Where Altar Crucifixes Should Face

And More on the Easter Vigil

ROME, MAY 2, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: When an altar crucifix is used during the celebration of Mass, ought the corpus to be facing toward the priest or toward the congregation? — D.V., Washington, D.C.

A: The indications in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are sparse regarding the direction of the figure of Christ on the cross:

“No 308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.”

Taking our cue from Monsignor Peter Elliott’s liturgy manual, we might add that the crucifix should be located on, next to, immediately behind or suspended above the altar. It should be visibly related to the altar as viewed by the people.

As Monsignor Elliott comments: “The liturgical crucifix is not primarily for the private devotion of the celebrant but is a sign in the midst of the Eucharistic assembly proclaiming that the Mass is the same Sacrifice as Calvary.”

Thus, strictly speaking, the altar crucifix is in relationship to the altar, and not just to the priest, and for this reason the “corpus” is usually turned toward the altar.

An altar crucifix can be somewhat off-putting for the faithful who can see only the reverse of the cross. This is a relatively new problem as, before the liturgical reform, the whole assembly, priest and people, faced both altar and crucifix in the same direction.

For this reason the best solution appears to be either the large crucifix permanently behind or above the altar.

If this is not possible, then the very flexibility of the norms would allow for a processional cross, or a larger but movable crucifix on a stand, which is placed near the altar in such a position that clearly relates to the altar while remaining visible to the faithful.

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Follow-up: Easter Vigil

After our piece on the Easter Vigil (April 11) a Florida reader asked: “Are you aware of any exceptions granted by Rome to having the Easter Vigil begin before sundown on Saturday evening? I am quite upset that all the churches in the diocese I have moved to a few years ago, even the cathedral itself, consistently begin the service before sundown.”

The following document is taken from the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter, Volume 37, should answer this question. This statement is not official law, but it is an official explanation of the law. I thank the site catholicliturgy.com for making it easily accessible.

During the past 30 years, the BCL Newsletter has addressed the question of the time for the Easter Vigil on several occasions. Each time, the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Roman Calendar, No. 21, has been cited:

“The Easter Vigil, during the holy night when Christ rose from the dead, ranks as the ‘mother of all vigils’ (Augustine, Sermon 219: PL 38, 1088). Keeping watch, the Church awaits Christ’s resurrection and celebrates it in the sacraments. Accordingly, the entire celebration of this vigil should take place at night, that is, it should either begin after nightfall or end before the dawn of Sunday.

“In 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments addressed this question with greater specificity in its ‘Circular Letter Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts.’ After repeating the rubric cited above, the Congregation noted that ‘This rule is to be taken according to its strictest sense. Reprehensible are those abuses and practices which have crept in many places in violation of this ruling, whereby the Easter Vigil is celebrated at the time of day that it is customary to celebrate anticipated Masses (no. 78).’

“The intention of the ‘Missale Romanum’ is clear: the Easter Vigil is to take place in darkness. Thus the approved translation of ‘post initium noctis’ is ‘after nightfall,’ that is, after the time in the evening when daylight is last visible. This time is roughly equivalent to astronomical twilight, which is defined by the Naval Observatory as the time after which ‘the Sun does not contribute to sky illumination.’ Tables of sunset and astronomical twilight for each locality in the United States are available at the Naval Observatory website.

“In Washington, DC, by way of example, sunset will take place at 6:45pm on Holy Saturday, April 15, 2001. However, Astronomical Twilight in the nation’s capital will not occur until 8:21pm, or 96 minutes later. Likewise, sunset in Los Angeles occurs at 6:25pm, but Astronomical Twilight (when ‘the Sun does not contribute to sky illumination’) occurs at 7:53pm, about 88 minutes later. While some pastoral flexibility concerning the astronomical mathematics of the question is reasonable, it is clearly the intent of the Church that the Easter Vigil not begin until it is dark.”

Another Floridian asked: “I recently attended an Easter Vigil service and noticed that the Prayer of the Faithful was omitted. When I inquired, I was told that it would have made the celebration too long. Is it permissible to do so?”

The rubrics in the missal say: “After the people have been sprinkled, the priest returns to the chair. The Profession of Faith is omitted, and the priest directs the general intercessions, in which the newly baptized [if there are any] take part for the first time.”

Therefore it seems that there should always be a Prayer of the Faithful at the vigil. That the rubrics indicate them is a sign of their importance, since the intercessions are usually omitted whenever the litanies of the saints are proclaimed during Mass, the usual case during the vigil in a parish or cathedral where at least the baptismal font is blessed.

Remember: The faithful who assist at the vigil are fully prepared for, and even expect, a long celebration. Even so, if truly necessary for sound pastoral reasons, the rubrics do foresee the possibility of reducing the number of readings and using shorter versions of some readings.

The Prayer of the Faithful probably lasts about four to six minutes, hardly an insupportable burden to bear in order to properly welcome the risen Lord.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected]. 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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