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Altars, Papal and Otherwise

Peregrinus Goes Abroad
Part 2: Peregrinus Goes Abroad; Chapter 27

“You see,” said the Liturgiologist, in his best classroom manner, “this is a Papal Altar, only the Holy Father, or some high dignitary, usually a Cardinal, delegated by him, may say Mass thereat. The real High Altar of the Vatican Basilica (not, of course, ‘the Cathedral of St. Peter’ for this church is not, stricte loquendo,[1] a Cathedral at all, the Cathedral of Rome being St. John Lateran, where we’re going this afternoon) is in the apse back of the Papal Altar, which stands directly above the Tomb of St. Peter.”


“The Celebrant faces the people,” remarked the Antiquary, also somewhat pedantically. “It was the ancient custom,* and is, I understand, preserved in a number of the churches of Rome. He does not turn around to say ‘Dominus vobiscum’ and ‘Orate fratres’ and the congregation, on feast days, is all around, on all sides of him, while the choir is at his back, but in front of the Altar.” [*Ed's note: The archeological notion of "Mass facing the people" was later proven to be erroneous due to some overlooked historical data. See ff 2 for more info.]


“I saw it, when I was here before,” went on the Liturgiologist. “They bring in platforms and benches, and a big lectern in the midst for the chanters, and the people herd around outside the barriers. When the nave and transepts are filled there’ll be anywhere from forty to fifty thousand people in here, without crowding.”


“And the Papal Throne is behind the Altar,” began the Antiquary.


“No,” corrected the Liturgiologist. “It’s in front of the Altar. It’s the bulk of the congregation which is really behind the Altar.”


“You’re right, of course,” admitted the Antiquary. “The whole thing is turned around, to our way of thinking, though what has actually happened is that lesser ceremonies are turned around.”


“Turned around is right,” snorted the Liturgiologist. “Topsy-turvey! But the change serves to emphasize the distinction between Papal ceremonies and all others. The Holy Father sometimes says Mass at the High Altar in the apse, and the ceremonies are then somewhat different. It’s there that his Holiness occasionally consecrates Bishops, and then the Throne is at the Gospel side, and the congregation is in front of the Altar, and things are more as we are accustomed to see them. Too bad there’ll be nothing of the sort going on while we’re here.”


“I’m not so sure that I’m not glad of it,” returned the Antiquary, with more than his usual mildness. “Big functions are a bit too much for me, and I understand that a Roman pomp is about the biggest function there is. It’s hard enough to get along with one Master of Ceremonies; what must it be when there are a dozen! But perhaps I’m over-fond of simplicity.”


“Wasn’t it you, Pere,” asked the Liturgiologist, “who once went to see an Anglican ceremony, and expressed yourself afterwards as preferring our own simple rites?”


“Maybe, maybe,” smile the Antiquary. “But (not to change the subject), I notice that several of these numerous side Altars lack the baldachin which I supposed was required over every Altar.”


“Well, Pere,” said the Liturgiologist slowly, “here you are at the center of Christendom, in the Eternal City itself, in the Vatican Basilica, the Pope’s own church, where, if anywhere on earth, you might expect to find everything done strictly according to the law of the Church. And you see already, and will see more fully as we go about, that epikeia[3] is practiced in matters of liturgy as well as other affairs of the Church. You’ve noticed a point in which even the official and authentic decrees take cognizance of that fact. S.R.C. 1966 and 2912 both demand that a baldachin be erected over all Altars. But the latest edition of the Authentic Decrees of the Congregation of Sacred Rites adds a parenthetical note, ‘Haec autem duo decreta ubique, etiam Romae, in desuetudinem abierunt.’”[4]


“I can see that for myself,” was the Antiquary’s dry comment.


“That being so,” went on the Liturgiologist, not even blinking at the interruption, “we need not be too severe with those who fail to follow the recent revival of ‘covered altars.’ There are architectural styles which almost require a ‘Ciborium’,[5] one sees them even in Gothic churches. Our American Catholic renaissance is producing them in happily increasing numbers.[6] But to say (as some do) that an Altar is ‘not liturgical’ because it lacks a canopy, or has gradines, is to stand up so straight as to bend over backwards.”


