1. Since 2008, most Masses at St. Mary’s Church have been celebrated with the priest standing on the same side of the altar as the congregation during the Eucharistic Prayer, a custom not widely seen today in the Catholic Church except for in the celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, commonly called the Tridentine Mass. This custom of priest and people standing together on the same side of the altar is called praying towards the East or ad orientem, and at St. Mary’s even the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite — the Mass of the Second Vatican Council — is celebrated ad orientem. Here’s why.
2. From Christian antiquity, priests and people celebrated the Holy Eucharist by facing together towards the Lord, which meant standing together on the same side of the altar. This ancient and universal practice was lost sight of in the last two generations by the new practice of the priest standing across the altar from the people during the Eucharistic Prayer, a custom almost never before found in the sacred liturgy except for rare instances of architectural necessity, and in the last few years, theologians and pastors have begun to review this innovation in light of the best scholarship and the experience of the Church since the late 1960’s.
3. Before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger was one of most thoughtful and respected critics of the unintended consequences which flow from the priest and people facing each other across the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer. Ratzinger argued that this arrangement, in addition to being a novelty in Christian practice, has the effect of creating a circle of congregation and celebrant closed in upon itself rather than allowing the congregation and celebrant to be a pilgrim people together turned towards the Lord. And this closed circle, in turn, too easily renders the Eucharist more of a horizontal celebration of the congregation gathered than a vertical offering of the sacrifice of Christ to the Father. This flattening of divine worship into a self-referential celebration is, in part, why too many Catholics experience Mass as much less than the source and summit of the Church’s life, and the remedy for this malady is to open the closed circle and experience the power of turning together towards the Lord.
4. This can be done primarily in two ways: 1) return to the ancient and universal practice of the priest standing with the people on one side of the altar as together they face the East of the sacred liturgy, the place from which the glory of the Lord shines upon us, or 2) even when the priest and people remain separated on opposite sides of the altar, place a cross at the center of the altar to allow both celebrant and congregation to face the Lord. Pope Benedict, through his writing and by his example, encouraged priests everywhere to work towards these goals to enrich the experience of divine worship and free us from the danger of solipsism which is contained in self-referential ways of praying — a danger against which we have been repeatedly warned by Pope Francis.
What changed in the 1960’s and why?
5. The ritual forms and liturgical texts of Catholic worship have changed and evolved many times throughout the centuries, and the architectural arrangements for the celebration of the sacred rites have likewise changed. Ordinarily, this process of change is slow, deliberate, and incremental, but in the 1960’s the Church experienced an intense burst of change which dramatically altered both the ritual forms of our worship and the architectural arrangements of our churches. Because there were so many changes in such a short span of time, all of the alterations were considered by many people to be essentially connected to each other, but that is not the case. A good example is the use of Latin in the liturgical texts promulgated after the Second Vatican Council. Many people falsely believe that because Vatican II permitted the use of the vernacular languages in worship, the Council banished Latin from the modern Roman Rite. In fact, however, the same Council which permitted the use of the vernacular also insisted that all Catholics should be able to say and sing their parts of the new Mass in Latin. Celebrating the modern Roman Missal in Latin, therefore, is not in any way a rejection of the Second Vatican Council; rather, the regular use of Latin in modern worship is precisely what the Council Fathers called for.
6. A similar confusion exists with respect to the location of the altar and the place of the priest at the altar. From Christian antiquity, most churches had only one altar, and it was freestanding, meaning that the priest could walk completely around it during the celebration of the liturgy. This custom was retained in the Christian East by Orthodox and Catholics alike, but in the West the altar was gradually pushed back from the center of the sanctuary to the rear wall, in large measure to allow it to merge architecturally with the tabernacle. This change was later accompanied by adding additional altars to most churches, eventually yielding the custom of having three altars in each church. Even before the Second Vatican Council, though, pastors and theologians began to argue for a return to our own tradition of having but one altar in each church and insisting that it once again be freestanding. This was, in part, the fruit of the Liturgical Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries which reminded the Church, among other things, that the altar is the preeminent symbol of Christ in the liturgy. Accordingly, throughout the Western Church the old “high altars” found at the rear of the sanctuary were abandoned, changed, or replaced to allow the ancient and renewed custom of a freestanding altar. But just as this was happening, a novelty was introduced and attached to the newly detached altar: the custom of the priest and people facing each other across the altar during the Eucharistic Prayer — an innovation about which the Second Vatican Council said not one word. So, there is no essential connection between the liturgy of Vatican II, the freestanding altar, and the priest facing the people at the altar. In fact, even now the rubrics in the modern Roman Missal are written with the assumption that the priest and people are together facing liturgical East during the Mass.
Why face East?
