Liturgical orientation and idolatry?

A video is cropping up on other blogs of Bishop Sample of Marquette preaching on the topic of the orientation of liturgical prayer.

I think he gives a pretty good summary of the rationale one typically hears for ad orientem, with all its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: it underscores that this ancient practice should not be seen in terms of the priest “turning his back” on the people, but of priest and people having a common orientation during worship. He also stresses the eschatological symbolism of this practice, which to my mind is the strongest argument in its favor.

Weaknesses: it mis-diagnoses, I think, what it is that people like about versus populum orientation. It is not the desire to see the priest’s face, but to see his actions and, in particular, to see the consecrated species. As a part of this misdiagnosis, it makes what I consider one of the worst arguments for ad orientem worship. I am deeply troubled by the idea that our common orientation should be toward the crucifix (even though I know that Joseph Ratzinger has endorsed it), which is simply a humanly fashioned symbol. Shouldn’t our common orientation be toward Christ really present in the Eucharist? Here we have not simply a symbol, like the crucifix, but an efficacious sign — not an object we have made, but a person who has made himself present to us.

If I were to put this polemically, which of course I would never do, I would say that identifying the crucifix rather than the Eucharist as the point of orientation skirts the edge of idolatry. This point seems so obvious to me that I wonder what is going on with those who continue to put forward the idea of common orientation toward the crucifix. Could this be a case of a poor idea gaining momentum simply because it has been suggested by an authoritative source (i.e. Pope Benedict).

Of course, if one drops the crucifix argument, it becomes apparent that whether the priest is on the same side of the altar as the people or on the opposite side, the entire assembly is “oriented” toward Christ present in the Eucharist. One is then left to make the argument on other grounds. I think there are arguments to commend either practice, and I see no need to denigrate those who prefer the versus populum orientation as self-enclosed narcissists, as Bishop Sample seems to imply.


  1. I think you might be isolating the time that the consecrated elements are on the altar which is a very brief time for prayer when you consider the “ad orientem” is toward the crucifix for most of the EF Mass beginning with the prayers at the foot of the altar. Now one might argue that the priest at other times is facing the tabernacle with the people, but actually the tabernacle should be veiled during Mass and with the large altar card hiding it and we all know that the centrality of the tabernacle is a later accretion. I’m puzzled too why the people would need to see the consecrated elements after the consecration as the priest is praying the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer, should the elevation of the host and chalice at their consecration be enough? Doesn’t the EF Mass really understate the need to view both the priest’s face and the elements on the altar after consecration? Isn’t that the true genius of the Roman Rite to understate the person of the priest (veiling him with vestments and turning him toward the altar) and the veiling of Christ under the Eucharistic elements? Aren’t all sacraments “veiled” signs of the Real Presence of Christ?

    1. Perhaps a compromise might the the suggestion of Aiden Kavanagh that the prayers (though not the readings) in the liturgy of the Word should be ad orientem and then the priest should adopt the versus populum position for the Eucharistic prayer.

  2. What nonsense! So the large altar card now has ritual and symbolic value and isn’t just for the short-sighted priests who prefer the Tridentine missal? That’s the whole thing about the Tridentine fad – everything has a symoblic value and nothing is merely functional.
    You might enlighten us and use up some of that time which, as Chris Grady pointed out, could be used in visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and comforting the dying, by devising the symbolic significance of the tap in the sacristy, the celebrant’s shoes and the door handle.

  3. When reading and hearing arguments about the priest’s ‘orientation’ I do understand the ‘face the Lord’ justification, but if one says that the altar is the ‘place where we meet the Christ’ and it specially represents his place amongst us — then whichever side of the altar the priest and/or the assembled congregation stand is irrelevant — for from which ever side one faces the altar it is the same place. The emphasis on ‘regarding the crucifix’ sounds to me more like a ‘pious remark’ (even if made in writing by the Holy Father Benedict XVI). The center of focus is the ‘altar table’ according to the rite for the consecration of the altar. Another, antic thought, though perhaps related, is that if one watches carefully the carrying out of the rubrics by the priest and the ministers, the ‘meal style’ becomes quite obvious — the table is set with the corporal and the offertory prayers, the ‘thanksgiving/grace before meals’ is said (of course it is special and sacrificial, but still that is what it is), then the food and drink are divided up and distributed — eaten and drunk by the ‘assembled guests/members by Initiation into God’s own family. The notion of ‘meal/sacrifice’ or ‘sacrificial meal’ becomes perhaps too obvious for some — though if one applies the same analysis to the Extraordinary Form — the same pattern of action (meal/sacrifice) is there, despite some of the elaborations of ceremony and ritual ‘details’.

    1. The emphasis on ‘regarding the crucifix’ sounds to me more like a ‘pious remark’ (even if made in writing by the Holy Father Benedict XVI).

      Folks should go look up what he actually said before criticizing it.

      His remarks about the cross as a focal point are in the context of versus populum celebration, not celebration ad orientem.

