Question: In Byzantine Catholic churches they have a screen that separates the congregation from the altar -- if "the Mass is the Mass," why would their custom be different from our Roman rite custom?
Answer: Most religions make use of human psychology to give worshippers a sense of the sacred in their church buildings. Paradoxically, people respond positively either to the display of sacred things, or to their concealment. Worship often mixes the two in order to achieve a proper balance. Byzantine priests consecrate the Blessed Sacrament at least partially obscured from view by the Icon screen, but sing the words of consecration so as to be heard by everyone in the church. Roman priests, on the other hand, recite the words of consecration in a low voice, but then elevate the Host and the Chalice for everyone to see. Customs like these seem to vary at least as much with time as they do from place to place. To some degree, they depend on technology and economic prosperity, and can be profoundly influenced by persecution.1
Jewish worship, as directed by God Himself, screened off the sacred Presence of God in the Ark of the Covenant from "profane eyes." Only once a year was the high priest permitted to enter the holy of holies, the "second [inner] tabernacle . . . not without blood, which he offered for his own and the people's sins of ignorance."2 It is this veil of the holy of holies, "the curtain of the temple [that] was torn in two from top to bottom" as our Lord died on the Cross and the sacred Presence disappeared from the temple forever.3
The very earliest worship of the Church was conducted in hiding -- in the Cenacle, "for fear of the Jews." With Pentecost it became more public, as the apostles became emboldened by the reception of the Holy Ghost, and the consequent ability to preach to all men. What we read in the Acts of the Apostles and in Paul's Epistle to the Corinthians suggests a more casual worship than that of the temple. But even there we see the beginnings of a more organized liturgy. Christians and idol worshippers cannot frequent each other's worship; there are rules for the dress and the conduct of men and women; the Eucharistic sacrifice is to be separated from the common table; only worthy believing Christians are to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord; there must be discipline and discernment in the exercise of the spiritual gifts.4
Specific descriptions of the Mass in the first few centuries are scarce and sketchy. There are few records precisely because the Church returned to the idea of separating the Holy Mysteries from "profane eyes," even to the point of not describing them with any great detail in writing. Fear of persecution does not explain why the non-baptized were allowed to attend part of the Mass but not all; the Mass of the Catechumens, but not the Mass of the Faithful; why they could hear the scripture readings and the sermon explaining them, but could not stay for the sacrificial liturgy. There is clearly a "disciplina arcani -- a discipline of the secret" manifested in the early writings we possess; the Apostolic Constitutions, Origen, Tertullian, and writers as late as Innocent I in the fifth century. The Mass is described with a conscious avoidance of the more sacred details, even in correspondence among bishops.5
The fifth century seems to be the turning point as far as written descriptions are concerned. Ambrose even gives the text of the Consecration as it was read at Milan. Hippolytus may be even earlier, but there is some doubt about his authenticity. By the reign of Charlemagne (c. 800), we have Pope Adrian I sending a detailed copy of the Mass as it is offered in Rome to the emperor who wants to make it the standard throughout his empire. This manuscript, called the Gregorian Sacramentary is the first known example of anything like an altar missal. It is missing many Sunday texts and most of the Masses of the saints, but it gives the complete ordinary of the Mass as it was then celebrated in Rome. If texts remain scarce after the time of Pope Adrian it has more to do with the technological difficulties of production and preservation than with the "disciplina arcani."
In order to impress the faithful with the sacred nature of Holy Mass, the Church sometimes hides the holy mysteries from us and sometimes presents them to us in splendor. The question in October mentioned the icon screen of the Eastern Church -- modern Western Catholics may be surprised to learn that medieval European churches employed similar screens -- "Rood screens."
The word "Rood," no longer in common use, is an old English term for the "cross" or "crucifix." For our purposes, the Rood in a medieval church was a crucifix placed at the entrance to the chancel (choir area) from the congregation. The altar was considerably farther away, almost at the east end.
The Rood was mounted on a horizontal beam high above the floor, where it could be seen throughout the nave (congregation area) of the church. It was intended to give the congregation something to focus on; a sort of connection to the altar which was necessarily far behind it. Such an arrangement was nearly universal in the West by about 1200 A.D. Figures of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Apostle often flanked the crucifix in memory of the scene at Calvary. Oil lamps burned in front of the Rood. The Rood was veiled with a purple or black cloth during Lent.
In some churches the support structure for the Rood had to be much more elaborate. Support chains from the roof could guy a Rood beam with a moderately heavy cross, but in many cases a sort of bridge replaced the single beam. The bridge, or gallery, as it was often called, was accessible by stairs, and might be equipped with a pulpit from which the scripture could be read and sermons preached. It also simplified maintenance of the oil lamps.
In cathedrals and monastic churches, the choir, consisting of canons or monks whose duty it was to sing the Mass and the Divine Office daily, sat on benches or in choir stalls along the north and south walls of the sanctuary, facing one another. The Rood screen -- a more or less closed wall made of wood or stone, served to keep the choir from being distracted by whatever might have happened in the body of the church -- and in cold climates allowed the choir area to be warmed a little without heat loss to the otherwise empty church. The Office is sung at all hours or the day and night, often with no congregation -- and the night Office of Matins is the longest of the Hours.
