Where the Priest Should Begin Mass

ROME, JUNE 23, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Which is the right place or position to begin the celebration of Mass, bearing in mind the two tables: table of the word and table of the Eucharist? I have the experience of priests who start either from the celebrant’s chair (which is either in front of the altar, or on the side of the altar), or from the altar, or still from the pulpit. — A.M., Harare, Zimbabwe

A: The entrance procession and the beginning of Mass are described in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 50:

“When the Entrance chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross. Then he signifies the presence of the Lord to the community gathered there by means of the Greeting. By this Greeting and the people’s response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest.

“After the greeting of the people, the priest, the deacon, or a lay minister may very briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day.”

It is clear, therefore, that the priest should ordinarily begin a Mass with the faithful from the celebrant’s chair. This chair, as specified in GIRM, No. 310, “Must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer.”

It is not liturgically appropriate to begin the Mass either at the ambo or at the altar because each liturgical place should be reserved for its proper purpose, the ambo for the table of the Word, the altar for the table of the Eucharist.

This is why liturgical norms specify that commentaries, monitions and other announcements should not be delivered from the ambo but from some other place. Once the initial veneration of the altar is completed, it should not be used until the presentation of the gifts. It is also better to wait until this moment before placing the missal, visible microphone, extra ciboria and other necessary liturgical elements upon the altar.

A related question is the most suitable location for the priest’s chair. According to GIRM, No. 310: “The best place for the chair is in a position facing the people at the head of the sanctuary, unless the design of the building or other circumstances impede this: for example, if the great distance would interfere with communication between the priest and the gathered assembly, or if the tabernacle is in the center behind the altar. Any appearance of a throne, however, is to be avoided. It is appropriate that, before being put into liturgical use, the chair be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.

“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.”

To this we may add the suggestions offered by the U.S. bishops in the document “Built of Living Stones”:

“63. The chair of the priest celebrant stands ‘as a symbol of his office of presiding over the assembly and of directing prayer.’ An appropriate placement of the chair allows the priest celebrant to be visible to all in the congregation. The chair reflects the dignity of the one who leads the community in the person of Christ, but is never intended to be remote or grandiose. The priest celebrant’s chair is distinguished from the seating for other ministers by its design and placement. ‘The seat for the deacon should be placed near that of the celebrant.’ In the cathedral, in addition to the bishop’s chair or cathedra, which is permanent, an additional chair will be needed for use by the rector or priest celebrant.

“64. ‘The [most appropriate] place for the chair is at the head of the sanctuary and turned toward the people unless the design of the building or other circumstances [such as distance or the placement of the tabernacle] are an obstacle.’ This chair is not used by a lay person who presides at a service of the word with Communion or a Sunday celebration in the absence of a priest.”

Although these documents allow for a great deal of flexibility (depending on the design of the church), it is safe to say that placing the chair in front of the altar is not a good idea as it tends to detract from the altar’s centrality. There may be some ceremonies, such as religious professions or the institution of ministers, where a chair or faldstool is temporarily placed before the altar and is removed once its use has ceased.

Locating the chair at the head of the sanctuary behind the altar was quite popular in churches in the immediate aftermath of the liturgical reform, and this option remains in the missal. However, it is not always the best option and this is why the latest edition of the missal has added the clause regarding possible impediments due to the design, distance or the presence of the tabernacle.

One of these motives for an exception could probably be applied to almost any church. In recent years there has also been a positive trend toward returning the tabernacle to the sanctuary in many parish churches. Because of this it is becoming fairly common to place the chair to one side of the altar often parallel to the ambo. This is usually the right-hand side as one enters the church, since the most common placement of the ambo is to the left.

This is facilitated by the norm in the new missal that the altar servers do not flank the celebrant but have a place of their own. It is easier to find a distinct location for one chair (plus a suitable seat for the deacon) than for a row.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word “Liturgy” in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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