Criteria for Preparing the Altar

And More on the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms

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ROME, MARCH 1, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: In our archdiocese there is no uniformity in the way the altar is prepared or laid out for liturgical celebrations. In some cases, the altar is dressed as a conference table; in others, the stone is never seen the whole year round, with the exception of Holy Thursday when it is stripped. My question is: How should the altar for liturgical celebration be arranged? — V.A.F., Bamenda, Cameroon

A: Total uniformity is probably not possible — and maybe not even desirable. In the first place, the missal itself offers several legitimate options, and second, the most appropriate layout depends on such factors as the size of the altar and sanctuary area as well as the possibilities of each parish. I will attempt to illustrate the various possibilities so that at least a common denominator can be established.

The altar should be covered by at least one white altar cloth (see the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 304). It should at the very least cover the entire top of the altar table and preferably hang down on either side. It may also have a hanging fringe on the front and/or back of the altar, but this is not obligatory. It may be plain or adorned, in accordance with local tradition. If other cloths are used, then the white altar cloth is always the uppermost one.

This cloth is obligatory for Mass and may be removed after the celebration. However, it is probably best to reserve the symbol of the stripped altar for Holy Thursday and Good Friday, and for this reason it is best to leave the altar cloth habitually upon the altar. Outside of Mass it is good to cover the altar cloth with another simple cloth or cover so as to keep it clean at all times. If desired and useful, another cloth may also be placed underneath the altar cloth. These undercloths may be of a different color and of a heavier textile than the altar cloth. This helps avoid creases and gives greater stability to the altar cloth.

It is also a possible to use an antependium, or frontal. This cloth usually comes to the ground in front of the altar. It is usually a good-quality fabric and often embroidered with liturgical symbols. It may be white or the color of the liturgical season. Its use would not normally be recommendable if the altar is itself a significant work of art that is best left exposed.

The crucifix should be placed upon the altar or near it (see GIRM, No. 308). The cross should be large enough to be visible to the faithful. In general, there should be only one crucifix in the altar area. Benedict XVI has promoted the practice of placing the cross at the center of the altar between the priest and the people, but the present norms do not require this position. It is also possible to suspend the crucifix above the altar or on the wall behind it. If the processional cross is large enough, it may double as an altar cross. Should there be a fixed cross in the sanctuary, the processional cross is placed out of view after the entrance procession.

Two, four or six candles may be placed near or upon the altar (GIRM, No. 307). Seven may be used if the diocesan bishop celebrates Mass. The candles may be arranged in several ways, but they should not obscure the view of the ritual action on the altar. In some places the custom has developed of using two candles for weekday Masses, four for feasts, and six for Sundays, solemnities and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.

With respect to flowers, GIRM, No. 305, says: «Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar. During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this season, without expressing prematurely the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions. Floral decorations should always be done with moderation and placed around the altar rather than on its mensa.«

Regarding other elements necessary for Mass, No. 306 of the GIRM gives the overarching principle: «Only what is required for the celebration of the Mass may be placed on the mensa of the altar: namely, from the beginning of the celebration until the proclamation of the Gospel, the Book of the Gospels; then from the Presentation of the Gifts until the purification of the vessels, the chalice with the paten, a ciborium if necessary, and, finally, the corporal, the purificator, the pall, and the Missal. In addition, microphones that may be needed to amplify the priest’s voice should be arranged discreetly.»

Therefore, it is not good liturgical practice to leave the corporal, missal, microphone, etc., habitually upon the altar.

We have not been able to offer our reader a uniform criterion for the arrangement of the altar, but then this lack of total uniformity is something contemplated by the Church herself. We hope that what we have offered will at least offer some guidance in removing obviously erroneous practices.

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Follow-up: Mixing the Forms

In the wake of our comments on mixing the two forms of the Roman rite (see Feb. 15), an Oregon reader observed: «This is what you said in the answer with regard to mixing the two rites: ‘In the extraordinary form, when the celebrant decides to use the pall, the norms offer some guidance as to when to place and remove it, without imposing any obligation.’ To the best of my knowledge, the pall is not something the celebrant may decide to use or not. Another point: I don’t know if it is quite right to compare the use of the maniple to face-painting. The former has a long history and face-painting does not.»

Regarding the first point, I have to issue a mea culpa. This erroneous phrase escaped several editorial revisions. I was referring to the point that the old form can throw light on some norms that are not explained in detail in the new form. The expression should have read something like: «in the ordinary form, when the celebrant decides to use the pall, the norms of the extraordinary form offer some guidance ….»

Regarding the second point, I deliberately used an exaggerated comparison to underline a point of interpretation of the law. There was no intention of casting ridicule upon the use of the maniple (which is still mandatory in the extraordinary form).

Another reader, from Wichita, Kansas, asked: «In a diocese in the northern part of the U.S. a priest adds the extraordinary form rubrics to the ordinary form of the Mass. When I questioned him about it, he said that his office of worship from his diocese has given him permission to add the rubrics because he said Pope Benedict said that the extraordinary form of the Mass should influence the ordinary form. Here are some things he is doing: consecrating the host on the corporal, blessing himself with the paten, placing the paten under the corporal, placing the sacramentary on the right side of the altar, blessing himself during the Sanctus, etc. It is my understanding liturgical rubrics are universal law and cannot be added or changed except by a Vatican office or the Pope. It is also my understanding that one of the documents of Vatican II states that no one on his own authority may add or change anything in liturgy. Does a bishop or his office of worship have the authority to permit a mixing of the rites?»

The short answer is no, neither the bishop nor his liturgy office may authorize such mixing of rites.

I believe that the primary meaning of Pope Benedict’s desire — that the extraordinary form influence the ordinary — is in inculcating an enhanced sense of reverence and decorum into the ordinary form.

Some aspects, usually associated with the extraordinary form, have always been permitted in the ordinary form. For
example, it has always been possible to celebrate facing east, to use Latin, to use the style of chasuble typically worn before the reform, and so on.

We have already mentioned above the use of the older form as a guide in doubtful situations. As well as this, several other elements from the older form, such as some of the priest’s private prayers, may still be used by the celebrant in a private capacity.

I do not believe, however, that any element can be introduced which would contradict the ordinary form’s clear rubrics or even render them ungainly. For example, the missal mandates the use of the paten upon which the host is placed immediately after the consecration and which is elevated along with the chalice at the final doxology («Through him, with him …»). For this reason it is not correct to consecrate in the manner of the extraordinary form.

Likewise, as mentioned in the original article, I believe that each form should be taken as it is, and gestures proper to one (such as blessing oneself during the Sanctus) should not be introduced into the other simply because nothing is said against it.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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