Liturgy Lines: “Arranging Priest, Assembly and Spaces”

by Elizabeth Harrington
This post originally appeared on Liturgy Brisbane on September 8, 2016.
It is surprising that fifty years after the Second Vatican Council, some people are advocating that the priest once again turn his back on the people during the celebration of Mass. They argue that when the priest faces the he becomes a ‘performer’ before an audience.

To open up the issue of the arrangement of priest and assembly, we need to go to first principles and begin with the question, ‘who celebrates the liturgy?’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1136) answers simply and directly, Liturgy is an ‘action’ of the whole Christ.

As the work of Christ, the liturgy is an action of the Church. This is explained more fully by the Vatican Council: Christ is always present in his Church, especially in its liturgical celebrations… In the liturgy, the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members. 

Therefore the liturgy is not celebrated by the priest or bishop with the people present as spectators. The whole assembly of the people constitutes the Church and celebrates the liturgy under the headship of the ordained minister.  It is at this deep level that the Vatican Council speaks of the full, conscious, and active participation by all the people as the aim to be considered before all else in the reform and promotion of the liturgy (SC 14).

Unfortunately the architecture of many of our churches fails to support such corporate, communal action. The question that needs to be asked is ‘What kind of space and what arrangement of space will express the reality that the liturgy is celebrated by the Body of Christ, the Church?’

A liturgical space which reflects the theology of the liturgy will seek to gather the assembly around the altar. Looking across the altar, people can see one another, reminding them that liturgical prayer is the communal prayer of the Church.

Of course, a liturgical space needs to provide for the assembly an opening to the transcendent, but this does not demand a longitudinal axis. The decoration (for example, stained glass windows of the saints) can make it clear that the earthly community celebrates in union with the heavenly choirs.

The liturgical space needs to represent the particular role of the ordained minister without compromising the unity of the whole priestly people. The space in the church for the liturgical assembly places people together as ‘doers’ of the liturgy but is not an undifferentiated space.

The general arrangement of the sacred building must be such that in some way it conveys the image of the assembled congregation… Even though all these elements must express the hierarchical structure and the diversity of functions, they should nevertheless bring about a close and coherent unity that is clearly expressive of the unity of the entire holy people (GIRM 294).

Shaping an adequate space for the Church’s worship will always challenge communities and their architects, and demand both creativity and faith. There is no perfect solution.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane


  1. My sense is that priests turning their back to the people is a fad. It certainly gets treated that way in the Catholic world’s mainstream–I mean facebook. “Like this,” people are asked. “Swallow this,” and the Golden Age returns, we are promised.

    Something else has more staying power: the long narrow church. Even when the nave is round, square, wider than long, or built after 1963. Even when the seating takes that 90, 180, or even 360 degree curve around a designated sanctuary area.

    The “in” crowd will sit near that central axis, most of them anyway. Even if it’s not the longest axis in the joint. Way back or in front–doesn’t seem to matter except for the personal sense of humility, false or otherwise.

    Check out churches old and new for the perspective from the wings, the sides, the transcepts. Worship there. I would wager there is a decided feeling of marginalization: lines of sight, sound coverage, and attention from ministers. I know a church that touts its tabernacle behind the altar, but from about 25, maybe 30% of the seats, you can’t see it. But if the pastor sees it when he comes in, well …

    Ms Harrington is right. Worship will challenge us, if we are committed to doing it well. Perfection is a fine aspiration, but yet-to-be achieved.

  2. Nobody is talking about priests “turning their backs to the people”. They are talking about the priest and people facing in the same direction for those parts of the liturgy (and only those parts of the liturgy) when both priest and people are addressing prayers to God. For other parts of the liturgy when the priest and people are in dialogue with each other(the liturgy of the Word, for instance, or when the priest is exhorting the people to some action), of course the priest should face people. It’s a simple matter of who is being addressed by whom at any particular moment.

    The times when it can be appropriate for the priest to face ad orientem and when he should turn to face the people are indicated clearly enough in the GIRM, pgs 146 and 154 of the GIRM for instance. The directions in these paragraphs would not make make sense unless it was at least possible that the priest wasn’t already facing the people.

    As for it being a fad, I suppose it is but it is a fad that has prevailed for centuries in almost every rite in both east and west.

    Also, the use of ad orientem and versus populem orientation doesn’t have to be an all or nothing proposition. One could use versus populem most of the time and use ad orientem only for Advent (when it makes sense for everyone to face “east”) or other occasions when it makes more sense. There is room for judgment and discernment.

    Finally, there is ample room for charity here. Both ad orientem and versus populem orientations are acceptable and approved optons and people’s desire to celebrate using one form or the other should at least be respected even if practical circumstances do not allow the desired practice to be implemented in particular situations.

