The Worst Reasons for Ad Orientem

I was invited to make the case against ad orientem. But I can’t do that, for I’m not opposed to this practice and I have celebrated Mass that way myself on a few occasions. What I am opposed to is the way some people advocate for it.

It is said, for example, that Vatican II never called for Mass facing the people. This is true on narrowly literalist grounds, but ultimately misunderstands the Council. The Council’s reformist spirit made possible all sorts of practices not explicitly advocated in its documents. Nor did they need to be. The Council stated foundational principles which set the Church on a reformist trajectory, while only in a few cases getting into the specifics and locking down future developments.

It’s time to say it: the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” proposed by Benedict XVI in 2005 has outlived its usefulness as a tool for understanding the Second Vatican Council. Its proponents, who frequently carry the proposal further than Benedict ever did, have shown in abundance that the proposal obscures rather than clarifies the paradigm shifts clearly called for by the Council. For liturgy, the paradigm shift is from Carolingian clericalized sacred drama to an act of the entire community. Just let the full weight of that shift sink in, including all the possible implications for liturgical practice. There is a reason why the Fathers of Vatican II decided that the 1962 missal would not remain in use in its unreformed state.

It is said that ad orientem was the universal practice of the early Church. While it eventually came to be predominant, historical data is ambiguous. And the data from the very earliest centuries is too scant for any overly confident claims. And even if it were universal practice for all of Church history, this wouldn’t make innovation in the 20th century impossible. Everything in history was done for the first time at some point, and we would never have gone from the Last Supper to Tridentine High Mass if liturgical history weren’t chock-full of innovation and development.

It is said that ad orientem fosters humility in the celebrant and prevents his ego from taking over as it does in versus populum. Really? You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that a traditionalist priest’s motives for pushing his agenda on the community can be just as ego-driven as the motives of the chatty game show host celebrant. And of course, reverent, Christ-centered worship is also possible in either practice. Neither humility nor egoism clearly aligns with either practice.

It is said that some Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians practice ad orientem without any controversy, so we should be able to do the same. This shows a stunning lack of sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of many contemporary Catholics and ignores that our history is so utterly different from theirs. Hence ad orientem has a very different meaning for us than it does for them. And one is suspicious of such newfound ecumenical sensitivity from quarters otherwise uninterested in the ecumenical project.

It is said that the now famous “quod” in article 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly refers to the placement of the altar away from the wall but not the direction of the priest facing the people, and the latter is a willful liberal misinterpretation. I think Jonathan Day has taken care of this one at the blog Pray Tell, and shown that the Roman document is anything but clear.

Here’s something I’d like to ask people who argue that the supposedly universal apostolic practice of ad orientem has a claim on us: does this also mean that the faithful should stand and not kneel at the liturgy, as the Council of Nicaea decreed for all Sundays of the year and all of Easter season in 325? Does this mean that the Precious Blood should always be offered to the faithful along with the consecrated Bread, as was universal practice in the West for most of Church history and is still the practice in the East? Does this mean that tabernacles should not be in the center of the apse, an innovation of the Counter-Reformation era?

In fact, I’d answer “yes” to all these questions. The more traditional practices lessen the divide between priest and people, and make clearer that everyone together offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice and shares together in its rich fruits. It was utterly foreign to the early Church, and most of the medieval Church as well, to have a church full of kneeling people facing the tabernacle like their priest but receiving Communion under only one form.

Time to call out the selective historicism of some people, I’d say. Time to see who really wants to return to apostolic practice, and who instead wants to return to the 1950s. Which is to say, time to see who is advocating ad orientem because it’s just one more way, while claiming otherwise, to chip away at the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis has a way of smoking out his enemies. So much of the opposition to him is being unmasked for what it is: opposition to the Second Vatican Council.

Once the smoke clears, and once we all get back on the same page, behind Francis and behind the Council, who knows where it will lead? Maybe, someday, to widespread ad orientem? Fine with me – but only if it’s for good reasons, based upon acceptance of the deeply reformist Council.

Maybe someday. But in my judgment, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger suggested in 2000 remains even more true today: now is not the time to introduce ad orientem. It has to be separated from its retrograde associations before we can begin to talk about whether and how it might fit within Vatican II’s understanding of liturgy.

