Have you ever been to a Mass where the priest invited people (perhaps children) from the congregation to stand with him behind the altar during thePrayer? I have. Now, I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing the illiceity of this practice (see Notitiae 17 (1981), 61). Rather, I would like to reflect on one of the good intentions that is likely behind such an invitation and what it can teach us about the orientation of our prayer during the Mass.
Imagine a typical parish Mass. Now imagine that the priest has asked certain members of the congregation to stand with him during the Prayer. These folks leave their usual places in the nave and enter the . Probably, they are self-conscious as they stand near the priest and the other ministers while the rest of the congregation looks on. They are in their street clothes while the priest, the deacon, and the ministers wear sacred vestments. The priest and the deacon are busy about things at the altar, the servers ring bells and wait for their cues, but the displaced members of the congregation stand with “nothing to do.” They may feel like awkward spectators of the intimate details of what the priest is doing, as they might feel if they had suddenly found themselves standing behind a surgeon in the middle of heart surgery.
Most likely, the intention of the priest who invited these members of the congregation to stand with him at the altar is not at all to reduce them to being spectators of the Liturgy. On the contrary, he probably intends to affirm them as active participants and to associate them with himself. This is expressed, in terms of posture, by having them stand behind the altar with him as he offers thePrayer.
I would like to dwell more on this point, for it seems to be an attempted solution to a pastoral problem, namely that the people in the congregation (at least in the priest’s estimation) see themselves as merely watching the priest, as separated from him, perhaps even as isolated from him by the intervention of the altar itself. The attempted solution in the scenario I have described lies in re-locating and re-orienting the selected members of the congregation so that they are on the same side of the altar as the priest and facing in the same direction as him.
In a Mass celebrated, the problem disappears, since the entire congregation is situated “behind the altar.” They all stand together with the priest. They are all associated with him as he offers the Sacrifice in the person of Christ. The interior and spiritual orientation of the Mass is reflected in and bolstered by the physical posture of the priest and people.
People commonly refer toworship as “the priest with his back to the people.” This characterization, while literally correct, presumes a view of the Mass that has already reduced the congregation to being only an audience. The deacon also stands and kneels behind the priest, but no one speaks of “the priest with his back to the deacon.” Why would they? After all, the deacon is standing there with the priest, and he has his own proper role. If, as Catholic doctrine demands, we begin with an affirmation that the congregation offers the Mass through and with the priest, that they are fundamentally associated with the action of Christ through the priest and have their own proper role, we would hardly be tempted to say that the priest stands “with his back to the people.” We may as well say that the people in the first pew stand with their backs to the people in the second pew. Rather, we would naturally say that the people face the altar together with the priest. They all face the same direction, since they are all engaged in the same sacred action.
With the right catechesis and the gradual re-introduction ofworship, we can accomplish in a liturgically correct way what the practice of inviting people up behind the altar seeks to accomplish. We can express by our physical orientation the spiritual truth of the celebration: that the priest and people are united in their act of worship, an act that is directed toward God. The priest will be seen less as a performer and the congregation less as spectators. To put it simply, everyone will be behind the altar.
Other articles in this series
- Altar Rails and the Holy Mass – the significance of. (December 8, 2011)
- It’s beginning to look a lot like… Sanity. (December 10, 2011)
- Rings and Wings in the Holy Mass (January 23, 2012)
- Did Vatican II Remove Latin from the Mass? (March 6, 2012)
- When The Priest Faces The Altar (March 20, 2012)
- Participation at Mass – Active, Passive, or Middle Voice (June 3, 2012)
- Behind the Altar (This post) (June 7, 2012)