My guess is that many of you have noticed that on the altar during Mass now there stands a small crucifix, with the corpus (body) facing me. Why is this? I am employing what many have come to know as the “Benedictine arrangement” of the altar, named after Pope Benedict XVI. Cardinal Ratzinger, before becoming pope, wrote a book called Feast of Faith, which has provided much inspiration for what has come to be known as the “Reform of the Reform of Vatican II”, attempting to digest and implement what Vatican II really intended. Regarding the sudden turning of the altars, such that the priest now faces the people, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself.
Whereas the orientation of the old Mass had everybody facing towards the Lord, in the act of worship that most anticipated the Lord’s second coming – the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the new orientation of the altar, with the priest facing the people could give the impression that the priest is some type of entertainer trying to keep the attention of everybody on himself. So Cardinal Ratzinger wrote:
In reality what happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest — the “presider”, as they now prefer to call him — becomes the real point of reference for the whole Liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing.
To repair the impression that the priest is somehow the center of everything, rather than Jesus, Cardinal Ratzinger recommended an altar cross as the point of focus during the Eucharistic prayer:
I see a solution to this… Facing toward the East, as we heard, was linked with the “sign of the Son of Man”, with the Cross, which announces Our Lord’s Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the East was linked with the sign of the cross. Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior “East” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.
With the altar cross in place during the Eucharistic prayer, both priest and people are facing ad Deum (“towards God”), once again to use language of Cardinal Ratzinger. As I said in the homily this past weekend, when you come to Mass, the purpose primarily is to encounter Jesus Christ, the High Priest who presides at every Mass. (Thankfully, you are not coming primarily to encounter me… and this fact takes lots of pressure off of me, because I know the Lord Jesus will be working in every single heart present, far beyond what I can accomplish or even imagine.) This is also why you will notice that I make very little eye contact with the congregation during the Eucharistic prayers. [In the pre-Vatican II Mass, the rubric was even explicit for the priest…. that when he said the phrase Dominus vobiscum (“The Lord be with you”), he was to say it “ with eyes downcast”.] Such little details can help us all focus on the Real Presence of Jesus in the Mass, and not wrongly imagine that priest and congregation are communicating as casually as we would outside on the sidewalk beyond this sanctuary.
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,