Q: My little hometown parish is about to dedicate their new church, and there has been a bit of a struggle over the altar. The pastor bought and had installed a marble high altar/reredos, and didn’t want an altar in front of it. He wants to say mass with his back to the people. The diocese has required him to install an altar in front, and that is the altar the bishop will anoint. The pastor calls it a portable altar, and intends to move it out of the way when he says mass on the high altar. What are the canonical and liturgical law issues here? Does he need permission to celebrate mass at the high altar, with his back to the people? I don’t know if he intends to use the extraordinary form or not. What about moving the front altar? He calls it also the altar of sacrifice, is that a thing?
A: Sorry to hear about how divisive this has become. A priest may celebrate the post-Vatican II mass with his back to the people. In fact, the Order of Mass presumes that he is. It keeps telling him to turn around at various points. There are some historic churches in Europe where the side altars or the main altar still have the priest face the wall, so these instructions are practical.
However, there should be only one altar (General Instruction of the Roman Missal 303). That altar is supposed to be free standing (GIRM 299). It should also be fixed, not moveable (GIRM 298).
The GIRM makes no reference to an “altar of sacrifice.”