Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Father Rutler Sets Me Straight About the Altar of Sacrifice

Main [Standalone] Altar at St. Peter's Basilica Rome
It all started after Father George W. Rutler agreed to let me interview him for The Latin Mass Magazine after I conducted an email interview with him for Homiletic and Pastoral Review a few months ago[1].

In one question, I asked his opinion about the disputed topic of whether or not Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Apostolic Constitution on the liturgy published in December 1963, was implemented correctly in the Mass of Pope Paul VI that was mandated at the start of Advent in 1969.

Even now, almost 50 years later, lot of people argue in favor of rethinking some of the changes that were made, including the Church Music Association of America President, Stanford Professor William P. Mahrt [2], along with many others in the CMAA, contributors to the New Liturgical Movement website, and scholars of the liturgical changes of the twentieth century around the world.

Many of the changes that were made to the form of the Mass, the music, the vestments, and even the furnishings and arrangement of churches after the Second Vatican Council were not actually called for in Sacrosanctum Concilium—and in some cases the changes contradicted what Sacrosanctum Concilium literally said.  That line of thinking goes: since some changes were not explicitly required, such as the versus populum posture of the priest, those changes might easily be reversed in Ordinary Form Masses without undermining the reforms.

Others believe that Sacrosanctum Concilium
was deliberately and appropriately worded to leave the way open for additional changes beyond what was explicitly set down. Those who think that way believe that the Ordinary Form Mass as it is ordinarily celebrated now is the correct and complete interpretation of the directives in Sacrosanctum Concilium, and it should be left as it is currently celebrated.

In August of this year. Pope Francis stated that “the liturgical books promulgated by Blessed Paul VI have by now been universally used in the Roman rite for almost fifty years,” and that there is no possibility of a rethinking of the decisions behind the liturgical changes. And he ended by saying, “we can affirm with certainty and magisterial authority that the liturgical reform is irreversible.”

(See Sacrosanctum Concilium A Lawyer Examines the Loopholes for a discussion of the differences between the two points of view.)

Alas, it turned out that Father Rutler was not going to address this thorny topic, among many others that I raised. He wrote me back that he had pressing obligations that would prevent him from answering my extensive questions in the limited time before the deadline for the next issue of the magazine. In his email, he made a few general remarks, and he provided some links to some of his essays about related topics.

Father Rutler replied in detail only about one item out of the following list of changes not in Sacrosanctum Concilium that I had brainstormed to ask him about:

           The almost universal change away from the priest facing ad orientem to versus populum
           Removal of altar rails
           Female altar servers
           Communion in the hand
           Standing instead of kneeling after Communion
           Free-standing altar tables
           Resurrection images replacing crucifixes over the altar
           Churches in the round
           Iconoclasm (removal of images of saints)
           Banners
           Lay lectors
           Lay ministers of Communion
           Concelebration
           Vernacular-only Masses
           The abolishment of Latin and Gregorian chant
           The disuse of the organ
           Hymn singing (the Four-Hymn Sandwich[3]) replacing the sung propers and ordinary

The one thing Father Rutler focused on from that list in his reply was free-standing altar tables. I can’t say whether his silence on the other items implies that he agrees that the others were not mandated by Vatican II, but here is what Father Rutler wrote about that one thing:

“You refer to a ‘free standing table’ when in fact the liturgical guidelines refer to it as an Altar of Sacrifice.  There is nothing about a free standing altar that is inconsistent with traditional liturgy. In fact, the ‘shelf altar‘  is of a later development. Indeed, the ‘fixed tabernacle‘ on the wall attached to the altar developed in the 16th century.  The first to institute it was Cardinal Pole in England.  All the pontifical basilicas in Rome and most elsewhere have always had free standing altars and I say the Ordinary Form ad orientem at a free standing altar.”
I stand corrected. As Daniel Page, one of my Facebook friends from the Church Music Association of America,  commented when I posted about this interchange in my status,
“Yes, those of us who value traditional liturgy always have to be careful to know when the iterations of things existing soon before the cultural and ecclesiastical revolutions of the '60s and '70s were longstanding forms and when they were subject to continuous development (in the Newman sense, of course).”

It’s true that some who reacted with dismay to the changes believe--sometimes erroneously--that the way all things were done at Mass and the way churches were arranged and furnished before Vatican II all were of profound spiritual significance and should not be have been tampered with. I think it’s safe to say this misunderstanding of mine about the widespread change from shelf altars to altars that can be walked around indicates a wider problem.  There is a backstory of emotional trauma behind some people’s reactions against the changes that came down after Vatican II. 

To focus with Father Rutler just on the almost universal change from shelf altar to standalone altar after the council, the worship environment committees in many dioceses directed parish councils in remodeling projects that resulted in the removal of venerable altars that were often irreplaceable works of art.  In many cases, parishioners often witnessed the destruction of beautiful altars that had been in their churches as long as anyone could remember. 