      1. Samuel,

        Believe it or not, I’ve actually read what Joseph Ratzinger has written on this topic (and a number of others). In this case, suggesting the crucifix as a common point of orientation in a versus populum celebration is even more silly than in the context of an ad orientem celebration, since it actually blocks the assembly’s view of the Eucharist. It is a suggestion that combines the worst features of both orientations. Out of deference to our Holy Father I was too polite to mention it in my original post. But since you brought it up. . .

  4. No crucifix, ad populum ONLY.
    All the major basilicas, including St. Peters were ad populum in Rome during the first 5-7 centuries.
    Our focus should be Christ on the altar to see.
    Furthermore, in the East ad orientem is used because the trend is that the priest represents the people and meets Christ at the altar. In our West, Christ comes to the people, ie the priest in persona Christi comes to us. Unless you want ad orientem the He walks backwards toward us!
    No man made object on the altar can be our focal point, only Christ on the altar is our focal point unless one is weak in the belief of the real presence and needs a crucifix to get them through.
    Finally, Vatican II promulgates ‘full and active participation” which, in my humble opinion, drives a stake through the ad orientem position.

  5. It is not the desire to see the priest’s face, but to see his actions and, in particular, to see the consecrated species.

    I agree with you; I do not know anyone who prefers the versus populum posture because he or she wishes to see the priest’s face. And there are several actions of the priest that cannot be seen when he is on the same side of the altar as the other liturgical participants, e.g. the gestures made at the epiclesis and the handling of the sacred vessels during the consecration. But the consecrated species (or the vessels holding them) are made visible at the “elevation” and potentially at the doxology as well.

    1. The ‘dramatic elevations’ of the host and the chalice in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer were introduced in response to the arguments over ‘Real Presence’ and when ‘it’ happened. Little matter that the ‘elevation of the chalice’ only appeared about 100 years after the ‘elevation of the host’ (one could make all sorts of deductions about this delay concerning the understanding of Eucharist in regard to the species of wine, and among other things — communion under both kinds). The ‘elevations’ in any case in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer were introduced and made sense only when the priest was not facing the people — in order to allow the people to ‘see the Real Presence’. The ”real elevation” in the earlier practice (before 12 th cent) was what we are supposed to have returned to with the rubric in the Mass of Paul VI the ‘elevation of the paten and the chalice during the doxology’ at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer.

      1. Why, Fr. Allan? Again, it is the prayer of the people led by a presider. So, does the presider genuflect in the name of the people? Why?

        Or, is this seen as again a difference between the ordained and the laity?

        Why can’t a solemn bow be used?

        Genuflection – given various cultures, liturgical/presider gestures need to studied and become culturally sensitive.

  6. It is interest that you bring up being able to see what the priest is doing when he is praying. As a child I was very grateful for the turning of the altar (or the priest) toward the congregation, precisely to be able to see what the heck he was doing. You may recall that the 1965 missal was the Tridentine Mass but facing the people, so all the extra things the priest did was made visible (the crucifix was still mandated to be in the center of the altar for the priest to see, but a small one, but the 1970 missal removed all the extra things that we couldn’t see the priest doing when he faced away, so the reason for him to face the people seem to be removed by the 1970 reform. But in terms of facing the altar with the congregation, another compromise would be to have the priest face toward the altar if his chair is to its side (If behind that problem is solved). The priest could also face ad orientem for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, but change sides for the Our Father, lamb of God and Ecce Agnus Dei (although in the EF Mass, the priest does face the congregation the the Ecce…) At any rate I celebrate the OF Mass as most do, but recognize it does place way to much emphasis on the priest whereas when I celebrate the EF Mass that phenomenon is absent. The priest is obscured. I think that a bit more psychologically healthy and avoids to a certain extent the cult of the personality.

    1. Fr. McDonald states: “As a child I was very grateful for the turning of the altar (or the priest) toward the congregation, precisely to be able to see what the heck he was doing.”


      I also remember that very first moment! And what a moment that was. I remember four men dressed in suits who were “allowed” in the sanctuary to carry a folding altar up to the Tridentine altar, unfold it and place in only a few feet from the old altar, the priest could hardly fit in between. After Mass the altar was folded by them and brought back down and stored in the sanctuary. I was an altar boy trained to serve in the Tridentine Mass, the “hybrid Mass” then finally the 1970 Mass. The ad populum orientation opened up a whole new world for me, to actually see Christ on the altar, what awe and inspiration! I finally knew what it was all about and understood what Mass meant. The barriers were gone and I felt part of it rather than an observer.
      I never want to go back to orientem.

    2. I take great exception to the assertion that the person of the priest is downplayed in the EF. All eyes are on him throughout the mass. He’s doing all the moving around, doing everything that needs to be done. The fact that he’s speaking a foreign language in a hushed whisper also calls attention to himself. If he’s wearing a fiddleback and a maniple he stands out all the more.

      1. All eyes are on him throughout the mass.

        Like when the Deacon is chanting the Gospel in a separate part of the Church? Nope, not then.

        Not when the thurifer comes out to incense the congregation and he bows to them and the congregation bows back. Not then.

