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:
- one in type;
- one in its system of principles;
- one in its unitive power towards externals;
- one in its logical consecutiveness;
- one in the witness of its early phases to its later;
- one in the protection which its later extend to its earlier; and
- 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.