Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Regina Apostolorum University.
Q: I am writing to ask for some clarifications regarding the orientation of the cross if it is placed on a freestanding altar (Benedictine setting) in a versus populum Mass. Where should the corpus be facing? Is it toward the priest? Or toward the people? I saw in EWTN’s daily Mass that it is utilizing the Benedictine setting wherein the cross is placed on the altar and has a double corpus, one is facing the priest and the other facing the people. — J.G., Cebu, Philippines
A: The indications in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) are sparse regarding the direction of the figure of Christ on the cross. We have the following texts:
“117. […] Also on or close to the altar, there is to be a cross with a figure of Christ crucified. The candles and the cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified may also be carried in the Entrance Procession. On the altar itself may be placed the Book of the Gospels, distinct from the book of other readings, unless it is carried in the Entrance Procession.
“122. On reaching the altar, the priest and ministers make a profound bow. The cross adorned with a figure of Christ crucified and perhaps carried in procession may be placed next to the altar to serve as the altar cross, in which case it ought to be the only cross used; otherwise it is put away in a dignified place .…
“188. In the procession to the altar, the acolyte may carry the cross, walking between two ministers with lighted candles. Upon reaching the altar, the acolyte places the cross upright near the altar so that it may serve as the altar cross; otherwise, he puts it in a worthy place. Then he takes his place in the sanctuary.
“308. There is also to be a cross, with the figure of Christ crucified upon it, either on the altar or near it, where it is clearly visible to the assembled congregation. It is appropriate that such a cross, which calls to mind for the faithful the saving Passion of the Lord, remain near the altar even outside of liturgical celebrations.”
“350. Furthermore, great attention is to be paid whatever is directly associated with the altar and the eucharistic celebration, e.g., the altar cross and the cross carried in procession.”
It is worth noting that the text does not actually use the term “crucifix,” although this is clearly meant in Nos. 11, 122 and 308.
The document also allows this cross to be placed on or near the altar. There is no requirement that it be placed directly upon the altar itself.
The GIRM does underline that there should be only one altar cross. This is in line with the Church’s longstanding practice, although, before the liturgical reform, the whole assembly, priest and people, faced both altar and crucifix in the same direction and the rubrics at times directed the priest to look at the crucifix.
The custom of the single cross can also be seen from a decree of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758) which established that another cross was not necessary if a large crucifix was painted or sculptured as part of an altarpiece (Const. Accepimus, decr. 1270).
Although this decree is no longer operative, its principles could be applied to current situations such as that of a large crucifix, suspended from the ceiling or placed on the wall behind the altar.
It is well known that before becoming pope, Benedict XVI advocated the use of a sizable crucifix upon the altar itself as a means of establishing what he called a liturgical east or a means of focusing priest and faithful on the central mystery of redemption made present at Mass and symbolized by the crucifix.
During his pontificate the presence of such a crucifix upon the altar became habitual at papal Masses, and the practice has continued under Pope Francis. The practice was briefly elucidated in 2009 by a communication from the office of the Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations on the importance of the central location of the cross during the Eucharistic celebration.
Although occasionally there have been two crosses present at some papal Masses, especially outside of Rome, thus far no decree or other legal document has been promulgated instituting a change in legislation. Therefore, the norms of the GIRM that there should be one altar cross retain their validity and legal force.
Therefore, while respecting the unicity of the cross there are several legitimate options offered with respect to the location of the altar cross, and present legislation does not prefer one solution over another. Hence, the crucifix may be located on, next to, immediately behind or suspended above the altar. It should be visibly related to the altar as viewed by the people.
As Bishop Peter J. Elliott comments in his liturgy handbook, “The liturgical crucifix is not primarily for the private devotion of the celebrant but is a sign in the midst of the Eucharistic assembly proclaiming that the Mass is the same Sacrifice as Calvary.” Thus, strictly speaking, the altar crucifix is in relationship to the altar, and not just to the priest.
Since the cross is specifically related to the altar, the corpus is usually turned toward the altar during Mass.
The rubrics of the Ceremonial of Bishops in use before the conciliar reforms already foresaw the possibility of the altar versus populum. This book, while mandating that the cross be visible to all, also prescribed that the corpus be placed toward the altar (“cum imagine sanctissimi Crucifixi versa ad interiorem altaris faciem”).
In 1966 Notitiae issued a response to a query on this point given the novelty of the freestanding altars and the precise doubt as to what direction the corpus should face.
First, it recognizes the new situation that the former law no longer applies. Second, it says that it does not seem opportune either an altar cross so small as to be invisible nor one so large that it impedes the visibility of the rites.
Finally, it addresses the question of an altar cross not placed upon the altar. It says: “Separate from the altar there are three possibilities: placing the processional cross before the altar with the corpus facing the celebrant, although this does not always combine well with other elements of the sanctuary; a large cross hanging from the ceiling or placed upon the wall of the apse. In the two latter cases another cross upon the altar is not necessary but a single large cross, which, in celebrations facing the people is not incensed first but when the priest, as he moves around the altar, faces both the cross and the altar.” Notitiae 2 (1966): 290-291, n.101. (unofficial translation).
With respect to the ETWN solution of having an altar crucifix designed with a figure on both sides: Although there do not seem to be present norms to forbid this practice, it was not permitted in earlier times. Some older liturgical manuals recommended the use of other images on the side of the cross facing the people, such as the fish symbol or even another image of the Redeemer such as the Good Shepherd or King of Kings.
When these suggestions were made, freestanding altars and Mass facing the people were exceptional. This is no longer the case, and I believe that the solution of the double crucifix is a legitimate option for today’s liturgy.