        When the priest sits and the choir continues singing during a long Kyrie, Gloria, Gradual, Tract, Alleluia or Creed? The focus then is on the singing.

        Not when the Deacon sings the “Ite” or when the subdeacon chants the Epistle. When the Deacon recites or chants the Confiteor before communion?

        Not when the ministers move at e.g. the Agnus Dei or the Pater Noster and the eye is drawn to the movement, rather than to the stationary priest.

        If he’s wearing a fiddleback and a maniple he stands out all the more.

        Actually, if he’s not wearing a fiddleback, that’s probably more likely to reflect his individual taste than if he is. And if he’s not wearing a maniple, that’s definitely a case of individual will being reflected over the requirements of the rite.

        But really, you’re just missing the point, which is that even when the priest is the focus, the person and personality of the priest are downplayed, because he does not speak in his ordinary language, or his ordinary manner of speaking. Because his clothes are not the clothes he would choose, but the clothes the Church chooses for him and because his actions are tightly controlled by the liturgy.

  7. Dr. Rodriguez, you leave out that while the Basilicas of Rome are occidented, the congregation did turn to the East during the prayers, including the Canon. By the way, full and active participation can still occur during ad orientem liturgies, so I don’t see how that “drives a stake” through the position.

    1. Gerry,

      this was a speculation by Louis Bouyer for which there is very little evidence (that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t the case; just that there is little evidence). It has been oft-repeated but, to my knowledge, still remains speculation.

  8. The issue of the first Roman basilicas is an interesting one. While many were situated with the apse toward the West, there are many signs and theories that the people would actually turn to the East so the people had there back to the altar during the Eucharistic prayer. This may be where the “bark of Peter” imagery appeared, because such a setup is akin to a captain (the priest) at the helm of his ship (which is “in the back”). Today, we think this is crazy, but in a climate where mystery religions highly influenced everyone, the possibilities, with the huge patristic emphasis on the East, tend to lie in favor of the people taking the “Conversum ad Dominum” literally.

    As for the Eastern emphasis on the priest going out to meet the Christ while in the West it is Christ who comes out to meet the people – I have never heard such a dichotomy before. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the Western liturgy’s focus is upon the priest representing the people and going up to meet Christ, while the Eastern emphasis on processions during the liturgy tend to better emphasize Christ coming out to to meet us.

    Now, I’m quite curious for someone to explain how “watching what the priest is doing” contributes to “full and active participation.” Perhaps this is an exception, but are we saying that blindness (or even being in the very back of a large cathedral) will make it more difficult for a person to “fully and actively participate” in the Mass, will frustrate their prayer and self-offering? I tend towards no, and thus see no reason this is important. Sacrosanctum Concilium made no comment on “seeing what the priest is doing” as being laudable – that only came about in the GIRM, a document bearing no odor conciliar power or infallibility (though it does hold the weight of magisterial authority).

    And a focus upon a crucifix as idolatrous? Someone needs to read Spirit of the Liturgy on Sacred Art again…

    1. I suspect the “barque of Peter” might have something to do with him being a fisherman, no? And, as I said above, the idea of people turning away from the altar during the Eucharistic prayer is simply speculation.

      I’m quite curious for someone to explain how “watching what the priest is doing” contributes to “full and active participation.”

      Would you say the same thing about listening to the words spoken by the priest? And if not, why prioritize the auditory over the visual?

      Focus on the crucifix is only idolatrous when it displaces focus on the Eucharist.

    2. Oh give me a break Tomas and enough w/ the strawman arguments.
      You state: “Now, I’m quite curious for someone to explain how “watching what the priest is doing” contributes to “full and active participation.”
      Show me where anybody said that!
      Looking at Christ on the altar is NOT looking at the priest.
      Furthermore, full and active participation is being aware of and seeing Christ on the altar and involved w/ the priest with responses.
      I much prefer the privilege to face the real living body and blood of Christ on the altar than submitting to face the east in some speculation with origins in paganism that God might be there somewhere eastwardly.
      No thank you, I will face my living and true God, Christ, on the altar, thank you.

    3. It is worth while to notice the difference the Romanesque ’roundness’ and its closeness of the sacred/Divine Presence to the people on the ground, versus the Gothic ‘pointed arches/spikyness’ and its tendency to encourage abstraction in theological thought and ‘distancing/space putting’ between sacred things and the people present and worshipping. The ‘Mass as a drama — the acting out of Jesus’ Passion, is a Gothic time invention/understanding. Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches have generally kept the ‘Romanesque roundness’ feeling and effect and affect.

  9. I once thought Mass ad versus populum was sort of kewl and a wonderful European import. Pity many a priest in the 50s and just before the Council who was called in on the bishop’s carpet for committing the sin of being tempted towards “modernism”. I knew clergy who were.

    Over the years, I’ve come to believe the priest facing us is very much a distraction. As are the movement of his hands. Whether this was his intention to distract or not. The celebrant seems to fade more into the background when he has his back to us.

