by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion
Cardinal Robert Sarah, the highest-ranking Vatican official in charge of the Church’s liturgy, recently caused a stir when he invited priests everywhere to start celebrating Mass facing away (my words) from the people beginning this Advent.
“Facing away from the people” is the easiest way of explaining what is involved. More technical terms are ad orientem (facing the East) and ad deum (facing the Lord), which we need not go into here.
What was the Cardinal’s rationale? Well, for most of the Church’s history, Mass was celebrated with the priest facing away from the people. This was the norm up to the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Then with the Missal of Paul VI in 1970 (the Missal we now have), there was a shift to the practice of the priest celebrating Mass behind the altar and facing the people.
Many scholars have argued that, in the early Church, Mass was celebrated with the priest facing toward the people, and that this is legitimately the post-Vatican II norm. However, because something was the norm one way or another in the early Church does not automatically make it normative for our time.
The more fundamental rationale for the practice Cardinal Sarah commends is a theological one: that the priest’s role is not to celebrate Mass toward the people, making the people the center of the priest’s attention, but toward God, who is beyond the assembly, and symbolized by the large crucifix behind the altar.
Proponents of this practice also argue that the concern is not to celebrate Mass facing away from the people, or to have the priest celebrate Mass with his back to the people, but to create a situation in which priest and people pray together in the same direction.
What is the status of Cardinal Sarah’s recommendation? It is simply a personal opinion, as he was not speaking on behalf of Pope Francis. Indeed, Pope Francis, through his spokesman, made it clear that he does not want to see new liturgical initiatives at this time, including Mass facing away from the people.
What is the value of Mass facing away from the people? It would remove the priest from the position of clericalism, that is, of the priest overwhelming the liturgy. And it would, in fact, make the point that priest and people pray together in the same direction. It would furthermore make clear that God is ultimately above and beyond the assembly.
What is the value of Mass facing the people? It makes for better communication between priest and people. It avoids the sense that the people are an appendum to the priest’s liturgy. Not least, we live in an age of democracy and respect for the individual, in which facing away from someone or some group is generally insulting.
In the interests of self-disclosure, I have on occasion celebrated Mass facing away from the people, in all cases in Italy, where there are glorious high altars and puny post-Vatican II altars. I did this after a brief catechesis with a group of pilgrims. I asked the people afterwards how this “felt,” and many were fine with it.
But all in all, I think Mass facing the people should remain the norm. As Cardinal Ratzinger said some years ago, it would be unwise to change the post-Vatican II practice now. It would cause confusion and irritation.
So, I will not start celebrating Mass facing away from the people on the first Sunday of Advent.
Msgr. Mannion is pastor emeritus of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Salt Lake City. Reprinted by permission of Catholic News Agency.