Crowded Altar?

And More on Polka Masses

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ROME, MAY 4, 2004 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: At our Church, there are so many people on the altar for Sunday Mass, that it is very distracting. There are two readers, one for each of the readings; there is the deacon who assists the priest and reads the Gospel; there is the priest who celebrates Mass and another priest who delivers the homily, as well as two acolytes. Is it correct to have so many people on the altar? — J.D., Syracuse, New York

A: I think that a distinction has to be made. On the one hand it is good that your parish has a body of people willing to offer themselves at the service of the liturgy. On the other, there is the question of the best possible distribution of the various ministers.

Although the answer to this question largely depends on the structure and size of the presbytery, the disposition must be carried out according to certain principles.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) No. 294 indicates some of these principles: “The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar.”

No. 310 of the GIRM also deals with this subject: “The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. … Likewise, seats should be arranged in the sanctuary for concelebrating priests as well as for priests who are present for the celebration in choir dress but who are not concelebrating.

“The seat for the deacon should be placed near that of the celebrant. Seats for the other ministers are to be arranged so that they are clearly distinguishable from those for the clergy and so that the ministers are easily able to fulfill the function entrusted to them.”

From this it is clear that, if possible, the seats of the various ministers should be within the sanctuary according to a certain hierarchy.

The chair of the priest and the deacon should always be in the sanctuary.

If there are few concelebrants they should also have seats in the sanctuary as well as priests who are present in choir dress without concelebrating.

However, if for a good reason, such as the number of concelebrants or the structure of the sanctuary, it is not feasible to fit everybody within the sanctuary with decorum, then they may occupy the pews closest to the altar.

In this case it is best that concelebrating priests should enter the sanctuary after the prayer over the gifts so as not to impede the faithful’s seeing the sacred action taking place upon the altar.

Acolytes should sit within the sanctuary but in a place that differs from the clergy. It is preferable, however, that they should not occupy seats needed by concelebrating priests in the sanctuary and should be provided with places near the sanctuary from which they may conveniently carry out their ministry.

Even in this latter case there may be exceptions as some sanctuaries, such as those which retain the altar rail, may be difficult to enter. Here the dignified service of the liturgy might require that the acolytes remain within the sanctuary even though there are concelebrants occupying the first pews.

Readers follow similar criteria to acolytes although since their ministry is briefer they may enter the sanctuary only to exercise it and leave afterward, especially during concelebrations and in sanctuaries with limited space.

In conclusion, although the general principle is that those who fulfill a ministry during the celebration should ideally occupy a place within the precincts of the sanctuary, this general norm is not absolute. It is subject to the limitations imposed by concrete circumstances of place and the specific celebration.

It is certainly understandable that an overly cluttered sanctuary could constitute a source of distraction to the faithful, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, and it is probably best to avoid the situation if possible.

At the same time, we must remember that the presence of a full complement of ministers enhances rather than detracts from the overall dignity of the celebration. It also allows for the performance of special rites such as the procession with the Book of the Gospels and the incensing of the Blessed Sacrament during the consecration.

* * *

Follow-up: Polka Masses

After our piece on “Polka Masses” (April 20) a priest from North Dakota wrote the following commentary “The tradition of having ‘Polka’ Masses is very much alive … scheduled to coincide with a community’s annual ‘Polka Fest.’ When I ask people who attend them for their reaction, they respond by swinging their hips and saying something like, ‘I wanted to get up and dance.’ I have never heard anyone say that it brought them closer to God or his people. A few people respond, ‘It was hard to pray.'”

I think that the commentary speaks for itself. What is important is not if the people like the music (they probably do) but whether it helps them live the Mass (it probably does not).

While the recently published instruction “Redemptionis Sacramentum” says little about music, it does say in No. 78: “It is not permissible to link the celebration of Mass to political or secular events, nor to situations that are not fully consistent with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Furthermore, it is altogether to be avoided that the celebration of Mass should be carried out merely out of a desire for show, or in the manner of other ceremonies including profane ones, lest the Eucharist should be emptied of its authentic meaning.”

Thus, linking the Eucharist to an annual “Polka Fest” or other analogous celebrations in this manner is not advisable.

This does not mean that all expressions of national or ethnic traditions are excluded from the Mass. But they must be specifically religious in content and contribute to living it with fervor.

Although such folkloric music is excluded from Mass it may be offered to the congregation after Mass in the parking lot or parish hall, especially in communities with strong ethnic ties.

While on the subject of the new instruction from the Apostolic See I wish to note one or two points which clear up earlier replies.

In the very first question of this column (Sept. 13) while not favoring glass chalices I doubted if liturgical law forbade them in every case, especially with regard to heavy crystal.

This doubt is now cleared up by the instruction’s No. 117, which states: “Reprobated, therefore, is any practice of using for the celebration of Mass common vessels, or others lacking in quality, or devoid of all artistic merit or which are mere containers, as also other vessels made from glass, earthenware, clay, or other materials that break easily. This norm is to be applied even as regards metals and other materials that easily rust or deteriorate.”

A later question on the use of “flagons” (Sept. 23) for the consecration is also resolved in No. 106: “However, the pouring of the Blood of Christ after the consecration from one vessel to another is completely to be avoided, lest anything should happen that would be to the detriment of so great a mystery. Never to be used for containing the Blood of the Lord are flagons, bowls, or other vessels that are not fully in accord with the established norms.”

I note that No. 106 will also require a review of the norms recently published by the U.S. bishops’ conference which favored the use of a single large chalice from which the Precious
Blood would be poured into other chalices.

The instruction in No. 105 prefers the use of several chalices: “If one chalice is not sufficient for Communion to be distributed under both kinds to the Priest concelebrants or Christ’s faithful, there is no reason why the Priest celebrant should not use several chalices. … It is praiseworthy, by reason of the sign value, to use a main chalice of larger dimensions, together with smaller chalices.”

In a follow-up on the theme of extraordinary ministers (Oct. 28) I mentioned that it did not make much canonical difference if they were called special or extraordinary.

While I was right regarding the norms, the new instruction, in No. 156, goes deeper into the question of vocabulary: “This function is to be understood strictly according to the name by which it is known, that is to say, that of extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and not ‘special minister of Holy Communion’ nor ‘extraordinary minister of the Eucharist’ nor ‘special minister of the Eucharist,’ by which names the meaning of this function is unnecessarily and improperly broadened.”

Thus the instruction stresses that only the priest is, properly speaking, minister of the Eucharist. The others are ordinary or extraordinary ministers of Communion.

It also notes (No. 158): “Indeed, the extraordinary minister of Holy Communion may administer Communion only when the Priest and Deacon are lacking, when the Priest is prevented by weakness or advanced age or some other genuine reason, or when the number of faithful coming to Communion is so great that the very celebration of Mass would be unduly prolonged. This, however, is to be understood in such a way that a brief prolongation, considering the circumstances and culture of the place, is not at all a sufficient reason.”

There are probably some other points in our earlier replies that might need some fine tuning in the light of the Instruction and if necessary I will take them up at a later date.

* * *

Readers may send questions to Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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