Let’s be bold and ask the question: if the priest has his back to the people when he faces ad orientem, Who does he have his back to when he faces them?
Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, recently gave an address to the “Sacra Liturgia” Conference, entitled “Towards an Authentic Implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium.” In this address, he said the following:
…[It] is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the centre.
Cardinal Sarah’s appeal to return to ad orientem worship is not made in a vacuum. There has been a growing interest in the traditional practice that has kept pace with a growing scholarship in this area.
The whole question of the orientation of the liturgy takes as a starting point the fact that the liturgy is the communication of something innately beautiful – that, in the highest sense of the word, liturgy is an art.
In his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI argues that beauty is no mere decoration, but rather an “essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation.” The gestures and signs of the liturgy form a sort of divine choreography. This divine choreography – the “ars celebrandi” – arises not from arbitrary or superficial principles, but from the astounding depth of the Paschal Mystery and the truth of the Christian faith. For our purposes, it is important to see that the ars celebrandi cannot be underestimated for its ability to invite real immersion into the liturgy. Indeed, for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, it is “the primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite.” With stakes so high, it is necessary to embody within the celebration of the Mass the right imagery.
Behind the recent remarks of Cardinal Sarah, there is a world of theological debate about the choreography of the liturgy – particularly the orientation of the priest. To situate the debate, we will examine two major works on the topic: Turning Towards the Lord by U. M. Lang and The Spirit of the Liturgy by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI).
Within this context of liturgy as art (and without delving too much into the liturgical polemics in the wake of Cardinal Sarah’s address last week), we will investigate some of the reasoning that advocates for versus populum have used, the response by those who advocate ad orientem, and the prevailing recommendation to correct the issues.
Arguments In Favor of Versus Populum
First, it will be most helpful to have an idea for the argument for keeping the new practice of celebrating Mass versus populum.
1. Advocates of versus populum would point out that the Mass originates in the Last Supper on Holy Thursday. In that context, Christ was reclined around a table with his apostles. Thus, the Mass in the modern day ought to be reflective of a communal meal, with priest and the people facing each other in order to be true to the origins. Doing so would fulfil Sacrosanctum Concilium’s call for “active participation” in the liturgy by the faithful, by inviting them into the communal act in so direct a way. Since “active participation” is such a major concern in the last century’s liturgical reform, it has seemed most expedient to construct new altars that invited versus populum celebration.
2. By way of anticipating objections, advocates for versus populum are guarding against “archaism” in liturgy. Pope Pius XII, in his encyclical Mediator Dei, warns against any misguided archaism:
The liturgy of the early ages is most certainly worthy of all veneration. But ancient usage must not be esteemed more suitable and more proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savour and aroma of antiquity … [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device.
Lest the Church fall into this archaism, supporters of versus populum argue that we must allow the liturgy to develop the way that it has. New forms and new practices are all the more fitting for new ages of the Church. Accordingly, they argue that there is no reason to reverse the trend of celebrating versus populum.
Responses to these Arguments
Is the appeal to bring back ad orientem celebration simply “archaism”? Are its proponents just advocating liturgical nostalgia?
Quite the contrary. The defense of ad orientem celebration is robust, thorough, clear, and convincing. Lang points out several flaws in the reasoning for versus populum. That the Last Supper was merely a meal, Lang takes issue. The Mass did begin as a meal, but its development did not end there. The Eucharistic sacrifice commemorates the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery. It is not merely a meal. Lang explains: “it was the new reality, not the meal as such, that Christ commanded us to repeat in memory of him” (93). To think that the development from the Jewish festal meal to the distinct act of liturgical worship in Christianity could or should be reversed, Lang concludes, would be “a most deceptive archaism” (93).
The second flaw with the appeal to the Last Supper is that it does not match up with the reality of the actual meal in the first place. According to Lang, “it was customary for the diners to recline on couches arranged in a semicircle, with small tables being used for holding food and dishes. In this arrangement, the place of honour was on the right of the semicircle” (93). In effect, it is not true that the Last Supper would have meant that the people would face each other, as has been perpetuated by the art of the 13th century onward. Although a contemporary reading of the Last Supper meal would impose such a reality, it is more likely that all the diners were facing the same direction at the time. Thus, the appeal to the Last Supper fails, not only because it is a mistaken view of the Mass as merely a meal, but also because it does not take into account the actual historical conditions of the Last Supper.
If the image of a meal does not fully capture the symbolic meaning of the Mass, are there other ways in which we may understand the Mass? Ratzinger puts forward another image: the Exodus. In the liturgical exodus, the priest is not just a “presider” – rather, like Moses he leads the people towards the Lord from slavery to the Promised Land. The priest facing the same direction as the people expresses the meaning of pilgrimage in our participation in the Exodus of the New Covenant – the Paschal Mystery of our Lord.
As a final response to the proponents of versus populum, Lang addresses the accusation of archaism:
This is not a form of archaism, if only because it was the virtually universal practice in the Latin Church until the most recent times and is part of the liturgical heritage in the Churches of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian traditions. (98)
The practice of offering Mass ad orientem simply has too rich of a history and is too universal in its usage to be oversimplified to archaism.
