This is a picture of the beautiful low altar at Old Saint Anthony Parish on the South Side of Milwaukee. One thing you’ll notice right away is the arrangement of the candles and the large crucifix on the altar. This is known as the Benedictine arrangement, and it attained a degree of popularity during the pontificate of Benedict XVI and, thankfully, it has been retained in Rome under Francis. In The Spirit of the Liturgy, Benedict XVI/Cardinal Ratzinger wrote about the significance of placing a crucifix on the altar for liturgies versus populum. “Where a direct common turning toward the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior ‘east’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community.” (p.83)
When you see an altar arranged this way, it’s safe to assume that the priest is interested in transmitting a correct liturgical sense to the faithful. Critics of the arrangement predictably claim that the candles and crucifix block the view of the faithful. But that simply doesn’t hold water, and Ratzinger himself takes up this objection. “Is the cross disruptive during Mass? Is the priest more important than the Lord?” (p.84)
Peter Kwasniewski, writing for the New Liturgical Movement, offers this informative commentary on the Benedictine arrangement.
Pope Benedict XVI was well known for introducing, in the context of the celebration of the modern Roman Rite, a more traditional arrangement of the candles and crucifix upon the altar—namely, the “big six” with the cross in the middle (or, at times, seven candles—a privilege of bishops). The reason he decisively returned to this arrangement is quite simple: it greatly helps the celebrant and the faithful alike to perceive and thus to reverence the greatness of the altar of sacrifice, and, in that connection, to turn their interior gaze to Jesus Christ, who stands at the very center of the liturgical action. It is, in short, a re-centering of the community upon the Alpha and Omega, the One who offers Himself up for our salvation and makes us participants in His offering. The priest is no longer the center of attention: he is merely the “animated instrument” (as St. Thomas would say) of the Eternal High Priest. He steps back, as did St. John the Baptist, saying: “He must increase, I must decrease.”
Sadly, the Benedictine arrangement is not ubiquitous, not by a long shot, and there is staunch resistance to it for ideological reasons. Some will dismissively say, “What’s the big deal? So crucifix on the altar will solve everything?” Well, no, not saying that, but at least one very important person in the Church’s history thinks it is a big deal. Hopefully, more priests with open minds and humility will read up on the rich symbolism and meaning of the arrangement and begin implementing it. In the meantime, thank you to the priests at Saint Anthony for preserving the Benedictine arrangement, and for offering a truly beautiful liturgy in harmony with the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform.
The eastward direction of prayer was already established in Christian antiquity in relation to the cross, understood as ‘the interior east of faith.’ Thus, the cross is at the center of the altar as an image and not as an accessory. . . . What could be better in the liturgy than everyone turning toward the cross and the image of the Crucified upon it?
~Msgr. Nicola Bux, Benedict XVI’s Reform: The Liturgy between Innovation and Tradition