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Liturgy: Crowded Altar?

And More on Polka Masses

ROME, MAY 5, 2004 (Zenit) - Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

Q: At our Church, there are so many people on the altar for Sunday Mass, that it is very distracting. There are two readers, one for each of the readings; there is the deacon who assists the priest and reads the Gospel; there is the priest who celebrates Mass and another priest who delivers the homily, as well as two acolytes. Is it correct to have so many people on the altar? -- J.D., Syracuse, New York

A: I think that a distinction has to be made. On the one hand it is good that your parish has a body of people willing to offer themselves at the service of the liturgy. On the other, there is the question of the best possible distribution of the various ministers.

Although the answer to this question largely depends on the structure and size of the presbytery, the disposition must be carried out according to certain principles.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) No. 294 indicates some of these principles: "The priest celebrant, the deacon, and the other ministers have places in the sanctuary. Seats for concelebrants should also be prepared there. If, however, their number is great, seats should be arranged in another part of the church, but near the altar."

No. 310 of the GIRM also deals with this subject: "The chair of the priest celebrant must signify his office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer. ... Likewise, seats should be arranged in the sanctuary for concelebrating priests as well as for priests who are present for the celebration in choir dress but who are not concelebrating.

"The seat for the deacon should be placed near that of the celebrant. Seats for the other ministers are to be arranged so that they are clearly distinguishable from those for the clergy and so that the ministers are easily able to fulfill the function entrusted to them."

From this it is clear that, if possible, the seats of the various ministers should be within the sanctuary according to a certain hierarchy.

The chair of the priest and the deacon should always be in the sanctuary.

If there are few concelebrants they should also have seats in the sanctuary as well as priests who are present in choir dress without concelebrating.

However, if for a good reason, such as the number of concelebrants or the structure of the sanctuary, it is not feasible to fit everybody within the sanctuary with decorum, then they may occupy the pews closest to the altar.

In this case it is best that concelebrating priests should enter the sanctuary after the prayer over the gifts so as not to impede the faithful's seeing the sacred action taking place upon the altar.

Acolytes should sit within the sanctuary but in a place that differs from the clergy. It is preferable, however, that they should not occupy seats needed by concelebrating priests in the sanctuary and should be provided with places near the sanctuary from which they may conveniently carry out their ministry.

Even in this latter case there may be exceptions as some sanctuaries, such as those which retain the altar rail, may be difficult to enter. Here the dignified service of the liturgy might require that the acolytes remain within the sanctuary even though there are concelebrants occupying the first pews.

Readers follow similar criteria to acolytes although since their ministry is briefer they may enter the sanctuary only to exercise it and leave afterward, especially during concelebrations and in sanctuaries with limited space.

In conclusion, although the general principle is that those who fulfill a ministry during the celebration should ideally occupy a place within the precincts of the sanctuary, this general norm is not absolute. It is subject to the limitations imposed by concrete circumstances of place and the specific celebration.

It is certainly understandable that an overly cluttered sanctuary could constitute a source of distraction to the faithful, especially during the Eucharistic Prayer, and it is probably best to avoid the situation if possible.

At the same time, we must remember that the presence of a full complement of ministers enhances rather than detracts from the overall dignity of the celebration. It also allows for the performance of special rites such as the procession with the Book of the Gospels and the incensing of the Blessed Sacrament during the consecration.

* * *

Follow-up: Polka Masses

After our piece on "Polka Masses" (April 20) a priest from North Dakota wrote the following commentary "The tradition of having 'Polka' Masses is very much alive ... ...

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