Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Imitating Papal Altars: Why Not???

Candles on the Altar
I have heard some liturgists argue against putting candles on the altar (that is in spite of the fact that the General Instruction on the Roman Missal allows this). They say that candles should not be placed on the altar because our altars are not Papa Altars. To this reason, I say that if we were not to imitate Papal altars, then we should have our altars pushed back to the walls. According to Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (who late became Pope Benedict XVI), 

"The controversy in our own century was triggered by another innovation. Because of topographical circumstances, it turned out that St. Peter's (basilica) faced west. Thus, if the celebrating priest wanted - as the Christian tradition of prayer demands - to face east, he had to stand behind the people and look - this is the logical conclusion - toward the people. For whatever reason it was done, one can also see this arrangement in a whole series of church buildings within St. Peter's direct sphere of influence. The liturgical renewal in our own century took up this alleged model and developed from it a new idea for the form of the liturgy. The Eucharist - so it was said - had to be celebrated versus populum (toward the people). The altar - as can be seen in the normative model of St. Peter's - had to be positioned in such a way that the priest and people looked at each other and formed the circle of the celebrating community. This alone - so it was said - was compatible with  the meaning of the Christian liturgy, with the requirement of active participation. This alone conformed to the primordial model of the Last Supper. These arguments seemed in the end so persuasive that after the Council (which says nothing about "turning toward the people") new altars were set everywhere, and today celebration versus populum really looks like the characteristic fruit of Vatican II's liturgical renewal. In fact, it is the most conspicuous consequence of a reordering that not only signifies a new external arrangement of the places dedicated to the liturgy, but also brings with it a new idea of the essence of the liturgy - the liturgy as a communal meal.

"This is, of course, a misunderstanding of the significance of the Roman basilica and of the positioning of the altar..." (J. Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, 77-78.)

My argument is this: the repositioning of the altar so that the liturgy may be celebrated facing the people was based on the imitation of the position of the Papal altars in Rome. If this were so, why are we now arguing that we should not put candles on the altar because we should not imitate the arrangement of candles on Papal Altars? I simply could not see the consistency of the arguments. We allow a change (positioning of the altar) in imitation of Papal altars and then disallow another practice (putting candles on the altar) because doing such would be applying to non-papal altars what is allowed on Papal altars. How can the standards change from one argument to another. This, to me, is simply whimsical preferences of some being imposed to all.

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