The New Liturgical Movement alerted its readers to an excellent piece which appears in the latest online edition of Homiletic and Pastoral Review. It treats the matter of the altar arrangement the Holy Father uses whenever he celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
You can find the article here:
The author, Fr. Stefan Heid, makes some rock solid points about the importance of proper orientation towards God.
Having the Crucifix front and center reminds us that during the Holy Sacrifice, we go back to Calvary. We are just as present at Jesus' supreme sacrifice as are the Blessed Mother and Sts. John and Mary Magdalene. We are the group that "looks upon Him whom was pierced" for us and for our sins. St. Paul reminds us that we should glory in the cross. In his epistle, he writes that he "preaches Christ crucified." While we are an Easter people, as Blessed John Paul II once said, we must remember that we cannot separate the Resurrection of Our Lord from the Crucifixion. One loses its meaning and significance without the other. Furthermore, we cannot excise the Last Supper from the picture. This sacrificial meal that Jesus instituted on the night before he willingly suffered His Passion is the Memorial of His salviffic act. Thus, Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday all point towards each other in this Sacred Triduum.The cross is the focal point of salvation and of liturgical action. It should, of course, harmonize with the altar in style and proportion, but it should certainly not be low standing. The cross is supposed to disturb! The priest is not supposed to “overlook” it! However, the objection is sometimes made that a barrier is created by the cross between clergy and people, something on the line of an iconostasis (a wall of icons in Eastern rite churches, separating the nave from the sanctuary). But this is a specious argument as even the enormous altar cross in the Basilica of St. Peter does not really block the view. There are very few churches, after all, where the people face the altar straight on; more commonly, they face the altar from a lateral perspective, looking past the cross to the priest. Moreover, the higher the cross is placed, the less likely it will obstruct the people’s view. It thus becomes for all a spiritual “attention-getter” (if it is aesthetically high-standing). Finally, it is further objected that an altar cross creates a doubling of crucifixes, in the case that a cross already hangs above or behind the altar. However, the cross on the altar is for the priest, facing him with its corpus, while the faithful look at their cross above the altar.
Fr. Heid also speaks of the priest raising his eyes, especially during the recitation of the Eucharistic Prayer.
He does look up, for instance, in the Roman canon at the time of the consecration while speaking the words: “et elevatis oculis in coelum”. Therefore, Jesus inaugurates the Eucharist “with eyes raised to heaven.”I remember observing my Paulist priest friend after he returned to us following his ordination in New York. When he celebrated his first Mass with us, he was very deliberate and quite reverent (not that he no longer is). I noticed that as he prayed Institution Narrative of the Eucharist Prayer, he would not look at the faithful; rather he would focus his gaze beyond our sight. He would raise his eyes to a point in the back of the church that was even higher than the choir loft. Even at the Pater Noster, he would keep his eyes fixed overhead.
Even in the ordo novus, the rubric at this point reads: “He (the priest) raises his eyes.” But where exactly is the priest supposed to be looking, at the church ceiling? So when the priest in reciting a prayer is required to look upward, rather than simply staring into space, the obvious focal point is a high-standing cross on the main altar.
Of course, the practice of having a cross on the altar facing the priest is not only needed for a few isolated moments. It has a more general purpose. When the priest stands at the altar in unceasing prayer to God, he will be gazing at God’s Son, through whom his every petition, his every word of praise, is, in fact, offered...
...The priests and the faithful could look up to the apse when they prayed, seeing into heaven, so to speak. The gaze of the faithful was not focused on the altar and the celebrant, but rather overhead. The church building itself always had to be “oriented” to the east at this graphically depicted heavenly art. The actual geographical orientation toward the east was of secondary importance.
Now, it was clear from the beginning that Christian prayer was not simply directed to God alone, but through Jesus Christ to the heavenly Father. This is precisely where the cross comes into play as a focal point.
During lunch one time, we talked about his focal point. He said that in the seminary, he was taught to look beyond the faithful and direct his gaze towards the heavens. For me, his comments were quite interesting, since, after all, this was from the same person who, as a seminarian, chided me for not being willing to use inclusive language while I was proclaiming the readings. I was impressed that he was really making an effort at infusing reverence into the Mass (his preference for inclusive language notwithstanding). My friend further explained that his professor taught him that during the course of the Mass, there are points when he is addressing the faithful and when he is praying to the Father. As far as I remember, he was the only one of the priests in that parish who would direct his gaze upward during certain points in the Mass.
Down here, quite a few celebrants also direct their gaze towards the heavens while celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, my parochial vicar being one of them. In fact, one of our older parishes has now begun to employ the use of the altar cross for Mass. When celebrants raise their eyes, gazing spiritually upon Him who has been pierced for our sins, they remind us that the Mass is not about ourselves; it is directed towards God. Granted, the celebrant will look at us when engaged in dialogue ("The Lord be with you... Pray brethren...").
When Pope Benedict XVI began using the altar cross and the seven candles, not a few people seemed put off by the approach. As Fr. Heid notes in his article, it was as though, in the mindset of these people, the Holy Father were putting a barrier between himself and the faithful. However, such an interpretation might be superficial. In many of his writings on the liturgy, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that the focus of the Mass lies not in the celebrant nor in the faithful, as though they were in some sort of an enclosed circle. We are not there to look at the person of the celebrant, whether he is the parish priest or the pope, anymore than the celebrant is there to look upon the crowd assembled before him. Yes, there is an interaction between celebrant and faithful, but, it is an interaction of prayer.
Having the crucifix front and center re-orients us as to why we are gathered together. Having the crucifix on the altar reminds the priest that he must decrease while Christ must increase. It also reminds the faithful that while the celebrant is standing before him, whether he is their parochial vicar or the Holy Father, himself, it is Christ who is the principal actor in the liturgy and we, as members of the body that is the Church, unite our sacrifices to His.
The crucifix should shock us. It should shake us to our very core precisely because it represents the extent of love that Christ displayed for us and the limitlessness of Divine Mercy. Like St. Paul, we should glory in that cross and preach Christ crucified in our own lives. The Benedictine altar arrangement reminds us of this saving mystery and its instrinsic connection to the Mass.