Reprinted with permission from the print edition of The Catholic Herald, with links added for this online version.

 

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52 comments

  1. The previous entry on ad orientem and the deaf presents an angle I had never thought of before.

  2. I agree with much that you say here, but will add the caveat that when you say, “the so-called ‘hermeneutic of continuity’ proposed by Benedict XVI in 2005 has outlived its usefulness as a tool for understanding the Second Vatican Council” one needs to ask, “what version of the hermeneutic of continuity?” I believe the version you think has outlived its usefulness is the one that says that any change in theology or practice during the past 50 years that was not explicitly mandated by the Council is illegitimate.” If that is so, I would add, “indeed, it never was a useful hermeneutic.”

    But I’m pretty sure that is not what Benedict himself meant by the term “hermeneutic of continuity.”

  3. “Time to call out the selective historicism of some people, I’d say. Time to see who really wants to return to apostolic practice, and who instead wants to return to the 1950s. Which is to say, time to see who is advocating ad orientem because it’s just one more way, while claiming otherwise, to chip away at the Second Vatican Council.”

    This is far too simplistic, Father, and you know it. It’s completely absurd to try to “return to apostolic practice.” No one in Church history ever suggested that this is how we should celebrate the liturgy: never letting it be enriched and augmented as the centuries pass, but ever searching for an elusive original authenticity or purity that, in practice, ends up looking like stripped down modernist architecture. Those who advocate for tradition are advocating for twenty centuries’ worth of it, not just a slice at the beginning and a slice at the end.

  4. Peter, thanks for bringing out into the light the rejection of Vatican II’s paradigm shift(s). The church’s understanding of the Last Supper and the Sacrifical death and resurrection of Jesus as a perpetual memorial is clearly linked to the Jewish Passover. The latter was clearly a work of the faithful of Israel not merely of its rabbis and temple priests. When Jesus commanded “Do this in remembrance of me” was he addressing only the disciples who were present or all those who would come to believe through their testimony? To whatever age–Carolingian or earlier–the 1962 Missal owes its origin, it clearly reflects that the offering of the Mass is done by the priest on behalf of the faithful. The participation of the faithful involved nearly silent assent as they reverently looked on. Thus, the NO truly represents a paradigm shift in which it is clarified that the faithful led by their pastors offer the sacrificial banquet “with, in, and through” Christ the high priest. When all participants are facing Christ as symbolized by the altar on which The Lord becomes present sacramentally, this understanding is reinforced. “Ad orientam” reinforces the notion that “The Lord” is out there beyond the apse and we should all be facing in that direction. Like Fr. Anthony I am not opposed in principle to ad orientam but VII clearly brought about a liturgical paradigm shift which has led to the practice followed by all the successors of Peter and nearly all priests and bishops since the time of Paul VI.
    By the way, I make no apology for not being a scholar. I’m just a parish priest who is filled with joy to join with the people I serve in offering each day the Church’s perfect sacrifice of praise.

  5. @Peter Kwasniewski:
    You have very generously been given plenty of room to have the kind of liturgy you want for your group within the church. What you dont’t get is that you are not going to to force your particular style of liturgy that dictates a long dead model of the Church onto the rest of us who represent the majority of Catholics. It is not going to happen so be satisfied with the gift you have been given to celebrate as you want. Otherwise you come off acting very ungrateful and you continue to cause contention. Not a pretty picture…

  6. Elisabeth Ahn : @Fritz Bauerschmidt #3: But I’m pretty sure that is not what Benedict himself meant by the term “hermeneutic of continuity.” What do you think he meant by it then?

    I think he meant simply that Vatican II should not be seen as a 180-degree turnabout on the part of the Church, but as a point to be plotted on an arc stretching from the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to the present day. In some ways, I think he was trying to counteract the mirror image of the position that I described above–i.e. a view that says that we must presume that Vatican II threw out everything from the past, unless the Council documents explicitly stated that these things were to be retained.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt #12:

      … Vatican II… as a point to be plotted on an arc stretching from the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15 to the present day.

      That may very well have been his intentions.

      But, do you think Benedict’s liturgical decisions and actions correspond to this view?

      I ask because I honestly cannot think of one single thing that he did as pope, liturgically, that exemplifies this vision of his. Everything he did to me always seemed centered only on a very particular period in history, or worse yet, intent on turning back the clock, so to speak, to those “better” days (despite his claim to the contrary).

