Central Focus at Mass

And More on Music

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ROME, AUG. 16, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: During the celebration of the Mass, where, who or what is the center of focus? Is it the altar or the tabernacle or the celebrant? I ask this question because, among other things, it has brought about disagreement/dissatisfaction and sharp division among a group in one of our parishes. Priests who come and go also contribute to confusing the congregation; one would say this, and another would say that, based on their belief and conviction. I also ask because sometimes the settings at the sanctuary differ. In our case, the tabernacle is on the right, facing the altar. From the sacristy one passes in front of the tabernacle before reaching the celebrant’s chair, the altar and the lectern. Kindly give an up-to-date liturgical teaching and perhaps your take on this matter. — V.C., Monrovia, Liberia

A: These is really only one true center of the Eucharistic celebration around which all the rest revolves, and that is Christ and his saving mystery.

This centrality of Christ is expressed in multiple ways during the celebration and in the structure of the church building.

From the architectural perspective the altar should be the central focus. The U.S. bishops’ conference explains the centrality of the altar in its document «Built of Living Stones.» To wit:

«§56 At the Eucharist, the liturgical assembly celebrates the ritual sacrificial meal that recalls and makes present Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, proclaiming ‘the death of the Lord until he comes.’ The altar is ‘the center of thanksgiving that the Eucharist accomplishes’ and the point around which the other rites are in some manner arrayed. Since the Church teaches that ‘the altar is Christ,’ its composition should reflect the nobility, beauty, strength, and simplicity of the One it represents. In new churches there is to be only one altar so that it ‘signifies to the assembly of the faithful one Christ and the one Eucharist of the Church.’

«§57 The altar is the natural focal point of the sanctuary and is to be ‘freestanding to allow the [priest] to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people.’ Ordinarily, it should be fixed (with the base affixed to the floor) and with a table or mensa made of natural stone, since it represents Christ Jesus, the Living Stone (1 Pt 2:4). The pedestal or support for the table may be fashioned from ‘any sort of material, as long as it is becoming and solid.’ In the United States it is permissible to use materials other than natural stone for a fixed altar, provided these materials are worthy, solid, properly constructed, and subject to the further judgment of the local ordinary. Parishes building new churches must follow the directives of the diocesan bishop regarding the kind of altar chosen and suitable materials for new altars.

«§58 Although there is no specified size or shape for an altar, it should be in proportion to the church. The shape and size should reflect the nature of the altar as the place of sacrifice and the table around which Christ gathers the community to nourish them. In considering the dimensions of the altar, parishes will also want to insure that the other major furnishings in the sanctuary are in harmony and proportion to the altar. The mensa should be large enough to accommodate the priest celebrant, the deacon, and the acolytes who minister there and should be able to hold The Sacramentary [The Roman Missal] and the vessels with the bread and wine. Impact and focal quality are not only related to placement, size, or shape, but also especially to the quality of the altar’s design and worthiness of its construction. The altar should be centrally located in the sanctuary and the center of attention in the church.

Ǥ59 During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the altar must be visible from all parts of the church but not so elevated that it causes visual or symbolic division from the liturgical assembly. Methods of elevation can be found that still allow access to the altar by ministers who need wheelchairs or who have other disabilities.

«§60 In the Church’s history and tradition, the altar was often placed over the tombs of the saints or the relics of saints were deposited beneath the altar. The presence of relics of saints in the altar provides a witness to the Church’s belief that the Eucharist celebrated on the altar is the source of the grace that won sanctity for the saints. The custom of placing small relics of martyrs or other saints in an altar stone and setting this in the mensa has changed since the Second Vatican Council. Relics of martyrs or other saints may be placed beneath the altar, as long as the relics are of a size sufficient for them to be recognizable as parts of a human body and that they are of undoubted authenticity. Relics are no longer placed on the altar or set into the mensa in an altar stone.»

Although this document applies to the United States, it reflects universal Church teaching and guidance on this point.

The other focal points during the celebration are related to the altar: the ambo for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word, and the priest’s chair from where he leads the community in prayer in the moments before and after ascending the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The tabernacle is not a center of attention during the Eucharistic celebration even though it should have a prominent and even central place in the church building for adoration outside of Mass. During Mass, if the tabernacle is located within the sanctuary, No. 274 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal indicates, «The priest, the deacon, and the other ministers genuflect when they approach the altar and when they depart from it, but not during the celebration of Mass itself.»

If the tabernacle is within the sanctuary but not behind the altar, then the ministers genuflect toward the tabernacle.

The priest, although he acts in the person of Christ, is not really a focus of the celebration. He is indeed most effective when he manages to deflect attention from himself and guides the faithful toward Christ’s mystery. Indeed, the use of vestments, song and special location are meant to emphasize the priest’s ministerial role rather than his person. The priest is a «pontifex,» a bridge between God and man, and a bridge may be admired from a distance but is only useful when we trample over it.

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Follow-up: Antiphons and the Graduale Romanum

In line with our article on the use of the Roman Gradual (see July 19), several readers had asked about the approval process for musical settings and songs to be used in the liturgy. One Canadian reader wrote: «Do hymns used during the Mass need to be approved before they may be put into use, and if so, what is the approval process? Or, can those who lead the music select and determine for themselves what hymns are to be sung during the Mass? The hymnal used by the band (guitars and drums) at our parish’s Sunday ‘family Mass’ was developed by a member of the congregation.»

The bishops’ conference of each country may legislate regarding the use of music in church. Some countries have produced national repertoires so that everybody in the country is familiar with at least a nucleus of liturgical songs. Others have published detailed norms while others have yet to engage in this task. Individual bishops may also issue some norms for their dioceses.

There is usually a distinction made between settings for the Mass texts themselves and other songs. Music for the Mass texts (for example, the Gloria, the Holy Holy Holy, and the Lamb of God) usually falls upon the bishops’ conference. These texts may not be altered or substituted by others. The approval of other songs (offertory, communion, etc.) falls upon the bishop
of the place they are published although any bishop may approve or forbid the use of any particular song.

In Canada the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy and the Sacraments-English Sector consults on a regular basis the National Council for Liturgical Music in the process of reviewing music and approving hymns for liturgical use in the country. Therefore it is not a question of each parish making its own way but following a clear approval process before using any music or texts in the liturgy.

The United States has a similar setup as described in the bishops’ document on liturgical music, «Sing to the Lord«:

«107. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has delegated to the Committee on Divine Worship the responsibility of overseeing the publication of Liturgical Books that describe and guide the reformed rites developed in the years since the Second Vatican Council. In light of this responsibility, “Guidelines for the Publication of Participation Aids” has been developed for publishers of popular participation materials.

«108. Hymns, songs and acclamations written for the liturgical assembly are approved for use in the Liturgy by the bishops of the diocese wherein they are published, in order to ensure that these texts truly express the faith of the Church with theological accuracy and are appropriate to the liturgical context.

«109. Composers who set liturgical texts to musical settings must respect the integrity of the approved text. Only with the approval of the USCCB Secretariat for Divine Worship may minor adaptations be made to approved liturgical texts.»

This shows the Church’s great interest in the Music used for the liturgy the need for discernment in choosing what is most appropriate for worship.

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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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