Pray Be Seated

May 24, 2007

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Ours is an embodied, incarnate worship -- we worship with our bodies as well as our spirits and minds.  Therefore, certain postures express worship in certain ways:  bowing, kneeling, standing, and even sitting.  For much of the Church's history, sitting was a teaching position: "The bishop sat to teach, while everyone else stood to listen.  This tradition has become fixed in the name of our central churches: "Cathedrals" are the places where the bishop's "cathedra" -- his teaching chair -- is located.

Although teachers in our culture often stand to teach, and bishops often stand to preach, the bishop's cathedra still serves as a focal point in the cathedral for the bishop's role as teacher and presider over the local church's life.  The Ceremonial of Bishops (47) describes the chair this way:  It "should be a chair that stands alone and is permanently installed.  Its placement should make it clear that the bishop is presiding over the whole community of the faithful."

The chair for the priest in parish churches and other worship spaces functions as a mini-cathedra.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal ("GIRM") says that it "must signify [the priest's] office of presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer."  Therefore, the Instruction says, the best place to locate this chair is "in a position facing the people at the head of the sanctuary" (310).  This suggestion has caused some cynics to observe that one of the great architectural accomplishments of the liturgical renewal has been to replace the central focus on the tabernacle -- a key element in the design of older churches -- with a new focus on the chair for the priest.

In the late Middle Ages, shortly before the Reformation, seats for the congregation were introduced in European churches.  These were benches (pews) for the relief of those who could not stand for extended periods, but soon, sitting for certain parts of the liturgy became a common congregational practice.  Today, the chairs or other seating arrangements for the congregation and other ministers serve a ritual function as a place for attentive listening.  This form of active participation is clearly the intent behind the direction to sit at certain times during the Eucharist: during the readings and the psalm before the Gospel, during the preparation of the altar and gifts, and "as circumstances allow" during the period of silence after Communion (GIRM, 43).

However, the design of such seats should not impede other actions in which the congregational part of the liturgical assembly participates.  "Benches or chairs should be arranged, especially in newly built churches, in such a way that the people can easily take up the postures required for the different parts of the celebration and can easily come forward to receive Holy Communion."  The various members of the assembly should also be able to see the various ministers and 'with the aid of modern technical means, to hear them without difficulty" (GIRM, 311).

Some Rethinking

The reformed rites have led to a careful rethinking of the kind of seating that we provide for the various ministries within the liturgical assembly.  Seating for the congregation, for example, has shifted from a theater-style arrangement to more open options (the use of individual seats in various configurations for different rites) or to fan-shaped or U-shaped arrangements around the central focal space of the sanctuary.  Chairs for assisting ministers have often been moved into the space for the congregation and away from the presider's or bishop's chair.  The placement of any chair in the sanctuary now calls attention to special visitors or liturgical ministers (e.g., the bridge and groom at a wedding).

There is even a move away from the central placement of the presider's or bishop's chair, in response to vocal criticism of this arrangement.  Is it possible for the bishop or priest to exercise the office of "presiding over the gathering and of directing the prayer" without being located at the head of the sanctuary?  The recent restoration of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption (the "Old Cathedral," the first Catholic cathedral in the United States) in Baltimore, Maryland, suggests another approach.  There, the bishop's cathedra has been returned to its original position when the building was first used -- to one side of the sanctuary, angled to face the congregation.  The priest celebrant's chair (a simple and unobtrusive cushioned chair) is in a similar position on the other side of the sanctuary, next to the impressive pulpit.  Such a move would throw greater focus on the actions that happen at the central places in the sanctuary: the ambo and the altar.  This arrangement would not take anything away from the ordained ministers or other specialized ministers, but it would help to reinforce a perspective that the liturgy is an action performed by everyone over which the ordained minister presides but which he does not dominate.

Dr. Gordon E. Truitt, S.T.D. is Senior Editor for the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), Washington, DC.


The Altar Is Christ; The Altar is the Church

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