      [shrug]

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn:

        First off, excellent piece, Father. I’d like to add that people talk of the “sign value” of ad orientem. I had always found that argument compelling, because, to me, the sign value of ad orientem is more clearly God-centered than that of celebration versus the people. Then, I started talking to other people. By and large the sign value for them–and let’s be clear, sign value is inherently subjective– is clearly not perspicuously about concentrated prayer to God. For them it was a statement about Vatican II. Thus I think Ratzinger’s words were correct: now is not the time to tinker.

        Elisabeth,
        I think this is a terribly interesting question. Ratzinger clearly made a lot of decisions that tried to demystify the papacy: he wanted people to stop kissing the ring, he put the miter on the seal, he tried to do some of his own errands (but quickly gave up), he tried to stop wearing the mozzetta on informal occasions (but his handlers advised against it). But,I agree with you. With regard to papal liturgy, he clearly tried to bring back the ethos of the preconciliar papal rites. When asked why, he mentioned that he didn’t want those practices to disappear definitively. He also mentioned that he wanted to explicitly manifest connection with the preconciliar church. Benedict strikes me as indecisive in this way. He wrote clearly but acted vaguely.

        With Father Ruff, I’d like to add though, that we must be careful to distinguish him from his “supporters.” He was by no means an American neo-con right-wing traditionalist.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
      I would add that we should also distinguish some other things:

      1. Between Cardinal Ratzinger’s scholarly musings before he became Pope, and what he advocated (and the different ways he advocated) as Pope; and
      2. What those who invoke him do with it. Joseph Ratzinger gets invoked (not just by his erstwhile opponents, but also by his erstwhile supporters) in ways that, were he given the chance to speak one-on-one with folks, he would take pains to clarify.

  7. I still think that the article by Robin Jensen is not being interpreted correctly. As I pointed out before on PT, her article is focused on the idea of directionality and the position of the article. But if anything, it clearly acknowledges that all the extant evidence would point to the presider facing the apse, even with the altar closer to the people. Really, trying to conclude from what was presented in that article that the historical evidence is dubious on the point is an argument from silence.

    I think the point is not to go back to a historical golden period (which, incidentally undergirded a lot of the explanation for the reform of the liturgy) but merely to question whether a merely pastoral reason – could justify the shift in a praxis that was universal – or at least in the majority – both ‘horizontally’ (across the apostolic Churches) and ‘vertically’ (across many centuries). And in fact, it was not a merely pastoral reason that was advocated for the change, but a historical one as well. Is it really fair that such a praxis provokes the harshest reactions in our day?

    Lastly re: showmanship. I accept the point fully in the abstract. And of course, ego manifests itself in various ways – switching direction does not change character. Egoism can be manifest subtlety in being the center of attention as well . But going away from attributing a moral quality to directions… more and more I have come to believe that there is something about the argument that ad populum sometimes *does* facilitate (NOT create) a particular mindset. I was at the altar a couple of weeks ago where the presider launched into a series of banal mini-homilies at various points, completely disrupting the flow of the liturgy. Now, no liturgist would have approved or thought that such an action represented the high point of Vatican II liturgy. I would also not accuse the priest of having an ego. But I couldn’t help wondering: if we had been facing the apse, would such a thing have occurred? Would he have had the mindset that would have seen such an action as fitting? Would he have turned around anyway to address the people? I think posture looms larger in our psyche than we give it credit for.

  8. Pope Benedict XVI proposed a “hermeneutic of reform” in his 2005 Christmas address.

    “On the one hand, there is an interpretation that I would call “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture”; it has frequently availed itself of the sympathies of the mass media, and also one trend of modern theology. On the other, there is the “hermeneutic of reform”, of renewal in the continuity of the one subject-Church which the Lord has given to us. She is a subject which increases in time and develops, yet always remaining the same, the one subject of the journeying People of God.”

    “The hermeneutic of discontinuity is countered by the hermeneutic of reform, as it was presented first by Pope John XXIII in his Speech inaugurating the Council on 11 October 1962 and later by Pope Paul VI in his Discourse for the Council’s conclusion on 7 December 1965.”

    http://w2.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2005/december/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051222_roman-curia.html

  9. Nine times out of ten ad orientem actually isn’t. The celebrant isn’t facing east.
    Time to change the terminology to something that more clearly describes what is going on?

