turning it around

I have an interesting experiment: let’s have the Catholic Church turn the altars back around.

See, I’m a post Vatican II Catholic, and I’ve grown up with the priest doing his thing facing the laypeople during the Mass. It’s fine and personable and all that, and yeah, I have to say I like the prayers being in English (no matter how ineptly translated) and it’s good to be able to understand what’s going on.

But — I would like to turn the altar back around.

Here’s my thought: during the consecration, the priest and the congregation should be facing the same direction so we are physically representing that the priest isn’t standing in the place of God, but rather that all of us are approaching God together as His People. ¬†Yes, the priest is technically acting in-persona-Christi, but it might be that there would be a greater sense of reverence if we were representing with our bodies the idea that God has His sacred space and during that time, the priest himself doesn’t even enter there. That we’re all approaching God together.

With modern sound systems, it shouldn’t be a problem that the priest would be facing the other direction, since the microphone would pick it up just fine no matter which way the priest was facing — or even if he was in the sacristy.

It was only about five years ago that I realized the entire Mass itself functions as one long prayer. And the physical representation of that by having us all facing the same direction would help give us a sense that we’re all in this together, and that you don’t have to be a saint in order to become a priest, and that God loves us all the same.

I wonder if we didn’t lose something valuable when we faced the priest toward the people, if we didn’t put the priest up onto the first rung of a divine pedestal he never should have gotten onto.

What say you? Or have I just put my hand into a hornet’s nest on this beautiful Friday morning?

(I’m willing to be argued down. Just don’t stop with telling me I’m stupid: tell me precisely why this idea is stupid. Use extra comment boxes if you run out of room.)


  1. Xallanthia

    As I am Orthodox, and we have never stopped all facing East, I certainly will not argue with you! I’m generally a fan of traditional practices, and it has always seemed to me that the Catholic Church lost rather more than it gained in Vatican II.

  2. Ivy

    The rabbi faces the tabernacle when the arc is open, and with no sound system, it works just fine. Then again, we never abandoned Hebrew, and I would very much love to see a mass in Latin (with real Gregorian chants please, not bad 70s music. Gregorian chants are beautiful). Translated prayer books work just fine.

  3. Petra

    I love the idea. I’ve been to the TLM and I have to say it felt more reverent for the priest to lead the people in prayer.

  4. Illya

    I am old enough to have attended Masses for years with the priest facing the same way as the people–that is as a participant. It was much more solemn. What was going on was sacred in a place that was special and “protected” if you will with the priest as the highest representative of the people. I believe that it would be a great step forward if we turned the altars around. IN fact, some don’t even need to be turned around. The great, majestic altars built long ago are still visible in many churches behind the tables that have been affixed in front.

  5. philangelus

    Okay, so where are all the modern hip Catholics who love having it the way it is now…?

    The other way to accomplish the same thing is what I’ve experienced at some daily Masses, when there were only ten or twelve people in attendance and the priest invited us all to come stand in a circle around the altar. In effect we were all facing the same way (inward) and the physical representation there was being a community with God at its center.

    I’ve been to “churches in the round” though and for some reason when there are 500 people doing it that way, it just feels distracting.

  6. cricketB

    Most of my experience is with the leader facing the congregation.

    At my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, I liked the feeling that the Rabbi was helping the congregation do what they would have done anyways, rather than being an indispensable part of it. The only differences between her and my cousin were their experience and their choice of profession.

    I think I’d like the leader being a member of the congregation for Christian Communion.

    We used to help serve Communion, before we realized the only days we showed up were the days we served. I always felt unqualified, like I was in the way or doing something wrong.

    Yes, small groups work better in a circle than large ones. This is also true for storytelling. It’s easy to make eye contact with a small number, no matter where they are. In larger groups, even though you know there isn’t eye contact, if they’re all on one side the leader can at least look at the group at the same time and connect that way.

    If he were looking at the alter, though, it wouldn’t be about him connecting to you. He’d be leading the way and selecting the path that everyone follows. (Hmmm, should there be another leader at the back, to watch for people having trouble with the climb?)

    My FIL’s employers took him to a Catholic church before the war.
    The wine and bread was consumed by the priest, on behalf of the congregation. The lay people never physically received any of it. Catholic as in “not changed to Lutheran”. I’m not sure how good the communication was between Romania and Rome back then. Most of the congregation wouldn’t know if their Priests were “current” or not.

  7. capt_cardor

    I guess I’ll be the philistine here.

    So long as the Eucharist is completed and the congregation shares in the divinity of Christ, does it really matter how it is accomplished? Facing front, side or back, with bells or without, Christ’s presence is the miracle.

    1. philangelus

      I’m not going to argue with that. I just wonder if we haven’t been too casual and congregation-focused in the past years and if maybe it wouldn’t change the focus if we swapped things back. I’m not rabid for either direction. Or for having it in a circle or whatnot. I think in times of persecution, the priest has sometimes had to say Mass lying down in a field while the farming community pretended to work nearby him, and he used his body as the altar. What matters is the Eucharist.

      But on the other hand, The Bad Catholic’s Guide To Good Living pointed out that for centuries, people who had never read a book nor had an education passing what we would think of as second or third grade could tell you about the Real Presence Of the Eucharist, and why was that? The author goes on to say, “Let’s try an experiment. Without ever saying anything about it, let’s change things so that movie tickets are distributed by a robed celibate only to people kneeling, who take it in their teeth and not in their hands. Continue that for thirty years and ask yourself, What kind of ideas would your children and their children get about movie tickets?

      And similarly, what happens if for thirty years the Church treats the Eucharist like a movie ticket?

      So I don’t have super-strong feelings about the way people face, but I wondered if it would help understand the majesty of what’s going on if the priest turned around.

  8. capt_cardor

    I’m new to all this so it all seems like “little enders and big enders” to me. I didn’t need majesty to come to Jesus: I just needed faith.

    1. philangelus

      And you’re right. It certainly isn’t the hill to die on.