The Defense for Ad Orientem
Having discussed the flaws in the versus populum argumentation, it is fitting to look at the whole argument for facing east in the offering of Mass. We will look at this argument based off the history of Church, the symbolism behind the orientation, and the necessity of maintaining proper symbols.
The history of the Church’s liturgical celebrations and the symbolism contained within these decisions are so interwoven that we will discuss them together. The Jewish custom for worship consisted in the synagogues facing the temple. All the ritual celebrations pointed back to Jerusalem as the focal point of Jewish worship. It was here that God centered his relationship with His chosen people.
As the Christians developed their own identity and broke from Jewish customs, it was no longer important to face the temple. Now, Christians faced towards the New Jerusalem. How could this be manifested in the direction of worship? Facing the east quickly became the Christian response, not only in liturgy but in prayer in general. Lang gives some biblical examples:
[F]or instance, the sun of righteousness (Mal 4:2), the feet of the Lord standing on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east (Zech 14:4), the day dawning from on high (Lk 1:78), the angel ascending from the rising of the sun with the seal of the living God (Rev 7:2), not to mention the Johannine light imagery. (41)
In addition to these examples, the Son of Man came with power and glory, appearing as lightning in the east, shining as far as the west (Mt 24:27,30). For the early Christians, the image of the rising sun was very significant. They would face that direction in order to face the Lord.
This eastward orientation held true nearly universally and affected all types of Christian prayer. Origen (around AD 231) explains the connection in his treatise On Prayer:
It should be immediately clear that that the direction of the rising sun obviously indicates that we ought to pray inclining in that direction, an act which symbolizes the soul looking where the true light rises.
In case Origen is not enough of an authority, St. Augustine is in agreement: “When we stand at prayer, we turn to the east.”
The architecture of ancient Churches points out that the liturgy was almost always celebrated ad orientem. In the cases where the doors were facing to the east, which was a minority, the celebrant and the people would all look to the doors together. When, as was the case most often, the apse faced east, the celebrant and the people all faced the apse. The common direction became important no matter what the architectural direction was. (Remember that pews are a recent invention, and most ancient churches did not have seating of any kind except for the elderly and infirm.)
Finally, the defense of ad orientem drives home the point most powerfully when it argues that the symbolic significance of the direction of prayer is of utmost importance. Lang states:
The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Not even the best mystagogical catechesis can make up for the decline of understanding of the Mass among Catholics, if the liturgical celebration sends out signs to the contrary. (115)
So it is clear that there is significant symbolic importance to celebrating the Mass ad orientem. Does this hold true for versus populum as well? The Congregation for Divine Worship, explains albeit in a 1993 editorial, that the symbolism does not hold up for versus populum:
It is fitting to explain clearly that the expression ‘to celebrate facing the people’ has no theological sense but is only a topographical concept … Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always facing God and facing the people. In the form of celebration one must be careful to avoid confounding theology and topography, especially when the priest is at the altar. It is only in the dialogues from the altar that the priest speaks to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father, through the mediation of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be visible. (Quoted in Lang, 126)
As a sacred art, liturgy grips the imagination with symbols that carry divine meaning. If you change the symbol, you lose that meaning. If you want to retain the symbolism – if you want to ensure that the meaning of “facing God” is maintained – then you ought to make sure that symbolism is expressed visibly.
Unfortunately, liturgical practice in the last few decades has forgotten the cosmological and theological significance of the celebration of the Mass ad orientem and has thus changed its practices unnecessarily. Lest in our celebration of the Mass we betray the imagery that most befits it, the Church indeed must reconsider how she intends to incarnate the Mass’s deep reality in its ars celebrandi.
Recommendations for the Future
Since it seems that the significance of the liturgy as a procession and as a sacrifice to God is best protected in the celebration of the Mass ad orientem, it is fitting to provide the scholarly recommendation for how to amend the liturgy in its current situation. Ratzinger says, “This mistake should be corrected as quickly as possible; and it can be done without further rebuilding” (84).
Cardinal Sarah gives the following exhortation:
I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this. Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!
How ought ad orientem worship be implemented? First, with prudence, catechesis, and confidence. But what will ad orientem look like in the particulars of the Mass? That may be outside the scope of this post to make concrete suggestions (others, like Fr. Ryan Erlenbush, have provided some much-appreciated guidance). The point here is that the Mass, as a divine choreography that communicates supreme beauty, ought to express visibly its intrinsic orientation – its ars celebrandi ought to be configured to Christ’s prayer to the Father.
Ad orientem worship is not only well-founded in theology and history, but is also spiritually advantageous to the faithful. Cardinal Sarah, recognizing the demands of pastoral charity and prudence, sees this upcoming Advent as a great opportunity to “turn again towards the Lord.”
-Post by Jacob Gruber
Main image: Pope St. Pius X celebrates a Pontifical Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica.