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.