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The Confederate Lawyer
October 18, 2011

Fixing Broken Churches
by Charles G. Mills
fitzgerald griffin foundation

GLEN COVE, NY — Extensive changes were made in the liturgy of the Western Catholic Church (and some other churches) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the more striking ones was a widespread change in the direction the priest faces at Mass. This led to some unfortunate changes in church interior architecture that can and should be corrected.

Prior to 1969, the Catholic Church celebrated three major types of Masses. The first was the “High Mass,” “Solemn Mass,” or “Solemn High Mass,” which was celebrated by a priest, deacon, and another cleric, ordinarily a subdeacon. The second type was the “Missa Cantata” or “Sung Mass,” which was originally a Mass with sung parts; over the centuries, elements of the High Mass — specifically the use of incense, a master of ceremonies, and torches — were added, so that by the late 1950s this became the ordinary way of celebrating the Missa Cantata. The Missa Cantata was always celebrated without a deacon, and almost always without a subdeacon. The third type was the Low Mass, which was originally a private Mass, either without a congregation or with a few friends or acquaintances of the priest; over time, it became the usual way of celebrating most Masses.

At the High Mass, the priest faced the people when he spoke to them and he faced the altar, almost always facing the same direction as the people, when he prayed directly to God. The deacon proclaimed the Gospel from the Gospel side of the sanctuary (the north side if the altar was on the east side), and the subdeacon or minor cleric proclaimed the Epistle or Lesson from the Epistle side (the south side if the altar was on the east side).

At the Missa Cantata until 1964, the priest also proclaimed the Gospel (and almost always the Epistle or Lesson) facing generally in the direction of the altar. At the Low Mass, he always proclaimed both readings facing generally in the direction of the altar. At the Low Mass, the priest only turned around to face the people a few times, such as before the orations, before Communion, at the Orate Fratres, and at the final blessing and dismissal. He celebrated virtually the entire Mass with his back to the people.

In the early 1960s, two changes occurred that were at cross purposes. In 1964, in one of its first liturgical reforms inspired by Vatican II, the Church authorized the priest at a Low Mass to face the people during the Gospel and Epistle or Lesson. This change was intended to restore the distinction between the priest facing the people when speaking to them and facing the altar when praying to God. At the same time, popular enthusiasm began to embrace the idea of the priest facing the people throughout the Mass. This tended to destroy the distinction between the priest facing the people when speaking to them and facing the altar when praying to God and leading the people in prayer.

In 1969, as part of a major reform, the Church abolished the distinction between the three major types of Mass and embraced the idea of the priest facing the people throughout the Mass in newer churches. The Church, however, has never required it. Pope Benedict XVI has returned to the older form at Masses celebrated in the Sistine Chapel.

The idea of the priest facing the people throughout Mass has no justification in history or liturgical theory.

As this idea became almost universal, the interiors of Catholic (and some other) churches were changed to accommodate the new practice. This rearrangement was often required by liturgical “experts” but never by legislation. The results have often been quite bad. In some places, the prominence of the altar has been reduced to that of a Calvinist “communion table.” In other places, the altar has been moved so far forward in the sanctuary that no space remains for clergy other than the celebrant or for a solemn chanting of the Liturgy of the Word in the traditional manner. Sometimes, the distinction between the sanctuary and the space for the people has been obliterated.

Almost always, the change has destroyed the integrity of the architect’s original design. Before the early 1960s, the altar was almost always near the back of the sanctuary, allowing the priest to celebrate according to the older practices and leaving enough room for the deacon and subdeacon and for a proper pontifical celebration by a bishop.

The Church is now encouraging the widespread use of the 1962 Missal and other liturgical books, according to which the celebrant has his back to the people for most of the Mass. Many churches, however, were reconfigured in such a way as to make such a celebration awkward or impossible.

There should be a movement toward returning older churches to their original architectural integrity, with the altar near the back of the sanctuary and a substantial altar rail at the front of it, and with enough space between to celebrate the High Mass properly.

This restoration will cost money. Some will say that this is a non-productive expenditure. They are wrong. Frederic Bastiat once pointed out that breaking a window and paying someone to repair it did not produce any more wealth than would have been produced if it had never been broken. His point, however, was not to condemn the repair of broken windows but to condemn the breaking of windows. Too many of our churches are broken, and it is an appropriate expenditure to fix them.

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The Confederate Lawyer column is copyright © 2011 by Charles G. Mills and the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation, www.fgfBooks.com. All rights reserved.

Charles G. Mills is the Judge Advocate or general counsel for the New York State American Legion. He has forty years of experience in many trial and appellate courts and has published several articles about the law.

See his biographical sketch and additional columns here.

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