    1. @Alan Johnson:
      I don’t think this is an issue, Alan, it’s not a literal thing. “Ad orientem:” means priest and people all face the same direction, such as the apse. Call it ‘liturgical east.’
      awr

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        For discussions of this sort, wouldn’t a more neutral set of terms be “facing the apse” (Latin ad apsidem) and “facing the narthex” (ad vestibulum)?

        Terms such as “ad orientem” (or, far worse, “ad Deum”) presume an answer to the question.

        Alternatively, how about “facing the same direction” (versus eandem partem ferri) and “facing one another” (versus invicem)?

  10. I understand the concern that VII not be received as calling for an entirely new and reformed church. But I was already a young man when the council began in 1962. My memories of its effects are vivid after all these years. Prior to the council I knew the church as a place where Mass was said. It was headed by the pope but on a local basis by nuns, priests, and “the archbishop”. I was taught that if I didn’t belong to “the one true church” I risked going to hell. I was taught that Protestants, Jews, and “Mohammedans” were destined for the nether world either because they were heretics or infidels, but I could pray for their conversion. It was suggested that mortal sins lurked behind every tree, but were likely to be found wherever people were having impure thoughts, words, and deeds. The word mission meant something that the Maryknolls did overseas. No one ever spoke about participating in Mass or celebrating Mass but only that we had to go to Mass or commit mortal sin. Because mortal sins were lurking everywhere we had to go to confession before daring to go to communion. I was never taught that receiving communion was something I should aspire to do frequently. I can only guess that since you had to fast from midnight that whoever was receiving communion must have been doing so at the early Masses. At the later Masses I attended hardly anyone went. I don’t ever remember any priest saying that unless I willingly followed the corporal works of mercy I would end up with the goats in eternal hellfire. Go to Mass, go to confession, say your prayers, respect the priests and sisters, don’t commit adultery in any of its forms, don’t use the Lord’s name in vain or worship false Gods. Never heard much of anything about the beatitudes.
    Vatican II changed so much of the above it certainly felt like a new church. God’s mercy and love was stressed so much that I experienced it myself. I’m a priest today because of that. Everything about the Mass seemed different, but it never occurred to me that it was no longer a sacrifice.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily:

      Father Feehily,

      Like you I belong to the last generation that still remembers what the Church — and the liturgy — were like before 1962. And like you I have no desire to return to the Church of 1962, not because it was bad but because it embodied a clergy-centred model of ministry, worship and Church life in which I no longer believe. The world — and the Church — have moved on.

    2. @Fr. Jack Feehily:
      Fr. Jack..you articulate my experience so well! I clearly remember the first time I experienced the Mass with the priest facing the people and in English. At 14 yrs old, it was a formative event that has shaped my life since then. It would be so sad to see the Mass that I experienced then and still do today, returned to a something that not longer resonates with the kind of church WE have become.

  11. I agree with most of this piece, including the emphasis on Vatican II, but I’m sorry to say that I found the ending disappointing.

    Mass ad orientem should be judged on its own merits, not by second-guessing people’s motives for supporting it. That is an inappropriate, political way of looking at the liturgy. It also leads to the conclusion that ultra-conservatives have a veto over what happens in the Church. If they favour something, it’s off limits to the rest of us. That can’t be right.

  12. Excellent, excellent post Fr. Ruff.

    I’m sure to check this site as often as I can in search of gems like this. I especially appreciate that you don’t demonize the practice of, and those who prefer (not myself I may add), ad orientem worship.

  13. Thank you Fr Ruff.

    As for the perception of continuity, I don’t recall ever hearing from any serious scholar or minister “a view that says that we must presume that Vatican II threw out everything from the past.” That struck me as more of a caricature of the conciliar paradigm shift than anything else. Certainly, a good number of Catholics found pre-conciliar Catholicism to be distasteful or worse. I can forgive over-enthusiastic reforms, especially given these were mostly in place forty years ago.

