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Ratzinger prefers altar turned around again.

VATICAN CITY -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, powerful overseer of church doctrine as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, says he would like to see altars in Catholic churches turned around again.

After years in which priests celebrated Mass with their backs turned to worshipers, altars were repositioned after the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) so that the priest could face the people.

In recent interviews, the cardinal was quick to say he is not advocating an immediate change, but is taking a longer view.

His main concern, he said, is that the liturgy focus on God -- that it maintain its sacred character as worship of God, rather than being viewed as primarily a gathering in human fellowship.

"I would say that, in a certain way, the priest has become too important," he said. "Those attending Mass must always be looking at him. In reality, he is not nearly that important."

Ratzinger said this exaggerated importance given the role of the priest has played a part in the feminist conviction of the need for women to become priests.

Though some commentators in Rome interpreted the cardinal's words as a signal that church leaders are contemplating possible changes in liturgical practice, Ratzinger said his opinion had been offered "not in my official capacity, but as an interested scholar and as a committed Christian and priest."

The 66-year-old cardinal was interviewed by the Italian weekly Il Sabato, which published his comments on April 24, and by Religious News Service, after publication of a 27-line preface he wrote in a book by the late German priest and liturgist Klaus Gamber.

Gamber is generally viewed in Catholic circles as extremely conservative. His book, which did not find a German publisher and appeared recently in French, is titled Turned Toward the Lord.

The book argues that changing the altar's position so the priest could face the people was far from being a return to early church practice as many contend. In reality, Gamber says, it was a reversal of the ancient tradition of the priest and congregation facing east while worshipping.

Ratzinger said Gamber's arguments make historical sense and are persuasive.

However, he added, "We've had so much restlessness that I would favor some liturgical peace for the moment, and a process of maturation that would certainly lead someday -- but we'll leave this to providence -- to a reform of the reform."

Previously, Ratzinger has defended the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council's liturgical reform, although he has often expressed concern over liturgical abuses, or unauthorized practices, in Catholic worship. Ratzinger said he was not trying to open the council's reforms to discussion again. However, he added, "It is undeniable that a serious liturgical problem exists today. Church attendance is going down almost daily in Europe and the United States."

While some argue that even more reform and more space for creativity are needed in church rituals, the cardinal said such an approach would leave too much to the arbitrary decision of small groups, with the result of "an increasingly empty liturgy."
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Title Annotation:Vatican official Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
Author:Moynihan, Robert
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:May 28, 1993
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