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RATZINGER Apr-26-1993 (430 words)

Cardinal says arguments good for altar in pre-Vatican II position

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said he agrees with theological arguments for returning the altar to its pre-Second Vatican Council position, in which the priest celebrated Mass with his back to the congregation.

But the cardinal said that if the altar were turned around again, it would probably leave Catholics more confused than before.

"Therefore, I'm not aiming at a practical application at this time," he said in an interview in the April 24 issue of the Italian magazine Il Sabato.

Among the more important liturgical changes introduced by the council was permitting free-standing altars, allowing the priest to face the people. It has become the norm for Western churches.

Cardinal Ratzinger recently wrote an introduction to a German book titled, "Turned Toward the Lord." The book's author argued that the post-conciliar modification was a mistake: Far from being a return to early church practice, it said, the change ended the valid tradition of the priest and congregation facing East while worshiping.

Cardinal Ratzinger said the historical conclusions reached in the book were important because they lead to a better theological understanding of the liturgy.

The main point, he said, that "the liturgy is not a self-celebration of the community but is oriented toward the Lord, in such a manner that the common viewpoint of both the priest and the individual worshiper is toward the Lord."

"In the first centuries this orientation was physical. The view was toward the East, from which salvation came," he said.

Church historians have noted that some early basilicas -- like St. Peter's in Rome -- had a free-standing altar that allowed the celebrant to face the people. Cardinal Ratzinger said these appeared to be exceptions to the rule, resulting from an inability to construct a church that faced East.

But turning the altars around again right now would probably only cause more confusion, he said.

"We've had so much restlessness that I would favor some liturgical peace for the moment, and for a maturation process that would certainly lead some day -- but this we'll leave to providence -- to a reform of the reform," he said.

Cardinal Ratzinger said he was not trying to place the council's reforms up for discussion again, but said: "It is undeniable that a serious liturgical problem exists today. Church attendance is going down almost daily in Europe and the United States."

While some argue for even more updating of the liturgy and more space for creativity, the cardinal said this approach would leave too much to the arbitrary decision of small groups, with the result "an increasingly empty liturgy."


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