When Catholic blogs aren’t, well, Catholic

by William Ditewig. The original post is on his blog: Deacons Today: Servants in a Servant Church.

File this in the “something to think about” category.

Francis celebrating ad orientem


When Pope Francis recently announced his picks for the red hat, he did so during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel in which he faced the East: ad orientem. The headline of a popular putatively Catholic blog read, “For the record: Francis Turns Toward God — 2″. The reason for the number “2″ is that it was the second time the Pope had celebrated ad orientem, and the blog had similarly reported that first celebration as “Francis turns toward God.” On another blog, a priest-commenter reported that ad orientem actually meant “toward Christ”! In both cases, the whole context was that this was a significant theological development on the part of the Pope, a pope who apparently was signalling his doctrinal or liturgical orthodoxy by choosing to celebrate ad orientem. Who could possibly object to such reverence? Obviously, to be a good Catholic, we must celebrate this way, right? Who wouldn’t want to “turn toward God” or to “face Christ”? Real Catholics are the ones who face the East (ad orientem) because that’s where God is, right?

Unfortunately for folks who might be taken in by that line of reasoning, this is NOT what the Catholic Church actually teaches.


Mass ad orientem


Mass versus populum


Catholic teaching and practice, from the very beginning, reflected great diversity and practice on all of this.  In some ancient churches, there was an East-West orientation, and the priest and people would together face the East, where the sun would rise, analogous to God spreading light upon a darkened world. However, there is also significant architectural evidence that this was not a universal practice, with the architecture of other churches facilitating a versus populum (toward the people) orientation. Eventually, the ad orientem orientation became prevalent, but the option to celebrate versus populum remained a permissible option.  The point here is that traditional Catholic theology never made the claim that God was only accessible via one orientation or another. Traditional understanding was that priest and people were together in praying to God during the Eucharist. This was true whether facing East or facing the people. The concerns of some Catholic conservatives today seem to rest on the idea that facing the people somehow makes the Mass a kind of “performance” by the priest, and that versus populum  is one small step from a Broadway production focused on people and not on God.

Let’s review.

1) Traditional Catholic theology emphasizes that God is everywhere.

2) The Church prefers, in accordance with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, that the Mass be celebrated versus populum whenever possible, but ad orientem is certainly permitted, especially if the architecture of the sanctuary makes that preferable. Vatican II also teaches that “the full, conscious and active participation” of all the faithful at Mass is to be the number one priority when considering liturgical reform (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy).

Christ present in many ways during Mass: the Proclamation of the Word, for example.

3) This same document, which as a Constitution of a general council of the Church is among the highest magisterial teaching documents of the Church, also addresses how Christ is present in the Mass:

To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”, but especially under the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly, when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).

Back to these blog headlines and comments. First, the language of the headline permits the inference by those who wish to make it, that the Pope — until now — has been oriented AWAY from God, but has now seen the error of his ways; I’m sure the writer would vehemently deny such a claim, but the language permits such an inference, whatever the original intent of the writer. Second, the language suggests that God exists in a certain direction and not in another (specifically, versus populum). The state of the Pope’s personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this blog, certainly! However, the second suggestion flies directly in the face of actual Catholic teaching.  It is a shame that people might be misled — whether deliberately or not — to think that this represents Catholic teaching.

To recap: the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church permits, and always has, Masses celebrated both ad orientem and versus populum, although contemporary liturgical law favors versus populum. The entire Catholic Church believes, as expressed by the world’s bishops and confirmed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, that Christ is present at Mass in the people assembled, in the proclamation of the Word of God, in the person of the ordained ministers, especially the priest, and in a special way under the forms of bread and wine.

We owe it to each other to try to be as accurate about these things as we can. Our Catholic Tradition is simply too rich and pastoral practice too diverse to try to box it into categories that reduce the very Catholicity we seek!

UPDATE:  A reader e-mailed me with a question about the tabernacle, suggesting that this might be why the priest would face ad orientem: because that was the direction of the tabernacle containing the reserved Sacred Species consecrated during previous Masses. However, this is not the reason for ad orientem.  Examining the ancient churches of Christianity, one finds that tabernacles were located in a rather wide array of places: sometimes on the altar itself, sometimes in separate locations altogether: the priest never adjusted his orientation because of the location of the tabernacle. They didn’t then; they shouldn’t now. That’s never been part of the liturgical theology of the Church.