    As for the dissenting voices from the conciliar vector, my sense is let them continue to have their say. We do not impoverish ourselves by welcoming and listening to viewpoints such as Dr Kwasniewski’s. If anything, we should indeed listen with care for the deepest impulse they communicate. Often it’s not a rejection of Vatican II, but personal things such as positive spiritual experiences or even negative reactions to injuries suffered. The former guide us to a better celebration of liturgy. The latter are an opportunity for accompaniment the Holy Father would likely laud.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      If you’re in the Mid Atlantic some Sunday, drop by my parish and I can introduce you to lots of people who regularly say things like, “we shouldn’t do that; it’s pre-Vatican II” about things like chant or Corpus Christi processions or any number of other things. Admittedly, most are not scholars (though some are former priests) and their numbers shrink with time, since those born after 1965 don’t tend to know what Vatican II was.

  14. Many here have mentioned how profound it was to experience the Mass for the first time with the priest facing the people, and how it was a formative event that has shaped their lives since then. Well, I am a young whipper snapper who grew up with the priest always facing the people. When I first experienced the Eucharist ad orientem it had a profound effect on me in much the same way your experience effected you. I understand and value your experience. I just can’t understand why some people can’t value mine. I experienced the Eucharist in a much more prayerful and contemplative manner. It was more focused as a prayer of praise offered to God. Believe me, I have no intentions of rejecting Vatican II. I went through that phase. I learned the unreformed rite and found it wanting. I love the noble simplicity of the reformed Roman Rite. But, particular changes of the reform can and should be discussed at this point based on their true merit or lack thereof. This continues the process of reform and renewal — to read the signs of the times and meet the spiritual needs of the new generations who’s early experiences of the Eucharist were shaped by the wild 80’s and early 90’s. And I’m not just talking about Aqua Net and MTV.

  15. Thank you, Fr. Anthony! THat is the most even handed and informed treatment of this topic that I have read!!!

  16. “It is said that ad orientem was the universal practice of the early Church. While it eventually came to be predominant, historical data is ambiguous. And the data from the very earliest centuries is too scant for any overly confident claims.”
    — I’m guessing then we have to apply the same criteria to the issue of female deacons.

  17. The problem I have with “let both options flourish” irenicism is that it does not take into account the practical consequences of having an either/or solution — for parishes.

    On one Sunday Father A faces the apse, on the next Sunday, Father B faces the people? In one church, the old altar attached to the wall is used for Mass at 10 and the freestanding altar is used for Mass at 12?

    What happens to people in the pews who really do have a very strong preference, if the new parish priest doesn’t share it? Go to another parish?

    I’ve seen the “two altar solution.” Its symbolism is weak and confused, and a testimony to failure of liturgy to unite us, rather than a monument to success-through-compromise. Something is lost by having two altars… are we so addicted to multiple options for every taste that we don’t any longer notice that a church is supposed to have *one* altar?

    The decision of the majority of bishops after Vatican II to turn the altars around had the value that at least we did it together, and exceptions were just that — exceptions. There was therefore a sameness guaranteed to worshipers, whether you went to St Faith’s or St Dismas’s, whether the priest was fond of one or fond of the other. The effect of harping on the permission to do either is not good for us, because it will act to erode that unity — a thing which is really quite important to the experience of churchgoers over the long haul, and fragile in our consumer age. The direction the priest faces becomes just another option: like musical choices or seasonal flowers. Is that really what we want?

    I would rather we all face the apse, than to have one liturgy facing this way and one facing that way, and each parish and each individual priest taking this as their decision, with the result that we are all over the map — and I say this as a firm believer in the value and beauty and theological superiority of priest and people surrounding the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer! It’s like the baby in Solomon’s court.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Of course, it’s not impossible to for a single altar to be used with both orientations. It’s not necessary that there be two separate ones. It’s just that altar placement would have to be done with the possibility in mind.

    2. @Rita Ferrone #31:

      …“let both options flourish” irenicism…

      Pope Francis, in the aftermath of Cardinal Sarah’s ill-conceived call for Ad Orientem, I think, made it quite clear that this is just not to be:

      Pope Francis on the occasion of his visit to the Congregation for Divine Worship, had specifically mentioned that the “ordinary” form of the celebration of Mass is that provided for by the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while the “extraordinary” form, which was allowed by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the manner he explained in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the “ordinary”.

      @ Steven Surrency #20:

      Ratzinger…tried…(but quickly gave up), he tried…(but his handlers advised against it)…

      Yeah, pretty much the story of Benedict’s papacy, if you ask me.

