Ad Orientem Worship from the Deaf Perspective – Part II

Part II– Toward a Celebration of Mass Ad Christum

by Audrey Seah

Celebrating Mass Ad Christum as a Development of Doctrine          

In his well-known essay on the development of doctrine,  Blessed John Henry Newman named seven marks of true doctrinal development:

  1. one in type;
  2. one in its system of principles;
  3. one in its unitive power towards externals;
  4. one in its logical consecutiveness;
  5. one in the witness of its early phases to its later;
  6. one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier; and
  7. one in its union of vigor with continuance, that is, in its tenacity.

In view of what we know today about human bio-cultural diversity, multiple intelligences, and the gifts that such diversity bring to the Church as exemplified by what has been revealed to us through the Deaf Catholic community, I suggest that these conditions are fulfilled in the practice of celebrating Mass facing the people. It follows that it is more reasonable to recognize the practice of having the priest face the people as a legitimate development of liturgical orthopraxis, rather than an accommodation to western individualism as Cardinal Sarah’s supporters seem to suggest. To aid the recognition of this practice as a faithful development of doctrine, however, more theologically precise terms need to be used to describe it.

To this end, I propose that ad Christum ubi venit (to where Christ comes) or ad Christum in short replace the terms versus populum and ad orientem, as it describes the doctrinal and liturgical principle that the Church has retained throughout history more accurately. Versus populum describes what one may observe today, but does not articulate the theological basis of the practice. Likewise, ad orientem describes a tradition but not its underlying theology – we turn to the east because the east signifies Christ’s coming. In contrast, ad Christum stresses the theological doctrine from which both these descriptors proceed.

Indeed, ad Christum emphasizes the continuity in doctrine underscored in Newman’s first and second conditions but is also able to go further. The term reminds the faithful that all are in fact facing the same direction at Mass – the altar, the priest, and each other – because Christ continually comes to us by being present in the person of his minister, the Eucharistic species upon the altar, the baptized, the proclamation of scriptures, and the church’s prayers (SC 8).

The term also recalls the eschatological dimension of worship. That is, Christ is manifested and comes to us in multiple ways in the Mass and our lives, but the kingdom of God is already and not yet here – Christ will also come (veniet) at the Eschaton. Therefore, the practice fulfills conditions four, five, and six, as a logical step towards recognizing the multiple presences of Christ in the Mass according to SC 8, emphasizing the eschatological dimension of the Mass, and making the celebration accessible to visual communicators by allowing full visibility of liturgical actions and the use of sign language so they may better understand the sacraments they celebrate.

Last but not least, marks three and seven can be found in the tenacity of the practice, favored by the large majority of bishops, priests, and laity, the Vatican’s most recent clarification note on Cardinal Sarah’s speech, and – the starting point of these reflections – the witness of Deaf Catholics.

Preventing Audism in the Church

Numerous opinion pieces have been penned in support of Sarah by many who share his concern that many Catholics have lost a sense of reverence for the Eucharistic mystery and made the Mass all about them. For them, as Sarah’s speech indicates, returning “as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction – Eastwards or at least towards the apse – to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God,” is “a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the center.”

While the concern raised by Sarah and his supporters is a valid one, the proposed solution – a universal return to an ad orientem posture – is not. To pray ad Christum in an ad orientem position inadvertently excludes many from worship. This is especially so when one considers what has been revealed by the Holy Spirit to the Church in the growing Deaf Catholic community worldwide since Vatican II.

Historically, and up until today, many Deaf are often isolated and discriminated against in a hearing world not because they are unable to communicate, but because of audism – the notion that one is superior based on one’s ability to hear, speak, and behave in the manner of one who hears and speaks. In Church, audism inadvertently perpetuates the idea that God communicates with humans only in spoken and written languages, causing the Deaf to think of God as irrelevant and shun the Church altogether.

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,” reminds Jaroslav Pelikan in his renowned lecture, “The Vindication of Tradition.” Indeed, a return to ad orientem worship is hardly an option for Deaf people who “speak with their hands and hear with their eyes.” An ad orientem stance would also impact the Mass experience of people with invisible disabilities such as auditory processing deficits and various speech and language impairments who attend hearing churches but participate and learn visually. It would be to practice audism in the liturgy – a most unchristian thing to do. More significantly, it would be to reject the work and revelation of the Holy Spirit in enabling people who are visual communicators to share their gifts with the people of God as priests, religious, and lay ministers of the church.

I respect the fact that many non-Latin Western rites, Eastern rites, and Latin rite communities who use the extraordinary form continue to only celebrate Mass ad orientem. They see great value to keeping an old practice going as it can help us retain a living memory of it. But this should not be the universal norm when the Spirit has revealed otherwise. The Spirit’s witness in our Deaf Catholic brothers and sisters urges us to pause, appreciate the oft-overlooked gift of multiple abilities and intelligences, receive the charism of hospitality from them, and obligate us to affirm worshipping ad Christum, facing the people, as a normative for the Roman Catholic Church today and beyond.

Towards a Celebration of Mass ad Christum

Thus, I propose that we begin immediately employing the term ad Christum to refer to the direction one faces at Mass. Those who continue to celebrate Mass ad orientem may describe themselves as celebrating Mass “ad Christum in an ad orientem stance” as a clarification of their exceptional community. The use of this term will aid the faithful in centering their prayers on God even when they are facing each other, catechize them about the multiple presences of Christ in the Mass, quell the false dichotomy between versus populum and ad orientem worship, and allow the posture of celebrating Mass facing the people to remain normative. Most importantly, ad Christum worship bears witness to a legitimate development of liturgical tradition and doctrine inspired by the Holy Spirit that celebrates that incorporates the different abilities and multiple intelligences of the people of God in our Eucharistic communion. Who’s with me?


Audrey Seah completed her MA in Theology with a focus in liturgy  at Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary in 2012 and is a doctoral student in liturgy at the University of Notre Dame. She is grateful to the many priests in Deaf ministry and members of the Deaf Catholic community who inspired and provided feedback for this article.


  1. Firstly, thank you for your thoughtful observations.

    I was wondering if there are any deaf readers who attend extraordinary form Mass regularly? I wondered about their experience of the silent canon – where nobody hears anything much. Whether, in an EF Mass for the deaf, the orations and so on are/would be/could be signed and how different the experiences of deaf and hearing persons attending EF Low Mass would be.

    1. @James Dunne:
      The FSSP parish in Omaha has an interpreted high mass on Sundays. I had the pleasure of meeting its previous parish priest, Fr John Brancich, a wonderful young man who is fluent in ASL and serves the Deaf community by offering the sacrament of reconciliation in ASL – this is a great gift to the community. Over a brief conversation, he told me that a handful (5 or 6) of d/Deaf/ hard-of-hearing Catholics attend the interpreted high mass at his parish regularly. Together with the deaf community, they decided that all mass parts that are spoken or sung aloud would be interpreted – the readings, mass ordinary, homily. The canon is not interpreted or signed by the priest; the community chose to follow along in the english-latin missal just as the hearing do so that the canon remains “silent.” This way, the experience of the EF mass for the Deaf would be similar to those of the hearing.

      I can’t speak for what a low mass would be like, but I do know of Deaf Catholics who attend daily mass in the OF who pray along with a missal. I suspect the experience might be similar. At an OF mass without an interpreter, they won’t have access to the homily, but can make out the various parts of the mass as long as the actions are visible. They may read reflections in Give Us this Day or Magnificat during the homily. Like the community that attends the EF high mass, however, one would have to be a fluent English reader to do this.

  2. I’m with you. Thank you so much for your perspective. I will be using the phase ad Christum to teach our community why our church is designed as it is. How enriching!

  3. Associated with the common orientation to the apse is the use of the “secret voice” for most of the liturgy, which did make the whole congregation unhearingly present.

    With this silence, we can only talk of a common line of sight, not of a common orientation. The congregation witnessed a sacred drama, veiled, both by the celebrant’s back and by the silence. Why then just return to the orientation without a call for the whole return to that sense of sacred drama involving veils, iconostasis or rood screen?

    It seems there is an element of pick and choose with the call to the apse orientation, dare one say a sense of the cafeteria?

  4. With a deaf brother, I have read these last two posts with a heart closer to the words than I read most of the posts.

    Thank you for your well thought out reflection. John 20 and Luke 24 have Jesus presenting himself “in their midst.” If this was the way He wanted it, then one could also find the scriptural backing for the ad Christum ubi venit you lead us to understand. If Christ shows up in the middle, then one should turn to the middle.

  5. Facing “ad Christum” as I see those gathered around the altar, am reminded of Thomas Merton in the streets of Louisville: “Who will tell these people that they are walking around, shining like the sun?”

  6. I think the whole idea of praying along with a missal as an option needs to be challenged. Most liturgists would agree that a read-along liturgy is far from ideal. Words on a page are dead until they are brought to life.

    I feel that telling deaf people — or any people — that they should be content with reading what is going on in order to follow the rite is nothing less than disrespectful.

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      Or, someone who is reading along in the Missal is engaging the words in a multisensory manner, both visually and audibly. Some people are visual learners and having the words in front of them concretizes what is being said. If it helps people to follow the Mass, why does it need to be challenged?

      As for deaf people, they should have the opportunity to participate in the Mass however is most comfortable for them. If it means going to a sign language liturgy or following in a missal but going to the same Mass as their hearing parish family but I imagine not all deaf people would want a one size fits all approach.

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