Bill Ditewig was ordained a deacon for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC in 1990. Following retirement from active military duty, he served as associate principal of a Catholic High School, Director of Pastoral Services and Ministry Formation for the Dioceses of Davenport, Iowa and Belleville, Illinois. He served as Executive Director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate for the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, and from 2002-2007, and as Executive Director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He was a Professor of Theology and Director of the Graduate Program in Theology at Saint Leo University in Florida and is now Executive Professor of Theology at Santa Clara University in California. He also serves as Director of Faith Formation, Diaconate and Pastoral Planning for the Diocese of Monterey. He has a BA in Philosophy, a MA in Education, a MA in Pastoral Theology, and a Ph.D. in Theology and Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. 



  1. I personally prefer ad orientem. I think it emphasizes the communal nature of the Mass and the idea that we are a people praying together. I don’t have a problem with vs populum, though.

    I wonder if the “turn towards God” language is partly a reaction to the common description of ad orientem as “turning away from the people” and “the priest turning his back on/to the people.” Such language is equally incorrect and inflammatory since obviously the priest is facing with the people and not excluding them.

  2. Isn’t it mistaken to say that the Pope celebrated ‘ad orientem’? Sure, he faced the altar against the wall during the Eucharistic rite, but not during the Liturgy of the Word. Moreover, the altar in the Sistine Chapel is at the West end of the building, so that when standing at it the Pope was facing ‘ad occidentem’.
    The wholesale turnaround of altars that followed Vatican II may have been based in part on an overenthusiastic interpretation of SC 50: ‘The rite of the Mass is to be revised in such a way that the intrinsic nature and purpose of its several parts, as also the connection between them, may be more clearly manifested . . . ‘. The intrinsic nature of the Liturgy of the Word was not clearly manifested when those reading the scriptures turned their backs to the people, so a 180 degree turn made sense. But in the Eucharistic Rite most of the words uttered are addressed to God, and it is not so clear that the celebrant needs to face the people to utter them.
    The idea that the celebrant must face in the same direction at all times is a piece of unexpunged Tridentinism.

    1. @Mgr Bruce Harbert – comment #2:
      Observation: You state: “The idea that the celebrant must face in the same direction at all times is a piece of unexpunged Tridentinism.”

      And yet, you also state: “The wholesale turnaround of altars that followed Vatican II may have been based in part on an overenthusiastic interpretation of SC 50:” and “But in the Eucharistic Rite most of the words uttered are addressed to God, and it is not so clear that the celebrant needs to face the people to utter them”

      Would suggest that your approach to take one article of SC (IMO, out of context) and use judmental words such as *overenthusiastic interpretation* is also *a piece of expunged liturgical commentary*.

      Rather, using the first principles of SC best summarized by the deacon – *The entire Catholic Church believes, as expressed by the world’s bishops and confirmed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, that Christ is present at Mass in the people assembled, in the proclamation of the Word of God, in the person of the ordained ministers, especially the priest, and in a special way under the forms of bread and wine* and that this can best be done versus populum in order to encouarage other SC principles of *full, conscious, and active participation*

      And your second comment about who the presider prays to means that he and the people can face together (at face value, appears inocuous) is also (IMO) a *piece of unexpunged Tridentinism* because you infer and conclude and minimize that the presider is voicing the *community’s* (not just his own) prayer and is praying to God in the name of the community and that doing this in a setting in which we can see, hear, and feel together in today’s cultures can best be accomplished versus populum (for the same reason why you wouldn’t have a lector proclaim ad orientem).
      Just saying…..(and Mr. Gasper – sorry, no matter what CDW supposedly said, the deacon captured the prevailing interpreationa, experience by…

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #5:

        Not sure how exactly the role of the lector is analogous to that of the praying presider. While I wouldn’t deny that there is clearly an element of worship present in the reading of Scripture, it seems to have a strong didactic element (which takes the back seat for prayers).