    1. @Robert Leblanc:
      I know this point has already been made but I think it bears repeating:

      “Nobody is talking about priests “turning their backs to the people'” is a false statement. When “all face toward God,” as it is so nicely put, it literally and factually means that the priest turns his back to the people. You may have reasons for priest turning his back to the people, you may have other ways to describe it… but still, his back is to the people. Please admit this.


    2. @Robert Leblanc:
      Priests and people already face the same direction: all are oriented toward Christ on the altar. I can decline to talk about priests turning their backs on people if, by the same token, you are prepared to concede we all already face the same direction as it happens.

      Personally, I would prefer an architecture where the orientation of the priest is irrelevant–either worship in the round, or my own preference, a monastic antiphonal approach.

      I respect how Tridentine worship was conducted. But the time has come for most Catholics to move on. If a parish has its ducks in a row with excellent preaching, music, and welcome, then yes, by all means, start tinkering on the fringes of liturgical practice. But ad orientam is not a magic pill. Bishops and other reform2 gurus who promote it are dithering on the edges of matters far more important. In that context, I have no problem asking, “What are you avoiding, and why?”

  3. FWIW, I tend to sit about 1/2-2/3 of the way back from the sanctuary, and along a side aisle rather than a middle aisle. The reason: acoustical (not just for hearing but for supporting the singing of fellow congregants).

  4. I always have to sit in the front pew, otherwise I am offended because all the people in the pews in front of me have their backs to me. Talk about rude! 🙂

  5. Since the article is from another country I can give the author some benefit of the doubt she she says the priest “turn(s) his back on the people during the celebration of Mass.” In the United States, turning your back on someone means to ignore them. It is a phrase that has different meaning than to just describe the priest turning his back towards the people.

    As for ad orientem being a fad, I doubt it. Perhaps it won’t become the near-universal practice, but I think it will become more and more prominent in the future. Most of the opposition to it is emotionally based on childhood experiences from the 50s/60s and from experiencing the council’s reforms for the first time in contrast to the world/church culture of that time. That culture doesn’t exist anymore, and those of us who never experienced it do not have a view of ad orientem colored by that.

    Also, it’s rather obvious that people don’t like the term “turn his back to the people” not because they wish to deny the factual accuracy of the term (of course his back is facing the people), but because that description is often used to *mislead* people into thinking the priest does so for the purpose of ignoring them or to not allow them to participate.

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      “the priest does so for the purpose of ignoring them or to not allow them to participate.”

      In part the priest does so because he and other reform2 gurus do not see the people as important or essential to the liturgical act. If people are satisfied with empty mainstream churches, by all means continue practices which render their engagement in the faith irrelevant.

      I recognize that some Catholics object to being called out for embracing a fad. It may have had majority traction for a millennium or longer in most places, but it is a small flag to plant on a very insubstantial hill.

      Aside from the worship of God, the purpose of the liturgy is to open people to the grace of Christ and so facilitate their holiness. The bishops of the world largely asked themselves in the late 60s: does presenting the elements to God in full view of the people assist in the “traditional” Catholic engagement of the senses? The seeing of the elements and the altar rituals? Why is adoration so vital to Roman spirituality, but the ritual action somehow not needed to be seen? I would submit that not only is ad orientam a fad, but it is an outbreak of gnosticism.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        I wonder (as in speculate) about the development for acoustical reasons. In Late Antiquity, when the anaphora was still be prayed aloud in the Latin Rite, there could have been some acoustical sense for praying against an apse as a soundboard, as it were.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        Please represent arguments you do not agree with accurately rather than create straw men. You are not having a real argument if you are just saying what you WANT the opposition to believe because it is easier to argue with.

        And please don’t take on a condescending attitude by saying I just don’t like being “called out” for not agreeing with your opinions and wishful thinking.

      3. @Jack Wayne:
        Fair enough, Jack. In my last post, I was quoting you, but I was careful to limit my criticism in paragraph two to “some” Catholics. I apologize for giving offense to you. I intended to mirror some of the worst of the “traditional” arguments for ad orientam that I see.

        In my experience, as well as what friends from afar report to me, there are clergy and others who, upon appointment to a parish, take it upon themselves to undo previous efforts. A shift to new staff members, to propers, to a tabernacle behind the altar, things like that. Then the next new pastor arrives and it all gets redone. These are what I mean by fads. Maybe a new development is a much-needed reform. And it will last. Well and good. Otherwise, it may look like something from time-honored tradition or from post-conciliar reform, but it’s really just a new cleric doing his thing. Fad. Personal indulgence. Individual taste. Call it what you will.

