The high altar at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore, Maryland. Nov. 2023. / Credit: Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, Baltimore
CNA Staff, Nov 24, 2023 / 09:04 am (CNA).
The Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore finished construction of a platform that will allow priests to celebrate the Mass facing the people, “versus populum,” while using the high altar originally constructed in the 1950s.
“It would be a wonderful thing if the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen were to be mentioned in the same breath as the other great cathedrals of this country and of the world,” Father Justin Gough, an associate pastor at the cathedral, said during a talk about the theology behind the decision earlier this month. “From an artistic and a theological perspective, there is no reason it shouldn’t be.”
The cathedral was constructed from 1954 through 1959 without knowledge of the liturgical changes that would be set following the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. For this reason, the high altar was designed to be used with the priest facing toward the altar, “ad orientem,” which was the normal liturgical structure prior to the council.
Because the liturgical norms shifted to having most priests face the congregation, the cathedral set up a table altar to use for Mass, which was placed in front of the high altar. The high altar had mostly gone unused for about 60 years until Sunday, Nov. 12, when the cathedral completed a platform behind the high altar, which allows the priest to use it while celebrating Mass facing the people.
“It was amazing to see how the sanctuary really opens up,” Gough told CNA, adding that the congregation’s feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive,” with only a few people critical of the decision.
The platform, which is built with wood, is a “semi-permanent solution,” according to Gough, but the cathedral may consider replacing the wooden platform with a marble platform at a later date. In the meantime, he said the wooden structure and the use of the high altar is “not going anywhere.”
Gough said there was some consideration of restoring use of the high altar in the 1980s, but that the plan never went through. This changed during the COVID-19 pandemic when Archbishop William Lori began celebrating a livestreamed Mass at the cathedral on a regular basis. Gough said this led to conversations “about the significance of the building and about the architecture” and the consideration of restoring the high altar.
As a trial run, the cathedral rented a temporary structure to set up behind the high altar so that the altar could be used during the ordination of eight priests in June. The archbishop said in a letter in August that the experience was “joyous and awe-inspiring” and met with “overwhelmingly enthusiastic and positive” feedback, leading to the decision to make the structure permanent.
Gough, in his early November talk, said the restoration allows the cathedral to reflect the intent of the architects who designed it by making the altar the primary point of focus in the church.
“The principal altar is physically the source and the summit of the entire edifice, as everything in the cathedral points toward it and from it derives its meaning and power,” Gough said. “It is placed in a clear and visible spot, set apart from everything else so that there can be nothing to distract attention away from it, and highly elevated to ensure some line of sight for more than a thousand people gathered together to worship.”
Gough added that he believes the construction of the cathedral coinciding with the Second Vatican Council was not “by accident,” arguing that using the high altar versus populum perfectly reflects Pope Benedict XVI’s “hermeneutic of reform” interpretation of the Second Vatican Council: that the council was not a rupture but instead a “renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us.”
“Points of contact between the pre- and post-conciliar Church are necessary to ensure our life in the Church is not standing one-footed on either leg: neither stuck stubbornly in the past nor plowing aimlessly ahead in defiance of our tradition,” Gough added. “I’m suggesting the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen is just that: a monument of faith standing at the most decisive crossroads of the 20th century as a synthesis of old and new.”