The Use of the High Altar

Around Europe we find some of the most beautiful churches ever built. I visited Regensburg Cathedral recently, but I have been to many other Gothic cathedrals, such as Notre Dame de Paris and Cologne Cathedral.

All of these cathedrals have High Altars, like the image attached to this post of the one at Notre Dame de Paris. It bothers me, though, that none of them seem to be used anymore. They just stand there, lonely and neglected. The cathedral of my Archdiocese doesn’t even have one like that anymore. They tore it out.

I suppose there is a connection to the placement of altars facing the congregation, but I still find it hard to imagine that the High Altar is never used. Not even for the Extraordinary Form — if we ever had one — I gather.

Can you think of reasons why that may be the case, or are you aware of circumstances that would prove otherwise?

It is not an “altar facing the people” but a freestanding altar which comes from the monastic traditions of our Church.

St. Peter Chanel parish in Roswell Georgia USA is a modern Church with both freestanding and high altars.

I have seen “High altars” in little country churches which are nothing more than a shelf sticking out of the wall. :shrug:


The use of the high altar focuses our attention on God and directs our focus to the worship of Christ on the Altar during Mass. There has been a liturgical movement to take the focus of our worship off of God and on to ourselves as individuals and a community. By bringing the altar and the Blessed Sacrament “down to our level” (in this case, physically) this is accomplished. And yes, it is very sad :frowning:

While I too wish they were used more, some reasons are as follows:

  1. many (not all) of them do not allow the priest to face the Parishioners. (which is fine for the EF, but many do not like to do that for the OF)

  2. in the Cathedrals, the High Altar is usually at the end of the pews in the Sanctuary where all the Priests sit (not sure what those Sanctuary pews are called). However, since those pews are rarely used today (except during special occasions), the Altar doesn’t “have to” be that far away. Back in the day, there would be many Priests at the Cathedrals, and they would attend Mass with the Bishop, not so today due to Priest shortages.

  3. some Cathedrals (St. Patrick Cathedral in NYC for example) added a 2nd Altar closer to the Parishioners, but left the Tabernacle on the high one (The Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul in Philadelphia just did the same thing in 2012 or 2013).

God Bless.

Regarding No. 3: Regensburg and Notre Dame have done the same. The former has taken the Tabernacle out of use too. It is such a pity.

I have never been to an EF Mass where the Church had a high altar available and wasn’t used.

I wish it would make a comeback. It’s a shame that there are so many churches that have high altars and they don’t use it. Some may put the tabernacle up there and decorate it a bit, but that’s about it. Unfortunately, there aren’t many churches that would have the space/ability to build a high altar for a versus populum Mass.

As a convert, it is baffling to me. There is this treasure trove of riches in the Catholic faith, why would you NOT want to experience these riches, at least from time to time???

If you are going to be Catholic, then BEEEEE Catholic!!

I come from a Baptist background, with a VERY spartan forms of worship/prayer. And it continues to get worse. Every year I hear from family members about how the worship services are made less special, and more “comfortable”.

I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t WANT to experience these beautiful aspects of the faith from time to time. Why would you NOT want to worship on the high altar?

Isn’t it something that God came “down to our level” in the Incarnation?

Do you think that God might have had a reason to come “down to our level”?

God becomes One of us and calls us friend and says to think of God the Father as Abba, which translates as Dad or Daddy, do you think that God is trying to tell us something here?

While I get your point, the Ascension would undermine your argument. As would the Second Coming in Glory.

There is no such thing as an altar “facing the congregation”. It is rightly called a freestanding altar and it comes from the monastic traditions of our Church. It has nothing to do with trying to bring Christ down to our level or the de-divinization of Christ but has to do with the nature of monastic communities and the way they function.

Arguing about high altar vs freestanding altar as a reflection of high christology vs low christology is false argument. They have nothing to do with each other and the argument is a waste of time. When I see a freestanding altar I think monasticism. Monastics kept the Church alive for 800 years. Many people got there religion and sacraments from monastics as towns sprung up around monasteries during the middle-ages.

I know that CutlerB asked about cathedrals specifically but in little country Churches and chapels the “high altar” was nothing more than a small shelf sticking out from the wall. It is a shame that much of that grandeur has been removed from the major Churches however.

I know several Churches here in Atlanta with both a freestanding and high altar. I think the pendulum is swinging back. Here is a picture of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta, a very old Church. You can see both a high altar and freestanding altar.

Here is the same thing - both high altar and freestanding altar at a recently constructed Church - St. Peter Channel in Roswell, Georgia. I have been to this Church and there isn’t a traditionalist on these forum’s who wouldn’t think that this Church is incredibly beautiful. The picture really doesn’t do it justice. The original, full size picture is here.

Why not both?


Good post. :slight_smile:

Both is fine for me, as long as the High Altar gets used! :smiley:

Do you really believe what you wrote?

I suppose that you don’t believe in the GOOD NEWS, either?

I don’t understand what you are referring to?

My point was, that if you say the Incarnation’s humbling of God means we should move altars down, then His Ascension to reign in Glory and finally His Second Coming provide an argument to move altars back up.

I would go to the EF at St. Peter Channel in the bottom picture. I don’t know if they offer it or not. I walked back and forth in front of the sanctuary in the bottom picture one afternoon while my daughter played basketball at the their school and was fascinated by the high altar.

Many newer Churches here in Atlanta are being built in a more traditional way. One was just built with a freestanding altar but the tabernacle is right behind the altar and is shaped like a miniature Ark of the Covenant complete with carrying poles. When it opens you can see images of the Prophets and Old Testament Characters cast into the inside. It is truly spectacular.

Like I said, I think the pendulum is swinging back.


When you next meet the pendulum, please tell it to come over here to Germany and swing us back too. :rolleyes:

Look me up if you come to Atlanta. :wink:

We’ll go to the FSSP or the monastery.


Shall do :slight_smile:

I guess what I am saying is that God became One of us in the Incarnation, God didn’t send an Altar down here.

I suppose that I don’t look at the Incarnation as the “humbling of God” but as God saying, “I CARE”, as in, “I care for My Creation and I am doing this for My Creation even if you are too blind to see what I am doing for ALL of My Creation”.

Seems to me that sometimes we can get so caught up in worshipping in “just the right way and with just the right things” that we can end up worshipping our worshipping rather than God.

Have you ever thought that being able to sincerely say, “Thank You”, to God for something, is worship?

By the way, don’t you think that the Incarnation and the Ascension are tied together, so to speak?

No, I don’t think they are directly related. I will defer to a previous poster’s point.

I agree. The Catholic Church is a religion really like no other. So many treasures liturgically, theologically, in prayer, devotionally, in art, all in the very fabric of the Church’s culture… and yet so few experience these things.

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