“But, dear Father,” remonstrated the Antiquary, “you must admit that the flat Altar, separated from the reredos, without gradines, and with a freestanding Tabernacle, is more rubrical than the sort of thing we usually see in our churches.”


“I admit nothing of the sort,” snorted the Liturgiologist. “Circumspice![7] There are twenty-nine minor Altars in St. Peter’s. You’ll find both sorts here. It really isn’t a matter of rubrics or liturgy at all, dear Pere, but of architecture and good artistic taste. [Ed’s note: for more on this point, see The Antiquary Builds an Altar]


“We’re in the midst of a Gothic revival in our country, and mediaeval forms are the rage just now. Which is a very good thing indeed and worthy of all acceptation! But the Church has never legislated on matters of architecture. She’s Catholic, you know. So long as certain fundamental principles are observed, she approves everything from Gothic to Baroque, leaning, naturally enough, to the Romanesque.[8]


“One does seem to get a larger view of things even in the first few hours in Rome,” said the Antiquary, gently. “A good many details which we have been accustomed to regard as essentials fall into their proper place when one stands so close to the fons et origo.[9] I suppose all these Altars have been consecrated?”


“Undoubtedly,” answered the Liturgiologist. “You’ll notice that they are all of stone, conforming to the liturgical laws, though of varying designs. If you ask me, I think we’ve carried our devotion to the portable Altar[10] too far, and thus succeeded (as usual) in getting the car before the horse.


“Instead of building plain and simple Altars, which can be consecrated, we spend more money than would provide such in putting up showy (and often inartistic) reredoses and ‘altars’ which are, after all, nothing but supports for an Altar Stone, so that what is really a temporary makeshift in the mind of the Church, becomes a permanent fixture in our minds.


“As we travel about over here you’ll observe that the poorest little church will have a proper, permanent, consecrated Altar, though its surroundings may leave much to be desired. After all, the Altar is the chief ornament of the church, around which everything else is gathered. It should be right, as the first consideration.


“But many and many of our churches proceed to elaborate embellishment of the Sanctuary, huge organs, stained glass, marble floors, while the Altar remains at best a ‘temporary altar’ which only the consecrated Stone, like any primitive mission chapel in the wilderness.”


“Hum!” murmured the Liturgiologist. “Where is the pulpit in this Basilica? Let me lead you to it, Pere!”


“Pulpit? Pulpit?” fumed the Liturgiologist. “Where, indeed!”




1 Latin for “strictly speaking”.

2 Due to the unique arrangement of high altars in the major basilicas of Rome (influenced by the frontal confessio structures), liturgical archeologists posited in the 19th and 20th centuries that Mass was commonly offered in the Early Church facing the people. This notion was generally accepted at the time based upon the evidence at hand. However, additional research during the later 20th century (e.g., by Msgr. Klaus Gamber) determined that this was in fact not the case.

3 A Greek word that means “reasonableness”, though philosophically, it is a principle of ethics meaning a law that can be broken to achieve a greater good.

4 The Latin translation is: “However, these two decrees everywhere, even in Rome, have fallen into desuetude.”

5 Here, this Latin term refers to the liturgical-architectural term for a four-columned altar canopy. The word is derived from the Greek kiborion which actual means a covered vessel, like the sacred vessel, the ciborium. However, in ancient times the term “pyx” was more commonly used to describe the vessel for reserving the Blessed Sacrament.

6 One famous example from the period during which the Peregrinus stories were written was the remodeling of the high altar at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

7 Latin for “Look around!”

8 Concerning the nature and principles of good Catholic art, J.B. O’Connell develops these points well in “Chapter V: The General Law of Church Building” in his excellent book, Church Building and Furnishing: The Church’s Way; A Study in Liturgical Law (University of Notre Dame Press, 1955).


9 A Latin phrase meaning “the source of its origin”.


10 Meaning a “moveable altar” constructed of wood or even plaster as opposed to a “fixed” or immovable altar made of stone.

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