Monsignor Guido Marini, Benedict XVI’s master of ceremonies, this week strongly underlined the Pope’s recommendation that when Mass is celebrated facing westwards, the priest should place a crucifix at the centre of the altar. This was to make clear that the celebrant was not “facing the people”, but facing Christ.
The Holy Father could hardly have made himself clearer on this point. So why do the Bishops of England and Wales allow the vast majority of their priests to ignore his wishes? Why do the bishops themselves routinely ignore the recommendation?
Perhaps someone will ask the bishops when they make their ad limina visit to Rome at the end of this month. One hopes that Archbishop Vincent Nichols, president of the Bishops’ Conference, will be able to reply that the bishops have drawn up plans to introduce this reform universally – and also to make it easier for the faithful to receive communion kneeling and on the tongue, which is the preference of the Pope. (At the moment, too many parish priests treat anyone wishing to receive the Sacrament in this way as an oddball, rather than a Catholic following the example of the Holy Father.)
Below are some extracts from Mgr Marini’s address to the Year for Priests Clergy Conference in Rome, organised by the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy. Hat-tip to that incomparable resource, The New Liturgical Movement website.
Here is Mgr Marini on the question of orientation. Note that he, like the Pope, supports eastward-facing celebration where it is appropriate:
Without recourse to a detailed historical analysis of the development of Christian art, we would like to reaffirm that prayer facing east, more specifically, facing the Lord, is a characteristic expression of the authentic spirit of the liturgy. It is according to this sense that we are invited to turn our hearts to the Lord during the celebration of the Eucharistic Liturgy, as the introductory dialogue to the Preface well reminds us. Sursum corda “Lift up your hearts,” exhorts the priest, and all respond: Habemus ad Dominum “We lift them up unto the Lord.” Now if such an orientation must always be adopted interiorly by the entire Christian community when it gathers in prayer, it should be possible to find this orientation expressed externally by means of signs as well. The external sign, moreover, cannot but be true, in such a way that through it the correct spiritual attitude is rendered visible.
Hence the reason for the proposal made by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, and presently reaffirmed during the course of his pontificate, to place the Crucifix on the centre of the altar, in order that all, during the celebration of the liturgy, may concretely face and look upon Lord, in such a way as to orient also their prayer and hearts. Let us listen to the words of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, directly, who in the preface to the first book of his Complete Works, dedicated to the liturgy, writes the following: “The idea that the priest and people should stare at one another during prayer was born only in modern Christianity, and is completely alien to the ancient Church. The priest and people most certainly do not pray one to the other, but to the one Lord. Therefore, they stare in the same direction during prayer: either towards the east as a cosmic symbol of the Lord who comes, or, where this is not possible, towards the image of Christ in the apse, towards a crucifix, or simply towards the heavens, as our Lord Himself did in his priestly prayer the night before His Passion (John 17.1) In the meantime the proposal made by me at the end of the chapter treating this question in my work ‘The Spirit of the Liturgy’ is fortunately becoming more and more common: rather than proceeding with further transformations, simply to place the crucifix at the center of the altar, which both priest and the faithful can face and be lead in this way towards the Lord, whom everyone addresses in prayer together.” (trans. from the Italian.)
Let it not be said, moreover, that the image of our Lord crucified obstructs the sight of the faithful from that of the priest, for they are not to look to the celebrant at that point in the liturgy! They are to turn their gaze towards the Lord! In like manner, the presider of the celebration should also be able to turn towards the Lord. The crucifix does not obstruct our view; rather it expands our horizon to see the world of God; the crucifix brings us to meditate on the mystery; it introduces us to the heavens from where the only light capable of making sense of life on this earth comes. Our sight, in truth, would be blinded and obstructed were our eyes to remain fixed on those things that display only man and his works.
In this way one can come to understand why it is still possible today to celebrate the holy Mass upon the old altars, when the particular architectural and artistic features of our churches would advise it. Also in this, the Holy Father gives us an example when he celebrates the holy Eucharist at the ancient altar of the Sistine Chapel on the feast of the Baptism of our Lord.
In our time, the expression “celebrating facing the people” has entered our common vocabulary. If one’s intention in using this expression is to describe the location of the priest, who, due to the fact that today he often finds himself facing the congregation because of the placement of the altar, in this case such an expression is acceptable. Yet such an expression would be categorically unacceptable the moment it comes to express a theological proposition. Theologically speaking, the holy Mass, as a matter of fact, is always addressed to God through Christ our Lord, and it would be a grievous error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is the community. Such an orientation, therefore, of turning towards the Lord must animate the interior participation of each individual during the liturgy. It is likewise equally important that this orientation be quite visible in the liturgical sign as well.
And on the question of kneeling to receive Communion on the tongue:
Here is the reason why everything in the liturgical act, through the nobility, the beauty, and the harmony of the exterior sign, must be conducive to adoration, to union with God: this includes the music, the singing, the periods of silence, the manner of proclaiming the Word of the Lord, and the manner of praying, the gestures employed, the liturgical vestments and the sacred vessels and other furnishings, as well as the sacred edifice in its entirety. It is under this perspective that the decision of his Holiness, Benedict XVI, is to be taken into consideration, who, starting from the feast of Corpus Christi last year, has begun to distribute holy Communion to the kneeling faithful directly on the tongue. By the example of this action, the Holy Father invites us to render visible the proper attitude of adoration before the greatness of the mystery of the Eucharistic presence of our Lord. An attitude of adoration which must be fostered all the more when approaching the most holy Eucharist in the other forms permitted today.
So let us get this straight. The Pope is asking priests to place a crucifix on the altar and inviting communicants to receive in the traditional manner. Yet these developments, arising out of the Pontiff’s profound reflections on divine worship, receive no support from the Bishops of England and Wales.
Archbishop Vincent Nichols has paid frequent tribute to the vision of Benedict XVI. The liturgical reality in most parishes in this country has not even begun to reflect that vision. The Archbishop is a strong and resourceful leader; when is he going to turn his attention to this discrepancy?