Baltimore Cathedral Restores Use of the High Altar

Though the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore was dedicated in 1959, its design did little to anticipate the changes in liturgical practice that were to sweep through the Catholic Church in the ensuing decade. The building is long and narrow, on the traditional basilican plan, with the high altar at some distance from the first pew and, though technically “free-standing,” impossible to use versus populum, since the steps on which it stood did not extend behind it.

Cathedral at the time of its consecration.

At some point shortly after the Second Vatican Council, following a trend in many Catholic parishes, a table was set up in the large open space in front of the original high altar. This allowed for versus populum celebration as well as bringing the altar about twenty feet closer to the people. Other than that, the space went unrenovated. During my quarter-century in Baltimore, the table-altar has, except on Good Friday, been covered by very attractive frontals. The original altar, under its impressive baldachino, served as a stand for candles and, on occasion, flowers (because, following traditional practice for cathedrals, the Blessed Sacrament is in its own chapel, the high altar didn’t even house the tabernacle).

Sanctuary with the second altar put in place after Vatican II.

Last summer the decision was made to remove the table altar and restore the use of the original high altar. This involved constructing a platform behind the altar, so there would be room for the celebrant to stand to celebrate versus populum, and constructing a low wall behind the platform on which the high altar candlesticks could be placed. The new arrangement became permanent on November 12, the anniversary of the dedication of the cathedral.

Platform constructed behind the high altar.

Such decisions always involve tradeoffs. On the one hand, the altar is now further from the people, and raised several steps, making an already distant altar more distant. On the other hand, the original design of the building is better displayed, not simply in the sense of architectural proportions (the empty space in front of the altar is actually quite impressive), but in terms of theological conception. Unlike many churches built before Vatican II, in which the high altar often competed for attention with a panoply of side altars, the Baltimore cathedral was designed to focus on the single high altar as the symbol of Christ. The many other altars in the building are all in recessed chapels along the side walls or in transepts, so that one’s attention is inexorably drawn to the high altar. This effect was undermined by interposing another altar in front of the high altar, and the visual focus of the building was relegated to serving as a very impressive stand for candles and flowers.

The new arrangement is not perfect. The way the altar is positioned beneath the baldachino makes censing the altar a bit awkward and the altar still seems very far from the people (the building works best when all the clergy stalls in the sanctuary are filled, which really only happens at the Chrism Mass and ordinations). But there is a sense of “rightness” to the architecture that was lacking before, and time will tell whether this is worth the tradeoffs.