    The concern about the placement of the crucifix, to my way of thinking, is a tempest in a teapot. With a processional cross you can put the crucifix just about anywhere.

    I’ve seen the preface sung facing the eastern wall, only to have the celebrant then move to the other side of the altar for the rest of Mass. A few Anglican and Lutheran churches seem to do this, but it strikes me as far too much moving about. This too becomes a distraction of sorts.

    Question: I think there’s a rubric calling for the bishop to turn towards the altar when saying the collect from his throne on the gospel side of the altar, but in the days when the bishop’s throne was in the apse facing the people (assuming he is facing west unlike St. Peter’s basilica and other Roman basilicas), do we have evidence he faced the people directly to say the collect, or did he turn around at his chair, with his back to the congregation to say/sing the collect?

  10. I’m probably just going to complicate things further with this, but….

    I have difficulties with having either the consecrated elements or a crucifix being the focus of our “orientation” during the liturgy because I think it disrupts the Trinitarian dynamics of liturgical prayer which is primarily To the Father, Through the Son, In the Holy Spirit. With a couple of notable exceptions like the Kyrie, the prayers of the liturgy are addressed to the Father. Our orientation should be toward the person to whom we are speaking. Since the liturgy is the priestly action of the Mystical Body of Christ, addressing the crucifix or the consecrated elements can convey the impression that Christ is addressing himself.

    I realize the practical problems in representing in liturgical action an orientation “toward the Father.” There is certainly something about having the priest and people face the same direction that can be a powerful symbol, but only if it is not used to reinforce clerical “separateness” and privilege. That, and not the actual physical orientation of the celebrant, was the real problem with ad orientem as it was used prior to Vatican II.

    1. Peter, I would disagree that clerical separateness and privilege were the “real problem” to which this change responded. It really is visual engagement with the action. Even when one is in a small assembly, comparatively close to the priest celebrant (as in some side chapels in European cathedrals), it is just impossible to see what he is doing unless he faces the assembly.

      I recently rediscovered my first communion missal. What did the pictures strive to show the children? What was happening on the altar. We had to see it in a book because we could never see it in person back then.

      1. Thanks for that comment, Rita. I know it would be frowned upon by some but for First Communion here we bring the children up around the altar and they can all see very clearly what is going on. I know there are pro’s and con’s but I like that they can see so well and think that imprint will stay with them for life.

        When we have baptisms we also invite the children to come forward so they can see the baby being baptized. It takes an extra minute or so, but it seems to be well worth it.

  11. Rita, well perhaps we can agree that there were a number of good reasons for the change!

    But my point was not so much that a desire to reduce a sense of clerical privilege and separateness was the original reason for the change ( I agree, this was not a major factor), but rather that it is of the things that is problematic in attempts to restore ad orientem, whatever its other theological warrants.

    Having said that, I also want to suggest that–outside the institution narrative–being able to see what is “happening” on the altar is somewhat overrated. The priest has his arms spread in the orans position for almost the entire Eucharistic prayer. Many celebrants (but not all) make a gesture of blessing over the elements during the epiclesis. But that’s pretty much it until the Institution Narrative. At that point, the principal “action” is the elevation of the paten and the chalice. Then we’re back to the orans position until the concluding doxology.

    In terms of congregational engagement with the liturgical action, I would maintain that the elimination of the silent recitation of the canon (and its translation into the vernacular) was far more significant. I can handle an EF mass okay until I get to that point and then I feel totally at sea. No wonder they had to ring bells…:-)

  12. What I have always liked about Orthodox churches is that you are facing the Iconostasis, i.e. the Kingdom arrayed before you rather than the priest, or the cross, or a tabernacle.

    In fact if the Orthodox church is well developed, the icons surround you. Our local Orthodox is slowly “writing” icons around its walls. So in effect the Kingdom is surrounding us.

    If the Orthodox church does not have pews, which I have only seen in pictures, the celebrants for much of the liturgy and divine office are in the midst of the people in the nave. So one would have an even stronger experience of community. That typically does not happen in an Orthodox church with pews even thought the priest may walk a fair distance back in the pews for his parts. In these churches one still gets the feeling of being in a lecture hall.

    I guess I have developed a strong dislike for the lecture box or auditorium church whether the priest faces toward or away from the people. I think all churches ought to be round or square with the altar in the center of things. I don’t care what direction is East. But you can put icons on the wall wherever you want. If you want to mark the East with one of them, fine.

    I don’t think facing East during prayer really means much, although I happen to face East most of the time when I pray at home, just happens that way. Except when I go out to pray on my porch when I face North, or when I go down to the lake to pray when I face West. Remember in the early Church this was how people prayed even when they were at home or in private. In this global era, it just does not mean much.

  13. Would also suggest that it is a both/and discussion. Sacramental theology would see the eucharist as both meal and sacrifice.

    As some mentioned, noted liturgists suggested ways to incorporate both the Eastern/Western orientations into the total liturgy but settled upon the community meal that remembers the sacrifice, dying, and rising.

    So, you not only have the Trinitarian aspect but also the eucharist remembers the complete Paschal mystery – not just focused on the crucifix.