Rood screen construction varied from placed to place and over time. Where the screen served to keep out the cold, it would have been a solid floor to roof affair with the crucifix mounted on its face. Where it served simply to block out distractions, the screen would have been more of a lattice work connected to the beam or gallery -- but with time, even open lattices were likely to be adorned with elaborate artwork, further blocking the sight of the congregation. Most Rood screens had doors connecting the chancel and the nave. Where a monastic church served a parish congregation there was very likely to be a Rood altar, below the cross and between two doors through the screen, where Masses would be offered for the attendance of the general public. Rood screens in parishes tended to be more open than in monasteries, and weekday Masses were offered at a Rood altar or another altar in the nave.
As late as the 1970s, the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Ghost in Conyers, Georgia had a stone screen separating the body of the Abbey church from the area open to public in the rear. The stones were angled so that the monks would not be distracted by movement outside the cloister, but the faithful could still hear the Mass and Office through the spaces between the stones. The top of a "Dutch" door in the center of the screen was opened to facilitate Holy Communion for visitors.
Though usually constructed for practical reasons, the Rood screen did make the church resemble the Temple of the Old Testament, with its "holy of holies" screened off from the eyes of the faithful. Like many things in the Church, its practical meaning may have been forgotten by those who saw more importance in this symbolism.
This might be a good place to mention briefly that the Communion rail, which many think of as a separation of the people from the altar, developed for no such purpose. Before the twelfth century people generally received Holy Communion under both forms, usually standing. Kneeling became more common when only the Sacred Host was received. Kneeling benches were the first accommodation -- perhaps in the fifteenth century, giving way to the more efficient Communion rail, in about the sixteenth. The rail is in reality an extension of the altar.6
We couldn't resist the following poetic piece from the Catholic Encyclopedia, explaining how Renaissance architecture brought about the general removal of the Rood screen:
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The elevation of the Host (and later, of the Chalice) is another example of the Church's use of display to excite devotion. For centuries the Canon has been said in a low voice, difficult to hear at any distance from the altar, seemingly a remnant of the "disciplina arcani." Yet, between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, the elevation of the Host immediately after the consecration was added to the Canon throughout the Western Church. But, we are not quite sure why it was added.
Some suggest that the elevation of the Host before the consecration of the wine was intended to affirm belief that our Lord is truly present in the Host even before the second consecration. This may be the case, as over the centuries various theories have been advanced as to exactly when the bread and wine become consecrated. (A few held that consecration took place with the sign of the Cross before any of the words of institution were spoken; others claimed that the bread was not consecrated until the wine had been; the Greeks claim an invocation of the Holy Ghost after the words of consecration is necessary before our Lord becomes truly present.)
Another possibility is the need for some signal to let the people know precisely when our Lord has become present on the altar. Particularly if the Blessed Sacrament is not reserved at that altar it would be unbecoming for the congregation to be worshipping as though Our Lord were there, or to act as though He were not there when He was. While the Church may ring a bell, light an elevation candle, or incense the Blessed Sacrament, all of these signs are ambiguous compared to seeing the elevation of the Host (and Chalice).
It is also conceivable that the elevation was added for purely devotional purposes. By the late middle ages, most people received Holy Communion only a few times a year. It may be that the elevation was an opportunity to allow the people a sort of "visual Communion" on those many days when they did not receive sacramentally. Certainly, this was a much more orderly and devotional idea than the "kiss of peace," which for some time served a similar purpose, but which was known on occasion to become riotous.8 Even if popular devotion was not the Church's immediate intent behind the elevation, it very much appealed to the people in just that way. Paradoxically, but right in line with the theme of this article, it was inevitable that some of our people would come to think of the elevation as the most sacred action in the Mass, and would drop their gaze to the ground to avoid looking upon the Host with "profane eyes."
The medieval Church encouraged people to look at the Host, just as She does today. Some of the more impenetrable Rood screens even had slits cut into them to accommodate viewing the elevation. In some places it was arranged to place a dark background behind the Host in order that It might stand out clearly. Until recently the Church granted an indulgence of seven years specifically to encourage us to look at the elevated Host and say the words of Thomas the Apostle with devotion: "My Lord and my God!"
Exposition, Adoration, and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament should come to mind as additional examples of the Church treating us to the splendor of something that is generally hidden.
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Last of all, we will mention a custom that has fallen into (presumably?) universal disuse, the Lenten veil. Traditional Catholics are all familiar with the veiling of statues during the last two weeks of Lent known as Passiontide -- the Lenten veil went much further, obscuring the altar from view for much of the Lenten season, at least on the ferial days. The veil hung to a foot or so off the ground, suspended on cords so that it could be raised or lowered easily by the clergy. It must have given the time before Easter a unique character. The following description of the veil in the Sarum (English) use of the Roman Rite is from Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars:
In a rather curious twist, Duffy tells us that the veil was made use of by the Protestants in the early days of the Reformation. Since devotion to the Blessed Sacrament was not permitted, they did not want any sort of worship of the Eucharist by the people during the time between the minister's narrative of the words of institution and the administration of communion. Not enough to forbid candles on "the Lord's board" (table), the elevation, the ringing of bells, and the showing of a host before communion -- in London "they used the old Lent veil to screen the communion table from would be worshippers of the sacrament in St. Paul's."10
Duffy summarizes the point of this article rather nicely, maintaining that the Rood screen and the Lenten veil were not attempts to separate the people from their Mass: