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31 July 2016
posted by Canon Dakin on 03-08-2016

A couple of weeks ago a cardinal came from Rome to England to address a group who are devoted to the retention of the old Latin Mass. Naturally they had chosen to invite him because they knew that he was sympathetic. The remark which caused a stir was his advice to all priests that from the first Sunday of Advent this year they should recite the Eucharistic Prayer standing with their backs to the people in order to face the conventional East where the rising sun is a symbol of Our Lord rising from the dead. The free-standing altar, with the priest facing the people, is regarded by many as a new-fangled invention. That is a light reading of history.  Many of you have been to             St Peter’s in Rome and, perhaps, attended when the Pope has been celebrating Mass. He doesn’t face the wall. He faces the people. The priest is the host, playing the part of Christ. You don’t turn your back on your guests. There is a cluster of fourth century churches in Rome, all with the chair back centre from where the priest simply walks forward to face the people across the altar.  That was the ground plan of churches in the West for a thousand years.  So after a thousand years how was it that the altar was dragged back against the wall and the chair was slewed to the side?  Relics! It was the popularity of relics that prompted the change round about the thirteenth cent.. At first the altar was not set right against the wall.  It was separated from the wall by a wooden shelf. The relics were placed on the shelf and people would get as close to them as they could by walking under the shelf along the gap between the altar and the wall.  Later the shelf was eliminated and shelves called gradines, were placed on the altar itself.

The next step was taken by the Bishop of Verona in the 16th century. The most precious relic we have, he said, is the Blessed Sacrament and he placedthe tabernacle in thecentreof the high altar.  Rome was not persuaded. There the tabernacle remained in its own chapel as a place of quiet contemplation away from the centre of action. So the design of a church after Vatican II is not a new revolution - it represents an age-old unbroken tradition. When the cardinal got back to Rome he was called to see Pope Francis and it was made clear that what he had said in London was his own private opinion and not the view of the Church. So don’t expect me to be turning my back on you. The focus of our celebration, to which we all turn, is not some vague symbol but the living person of the risen Christ whobecomes present in our midst on the altar. 

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