    Since the early 20th century, the development of symbol understanding; the church as the primary sacrament of Jesus Christ and within this the various sacraments. Rahner, et alii started with human experience and the community – thus, the eucharist is communal- it celebrates each member; nourishes each member……this works best where we can see, hear, and interact as a community. Over focusing on the crucifix limits the communal actions.

  14. Facing together, liturgical east, is an orientation toward the Father.

    Facing together toward each other or even together toward the consecrated elements misses the point of the Mass. It is through the Sacrifice of Christ that we are brought to the Father.

    This orientation is an orientation that is turned toward the Father, with Christ standing as our head (in the person of the priest), bringing us all as an offering to the Father.

    The crucifix is the perfect image of Christ, but also the perfect image of the Father, pouring Himself out in love for us. Just as the orientation of all Jesus’ life and ministry was toward the Father and to bring us to the Father, so we unite with Him toward the Father. The cross isn’t an idol, but points us toward the truth of the Trinitarian love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    The Great Doxology puts this well: it is through Christ, with Christ and in Christ that all glory is given to the Father. The common directional orientation toward the liturgical east makes such an interior orientation real. We are not simply oriented toward Christ. We are oriented toward the Father, through the Son.

    What the eastward orientation makes clear is our Trinitarian orientation toward the Father.

    As a side note: such a common orientation is quasi-universal, as both Jews and Muslims show us. Read 1 Kings 8 with regard to orientation toward the Temple and then reference the orientation of Muslims toward Mecca.

    1. So the Father is east?
      He’s not west? How about north and south?

      It amazes me that there seems to be no need to explain why the Father is faced in one of the cardinal directions but not the other three.

      Although actually “liturgical east” is wherever the priest is facing. In churches built on a north-south axis that can be north or south. Is this not the case? Fritz, can you speak to this, perhaps?

      Thus the argument has become circular, it seems to me. The priest faces one way because God is there; but God is there because the priest faces there.

      1. I agree Rita. I support ad populum 100%.

        It is my understanding that there was an influx of pagans into the Church after the Edict of Milan on 30 Apr 311AD.
        At this time, Apollo, the god of light, truth,sun and because he was the sun god he rose in the East. He also was the son of the “father of gods”, Zeus.
        This whole system was incorporated into Christianity, similar to Saturnalia celebrations on December 25 were incorporated as Christmas.

        So with the influx of Pagans…….
        Jesus the Christ, Light and Truth replaced Apollo god of light and truth.
        Jesus the Christ, Son of the God most high replaced Apollo, sun god and son of the father of gods Zeus.
        Jesus Christ replaced Apollo worship on “Sun”day and Eucharist was celebrated on Sunday (of course also the day of resurrection).
        Jesus the Christ, who rose from the dead, replaced Apollo who “rose” in the East and Eucharist celebrated facing East toward the rising of Apollo now displaced by Jesus Christ.

        Ad orientem has is basis in paganism. And some will use the excuse that it is acceptable because scripture states that Jesus will come from the East on the last day. But ad orientem if facing toward the Father, not Jesus.

        Someone said to read I Kings 8. I did and couldn’t find anything about facing East as the commenter implied but rather I found something just the opposite:
        I Kings 8:27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

        So….. God the Father is everywhere in the temple, no need to face East in my opinion!

      2. Sorry, Dale, but facing East for prayer easily pre-dates Constantine. Take, for example, St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 195) “Corresponding to the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise, in the East.” In fact one of the Fathers – I think it is Tertullian from memory – discusses the case of those imprisoned by the persecutors in a dark dungeon. Some people have asked him whether they are permitted to pray – because without any light they do not know which way is East! Tertullian takes a common-sense approach: it is obvious, he says, to any Christian that one ought to face East for prayer if possible, but if one does not know which way is East then of course one should still pray, and God can certainly hear such prayers.

        It shows, however, how strong that custom was in the early Church. That – and not some imitation of the imperial cult – is the reason for priest and people facing East at Mass.

        The papal basilicas are not an exception. If the great scholar Jungmann is to be believed, at any rate, in the Eucharistic Prayer pope and people together faced East. This necessitated a large part of the congregation turning their backs, more or less, to the pope and altar for the Eucharistic Prayer, an inconvenience which let to the re-positioning of the altar from the West to the Eastern ends of later churches and basilicas. It seems that facing the altar was, in the Roman basilicas, an early medieval innovation, I’m afraid.

      3. Dale says, “Ad orientem has is basis in paganism.” Well, you may think so, but Tertullian (late 2nd century) (who was rather closer to events than we are) thought the opposite. “Others…believe that the sun is our god. The idea no doubt has originated from our being known to turn to the East in prayer.”

      4. Two last thoughts from me on this – then I promise to be quiet! Here is an interesting paragraph from the great J.A Jungmann, “The Early Liturgy to the Time of Gregory the Great” about the renunciation of Satan in the Baptism Rite:

        “After the baptizand had faced westward and pronounced his renunciation of Satan, he was instructed to expectorate [i.e., to spit] forcibly before turning eastward towards Christ; in other words, he was to spit on Satan. This was simply a robust symbol of hostility, a token of the irreconcilable enmity which from then on must exist between himself and the powers of evil. ”

        This was already in vogue in the time of Hippolytus, he suggests.

