Monday, January 27, 2020

In Defense of Side Altars

Side altars in a splendid German neo-Baroque church: St. Anna in Altötting (built 1910-12)
A reader of NLM wrote to me:
I attended a conference in Rome in which a respected liturgist gave a talk about church art. He criticized the phenomenon of “side altars” as a deviation from early Christian practice. I’m not sure if there’s something online that defends not only private Masses for priests but also the architectural phenomenon of side altars, and why, further to that, it is okay for different Masses to be happening simultaneously in one church — say, the parish Mass and a priest’s (or priests’) private Masses.
The critique of side altars is, like so much else, an expression of unsophisticated antiquarianism and misplaced Byzantinophilia.

It is true that the Christian East has held on tightly (as they have done with so many features of worship) to the original architectural plan of a sanctuary centered on a single altar, which signifies Christ, the one and only High Priest and Mediator between God and Man. This is why the altar is dedicated and anointed, and later, kissed and incensed. Liturgy is celebrated solemnly in song once a day at this altar.

The symbolism is magnificent, yes, but it is not exhaustive of the possibilities of the cult of the saints and devotional liturgy, which were to develop prodigiously in the West. In the first millennium, side altars developed as a way to house the relics of the saints. Most side altars, even to this day, are associated with a particular saint or devotion, while the high altar retains an obvious primacy, prominence, and centrality for the solemn conventual Mass. As Enrico Finotti comments:
The side altar keeps its liturgical function intact and it is rather harmful to transmit to the faithful the idea that the emergence of the side altars is the sign of a decadent and incorrect phase of liturgical development. The side altars celebrate with amazing artistic expressions the wonderful fruits of the only Sacrifice of Christ: the Saints and their works. Their memory, erected in connection with the altar, affirms that from the Sacrifice of Christ they received the grace of their holiness and the efficacy of their witness. Wanting to deprive such monuments of the table [i.e., the mensa for offering Mass] is to disrupt them theologically from their divine source. The multiplicity of the side altars is the visual manifestation of the infinite prism of the fruits of the one Altar and of the only Sacrifice, Christ Jesus. This is why the side altars cannot be “museified,” but must remain “alive” with all their own signs, open to the exercise of their liturgical function.
In the West, with the general absence of concelebration, and with the proliferation of monastic and cathedral clergy, the custom arose of priests offering their own daily low Mass, a Missa lecta or Missa recitata or Missa privata — as still occurs in a number of traditional religious and clerical communities today. Therefore, quite apart from the cult of the saints, which requires suitably beautiful repositories for their relics, the essential defense of side altars rests on the legitimacy in itself, and the value for the Church, of the priest’s daily, individual, “devotional” offering of the Mass, over against the postconciliar imposition of the alien custom of concelebration in a feeble imitation of the East.[1]

Nor should it cause any surprise to recall that the claim that there should only be one altar in each church was specifically condemned by Pope Pius VI in the Bull Auctorem Fidei as one of the numerous errors of the Synod of Pistoia:
Propositio Synodi enuntians, conveniens esse, pro divinorum officiorum ordine et antiqua consuetudine, ut in unoquoque templo unum tantum sit altare, sibique adeo placere morem illum restituere: temeraria, perantiquo, pio, multis abhinc saeculis in Ecclesia, praesertim Latina, vigenti et probato mori iniuriosa.
       [The proposition of the synod enunciating that it is fitting, in accordance with the order of divine services and ancient custom, that there be only one altar in each church and, therefore, that it is pleased to restore that custom: rash, injurious to the very ancient pious custom flourishing and approved for these many centuries in the Church, especially in the Latin Church.] (Denzinger 2631)
In response to the reader’s question, let me mention that the definitive study has been written by the Carmelite priest Joseph de Sainte-Marie, OCD, The Holy Eucharist—The World’s Salvation. Studies on the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, its Celebration, and its Concelebration (reviewed here). I have defended the fittingness of the daily private Mass in chapter 10 of my book Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis (“The Loss of Graces: Private Masses and Concelebration”) and in two articles at NLM (“Celebration vs. Concelebration: Theological Considerations” and “The Mounting Threat of Coercive Concelebration”). Dr. Joseph Shaw has also made a contribution on this topic (“What Are Side Chapels For?”).

