Grappling With Catholic Feng Shui

Michael McGough is the Washington-based editor at large for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Forget about whether Pope Benedict XVI will soften his attitude toward the role of women in the church or discover a more pastoral approach to homosexuals or heed the pleas of manpower-poor bishops for an experiment with married priests. For many Catholics, there is only one question about the new pope’s intentions: Will he turn the altars around?

Certainly it’s the question my grandmother, Catherine Doherty Murray, would ask the new pope if she were alive. Like many communicants at Sacred Heart Church in Pittsburgh, she was traumatized by the liturgical innovations spawned by Vatican II.

Most wrenching for parishioners like my grandmother was the “turning around” of the altar at which the priest offered what used to be called the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass but is now more commonly referred to as the Holy Eucharist (a term more acceptable to non-Catholics).


Actually, at Sacred Heart the stone altar table wasn’t turned around, but it was brought forward so that the celebrant -- the priest who said the Mass -- could squeeze in behind it and face the people. Pre-Vatican II, he stood in front of the altar, with his back to them. Never mind that the more “accessible” post-Vatican II method still left such a gap between the altar and the congregation that the pews should have been outfitted with opera glasses.

Some Catholics considerably younger than my grandmother never have reconciled themselves to what may seem to non-Catholics like a trivial dispute over furniture arrangement or, at best, a sort of Christian feng shui. But the debate over the placement of the priest at Mass is a variation on debates in many faiths between traditionalists and innovators, between those who emphasize the this-worldly nature of religion and those who are content to see dimly, looking to another world.

Where does the new pope fall along this divide? In his 1999 book “The Spirit of the Liturgy,” the future pope ruefully recalls how Mass “versus populum” (toward the people) established itself after Vatican II even though Pope John XXIII’s reform council hadn’t directly decreed the change. The new arrangement, then-Cardinal Ratzinger sarcastically observes, was thought to be “compatible with the meaning of the Christian liturgy, with the requirement of active participation.”

Yet, Ratzinger goes on, the preference for the priest facing the people at Mass was based on an exception -- the way Mass was celebrated at the pope’s own Basilica of St. Peter. The altar there is at the west end of the sanctuary, although, traditionally, Catholic churches were suppose to place the altar against the east wall so priest and people faced east (and, metaphorically, God) when they faced the altar.

But at St. Peter’s, Ratzinger writes, “because of topographical circumstances... if the celebrating priest wanted -- as the Christian tradition of prayer demands -- to face east” he had to stand behind the altar and face the people. That became the post-Vatican II model.

The conventional conservative complaint about Mass facing the people is that it “desacralizes” the Eucharist by overemphasizing its role as a meal and slighting its re-presentation, through the prayers of the priest, of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.


Ratzinger shares some of these concerns, but he also cites a different problem: Mass facing the people inflates the priest’s role. “Everything depends on him,” Ratzinger writes. “We have to see him, to respond to him, to know what he is doing.... Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds of liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the ‘creative’ planning of the liturgy to groups of people ... to, ‘make their own contribution.’ Less and less is God in the picture.”

Even so, the new pope has not indicated that he is itching to execute a mass rollback of Mass facing the people. On the contrary, even as the notoriously old-school Cardinal Ratzinger, he resisted the idea: “Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism.”

Instead, he proposes a fallback position: Leave the altar where it is but reorient attention away from the priest by returning a ceremonial cross to the central place on the altar it occupied before Vatican II. “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible,” he adds, “the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith.”

“That is precisely the solution we chose for the new Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels,” says Los Angeles’ Cardinal Roger Mahony. Parishioners in the nave face east, he points out, but everyone, in transepts and nave, faces a large crucifix behind and above the altar.

If more dominant crosses are the only change Benedict’s election brings in Catholic worship, traditionalists will be sorely disappointed. But the new pope could still gladden their hearts with another back-to-the-future policy that wouldn’t require moving the furniture -- encouraging priests to pray in what my grandmother was convinced was God’s language: Latin.