        A few years ago I visited the excavations beneath St Peter’s. There you can see many marble sarcophaguses, originally pagen, re-used to hurridly bury Christians as the basilica was being built. (This is now in Constantine’s time.) Christian symbols (and the name of the deceased and sometimesa brief prayer for them) were crudely carved on the marble. I expected to see the famous “fish”, or the Chi-Rho, but these were rare. The most common symbols I saw were the palm-branch (for victory) and the Sun. OK, so Constantine had worshipped Sol Invictus, so it might have been sucking up to him, too, but I began to realise how important the rising sun was to the early Christians as a sign of resurrection.

      5. Hello Martin.
        Sorry, I don’t agree. The “official” incorporation of orientem began after the edict of Milan and became much more accepted. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t practiced by some Christians prior to the edict of Milan. The cult of Apollo was already almost 500+ years old so yes orientem predates Constantine but the very fact that pagans, when converted, did bring aspects of their previous beliefs into Christianity. It bolsters the comment that I made about Apollo who was the sun god who rose in the East and pagans directed their prayers toward him in the East. He was worshiped on “Sun”day.
        Your quotation on Clement is interesting: “Corresponding to the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise, in the East.” The manner of the sun’s rising and praying toward the sunrise corresponds to this pagan practice. Of course, Christians accommodated the practice but put a Christian spin on it stating that it symbolized Christ’s resurrection. In the same way Christians accommodated Saturnalia but “Christianized” it by changing it to the date that we celebrate Christ’s birthday. I don’t support facing East to pray anymore than supporting the notion that Satan rules the West as in your example (now the Eastern Orthodox might think that about us in the West!)

        Are there any directives in the New Testament that we are to pray toward East? There are none. Furthermore, wasn’t Clement a convert from paganism?
        As far as the Roman basilicas and turning around to face east during liturgy, I think Fritz put that issue to rest at one of the first comments.
        I fail to see how Tertullian’s comment matters because I think we all agree there is a big difference between worshiping a “sun god” vs facing Eastward to pray even though it is a holdover from paganism.
        Again, to my knowledge, there are no references in scripture directing us to face East in prayer. None.


      6. Dale, what do you mean by the ‘“official” incorporation of orientem’? That’s a strange phrase.Are you thinking of some decree or other? You seem to be a captive of the 19th-century ‘myth and ritual’ school of thinking – long discredited, though fancied by the like of Dan Brown!

      7. Thanks for the ad hominem attack there father Martin.
        But I will not reciprocate, you know, turn the other cheek.

        No I do not indulge in myths.
        No, there were no decrees. But like other traditions with a little “t” eventually they become incorporated and are official. Similar to the use of latin in Mass. Originally it was Greek then became latin because it was the vernacular of the time. Eventually it became the “official” decreed language of the Mass even though it was no longer the vernacular language.
        You might want to read what Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn has written on this as well as well as Edward Foley’s “From Age to Age”.

    2. When priest and people face each other, all are facing Christ who is truly present in our midst from start to finish. Period.

      1. When priest and people face the same direction, all are still facing Christ who is truly present in our midst from start to finish. Period.

  15. The ‘elevations’ in any case in the midst of the Eucharistic Prayer were introduced and made sense only when the priest was not facing the people — in order to allow the people to ’see the Real Presence’.

    Not in my parish Church. If the rite is carried out correctly (i.e. the host is not waved in the air at the consecration itself), you pretty much won’t be able to see the host unless it’s elevated at some point.

  16. Good points, Deacon Fritz. I agree that the placement of the crucifix of the Mass could, but does not necessarily, denote idolatry. Any liturgy can fall into idolatry if not carefully guided towards orthodox worship. I’m reminded of a Catholic Charismatic Mass I attended where a layperson read the Epistle and then said “Okay everybody, let’s talk in tongues!” Although the Pauline corpus does not go into great detail about the process of tongues, I doubt that the charism could be invoked at will.

    From what I’ve gathered from reading Cdl. Ratzinger/Pope Benedict’s writing on liturgical orientation, the use of a crucifix during a versus populum celebrated Mass is not meant to obscure the manual actions of the priest or obscure the meaning of the eucharistic prayer. Rather, the central position of the crucifix is there to remind us that the Mass is a sacrifice and that the altar is the locus of the sacrificial action. Some priest who celebrate versus populum do have the ability to make known that sacrifice is at the heart of the eucharistic prayer. I have found that the “Benedictine arrangement” removes the performative burden from priests, and instead substitutes a symbol that can, but does not always, explain the eucharistic meaning better than gestures.

