The altar turned around


Cousin James mentioned that November 29th, 1964 is the date the Second Vatican Council stated that the altar in a Roman Catholic church was suppose to be turned around to face the congregation. Is this true?




Upon further reflection:

I would suggest that if “cousin James” makes that claim, cousin James should be able to actually show you the document where the Council Fathers said this.

Here’s a link to the documents



There is no chance whatsoever that “the Second Vatican Council” stated such a thing. But, yes, follow Fr. David’s advice and make this person produce some proof. Perhaps what “Cousin James” is talking about is the Instruction called Inter oecumenici which, as far as I know, is the first document that said having freestanding altar was “preferable” (in #91)…and mandated some other rather significant changes to the Liturgy. But, this document was promulgated in September of 1964 and came into force in March of 1965.



Did the altar turn around??.. :wink:


Cousin James is wrong. Ask him to produce the document.


Here you go. From the General Instruction of the Roman Missal:

  1. The main altar should be freestanding to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people. It should be so placed as to be a focal point on which the attention of the whole congregation centers naturally.[81] The main altar should ordinarily be a fixed, consecrated altar.

Not so much turned around as a new altar erected in the center of the sanctuary as opposed to up against a wall.


Ora, wasn’t the IGMR/GRIM issued in 1969?


Nov 29th 1964?


But what is that in reagrds to? Is the is the General Instruction for the OF Mass? Or is this how EVERY Mass should be celebrated post-1964?


It’s the OF Mass. It’s not how every Mass should be celebrated. It’s how the altar, where possible should be arranged to facilitate celebration versus populum.

No it isn’t 1964… experimentation with the Mass began around then but the final product wasn’t codified until 1969 as was pointed out. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that 1964 date but the post-Vatican II GIRM does clearly state what the altar arrangement should be.


So what we are learning is that it is probably not nov 29th 1964. And it is not supposed to be “turned around” But rather moved out.

Since ad orientem is a legitimate way to celebrate the OF as well as the EF nothing was supposed to 'face the congregation" per se.

See, looking at the actual documents can help the truth come out.

Thanks ora for the documentation.

And it supports my original statement the cousin is wrong. And he should have produced the document.



Foreword to U.M. Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (2nd edition) | By Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger

“…Two excellent works have been published in which the question of the orientation of prayer in the Church during the first millennium is clarified in a persuasive manner. I think, first of all, of the important, brief book by U. M. Lang.” – Pope Benedict XVI, Preface to Theology of the Liturgy, the first published volume of his Opera Omnia, June 2008.

To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of the vernacular is certainly permitted, especially for the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, ‘Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36.1).

There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions. The most important directive is found in paragraph 262 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the General Instruction of the new Roman Missal, issued in 1969. That says, ‘It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people (versus populum).’ The General Instruction of the Missal issued in 2002 retained this text unaltered except for the addition of the subordinate clause, ‘which is desirable wherever possible’. This was taken in many quarters as hardening the 1969 text to mean that there was now a general obligation to set up altars facing the people ‘wherever possible’.

This interpretation, however, was rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship on 25 September 2000, when it declared that the word ‘expedit’ (‘is desirable’) did not imply an obligation but only made a suggestion. The physical orientation, the Congregation says, must be distinguished from the spiritual. Even if a priest celebrates versus populum, he should always be oriented versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ). Rites, signs, symbols, and words can never exhaust the inner reality of the mystery of salvation. For this reason the Congregation warns against one-sided and rigid positions in this debate.

This is an important clarification. It sheds light on what is relative in the external symbolic forms of the liturgy and resists the fanaticisms that, unfortunately, have not been uncommon in the controversies of the last forty years. At the same time it highlights the internal direction of liturgical action, which can never be expressed in its totality by external forms. This internal direction is the same for priest and people, towards the Lord-towards the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Congregation’s response should thus make for a new, more relaxed discussion, in which we can search for the best ways of putting into practice the mystery of salvation. The quest is to be achieved, not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to each other and, even more importantly, listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself. The labelling of positions as ‘preconciliar’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘conservative’, or as ‘progressive’ and ‘alien to the faith’ achieves nothing; what is needed is a new mutual openness in the search for the best realisation of the memorial of Christ.

which was linked from a poster on


How awesome is that!? It is like the Pope Emeritus actually posted on this exact thread. I love his writings.