        My honest take on ad orientam is that is was rejected nearly wholesale fifty years ago. Bringing it back now, even in the face of declining commitment to religion, strikes me as widely missing the mark. So let me state without personal insult: ad orientam today is a very misguided and bad idea almost anywhere.

      4. @Todd Flowerday:
        I’ve seen some local parishes yo-yo back and forth in recent years between more traditional and stereotypically “Vatican II” style liturgy too. In my opinion the problem you speak of has less to do with the specific options employed and more to do with the liturgical reform itself (or rather, the Novus Ordo), which exalts the personal theology and preferences of the priest over all else and gives him far too much creative freedom over the liturgy. It sort of worked in the 70s, 80s, and 90s when there was a kind of institutionalized reaction against everything pre-concilliar amongst the clergy and bishops, but that is only going to continue to lessen as we get more and more clergy who do not share that experience.

        Having lived with both the OF and EF for substantial amounts of time, it seems to me that the pre-concilliar model was that the priest and people are both beholden to the liturgy and really can’t toy with it too much without breaking the rules. In the post-concilliar model, the dynamic shifts and you have the people and liturgy beholden to the priest. Ideally, the priest will do what is “best” for his flock (and I think the vast majority of priests, regardless of liturgical preference, want this), but what is best is in a lot of ways subjective even if you ascribe to the idea that Vatican II laid out a whole framework for how to approach liturgy. I don’t think this shift was intentional, but rather an unintended consequence of a Missal that has too many unregulated options. I don’t expect that opinion to have much favor with you or others here, but it is very much how it looks to me and my realization of this was largely formed by some of the discussions I have encountered at this very blog.

      5. @Jack Wayne:
        That testimony helps me understand you much better. I thank you and appreciate it. My parents were refused permission to adopt a Catholic girl before Vatican II. It wasn’t enough that they were willing to promise to bring her to church and enroll her in Catholic school. They each had experienced a divorce early in their adult lives and, in the 50s, that was a bar from consideration of becoming Catholic. I met the girl decades later. Born-again evangelical. A lot of good the Catholic upbringing did. Pre-conciliar rigidity. Intended consequences. Et cetera.

        By 1969, parish schools were taking non-Catholic students, and as a result, I was baptized a year later. My parents accepted my choice. But did not join me as Roman Catholics–still an impossibility for them. If I had been born ten years earlier, that path in history would not have been available to me. I am sure that some of my reform2 foils today might wish for that. But my post-conciliar experience as a believer and later, disciple, was overwhelmingly positive. My exchanges with several “traditionalist” Catholics online, not so much.

        The Church and its liturgy were long, long, long overdue for reform and renewal. It was far from perfect in 1961, and it continues to be seriously flawed today. But I look upon it as a spiritual exercise. I think of the vitality of forward movement in a pilgrimage. If a monk (for example) is having difficulty, why wouldn’t he delve deeper into his monastic vocation, rather than withdraw and indulge thoughts of old habits?

        The abandonment of reform strikes me as a disordered impulse. There may be a reason for a reaction against many things pre-conciliar. Dating a person of the opposite sex is an objective good. But not for a celibate monk. Or a married person. It’s less a matter that four to nineteen centuries of Catholics were dead wrong. We’ve moved on. If some people need a little extra time and discernment, well and good. But please: don’t offer the rest of us old wine for new skins and expect a wide fruitfulness for it.

      6. @Todd Flowerday:
        I think we need to be careful when talking about liturgy to not assume those preferences extend to everything that had to do with Vatican II. I find the rigidity of much of the pre-concilliar culture to have been a bad thing and think it is good that it went away (but will also say that culture in general was more segregated and rigid at that time, so the Church was not unusual). However, I don’t think traditional liturgy and that rigid culture of the pre-concilliar era are inseparable things or a package deal. I have no desire for an idealized past or a complete return to that era, and I think that is something people who prefer the reformed liturgy have a hard time understanding.

        I don’t like to talk too much about my personal life here, but I did not have a neat and tidy Catholic upbringing where I never encountered rigidity even though I was born in the 1980s. My parents were outside the Church due to them both being divorced and I saw the toll that took on them. I was baptized according to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer because at the time we lived near an Anglo-Catholic church (though I have really no memory of it, since we moved again when I was three or so). They eventually were able to remarry in the Church when I was around nine and from then on I was raised Catholic at a rather typical church, though my family had identified as Catholic for as long as I can remember so I didn’t see myself as becoming Catholic at the time.

