Arranging Priest, Assembly and Spaces

It is surprising that fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, some people are advocating that the priest once again turn his back on the people during the celebration of Mass. They argue that when the priest faces the he becomes a ‘performer’ before an audience.

To open up the issue of the arrangement of priest and assembly, we need to go to first principles and begin with the question, ‘who celebrates the liturgy?’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1136) answers simply and directly, Liturgy is an ‘action’ of the whole Christ.

As the work of Christ, the liturgy is an action of the Church. This is explained more fully by the Vatican Council: Christ is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations… In the liturgy, the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. 

Therefore the liturgy is not celebrated by the priest or bishop with the people present as spectators. The whole assembly of the people constitutes the Church and celebrates the liturgy under the headship of the ordained minister.  It is at this deep level that the Vatican Council speaks of the full, conscious, and active participation by all the people as the aim to be considered before all else in the reform and promotion of the liturgy (SC 14).

Unfortunately the architecture of many of our churches fails to support such corporate, communal action. The question that needs to be asked is ‘What kind of space and what arrangement of space will express the reality that the liturgy is celebrated by the Body of Christ, the Church?’

A liturgical space which reflects the theology of the liturgy will seek to gather the assembly around the altar. Looking across the altar, people can see one another, reminding them that liturgical prayer is the communal prayer of the Church.

Of course, a liturgical space needs to provide for the assembly an opening to the transcendent, but this does not demand a longitudinal axis. The decoration (for example, stained glass windows of the saints) can make it clear that the earthly community celebrates in union with the heavenly choirs.

The liturgical space needs to represent the particular role of the ordained minister without compromising the unity of the whole priestly people. The space in the church for the liturgical assembly places people together as ‘doers’ of the liturgy but is not an undifferentiated space.

The general arrangement of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the assembled congregation… Even though all these elements must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of functions, they should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people (GIRM 294).

Shaping an adequate space for the Church’s worship will always challenge communities and their architects, and demand both creativity and faith. There is no perfect solution.


Elizabeth Harrington