    As for celebration ad orientem, I find the question of the crucifix quite moot. In my view, the best argument for ad orientem involves its use of space to communicate meaning. The greetings, readings, and eucharistic rite are punctuated by turns and gestures both to the altar and people. This is “flattened” somewhat by a priest collapsing the performative aspect of these gestures during versus populum celebration. Versus populum orients all performance gestures towards the people. The “turns” of ad orientem celebration more clearly communicate the role of the celebrant and the role of the congregation in the Mass.

  17. Perhaps an element of Anglican Patrimony could offer a compromise for those fretting about liturgical positions. I would suggest consideration of the Classical Anglican use of the North End. The sacred elements may be clearly seen while the celebrant – I just hate that word presider which reminds me of politics – is understated. I must admit that my Irish ceremonial states that this position may be awkward but that it was of venerable use in the C of I.

  18. I’m surprised that the Jewish roots of ad orientem have not been mentioned. Jews face together toward the Temple in Jerusalem when they pray. It makes since that the first Christians faced together toward the true Temple “not made by human hands” that is the temple in the heavenly Jerusalem. Where is this temple you might ask. Well, Jesus ascended into heaven, to minister in this temple, from the Mount of Olives east of Jerusalem. Into the eastern sky he went and from there he will return; after “the sign of the Son of Man” appears in the sky. He will come back as “lightning flashes in the east and goes to the west” so shall his coming be. Jewish Christians would have naturally turned to the east to offer their prayers toward the true temple. This is not a pagan practice – it is totally Judeo-Christian. It is so ancient, wide spread, and taken for granted, that it cannot be but from apostolic origins. Where geographical orientation is impossible – one can orient oneself toward “the sign of the Son of Man” (the cross) which can symbolize the east.

    1. Err,not quite.
      It’s facing Jerusalem that is important and not specifically “East”.

      Jews face Jerusalem, or at least the Ark w/ the torah are on the wall facing Jerusalem with the bimah in the center in many if not most synagogues.

      Furthermore, from synagogue architecture forum:

      “The synagogue, or if it is a multi-purpose building, prayer sanctuaries within the synagogue, should face towards Jerusalem. Thus sanctuaries in the Western world generally face east, while those east of Israel face west. Sanctuaries in Israel face towards Jerusalem. But this orientation need not be exact, and occasionally synagogues face other directions for structural reasons, in which case the community may face Jerusalem when standing for prayers.

      1. “Err,not quite.
        It’s facing Jerusalem that is important and not specifically “East”.”

        That’s right, Jews who are of the Diaspora face Jerusalem precisely because the Temple is in Jerusalem. So, wherever they are on the globe, they would orient themselves properly no matter what cardinal direction. But, for Christians, the earthly temple and its sacrificial system is no longer important. What is important is “the True Temple,” whose minister is Christ our High Priest. This is the temple from which he will come from the east “as lightening flashes in the east and goes to the west, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be.” So, to be clear, Christians face east; whereas the Jews still face the abandoned temple in Jerusalem.

        This is my theory anyway.

      2. I respect your theory Fr but ad orientem suggests facing East toward the Father (of course He is in the temple)
        but I think it’s a big stretch (not criticizing here) to say facing East is facing the temple in heaven!

        And speaking about Judaism, my Jewish friends believe God is everywhere, He is too big to not be everywhere.

        I Kings 8:27 “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!

      3. “but I think it’s a big stretch (not criticizing here) to say facing East is facing the temple in heaven!”

        I don’t think it’s a big stretch at all. Sure God is everywhere, whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, but a good Jew knew that he had chosen the Temple in Jerusalem as his dwelling place. So, “Lift up your hands to the Holy Place and bless the Lord,” and we know that this was but, “a shadow of the good things to come,” and that, “the substance belongs to Christ,” who “entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behlaf:” And so wouldn’t Solomon’s inspired words find greater fulfillment in facing this true temple? “‘My name shall be there,’ that you may listen to the prayer which your servant offers toward this place. And hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel, when they pray toward this place; yes, hear in heaven your dwelling place; and when you hear, forgive” (1Kings 8:29-30).

  19. The focus is primarily on the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist. Directions are meaningless in comparison to these tables. When the Word is given life in its Proclamation and when bread and wine become the Body and Blood of our Risen Lord, these are so exalted that directions are, for all purposes, meaningless. These realities transcend all symbols. To focus on the crucifix when we should be focusing on the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament is not skirting idolatry, it is a form of idolatry!

    1. “The focus is primarily on the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist. Directions are meaningless in comparison to these tables.”

      the focus of the Eucharistic prayer is upward toward God, whom the priest is addressing on our behalf. The Eucharistic elements, upon the altar, are the fruit of this prayer. But, the prayer itself is addressed to the Lord. As that wonderful hymn acclaims “People look east.”

      1. “Directions are meaningless.”

        Unless those directions are “you must not kneel to receive Communion. You must stand when you get back to your pew.” And so forth.

      2. Jeffrey, I think he meant the cardinal directions, not directive rubrics or instructions.

  20. I want to endorse the points made by J. Peter Nixon and Jeremy Priest – namely, that Eucharistic worship is essentially trinitarian. ‘Through him [Christ], with him and in him…’

    The Eucharistic species on the altar, however worthy of our adoration, are the medium, not the ultimate target of our worship. Christ is the mediator of the new covenant, the sacrament of our encounter with God.

    How this essential feature of Christian worship is expressed architecturally is another matter, but a very important one. The disadvantage, even danger, of the priest standing behind the altar is that he can visually block off the sense of the ‘beyond’, the fact that the immanent God is also the transcendent God. How does one keep this essential both/and – the essence of the incarnation – in focus?

    One of the merits of a crucifix suspended high above the altar is to offer a vertical dimension to what can too easily become a two-dimensional view of liturgy.

  21. While it is intersting to discuss the various practices over the years, I think the most important question is to ask how people perceive them today. I believe that many people see any new focus on the Crucifix as an attempt to instill a sense of sin and guilt, therby driving people into the confessional. The ad orientum orientation is perceived by many as an attempt by the priest to place himself between Christ and the people. Now, I will allow that these intepretations ignore many other good reasons as listed above. However, I think most Catholics in America will be irritated or angered if they suspect the Mass is altered to enhance the status of the clergy.

    1. I’ve seen plenty of people interpret ad orientem as the priest being with the people (instead of opposite the people behind the altar).

      While I know this finding is anecdotal, it is what I have seen of virtually everyone seeing ad orientem for the first time (especially if they were not alive when most churches switched away from it).

      To be honest, I don’t care much for the “Benedictine arrangement” either – I think we should just all go back to ad orientem as a general rule.

  22. Brigid makes a strong point. We interpret these liturgical phenomena in different ways.

    I went back to The Spirit of the Liturgy and read the chapter on the direction of prayer. I didn’t find it deeply convincing. Ratzinger makes unqualified and unsourced statements like the following:

    The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is locked into itself. The common turning toward the East was not a “celebration toward the wall”; it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people”: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian Liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord”.

    The book is not a scholarly treatise, and we could argue that he is speaking of his experience in celebrating Mass as priest and bishop. But because he wrote as an important cardinal who became Pope, it’s easy to over-weight his interpretation. And hence it gets magnified: the ‘closed circle’ gets turned into an exercise in ‘narcissism’, ‘clericalism’, etc.

    In contrast, Don Piero Leone writes that the Tridentine Mass makes a proper distinction between priesthood and laity, in part by “celebration at a distance from the people in an area separated off from them by altar-rails, which expressed his function as mediator.” He criticises the new rite: “The priest is usually no longer segregated from the people by his distance from them or by the altar rails; he no longer celebrates facing the tabernacle, and often not even near the tabernacle; frequently he concelebrates and does not distribute the Holy Communion himself, or does so in company with the laity (male or female).”

    Each side, of course, accuses the other of ‘clericalism’.

  23. Personally, and for what it’s worth, I find Mass celebrated in the ‘Benedictine arrangement’ less than edifying. Especially when the crucifix is tall and is surrounded by six spiky candles, it looks as though the celebrant is in jail.

    1. I am glad that you point out what is obvious visually. Besides, on the ad orientem direction — for a Christian who is looking to the New Jerusalem (Book of Revelation), the by the compass Eastward direction is not relevant because ‘where ever two or three are gathered. . .’ the New Jerusalem is at least present by anticipation and foretaste upon the altar/touchstone and the distribution of the Holy Eucharist to the gathered assembly. .

  24. Every Missal I have seen pre 70, has detailed pictorials of what a Priest is doing on the Altar. And responsible Cathecis at a young age would explain it. As we grow a lifetime with Mass every week you would know what happens on the Altar. The constant obsession to see every movement, as if study and religious instruction does not exist borders on the ridiculous. Do these same people advocate for Cathedrals and Churches to have pews no deeper than 4 or 5 rows, and on a downward slope because you can’t see what is in front of you directly and immediately? Mini Churches? This is simply the desire for instant gratification that much of the world is consumed with. And the Benedictine Arrangement as a compromiese is fine. The can’t see arguement sounds silly coming from adults of the Faith.

  25. Fritz, I appreciate your will to see whatever is good in the two types of orientations. Yet, I cannot agree with your view that turning toward the crucifix would be idolatrous. Yes, Jesus is present on the altar and we need to realize and to recognize He is there (we do so by our words ”Blessed is He who comes”, etc.) and gestures (like kneeling at the Consecration). At the same time, the dynamic of the Eucharist is not ”from Jesus to Jesus”. It is ”from Jesus to the Father”. The ad orientem (or ad apsidem) orientation provides the spatial arrangement that is consonnant with the inner logic of the Eucharist. As to why we should use a Crucifix instead of an image of the God the Father, I don’t know. I guess it’s because it is Jesus who made God visible and because the Eucharist also has an eschatological dimension (we wait with joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ) It might also be that we need to be reminded of the link between the Cross and the Eucharist. At any rate, that’s the way first Christians prayed (they had a Cross on the wall on the eastern side of their house). Conversely, at Baptism, they turned to the West to renounce sin and Satan.

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