Much has been written in the discussion of the postconciliar liturgy reform on the question of the so-called orientation of the celebration. We will limit ourselves here to a few brief remarks on the question.
It is clear that the communal directionality of the prayer toward the east, to the rising sun as a symbol for the exalted Lord who will come again (cf. Mal. 3:20), is witnessed from early Christian times on. In its symbolism it is thus an important eschatological corrective (cf. Reinhold Meßner, Einführung in die Liturgiewissenschaft, p. 198, with further literature): the community turned versus orientem with the presider of the liturgy points beyond itself and its concrete celebration, it is the People of God on the way, toward Christ who is to come.
It is also clear that the Second Vatican Council neither abrogated nor forbade such celebration versus orientem. On the other hand, one must note that only in the postconciliar instruction Inter oecumenici (1964), which regulated the correct implementation of the liturgy reform, was celebration “facing the people” (versus populum) permitted (nos. 91, 95). Previously it was also not forbidden, but rather, with few exceptions such as the prominent example of the high alter at St. Peter’s in Rome, merely not in use for nearly a thousand years. This celebration versus populum came to be used universally after Vatican II, and so for many faithful – though this is false – it became the mark of identification of the before and after of the liturgy reform.
Without being able to go into the pros and cons of each direction of celebration in detail here, allow me at least to warn of some false alternatives. The alternative to communal directionality toward the east (versus orientem) is, speaking theologically, not celebration versus populum (which is merely a manner of architectonic stage direction, that a freestanding altar makes possible celebration of the mysteries turned toward the people – cf. GIRM 299) but rather the arrangement circumstantes, i.e. a gathering of the community around the altar.
When, by contrast, it is repeatedly objected by critics of postconciliar developments that celebration versus populum symbolizes the self-satisfied community turned in on itself and degrades the priest to the role of a lone entertainer behind the altar, who acts like a TV chef, and which encourages a new form of clericalization, there is a fundamental misunderstanding.
For in celebration in the arrangement of circumstantes, the community gathers not around the priest, but rather around the altar which is a symbol of Christ (cf. GIRM 296). Furthermore, the orientation toward Christ is expressed vertically during the Eucharistic Prayer when the presider calls down the Holy Spirit upon the gifts of bread and wine on the altar, and these are consecrated to be the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharistic Prayer.
Thus the postconciliar arrangement in which the community gathers around the altar (circumstantes) is, if the architectonic conditions permit a true gathering around the altar, also entirely directed toward Christ the exalted Lord. (GIRM 299 is certainly so to be interpreted in the clarity of the statements give there.)
Furthermore, an orientation toward the Eucharistic elements results – and the Council characterized these as a special form of his Real Presence (SC, art. 7). That the presider stands behind the altar facing toward the people encourages the active and conscious participation of the gathered congregation, for then “the entire community can look at the altar, at the bread and wine, which are primary symbols of the Eucharistic celebration” (Adam/Haunerland, Grundriß Liturgie, 473.) Thus this is no less an orientation toward the exalted Lord (Lat. conversio ad dominum) than a celebration in the versus orientem direction is. (Cf. op.cit. And for a contrasting perspective, Uwe Michael Lang, “Conversi ad Dominum. Zu Gebetsostung, Stellung des Liturgen am Altar und Kirchbau‘ in FKTh 16  81–123.)
But of course in all this it is not sufficient, as oftentimes happened in the architectural reordering of churches immediately after the liturgical reform, merely to move the existing altar away from the wall, or to put a so-called “people’s altar” [Volksaltar] in front of the high altar. (In this context Baldovin speaks of an aesthetic in many church buildings of “slightly out-of-date living rooms,” – Reforming the Liturgy, 154. And he recalls the axiom of Aidan Kavanagh, in which he critically characterized the living room aesthetic of some postconciliar church buildings: “Churches are not carpeted” –Elements of Rite, 21.) Indeed, “Volksaltar” is a neologism of doubtful worth – and note that, according to the liturgical directives, there is only one altar around which the community gathers, and for good reason. (cf. GIRM 298)
In view of this, the spatial situation in many churches, unfortunately, has shown itself to be unsatisfactory right up until recent times, because it gives more the impression of a confrontational vis-à-vis (on one side, the presider; on the other side of the altar, the community) than a true gathering around the Lord present on the altar in the Eucharistic elements.
All in all – and this is said from the view of one born late in time – one wishes that both forms of orientation of the celebration would retain their legitimate value and their validity for the celebration of Mass in the Roman rite, and that, on the far side of ideologically overheated discourse, a way can be found to a peaceful coexistence of both forms of orientation of the celebration. These could, each within their own symbolism, fruitfully enhance one another and, in various church spaces, unfold with their respective effects and ways of making possible the fruitful, conscious, and active participation of all the faithful.
At this point one should critically raise the question yet again of the extent to which the enabling of active participation of all the faithful, which is foundational for both orientations of celebration, is primarily and exclusively drawn from the visual dimension, or whether the acoustical dimension should not also be kept in view here. For the Eucharistic Prayer is not a matter of a text proclaimed aloud by the presider. It is in any case interesting that, even in celebrations of Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite according to the Missale Romanum 1962, one sometimes observes that the Eucharistic Prayer (canon of the Mass) is spoken at least half aloud, with use of microphone and amplification which are not at all foreseen for this part of the Mass in the preconciliar era. Here it becomes obvious that the fundamental principle of active participation is internalized by the particular presider to a greater extent than is reflected in the discussion of various orientations of celebration by remaining at merely at the architectonic level. Analogous observations can be made in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper in many Lutheran churches, where the celebration is also at the high altar and versus orientem. But this transpires in the vernacular, and the words of institution or the eucharistic prayer are amplified by microphone, for (active) hearing and actual taking part in the celebration. To this extent, one should not entirely omit the acoustical dimension from consideration in the discussion about the propriety of the various orientations of celebration.
On the orientation as a mark of before and after the council, cf. my remarks on the implementation of the liturgy reform in the Archdiocese of Boston: “Die Implementierung der Liturgiereform in der Erzdiözese Boston/USA. Eine Untersuchung anhand von Quellen aus der Erzbischöflichen Kanzlei (1964–1966): in Bärsch, J./Haunerland, W. (ed.) Liturgiereform vor Ort. Zur Rezeption des Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzils in Bistum und Pfarrei (Regensburg, 2010), pp. 171-194, esp. 171ff.
For further reflections see my “‘Wenn Steine sprechen …’ Antwortversuche auf die Frage: Was ist ein liturgischer Raum?” [“‘When Stones Speak…’ Attempts at an Answer to the Question, What is a Liturgical Space?”] in: Anzeiger für die Seelsorge 118 (2009), 5–9. Also with a view toward renovation and reform of historical spaces: “Erbaut aus lebendigen Steinen, gegründet auf das Fundament der Apostel” (“Built of Living Stones, Founded on the Foundation of the Apostles”) in: Hillenbrand, K. / Weiß, W. (ed.) Reichtum des Glaubens. Festgabe für Bischof Friedhelm Hofmann zum 70. Geburtstag. (Würzburger Diözesangeschichtsblätter. 74. Band) (Würzburg, 2012), 445–458.
Reprinted with permission from Martin Stuflesser, Eucharistie (Regensburg, 2013), 298-300, tr. AWR.