        Your comment about cultures has made me wonder whether a difference would emerge in different cultures, were things less top-down. I remember an article that Susan Roll wrote sometime ago for the Syriac journal, The Harp, on her experience on regularly attending a Syro-Malankara liturgy in South India. She concluded that ‘worked’ in the Indian context but wouldn’t in Canada (I didn’t agree with all her reasons but that’s beside the point…). The article got me thinking about whether one of the differences might be religious cultures, with regions of the East being dominated by religions many of which emphasize ‘directional’ prayer.

    1. @Felipe Gasper – comment #3:
      Quoting from the linked CDW statement: “It reaffirms that the position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (Cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29 [1993] 245-249), without excluding, however, the other possibility.”

      This sure sounds like a preference to me. Not an absolute dictate, but a preference.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt (#4): (from CDWDS statement) [T]he position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier…

        I think one could legitimately ask whether this really ought to be an aim of the liturgy. Indeed, versus populum may make communication easier in terms of the spoken word, but in terms of liturgical sign and action I think it risks losing more than it gains.

        My own preference would be for an entirely ad orientem OF liturgy, but I would still be happy if only the Eucharistic Prayer was proclaimed in this manner and the rest of the Mass was versus populum. Would it be too much to have one ad orientem OF Mass a month in parishes, out of pastoral sensitivity to people like me?

      2. @Matthew Hazell – comment #12:
        “Communication” is not the optimal term, perhaps. “Relationship” might be better, if it were free of certain baggage it carries in conservative circles.

        Liturgy is a ministry, and as such, it addresses the second aim of worship: the sanctification of the faithful. One of the reasons I much prefer antiphonal seating or worship in the round is that it promotes relationships–unity if you will–beyond that of the priest and God, or the individual worshiper and God.

        At some point, I hope we can get beyond our reticence to unity, extroversion, and the like.

        Matthew, I could suggest my home parish: antiphonal seating and the priest never faces the people in bodily posture.

  3. Archbishop Emeritus John Quinn of San Francisco has written that all major basilicas and most minor basilicas in Rome were all originally ad populum.

  4. Has altar orientation ever been a contentious issue in Roman basilicas until our day? It appears that the most crucial attribute of the altar was an eastward orientation of the celebrant and ministers, and not whether the altar faced anybody in particular. In a time without pews or seating, one could stand in front of or to the sides of the altar. The ministers would likely be participating in the area directly behind the altar.

    I suspect that Pope Francis often will use a preexisting altar in a chapel out of convenience and not for ideological reasons.

  5. I was struck when going through old articles of the liturgical movement a couple of years ago at the malleability of the interpretations given to the orientation of the priest. I often encounter the idea today that facing the altar can give the impression of clericalism, failing to respect role of the assembly, etc. whereas facing the people is more evocative of the baptismal dignity and so forth. I think, in the very least, after many years of facing the people, it would be perceived like that in many places, at least in the West.

    However, I was amused to read in some publications of the liturgical movement this very idea of separation – that the priest’s role must be distinguished from the people – as the motive for celebrations facing the people. There’s a representative article in Worship somewhere at the end of the 50s (or maybe it was early 60s?) with copious reference to the doctrines of Mediator Dei. Of course, the complementary idea (that facing the altar indicates the a unified congregation, priest and people together) is popular in contemporary defences of this manner of Eucharistic celebration.

  6. I wonder whether the ad orientem practice was originally an accommodation for new Roman converts, many of whom must have belonged to the Roman Sol cults. The sun could easily have been used metaphorically for the Word which enlightens the world. And the old sun-worshipers would have felt more at home.

    At any rate, the notion that the priest turns towards God when he faces East is ludicrous. God is everywhere.

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #10:

      Mischievous thought, re. Ann Oliver’s comment above:

      If God is everywhere, then the best position to adopt for prayer would surely be continuous circling motion, like the Whirling Dervish.

      Such a posture would ensure we are oriented towards God at all times.

      To use a favoured term of the late Fr. Aidan Kavanagh OSB: ‘vertiginous.’

      Alan Griffiths.