  18. There is an irony when a priest, striving to undo a perceived overemphasis on the presider, implements ad orientam orientation and other related reforms, only to gain notoriety as a traditionalist and create an adoring fan base of his own. Nothing calls more attention to the priest than introducing a practice that is found no where else in town.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      Ah, But isn’t that the way the liturgical movement got off the ground? And, isn’t that how communion in the hand spread, the use of altar girls, and offering the Eucharist facing the people? It starts ad experimentum here and there; and then it spreads like wild fire. It seems rather hypocritical to condemn the practice now for this Liturgical Movement. So, there is precedent in a grassroots movement; especially in today’s conciliar Church. Sometimes we just have to “make a mess” as Pope Francis said. Let the Spirit blow where it wills. Then we can let the people decided. I know that when I introduced it to my parish (2009-2010), the people really loved it. Absolutely no complaints to the diocese. The diocese didn’t even know I did it until I told them myself. The key was liturgical instruction and gradual change; and…wait for it…honesty. I showed them that both manners of celebrating Mass were valid options in the Roman Rite. I offered Mass everyday ad orientem. But, when there was a visiting priest I set up the altar for him to offer Mass facing the people. It was the hospitable thing to do. No confusion and no complaints. I had a rather positive experience.

      1. @Steve Hartley #43:

        I showed them that both manners of celebrating Mass were valid options in the Roman Rite.

        But they are not on an equal footing, are they?

        Or if you disagree, what is your understanding of what Pope Francis said on this very issue (see my post #34)? And how would you respond to the questions and concerns Rita raised (#31)?

  19. Steve Hartley : Many here have mentioned how profound it was to experience the Mass for the first time with the priest facing the people, and how it was a formative event that has shaped their lives since then. Well, I am a young whipper snapper who grew up with the priest always facing the people. When I first experienced the Eucharist ad orientem it had a profound effect on me in much the same way your experience effected you. I understand and value your experience. I just can’t understand why some people can’t value mine. I experienced the Eucharist in a much more prayerful and contemplative manner. It was more focused as a prayer of praise offered to God. Believe me, I have no intentions of rejecting Vatican II. I went through that phase. I learned the unreformed rite and found it wanting. I love the noble simplicity of the reformed Roman Rite. But, particular changes of the reform can and should be discussed at this point based on their true merit or lack thereof.

    I completely agree. Mercifully, I’m too young to remember the old Church that Fr. Jack Feehily so vividly described (I was ordained in 2008). I don’t associate ad orientem with hyper-clericalism, sexual repression or any of the other elements of the darker side of that era, and I’m sure that many if not most Catholics today are in the same position.

    There are good reasons not to celebrate ad orientem – there is powerful symbolism in the community gathering around the altar, most of the people aren’t asking for it, etc – but there are bad ones too. If anti-Vatican II people want to try to appropriate liturgical practices (whether it’s ad orientem, or Gregorian chant, or anything else) to serve their agenda, then let’s challenge that premise, not accept it.

  20. When the altar is in the center and the assemble is on all four sides, people can decide for themselves whether they prefer to face the priest or to sit in the part behind the priest and face the same way as him.

    That’s how it happens in my parish church (a cathedral), and on the Sundays when the church is not full, it appears that the chairs behind the priest are much more sparsely populated than the chairs facing the priest, so there is a large majority who prefer to face the priest; plus there are the people on the sides, and I don’t know how one would interpret that!

    I sit on the side because it’s where I have the best view of everything that happens during the liturgy, and where I feel I can see without being seen.

    How’s that for a compromise solution? Just rotate the altar and the priest 90 degrees!

  21. While I might appreciate the arguments for circumstantes, they fail when forced into a traditionally built church with the sanctuary at the end of a long nave. Here the impression is indeed of versus populum.

    There needs to be a respect for the architecture of the church. For Mass celebrated circumstantes the congregation needs to be surrounding the altar, not just on one side or even three sides. Additionally, the altar needs to be truly highlighted by a baldacchino. Think of the Michelangelo’s original plan for St. Peter’s.

    Both the traditional ad orientem and a true circumstantes have the priest and the congregation turned to a common focus. This does not happen with versus populum with the priest alone at one side of the altar and the congregation arrayed opposite him on the other side.