This English translation does not convey the meaning of what the GIRM is actually saying.

Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.

This translates more accurately to

The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.

The Congregation for Divine Worship responded to a question about this very paragraph and actually explained the Latin grammar.

Prot. No. 2036/00/L

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in n. 299 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which the position of the priest versus absidem [facing the apse] is to be excluded. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:

Negatively, and in accordance with the following explanation.

The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account. First, the word expedit does not constitute a strict obligation but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum (detached from the wall). It does not require, for example, that existing altars be pulled away from the wall. The phrase ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.

During the 27 April 2006 presentation of the Italian edition of Lang’s Turning Toward The Lord, there is a preface by Joseph Card. Ratzinger. Then Card. Ratzinger took up this very issue about the translation of paragraph 299 making it clear, with the Congregation, that

“… the word ‘expedit‘ (‘is desirable’) required no obligation, but was a simple suggestion.”


Actually, it’s not supposed to be moved out either.

It is suggested that, where it is possible, the main altar should be built separate from the wall.

I guess this might have been inspired by the altar at St. Peter’s Basilica


November 29, 1964 would have been the First Sunday of Advent, if that’s any help in identifying the real or misconstrued document being alleged.


It may be helpful to transit through French before heading to English, as French derives more directly from Latin. The French translation is:

  1. L’autel est élevé à une distance du mur, permettant d’en faire aisément le tour et d’y célébrer en direction du peuple, ce qui est avantageux partout où c’est possible. L’autel doit occuper l’endroit qui est effectivement le centre où converge spontanément l’attention de toute l’assemblée des fidèles.116 Ordinairement il est fixe et consacré.

Looking at it section by section:

Altare exstruatur a pariete seiunctum,

Fr direct translation: L’autel est construit à part du mur (the altar is constructed apart from the wall)

ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit,

Fr: pour faciliter d’y faire le tour et célébrer en direction du peuple (to facilitate walking around it and celebrate facing the people)

quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.

Fr: ce qui est utile là où il est possible (which is useful wherever it is possible).

It is clear to me that the altar should be built away from the wall to facilitate celebration versus populum, wherever it is possible.

It is not ordering altars to be ripped from walls, nor forcing versus populum, but any reading of the Latin or French would indicate that it is the preferred option. I also think your quote from Card. Ratzinger suggests that he was stretching things a bit to say “is desirable” is a simple suggestion. It sounds more like an emphatic suggestion to me.

But then we all have our biases.


What really happened is that Inter oecumenici norms were published (26 September 1964). I remember that at first English and Latin were both used and then later (1967) the Canon of the Mass changed to English also. MAIN ALTAR

  1. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.

Choice of materials for the construction and adornment of the altar is to respect the prescriptions of law.

The sanctuary area is to be spacious enough to accommodate the sacred rites.

This Instruction was prepared by the Consilium by mandate of Pope Paul VI, and presented to the Pope by Cardinal Giacomo Lercaro, President of the Consilium. After having carefully considered the Instruction, in consultation with the Consilium and the Congregation of Rites, Pope Paul in an audience granted to Cardinal Arcadio Maria Larraona, Prefect of the Congregation of Rites, gave it specific approval as a whole and in its parts, confirmed it by his authority, and ordered it to be published and faithfully observed by all concerned, beginning on the first Sunday of Lent, March 7, 1965.



Certainly, laws regard the future, not the past, unless such a provision for the past is made (canon 9). So, it was never required that churches and altars had to be re-constructed in order to be in line with the new law’s suggestion or whatever you want to call it. I wonder how many people, in the late 60’s, thought there was a legal requirement to rearrange or rebuild already existing altars.

As far as Ratzinger saying it is a “simple suggestion”–to be fair, the Cong. for Divine Worship said it is a suggestion. I will accept their “bias”, since it is their law.


DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit