The Southern Nebraska Register of the diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska has a column by Bishop James Conley announcing a change in the cathedral liturgy this coming Advent: the priests will celebrate Mass not facing the people, but ad orientem. The bishop will do the same at Midnight Mass on Christmas.
One hopes that there can be peace in the church around this issue.
The history of the position of the celebrating priest is not entirely unambiguous. The very earliest history is shrouded in mystery, which allows people to make all sorts of claims in the absence of any available evidence.
The history in the twentieth century, and especially immediately after the Second Vatican Council, is also more ambiguous than you might have thought. The great reformer Josef Jungmann SJ, advisor to the Council, had some second thoughts after the altars were turned around. As I recall, the eminent liturgical scholar David Power, hardly a man of the right, once penned a piece for Antiphon (back when Francis Mannion was at the helm) in which he wrote favorably of ad orientem. As is well-known, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI), re-opened the question and spoke positively of ad orientem. But with that pastoral discretion found in him but absent in his most zealous followers, Ratzinger advised against turning the altars back around and causing another rupture in people’s postconciliar liturgical experience. The so-called Benedictine candle arrangement was born as his compromise. At the same time, I always thought that Ratzinger’s polemic about the “self-enclosed circle” did not do justice to other people’s positive experiences and beliefs, and I have even wondered what he is so angry about.
My first experience of ad orientem was as organist in a Lutheran church in St. Cloud when I was an undergrad. (The Lutherans paid better and had better music, and their Sunday morning services didn’t conflict with the three evening Masses I was doing for St. John’s campus ministry.) I came to realize that they had their altar against the chancel wall precisely because they were rather low church and didn’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper very often. They weren’t into the liturgical renewal enough to change their inherited practice, unlike some other Lutherans who were trying to be, so to speak, “more Vatican II.”
Meanwhile, I was learning in theology classes at St. John’s a fairly black-and-white account of “bad pre-Vatican II, individualistic” and “good post-Vatican II, communal.” It struck me at the time that the Lutherans, with their altar against the wall, had a stronger sense of community (complete with people coming early or staying late for coffee hour and adult education between the two services) and much stronger congregational singing than I had ever encountered in the Catholic church. This complicated the narrative for me.
Then in grad school in Austria, I sometimes helped out in a little parish in the mountains where the tiny late medieval church had no room for a new altar and one had to celebrate at the old high altar at the apse wall. One couldn’t say the people were far removed from the ritual, for they were just a few feet behind me in the front pews. (The church seated about 25 or 30.) It felt to me like we were one community. But at the same time, it was a bit more awkward than I had expected – having to turn around to greet them, and not facing them (i.e., doing as the rubrics direct) for the dialog at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. I came away thinking that ad orientem isn’t the silver bullet I had sort of hoped it might be after reading Power and re-reading Jungmann.
So: ambiguity, both in church history and in my own experience. This suggests to me a need for nuance.
Bishop Conley’s article is, for the most part, well-nuanced. There is this on the priest facing the people:
The people see the face of the priest as he prays, and he sees their faces. These positions can have important symbolism too. They can remind us that we are a community.
But the bishop might want to be a bit clearer about his history. His wording seems to suggest that the people looked “at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle” since ancient times – but the tabernacle wasn’t moved to the center of the sanctuary behind the altar until after Trent. But overall, the bishop adopts an irenic tone.
Not so his most zealous followers. (He has the same problem as Benedict in this.) A certain Father James Dean gives us this comment at the website with the bishop’s article:
Actually, the “my sacrifice and yours” distinguishes the sacrifice that the priest is offering (which is the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, mystically present and represented to the Father in an unbloody manner) and the sacrifice of the people (which is the sacrifice of their lives in union with Christ’s sacrifice). The people do not offer the sacrifice of Mass, they, in their royal, priestly, baptismal dignity offer their own personal sacrifices with the perfect sacrifice of Christ, which alone gives their sacrifices salvific meaning and power (Col 1:24)!!
Well, no. The Latin doesn’t say “my sacrifice and yours.” Meum ac vestrum sacrificium literally is “my and your sacrifice,” which doesn’t imply two different sacrifices. One could argue for translating the difficult Latin idiomatically as “our sacrifice” (like the 1974 Sacramentary), which is closer to the meaning but doesn’t follow the Latin literally, or also as “this sacrifice, which is mine and yours,” as ICEL proposed and the bishops’ conferences approved. But since we now have “my sacrifice and yours,” which follows some but not all of the Latin, it is important to understand it in the meaning of the Latin – as one sacrifice.
But this, Fr. Dean? “The people do not offer the sacrifice of Mass…” That’s simply wrong. Just read articles 85-87 Mediator Dei, which Pius XII issued in 1947. Starting with this:
However, it must also be said that the faithful do offer the divine Victim, though in a different sense.
Well, there’s Fr. James Dean, and then there’s this, which the parishioners in Exeter-Milligan parishes got from their pastor: Ad Orientem. I guess God exists at the back wall, but not among the people. And regarding the Real Presence and Protestants it says that… oh, never mind. Where to begin?
Here’s where to end: by saying again that I hope there can be peace in the church around this issue.