    I would also take issue with the idea that a desire for former liturgical practices are anti-Vatican II or that the council called for the radical reform of the liturgy. The fact that this was not expressly stated in the council and that the official promulgation of the reform in the present Roman Missal allows for these traditional practices puts that claim to the lie.

  22. “This does not happen with versus populum with the priest alone at one side of the altar and the congregation arrayed opposite him on the other side.”

    I don’t understand this. The altar is always a clear focus for all, regardless of how well it is constructed or reverenced.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      With versus populum in church built with a sanctuary at the end of a long nave the visual created is of the priest and congregation facing each other across the altar rather than they are gathered around the altar. This is highlighted when, as at times happens, the priest looks at the people and shows the bread and wine while he speaks the words of consecration. Trying to force an orientation of circumstantes in such a church is like forcing a round peg into a square whole. The architecture of the church just does not support it. This is particularly true when the altar is a simple table without any architectural features to draw attention to it.

      Michelangelo did it right. He placed the altar in the center of the church at the crossing of a Greek cross design, under a massive dome and with the altar elevated and covered with a grand baldacchino. In his original design the congregation would surround the altar on all sides. Here there is no question of where the focus is. How many churches where versus populum is used can say the same?

  23. Bruh, what if, like, the altar was on the CEILING and the priest lay on his back! Doesn’t God live up in the sky anyway?

  24. I enjoyed the article, and would only really disagree on two parts:

    I disagree that arguments from history are poor in regards to ad orientem. Like it or not, many Christians feel it is important to worship in a way that is authentically linked to that of the early Church, and practically everyone I’ve ever met who lived through the liturgical reform was told that versus populum was the authentic practice of the early Christians. The assumed antiquity of versus populum was a major aspect of its introduction and widespread acceptance, and one wonders if the change would have been as easily and as widely embraced if it had not been presented as such. Pastoral reasons and greater visibility/participation were also reasons given, but this was underscored by it being the older more authentic practice – that the early Christians did it this way because they were active participants in the liturgy. Granted, I didn’t live through that time, but this is how the change has been presented to me by practically everyone who lived through it that I have encountered.

    I also disagree that ad orientem should not be embraced at the present time because of its anti-Vatican II associations. If ONLY anti-Vatican II types are allowed to embrace and lay claim to ad orientem, then it will never be embraced outside of that circle. That attitude is very similar to that of the rad trads I have encountered, who find anything too evocative of the OF unacceptable or tainted even if it can be linked to pre-Vatican II liturgical movement practices (like vernacular readings and the congregation singing/saying their part). It needs to be reclaimed for all of its positive merits.

  25. Over the years I have taken part in Byzantine divine liturgies, in all of which the presider and the congregation face in the same direction. Why did it always seem right to me at those times? There is the overwhelming sense that I am indeed a full participant, with an external role much greater than the occasional Amen and an internal sense that the Spirit indeed refuses to be confined to the altar and fills the worship space. It does take a little recollection, but otherwise it just happens.

    We now celebrate the Roman liturgy, for the most part facing each other, in order to encourage our external role and internal awareness of the sacred mysteries. Most of the heavy lifting, however, still remains with the presider and the Spirit is, at least explicitly, limited to a brief appearance at the Epiclesis.

    The current issue of Pastoral Music is dedicated to developments in Africa toward a greater sense of common worship, which will have lessons for the rest of the western church whether we form circles or vectors when we gather for prayer.

    1. @Dr. Laura Marie Grimes:
      Is there strong evidence of this?

      I have heard that everyone would have been on the same side of a U-shaped table, but that would seem to support ad orientem, perhaps with the ideal imitation of it today being an ad orientem Mass celebrated in a fan-shaped church (with the people on three sides of the altar, and the priest standing with the middle section).

      Regardless, we don’t celebrate Mass in small house groups anymore, and the typical parish is too large to imitate a home Mass and get the same feeling from it.

  26. If folks, exposed to both orientation of worship and fluent in both, develop a preference for one form over the other, the Vatican has repeatedly said both orientations are licit, just as it has said the EF and the OF are both licit.