Many of them had never seen a freestanding altar like the ones in St. Peter’s and the other major basilicas in Rome. And it often happened that they themselves or their parents or grandparents had sacrificially donated hard-earned money for the construction of their churches, and so they were understandably devastated when the costly altar and other valuable and treasured elements of church decor were ripped out, buried in church parking lots, sent to the dump, or sold to junk dealers.  We owe some compassion to those who suffered from these kind of changes—which were often made with brutal disregard for both aesthetics and sentiment.

Many of us remember how many priceless artifacts made of precious materials were thrown away during that time. In the mid-1960s in the South End of Boston, when I was living a bohemian lifestyle the year after I lost my faith as a college freshman, I remember seeing church furnishings often in the brownstone apartments of artists, bohemians, and other free thinkers. They thought it was ironic and quite hip to be able to pick up kneelers and altars and the like dirt cheap from salvage dealers and use them as parlor furniture.

Close to where I live now in my northside San Jose, CA, neighborhood, Holy Cross Church is another case in point.  Some 60-year-old oil-painted stations of the Cross, a scaled-down version of Michelangelo’s Pieta, a high altar, the altar rails, and a hand-carved, painted, and gilded wooden crucifix, all from Italy, were thrown out when the interior was remodeled in the 1960s.

The broken crucifix and a few other items were saved from trash pickup only because the janitor brought the pieces home and kept them in her garage. When the crucifix was restored and replaced in the church after the janitor’s death 40 years later, in time for the church’s 100th anniversary, the church had been changed so much by succeeding pastors that the crucifix looked quite out of place.

Whereas the crucifix originally hung from the half dome over a shelf altar with six large impressive candlesticks and an ornate tabernacle, the restored crucifix was mounted on a pole behind the altar table, or, I should more properly say, the altar of sacrifice.  The crucifix was flanked a bit incongruously by two small oak tables for holding flower arrangements.


The church walls had been repainted to hide the previous decorative flourishes, and most of the statues had been removed.  The half dome had in the meantime been covered by a mural painted on canvas by a local artist. (He told a reporter once that he painted on canvas because he didn’t know how to do frescoe painting.) The painting portrayed Christ rising to heaven above a hill with three empty crosses, in the middle of a range of hills that resembled the foothills that surround Santa Clara Valley. The restored crucifix tipped a little to the left on its pole and obscured part of the mural.  The effect was disappointing to say the least. 

When the church burnt down three years ago and the roof fell in, the crucifix remarkably survived with little damage, even though pieces of the canvas from the burned dome painting had fallen and draped themselves over the head of the figure of Christ. 

The plans for the new church building include the crucifix, but no half dome. From the architect’s mock-ups I’ve seen, the crucifix will hang behind a plain stone altar against a curved background of rectangular pieces of non-figurative blue-green art glass such as one might see in a hotel or office lobby, and--aside from the old stained glass windows that also survived the fire--that much-assailed phoenix-like crucifix may be the only thing of lasting beauty to be seen in the new church, aside from the holy sacrifice of the Mass, of course. The altar is not the focus of the design. It seems to float there without any special significance.
It should also be mentioned that the removal of the high altars  from Catholic churches reminded some who know their history about the actions of Cardinal Thomas Cranmer, who was Henry VIII’s Archbishop of Canterbury. Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer Protestantized the theology of the Mass so that the consecrated bread and wine were not offered as a sacrifice but as a memorial, and ornate altars were replaced with wooden communion tables.  Some who compare the Mass of 1969 with the previously issued Mass of 1962 say that the sacrificial aspect of the Mass is not mentioned nearly as much in the latest version, and it is quite understandable that the removal of the main altar might be thought to be a comparable act that attempted to Protestantize the celebration of the Eucharist.

I wrote this in my return email to Father Rutler:
“You are right, of course. Who knew? When those of us who were used to worship at Catholic Churches with high altars saw the sometimes beautiful marble altars trashed and replaced with what looks like a free-standing table, many of us were reminded of Cranmer's table.. ”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI wrote these sympathetic words in his letter to the bishops that accompanied his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, which loosened restrictions on the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass: “And I have seen how arbitrary deformations of the liturgy caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith of the Church.”

Similarly, have we not also seen how seemingly arbitrary deformations of church interiors have also caused deep pain to individuals totally rooted in the faith?


[1] At Homiletic and Pastoral Review: “In Heaven, There Is Only Singing: A Review of Two of Father Rutler's Books, and an Interview with the Author

[2] In National Catholic Register: "Gregorian Champ"

In Regina Magazine:
"Miracle in Palo Alto: How The St. Ann Choir Kept Chant and Polyphony Alive for 50 Years"

[3] At Homiletic and Pastoral Review: “Propers of the Mass Versus the Four-Hymn Sandwich” January 15, 2016

At The New Liturgical Movement: Fr. Samuel Weber’s “The Proper of the Mass": An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

[4] "Prominent among the liturgical innovations which prepared the way for or accompanied the 1549 Prayer Book were the principles that the liturgy must be in the vernacular and audible throughout; Communion under both kinds; a new order of Communion to be used with the old Mass; the replacement of altars with tables."--"Excerpts From Liturgical Revolution, Cranmer's Godly Order by Michael Davies
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