After the Council, detailed directions for the celebration of the revised form of Mass were drawn up, including an instruction that the priest should celebrate Mass facing the people.
No, I am not referring to the Second Vatican Council or Inter Oecumenici or the GIRM. This was the Council of Trent (1545 – 1563), and the relevant documents were prepared under the leadership of St Charles Borromeo, the archbishop of Milan. He had not attended the Council, but he became a major implementer of the disciplinary reforms that the Council promulgated. Many of these were about removing superstitious ceremonial from the Mass; others spoke directly to the conduct of bishops and priests. The former were to avoid silken vestments, expensive furs, rings other than the episcopal ring; the latter were to exhibit restraint in their clothing and personal furnishings. Both were expected to exercise simplicity and moderation in every aspect of their lives. The splendor of faith was to be preferred to ornate display. You might say that St Charles anticipated the call for ‘noble simplicity’ of a later Council.
He also wrote extensively about the construction and furnishings of churches, in a document published in 1577, Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae. Chapter 10 speaks about the principal chapel of any church:
The site of this chapel must be chosen at the head of the church, in a prominent place and on an axis with the main entrance. The back part should face east, even if there are houses behind it. It must not face to the east of the summer solstice, but towards that of the equinox.
If this is not possible, the Bishop can decide and permit that it be built facing another direction, but in this case care must be taken at least that if possible it does not face north, but south. In any case the chapel in which the priest celebrates Mass from the high altar facing the people, in accordance with the rites of the Church, must face west.
Situs igitur huius capellae in capite Ecclesiae loco eminentiori, e cuius regione ianua primaria sit deligi debet : eius pars posterior in orientem versus recta spectet, etiam si a tergo illius domicitia populi sint. Nec vero ad solstitialem , sed ad aequino- ctialem orientem omnino vergat.
Si vero positio eiusmodi esse nullo modo potest , Episcopi iudicio, facultateque ab eo impetrata, ad aliam partem illius exaedificatio verti poterit; tuncque id saltem curetur, ut ne ad septentrionem , sed ad meridiem versus si fieri potest, plane spectet.
Porro ad occidentem versus illa extruenda erit, ubi pro ritu Ecclesiae a sacerdote versa ad populum facie Missae sacrum in altari maiori fieri solet.
In other words, orientem means simply “east”. When the priest celebrates at the main altar, facing the people, “in accordance with the rites of the Church”, he is to face east.
The historian John O’Malley asserts that Borromeo sought to standardize and promote a number of liturgical practices. Some were broadly adopted – for instance, placing the tabernacle in the center of the main altar. Others, which Borromeo had advocated, were not – O’Malley cites celebration with the priest facing the people as an example.
Uwe Lang speaks about Borromeo in his book about the orientation of liturgical prayer:
… the archbishop of Milan says that the capella major must be oriented, with the main altar facing east. Where this is impossible, it can be directed towards another cardinal point (except north) but preferable toward the west, ‘as, in accordance with the rite of the Church (pro ritu Ecclesiae) the sacrifice of the Mass is celebrated at the main altar by the priest with his face turned towards the people.’
But Lang airily dismisses this as an exception:
Borromeo must have had in mind those Roman basilicas with a westward apse and an eastward entrance, where Mass was celebrated facing the people; this practice was no doubt familiar to him. Still, for Borromeo, the eastward direction was the paramount principle for liturgy and church architecture.
This is not an uncommon move for Lang, whose works I have found generally tendentious; he often lays out different views and interpretations (e.g. of Christine Mohrmann’s claim that ecclesiastical Latin was ‘elevated’) but, often without giving reasons or citing sources, simply chooses the one that accords with his thesis. Joseph Ratzinger described Turning Toward the Lord as “delightfully objective and non-polemical”, leaving one to wonder whether the busy cardinal and prefect had time to read the book before blurbing it.
Celebration facing the people did not become normative, as (per O’Malley), St Charles Borromeo had wished it would. But this bit of history seems to give the lie to claims that celebration facing the people was a fabrication of the 20th century liturgical movement, or of misinterpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
J.W. O’Malley SJ, Trent: What happened at the Council. Harvard University Press, 2013. (This work, which really is “delightfully objective and non-polemical”, is a must read; it was here, rather than through my own research, that I came across St Charles Borromeo’s instruction that Mass should be celebrated facing the people).
Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae; translation by Evelyn Volker (see evelynvoelker.com). Latin text available in several locations online, e.g. www.memofonte.it/home/files/pdf/scritti_borromeo.pdf.
Acta Ecclesiae Mediolanensis (Acts of the Church of Milan), see www.openlibrary.org
U.M. Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer. Ignatius, 2004