Q: I was formed in the seminary in the 1980s, and I am sometimes unsure whether things I take for granted about liturgy are grounded in tradition or are more scholarly opinion of that particular era —or just taste or fashion. My specific question: we were taught not to put anything on the altar except the bread and wine—the body and blood of Christ. You need the prayers, but the book is not a focus. It was best to have candles and flowers off the altar. That does not seem to be a concern in the places I experience Mass today. Very often missal stands are the most prominent item on the altar—at Mass time and all the time (and the presider often has his face directed to the side, to the book while at the altar). Are their solid liturgical principles —or is it more about fashion and preference?
A: The altar is sacred ground, and only certain objects may be placed upon it. See GIRM 117. Candlesticks and the cross may be placed either on top or near it. There’s no mention of a bookstand—nor of a microphone, for that matter. But you can argue for either or both. The bookstand should not distract attention from more important things. The location of the missal is unspecified, so many priests continue the old custom of setting the missal to the side, which was the only choice before the liturgical reform because altars were not deep, and the tabernacle occupied the center spot. I like to set the missal directly in front of me so that the vessels are more visible to the people. But there’s no rule.