    2. @Ann Olivier – comment #10:

      Ann: I wonder whether the ad orientem practice was originally an accommodation for new Roman converts, many of whom must have belonged to the Roman Sol cults. The sun could easily have been used metaphorically for the Word which enlightens the world. And the old sun-worshipers would have felt more at home.

      One of the most frustrating aspects of hellenistic-Roman religion is the paucity of histories, scripture, and accounts of liturgy. Certainly your idea might be plausible, but then again Christian liturgical orientation could have incorporated any number of aspects from diverse contemporary rituals.

      Three years ago I was in Ostia Antica, a quick train ride from downtown Rome. The ruins include at least three mithraea. Each faces in a different cardinal direction. The ritual direction of a mithraeum can be inferred by the path of the murals that depict the stages of initiation into the organization. This method of orientation by murals is the conventional wisdom of contemporary archaeologists and classicists. Still, it’s quite possible that the physical orientation or even the orientation of murals in a Mithraea was not important or less important for Mithraists than another method of orientation.

      God is everywhere but also somewhere as well. Mithraic ritual might have centered on the tauroctony, or image of Mithras slaying a bull (tauroctony are ubiquitous in Rome; the National Museum near Termini has quite a few.) The contemporary tabernacle (relatively speaking) is the real and abiding eucharistic presence of Our Lord in the church and the world. Did the early Christians who brought the Eucharist home with them after the Sunday liturgy grant it a meaning of orientation? “Direction” might have been notional.

  7. Now that we have modern technology, we could design a church in a building that rotates throughout the day so that the people are always facing in the direction of the sun.

  8. Since it’s liturgical Groundhog Day, wasn’t it clarified by the CDW that, contrary to the English translations of the GIRM, what is preferable is that the altar be freestanding so that Mass may be celebrated versus populum – not that Mass be celebrated versus populum? I have a recollection of Fr Zuhlsdorf publishing the original of the dubium and it’s subsequent appearance in Notitiae.

  9. I have no disagreement with anything in the post above except I think he misconstrues the meaning of “let us turn to The Lord” as a sort of denial of the presence of The Lord in the assembly, the Word proclaimed and priest. It is a symbolic turning together to The Lord no matter the side of the altar the priest is on. All the Roman Basilicas have the priest facing the geographical east while facing the nave as well except one where in facing the nave he faces west and that is St. Paul outside the Walls. But historically all the altars in these basilicas which all have freestanding altars had a central crucifix to symbolize this common orientation to Christ. Cardinal Ratzinger simply advocated either side of the altar as legitimate and when facing the nave the central crucifix on the altar as the common symbol of orienting toward The Lord which as Pope he recovered at all his Masses when facing the assembly which was the majority of his Masses. Pope Francis thus far has maintained this arrangement. This Is Cardinal Ratzinger’s compromise in “The Spirit of the Liturgy”:

    1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #14:
      Conclusion of my post above from Cardinal Ratzinger:

      “Ought we really to be rearranging everything all over again? Nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal. I see a solution in a suggestion that comes from the insights of Erik Peterson. Facing east, as we heard, was linked with the “sign of the Son of Man,” with the Cross, which announces the Lord’s Second Coming. That is why very early on the east was linked with the sign of the Cross. Where a direct common turning towards the east is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior “east” of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community. In this way we obey the ancient call to prayer: “Conversi ad Dominum,” “Turn to the Lord!” In this way we look together at the One whose death tore the veil of the Temple – the One who stands before the Father for us and encloses us in his arms in order to make us the new and living Temple.”

      1. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #15:
        The cross as the “interior east”, and the “common point of focus”? I would suggest that there is already a common and quite sufficient point of focus – the one that we call the altar. We don’t anoint and kiss the cross, but we do the altar. The rite of dedication of an altar explains all this. Indeed the rite refers to the altar as the “focal point” for every liturgical celebration, even quoting the church Fathers who were not hesitant to insist “The altar is Christ.” If we keep searching for even more focal points like crosses and sunrises, before long the tabernacle will be back on the altar.