Once one admits the legitimacy of a priest offering his Mass each morning (when not otherwise engaged for public Mass), the existence of side altars is basically unavoidable, for the clergy cannot be reasonably accommodated otherwise.

In the monastery . . . 
. . . and during retreats or workshops . . .
. . . and at times of pilgrimage or international events.
From a symbolic point of view, it may not seem appropriate to have many priests offering many Masses at many altars in a church, as if this detracts from the unity of Christ, His priesthood, and His sacrifice. On the other hand, since symbolism cuts many ways, a counterargument can be made that the many offerings symbolize the multiplication of Christ’s priestly power in His ministers and into His Mystical Body, which has many members, all of which, being persons, are temples of the Holy Spirit. The very fact that the one all-sufficient sacrifice is renewed unbloodily at many altars glorifies and exalts the priestly power of Christ, who sanctifies all places and all times, giving rise to many springs from one reservoir, gathering all streams together in a measureless ocean. Moreover, it emphasizes the subordinate nature of the ministers and of the liturgy as compared with the one Mediator Himself and His heavenly self-offering “beyond the veil” in the true Holy of Holies. In other words, as we can see to be typical of Western liturgy, it both welcomes Christ into our midst and emphasizes, in obvious and subtle ways, the distance between the earthly realm and the heavenly kingdom, unlike the Eastern liturgy which tends to see the earthly liturgy as a direct reflection of and immediate participation in the heavenly kingdom.

I do not want to overemphasize this contrast, as one can find features of the Eastern liturgy that deeply express man’s fallen condition and his exile from heaven, just as there are aspects of the Western liturgy that symbolize or enact the union of earth with heaven (most notably, the “Supplices te rogamus” of the Roman Canon). We also find Sacrosanctum Concilium giving prominence to this point, in a paragraph that would become all but unintelligible in the wake of the Consilium’s reform:
In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory. (n. 8)
Two, then, can play this game of symbolism. A symbolic argument will never, by itself, be sufficiently determinate to decide between two conflicting practices. One has to justify any liturgical practice based on theological, spiritual, pastoral, and aesthetic arguments — not simply on the basis of archaic practice or Eastern practice or a modern penchant for simplicity, which usually comes out as horizontal, democratic, undifferentiated, and plain, when not ugly.

As for side altars, we may well say: in the East, anathema sit; in the West, “multiply and fill the earth.”

Stift Wilten (Norbertine) in Innsbruck
St. Gallus, Bregenz (h/t Fr Jerabek)


[1] Additionally to the question of relics, there is another major motivator for the creation of side-altars, which really takes off in the age of the canons regular (who emerge as a major force within the Church in the 12th century) and the mendicants (13th century): since they were largely an urban phenomenon, and did not have stable foundations based on owning land, as monks did, canons regular and mendicants had to provide for themselves from their apostolic works; as St Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:18, “the worker is worthy of his wage.” Within a large house of (e.g.) Dominicans like Santa Maria Novella in Florence, each side-altar was privately owned by a family, who paid for everything, including all the accoutrements necessary for saying Mass, and the priest’s salary. All the Masses were therefore said for that family’s intentions. This was one of the things that made the apostolic ministry of such communities possible, and in addition, gave us a lot of really amazing art, since the families that could afford their own chapel could generally also afford to hire the best artists to decorate it.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s website for articles, sacred music, and classics reprinted by Os Justi Press (e.g., Newman, Benson, Scheeben, Parsch, Guardini, Chaignon, Leen, Roguet, Croegaert), his SoundCloud page for lectures and interviews, and his YouTube channel for talks and sacred music.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: