In a recent interview with the French Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne, Cardinal Robert Sarah repeats many of the usual arguments in favor of the priest celebrating Mass ad orientem (“toward the east”) rather than facing the people, Catholic Herald reports. You can read the story there and get up to speed on the main arguments.

Cardinal Sara is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Vatican’s liturgy department.

One line from the cardinal caught my attention. The Second Vatican Council did not require priests to celebrate Mass facing the people, the cardinal correctly notes. But then he says:

As soon as we reach the moment when one addresses God – from the Offertory onwards – it is essential that the priest and faithful look together towards the east. This corresponds exactly to what the Council Fathers wanted.

Of all the arguments for ad orientem – and there are valid arguments out there – this isn’t one of them. Anytime anyone makes a claim about what the Council Fathers wanted, alarm bells should go off for all of us. The discussions of the fathers in the aula, and the things said in the documents they approved, witness a range of views. One has to be cautious about suggesting that all the fathers wanted anything unless the evidence supports the claim.

Furthermore, the Council fathers didn’t get into all the specifics of the reform of the liturgy. They left most of that to a future commission under the pope. The fathers approved a major paradigm shift – from liturgy as Carolingian clerical drama to liturgy as act of all the people – and then left open what the implications of that shift would be. No doubt some or many of the fathers didn’t yet have in mind all the possible implications of the paradigm shift. Nor did they need to.

In the decades before Vatican II, the practice of Mass facing the people was popping up all over. (Just as the Vatican II missal doesn’t require Mass facing the people, the Tridentine missal did not require Mass ad orientem). Churches were being built in the 1950s with the then-new practice in mind. In the reforms of Holy Week in 1955, the celebrant was now required to face the people at certain points – in the blessing of palms, for the new collect concluding the Palm Sunday procession, for the blessing of holy water – signaling that changes were in the works at headquarters. I can’t imagine that the Council fathers were unaware of all this. Nothing in the documents they approved suggests that they “exactly wanted” to curb the novelties and ensure uniform ad orientem henceforth.

Here’s an interesting aside. I was thinking about all this at Morning Prayer today – uh, even as I was devoutly concentrating on the Office – and pondering how ad orientem would work in our abbey church, which was consecrated in 1961. Here’s the floor plan, with the abbot’s throne at the top of the picture and the baptistery at the bottom.

abbey church floor plan

As it is now, the priest at the altar at Sunday Mass faces the people in the nave. This means that the monks in the choir stalls are in a circle behind him. In effect, Mass is ad orientem for monks, at least for those in the choir stalls closer to the throne. I doubt the thought crosses the minds of any of the monks. It feels like we’re all gathered around the altar, and it feels right, even though the priest at the altar is not facing us.

If the priest were on the other side of the altar, facing the same direction as the people behind him in the nave, he would be facing the choir stalls and the monastic community. This wouldn’t work – it would feel to everyone in the nave like the priest was celebrating Mass with only the monastic community and ignoring the congregation. I suppose you could ask the monks to turn in their stalls to face the same direction as the priest behind them – i.e, toward the throne – but this would just be weird.

St. John’s Abbey Church is clearly intended for Mass facing the people in the nave. It is a good example of where things were headed in 1961, when the Council had been called but not yet begun.

On the other hand, there have been various voices from what we might call left, right, and center advocating or speaking positively about ad orientem, immediately after the Council and ever since. This includes, for example Joseph Jungmann (who was an architect of the conciliar reforms), Francis Mannion, and David Power. And of course Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict, who said a few decades ago that he favored the practice but did not favor switching things back because it would cause too much confusion.

Be that as it may: as we approach the celebration of Corpus Christi, let’s make sure that all our discussions are informed not only by accurate information, but also and especially by the spirit of the great sacrament of unity and love which is the Eucharist.






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