      2. @Jan Larson – comment #17:
        I could not agree more, if people would actually read the prayer of blessing for an altar they would understand the richness of its symbolic nature. It is the symbol of Christ as priest, offering and altar in the church and not a political prop for some devotional agenda or nostalgic ideology. our current liturgy is impoverished because we lack the ability to receive, express and live
        this symbolic dimension of the liturgy.

      3. @Jan Larson – comment #17:
        Thanks, Mr. Larson – this whole ad orientem compulsion seems to be an effort to take scripture *literally*……thought liturgy was mystery and uses images.
        VII repeatedly reformed and used scriptural language to describe the eucharist – table of the Word and the table of the eucharist.
        – The sacramental sign (the external, visible element) which we celebrate is a meal. The meal is the sign of the sacrifice. That meal happens around the table of the Lord.
        – Eucharist is seen to be “more verb than noun.” It is an action of the body of Christ or People of God around the table/altar.
        – four part structure: Gathering, Story Telling, Meal Sharing, Commissioning (Emmaus story and the four parts reflect the *modes of presences* outlined in SC
        – Real Presence is experienced in many ways – Word, Community Gathered, Eucharist, Presider
        – Gathered around the table, the eucharist is the primary sacrament of unity and reconciliation. In the words of St. Augustine’s Sermon 229 – “there you are on the table; there you are in the cup”

      4. @Jan Larson – comment #17:
        The tabernacle is already appearing on a number of altars popping up against and away from the wall. Again we see a return to the monumental tabernacle reaching to the ceiling surrounded by faux marble saints and angels . Again, as was common before Vatican II the altar becomes a mere appendage of the reredos. I don’t recall Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict encouraging this trend either.

        With respect to altars and their placement in the sanctuary, the direction of the altar couldn’t have been all that important in all areas of the east. Which has been less inclined to experiment with its liturgy than we in the west. Since over 150 Byzantine churches from the 4th and 5th centuries have been uncovered in Jordan in the last 30 or more years some with the apse in located on the south or north side.

        The cross was often suspended from the ceiling, or was erected on the architrave or chancel beam. So, my question is how could the people crowding around the altar ,and leaning up against the marble chancel barrier separating the holy table and its martyrion, be using the cross on the arch or one placed on the altar as their point of reference? It would make more sense for them to see the altar as representing Jesus than a cross. How cross-centered was a 5th century eastern liturgy?

      5. @Fr. Allan. McDonald – comment #15:
        I think Cardinal Ratzinger’s suggestion is simple-minded. The altar is central. Why isn’t it enough?

        100% agreement with Mike @ #16. Too much focus on the priest in much of this discussion. Is this worship of God or what?

  10. I find that the terminology “ad orientem” and “versus populum” needlessly focuses us on the presiding celebrant. While there doesn’t seem to be anything in the documents that speaks of it explicitly in this way, I prefer to think of the community as celebrating “around the altar.” The action that we are all performing together is centered there.

  11. I’m happy enough with versus populum (though I do/would like to see a central crucifix facing the celebrant), but what I dislike is unnecessarily making an issue of things for ideological reasons.

    If a church or chapel was built before the council and there’s a perfectly fine altar there which happens not to allow for a celebration versus populum, then go ahead and celebrate ad orientem without any scruples, I say. To go to the bother of setting up an extra altar — which often ends up looking a little silly or is often even violently disruptive to the building’s overall aesthetic harmony — is to make an issue of something that I don’t think needs to be an issue.

  12. A few weeks ago I requested that the table altar be removed for my grandmother’s funeral, so that those in attendance would have a better view of the marble high altar, supposedly the oldest marble altar in the diocese. It was very refreshing not to see the table altar obstructing the view of the high altar. Tridentine Mass or not, I’d love to see table altars go the way of the dodo, as well as standing for communion.

    1. @Sean Peters – comment #23:
      Your comment brings this to mind:

      “Be disciples, not followers” or, in this case, “be disciples; not watchers”

      You are entitled to your opinion and personal choices – but, let’s be clear that it sure has nothing to do with eucharistic theology.

  13. ” I’d love to see table altars go the way of the dodo, as well as standing for communion.”

    No one is required to stand for communion if they choose not to.

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