7. Praying in a “sacred direction” is a feature common in many religions. Think, for example, of Muslims who pray facing Mecca — a practice instituted by Mohammed, who initially had his followers pray facing Jerusalem. Following similar customs in Judaism, the idea of a “sacred direction” has been a part of Christianity since the beginning. The first Christians expected the return of Christ in glory to occur at the Mount of Olives, from where He ascended to His Father, and so it was a common practice for them during prayer to turn towards the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This practice later evolved into the general custom of preferring to face Jerusalem during prayer, and as the Church spread through the Mediterranean world, this notion further changed into a connection between the light of the rising sun and the glory of the returning Son. The seeds of this idea are planted throughout Scripture (Wisdom 16:28, Zechariah 14:4, Malachi 3:2, Matthew 24:27 and 30, Luke 1:78, and Revelation 7:2), and the early Church placed great emphasis on this point. St. Justin Martyr wrote in the second century “For the word of His truth and wisdom is more ardent and more light-giving than the rays of the sun, and sinks down into the depths of heart and mind. Hence also the Scripture said, ‘His name shall rise up above the sun.’ And again, Zechariah says, ‘His name is the East.’” And St. Clement of Alexandria was even more emphatic: “In correspondence with the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made toward the sunrise in the East.” (For a much fuller explanation of this theme, I recommend the splendid little book Turning Towards the Lord by Uwe Michael Lang, published in 2004 by Ignatius Press and introduced with a forward by Joseph Ratzinger.)
8. For these reasons, since the building of Christian churches began on a large scale in the fourth century, they have literally been “oriented” to the East wherever local geography permitted this, and even when the building could not run on an east-west axis, the apse of the church and the altar within it have been understood as “liturgical East,” the symbolic place of the glory of the Lord. Moreover, because the entire Eucharistic Prayer is addressed to God the Father and not to the congregation, the normal posture of the priest has always been to face the East with his congregation and offer the sacrifice of the Mass with and for them to the Father. Accordingly, it is a simple mistake to think of the priest as “having his back to the people” when they stand together on the same side of the altar; rather, the priest and people by their common “orientation” show that they are together turning towards the Lord, a physical metaphor for the interior work of conversion which can be thought of as the “reorientation” of our lives. This is why in nearly every place and for almost all of Christian history, the priest has stood with his people on the same side of the altar so that, together facing the East of the sacred liturgy, they could offer the pleasing sacrifice of their lives (cf. Romans 12:1) while pleading the sacrifice of Christ.
How does the congregation participate in the celebration of Mass?
9. One objective of the liturgical reforms of the 1960’s was to encourage the active participation of the Catholic people in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, in part by reminding them that they are participants in, not spectators of, offering the sacrifice of Christ at the heart of all Christian worship. Unfortunately, in the years following the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s desire that all the faithful participate fully in the sacred liturgy was too often rendered a caricature of the Council’s teaching, and misconceptions about the true nature of active participation multiplied. This led to the frenzied expansion of “ministries” among the people and turned worship into a team sport. But it is possible to participate in the liturgy fully, consciously, and actively without ever leaving one’s pew, and it is likewise possible to serve busily as a musician or lector at Mass without truly participating in the sacred liturgy. Both of these are true because the primary meaning of active participation in the liturgy is worshipping the living God in Spirit and truth, and that in turn is an interior disposition of faith, hope, and love which cannot be measured by the presence or absence of physical activity. But this confusion about the role of the laity in the Church’s worship was not the only misconception to follow the liturgical reforms; similar mistakes were made about the part of the priest.
10. Because of the mistaken idea that the whole congregation had to be “in motion” during the liturgy to be truly participating, the priest was gradually changed in the popular imagination from the celebrant of the sacred mysteries of salvation into the coordinator of the liturgical ministries of others. And this false understanding of the ministerial priesthood produced the ever-expanding role of the “priest presider,” whose primary task was to make the congregation feel welcome and constantly engage them with eye contact and the embrace of his warm personality. Once these falsehoods were accepted, then in many places the service of the priest in the liturgy became grotesquely misshapen, and instead of a humble steward of the sacred mysteries whose only task was to draw back the veil between God and man and then hide himself in the folds, the priest became a ring-master or entertainer whose task was thought of as making the congregation feel good about themselves. But, whatever that is, it is not Christian worship, and in the last three decades the Church has been gently finding a way back towards the right ordering of her public prayer.
11. In February 2007 Pope Benedict XVI published an Apostolic Exhortation on the Most Holy Eucharist entitled Sacramentum Caritatis in which he discusses the need for priests to cultivate a proper ars celebrandi or art of celebrating the liturgy. In that document, the pope teaches that “the primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself,” and an essential part of that work is removing the celebrant from the center of attention so that priest and people together can turn towards the Lord. Accomplishing this task of restoring God-centered liturgy is one of the main reasons for returning to the ancient and universal practice of priest and people standing together on the same side of the altar as they offer the sacrifice of Calvary as true worship of the Father. In other words, the custom of ad orientem celebration enhances rather than diminishes the possibility of the people participating fully, consciously, and actively in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.
12. There is, of course, nothing intrinsically wrong in celebrating the sacred liturgy with the priest facing the people from across the altar, and that remains the way in most Ordinary Form Masses are offered throughout the world. At the same time, the celebration of Mass ad orientem is not in any way contrary to liturgical law, the mind of the Church, or the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, and no special permission is needed to celebrate Mass facing liturgical East, even in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. This means that both postures are equally legitimate ways of celebrating the sacred mysteries, and both have a place in the life of the Church. The celebration of Mass ad orientem at St. Mary’s is meant to be both an example of true diversity in the Church’s liturgical life and a sign of the continuity of the modern Roman Rite with the Church’s most ancient customs. We invite all who join us in divine worship to enter fully, consciously and actively into the offering of Christ’s perfect sacrifice for the salvation of the world.
Father Jay Scott Newman