    What vexes me is the scare mongering on either side and the predisposing of several generations now of people to hate and fear a worship they have never seen, experienced, or studied. It’s one thing to say, in an even tempered way, “Both are licit, but we think worship versus populum works better theologically, so we roll thay way.” Many here do, to their credit, feel that way. Others seem either so scarred and bruised by the EF or so sentimentally attached to their 60s and 70s experiences that they lose a sense of objectivity about either form. We can see it in the choice of phrasing. “He has his back to the people” vs “They’re all facing the same way” comes to mind.

    Church in the round makes a lot of these problems go away, as has been noted, but I am constitutionally opposed to iconoclasm as a means of getting there. It tears at my soul to see an altar and reredo smashed to bits as it’s removed, and almost equally so to see a high altar unused, lonely, gathering dust from lack of use.

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      Scare mongering harms the cause of those who support the reform as much as it does those who do not, but the reform crowd often see themselves as occupying a sort of high ground. I can speak from my own experience, and from what I know of other younger people who are drawn to the EF and reform of the reform, and it is often coupled with a sense of betrayal and resentment – that you’ve been actively misled or lied to about it, that Vatican II really was somewhat malicious. My first EF was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time – overwhelming in that it was really wonderful, but underwhelming in the sense of “THIS is what everyone is always freaking out about?” I’d had people actually become visibly angry and raise their voice at me for just asking questions about the Latin Mass. It comes off as creepy after a while, especially when you hear the same stock phrases over and over again to the point you have to tell yourself that there couldn’t have been an active campaign to make people hate the previous practices as much as it seems like there was.

      1. @Jack Wayne:

        That was my experience, too, the first time I attended an EF Mass. It was in Nantes several years ago, and I was happy as a clam. Granted, I’m hardly typical, being a former Latin teacher who is fleunt in the Anglican Missal tradition and Ritual Notes. But formally, it was exactly what I’m used to doing, just in Latin instead of heiratic English. I didn’t and don’t see what the fuss is about. I certainly felt more at home at that parish than at Notre Dame du Paris, where people looked at me like I’d sprouted three heads for bowing as I passed the sanctuary.

  27. When ad orientum is used it should be using the usual freestanding altar, not the old high altar which has become the altar of reservation (housing the tabernacle). I find it extremely disrespectful when traditionalists ignore the freestanding altar or worse still push it aside like an un-needed credence table.

    We are meant to be gathered in unity around one altar and the symbolism of ignoring the “nouvous ordo” altar is an unmistakeable signifier of separatism.

    1. @Andrew rex:
      Sometimes the freestanding altar is positioned in a way that makes ad orientem difficult, so the old high altar is preferred for practical reasons. The one time I attended an EF where the freestanding altar was ignored was seemingly for that reason – the freestanding altar stood at the edge of the top step of the sanctuary, with little room for the servers between the altar and communion railing. The priest would have had to celebrate Mass on the stairs a full step down from the altar (making the altar look unusually tall). I’ve seen priests do this in churches in which there is no other altar, and the action more or less spills outside the sanctuary and the priest has to take care when genuflecting because he doesn’t have as much room to move around.

  28. When I was young (aw, come on, I’m thirtysomething), there was a Saturday morning live TV show where various participants displayed certain very basic science experiments. On one episode, a person used a ruler and marbles to demonstrate momentum (inertial motion). One marble would collide with a row of marbles, and one marble would roll off the other side. The aforementioned experiment is a very simple way to demonstrate laws of Newtonian physics.

    Some likewise view history strictly as linear momentum — there is advancement but no redoubling of history, no turning back. Here, an argument’s momentum converts the energy of the first marble, the desired contention, into a certain result without fail. Consider however that history might be non-inertial. History twists, turns, returns to certain points, and then bounds forward to others. A better model is that proposed by Thomas Kuhn. As I believe Rita Ferrone introduced to the PTB discourse, Kuhn advanced the idea of the paradigm shift — that history isn’t inertial but rather directed by periodic historical ruptures. Perhaps versus populum could be viewed as a necessary paradigm shift designed to direct the liturgy of the Church in a particular direction at this point of juncture in our time.

    Still, this is not the inertial response to posture that some would want. Change in liturgy is a question of historical models; some hold tenaciously to one model, and others hold tenaciously to another. Yet time will move its way with or without periodic arguments about posture. We may think that our contributions change the direction of history, but arguably we are mere collaborators and contributors.

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