Good Friday, and the old altar was used for the afternoon Liturgy, at least in Cardinal Hume's (d.1999) day. I've no idea if this practice still prevails though.

One other point, I can't understand the objection that many seem to have towards free-standing altars, especially in the light of Juan's comment about the rubric in the Tridentine pontifical. It is quite obvious that many "old" altars were built with blatant disregard for this rubric. Moreover, new, fixed free-standing altars can be better constructed that those which they replaced, which were sometimes "lost" or reduced to insignificance beneath a monumental reredos. The altar, not the reredos is where all the action happens after all!

totustuusmaria said...

One of my saddest experiences of the past year (it didn't ahve too many tragedies) was travelling around Europe only to see all these georgous high altars being ignored as they offer the Mass vertus populum on ugly tables. Twice this especially hit me: in Vienna, and at Notre Dame de Paris.

totustuusmaria said...

I don't understand what the big deal about a freestanding altar is. The fixed altars tend to look better anyway if for no other reason than that a freestanding altar with an altar piece oftentimes looks funny, and it certainly isn't worth sacrificing the altar pieces for the sake of a freestanding altar. Furthermore adding another altar means in all the older Churches these 500+ year old altars which had the sacrifice offered on them daily are not desolate. Why, O Why did we not just listen to Pius XII in Mediator Dei when he said it was not desirable to return to the freestanding altar.m

David L Alexander said...

"I don't understand what the big deal about a freestanding altar is..."

That's because you weren't there to see how ridiculous it looked. Please refer to the comment of "sacerdos15" earlier in these comments (the first of his two). The shelf for the Altar of Repose at St Lawrence (built in the 70s, renovated in the 80s and 90s) was never intended to be used as an altar, is considerably smaller than the altar, and is NOT, by any proper definition, an altar. The concern of Pius XII was not over a free-standing altar (which he had at St Peter's Bascilica, and damn near every Eastern church on the planet), but over saying Mass "versus populum" as a misguided attempt toward "antiquarianism." They are two separate issues entirely.

As to your experiences in Europe, I quite agree, and they too are entirely different experiences.

(Tom: Good point, but it doesn't stop some people from proving theirs.)

Anonymous said...

End of the Indult at Old St. Mary's?

Those of us who watched the sad joke played out last Sunday at Old St. Mary's have to wonder if we are seeing the beginning of the end. Our new Archbishop, well known for favoring modern trends, has removed the recently installed pastor who was steeped in the Latin Liturgy and replaced him with a priest (bless his kind soul) who had never said the Latin Mass and who suffered a war injury in Viet Nam and cannot kneel! Those of us who have seen the quality brought by the previous three pastors now know what it is like to have a heavy handed Archbishop let us know what he thinks, and who is boss! Now, is there a message there? You bet! And it didn't take him long to do it either! Well, it will swell the crowds elsewhere no doubt, including the independent priests like Fr. Ringrose in Vienna. And, I suspect we will see the rules of not crossing parish boundaries applied for those wishing to attend S. Lawrence's Latin mass.
We will just have to wait and see how our new pastor at Old St. Mary's does... in his first sermon he said he hoped he lasted longer than the previous pastor! Sad treatment of a kind person trying to do his best.