  6. There is one factor in the ad orientam debate that I don’t remember seeing addressed, and that is the theological reality of the priest acting in persona Christi when he presides at Eucharist. I think that this is an important part of the discussion though, because, like it or not, ad orientam leaves the priest, speaking in the person of Christ, proclaiming the most important commands of Christ “Take and eat of it for this is my body,” with his back to the people. In the times when I have been part of the assembly at an ad orientam liturgy it is that, more than “childhood experiences from the 50s/60s” which I never had, that has been the disconnect for me. For the person in the pew, the words of Christ which are by right addressed to them (in that they are addressed to the church and in that place and time the assembly is the church) are spoken by someone with his back to them. This is not nothing in the 21st century west, and should be part of the discussion.

    1. @Fr Lou Meiman gets it quite wrong when he says this: “For the person in the pew, the words of Christ which are by right addressed to them (in that they are addressed to the church and in that place and time the assembly is the church) are spoken by someone with his back to them.” The words of the institution narrative, and the eucharistic prayer in general, are addressed to God the Father, not to the congregation. I’m not at all a supporter of the ad orientem movement, but when even priests do not know to whom they are addressing the prayers they say on behalf of the assembly, and when, increasingly it seems, they ritually enact their misunderstanding with various gestures toward the congregation, it is no wonder that there is a reaction.

      The liturgical and spiritual formation of many priests must have been very defective to leave them unaware of when they are speaking to God. I think this
      is also “not nothing… and should be part of the discussion”. The problems of the contemporary “ars celebrandi” which the ROTR people like to go on about are much deeper than fronts and backs, it seems, but concern the very nature of ritual itself and our grasp of the theology that should be informing our practice.

      1. @Paul Chandler:
        I agree that the body of the anaphora is addressed to God. I also know there is a Jewish tradition of recounting the deeds of God in prayer. But on another level, there’s not much point in a human being recounting the Last Supper narrative to God. In a sense the prayers of the Mass are “for” the people in the sense that they are part of a greater effort of cooperation with God’s grace.

        My own sense of liturgical ministry, be it that of the priest, musician, or whoever, is that transparency is a very laudable virtue. As long as Christ is clearly evident in human ritual action, isn’t that a matter of acting “in persona Christi”? If the priest isn’t addressing the people, then is he really serving in the person of Christ? In that context, I don’t find Fr Meiman’s contention to be that much of a problem.

      2. @Todd Flowerday:
        “In a sense the prayers of the Mass are “for” the people in the sense that they are part of a greater effort of cooperation with God’s grace.”

        This is even more clearly evident in the eastern anaphoras, notably in the Liturgy of St. James. Where, incidentally, there is the tradition of the celebrant facing the people.

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        An interesting point here is the the “qui” of “qui pridie” in EP I (which begins the Supper account: “who on the day before”) was left out in our current English translation. This “who” makes the entire Supper account in the Roman tradition a dependent clause. The Supper account therefore serves as a warrant for the previous request by the Church addressed to God the Father: to “make this offering…spiritual and acceptable so that it may become the Body and Blood of your…Son who on the day before….” (the earliest source, the Gelasianum Vetus, has no punctuation or capitalization at this point.)

  7. Please be wary of acoustical concerns as well. I have been in too many post-conciliar churches that make the visual a priority, but where the sound is awful. That kills congregational singing, ironically contrary to Vatican II. A longitudinal axis happens to be an excellent shape for singing. The fan/auditorium shape is poor. One need not compromise the acoustics for the communal sense, but I have seen far too many churches that didn’t factor in the acoustics at all, and seemed to only have considered the visual. That includes my current church, so I have to give pep talks to singers, to try to overcome their fears of being exposed and sounding like they are singing by themselves. Let’s build churches, where all can get caught up in a communal song of praise. That is more important than being able to see more people.

    1. @Doug O’Neill:

      A longitudinal axis happens to be an excellent shape for singing. The fan/auditorium shape is poor.

      Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that. The height of the building, the materials (and in particular reflective surfaces of walls and floors), all enter into the equation as well as the actual shape.

      There are plenty of longitudinal churches with appalling acoustics for singing: either because the ceiling is too low, or too high (so that nothing comes back to the singers at all — the cathedral in the neighbouring diocese to mine is like that: a beautiful French Gothic-style building in which music rises upwards and dies…), or for many other reasons (don’t mention acoustic tiles, carpeted floors, sound-absorbent bricks…!).

      Likewise, a fan/auditorium shape is not automatically bad for singing. Curved walls, high ceilings, good use of reflective paint and/or varnished wood— all of these can make such a shape very good indeed.

      One need not compromise the acoustics for the communal sense, but I have seen far too many churches that didn’t factor in the acoustics at all, and seemed to only have considered the visual.

      Agreed, and also far too often only the spoken word has been considered, not the sung word. The rule of thumb for acoustics is always to start by designing something good for singing, because you can always use a good PA system to deal with the spoken word subsequently. If you start with the spoken word, no power on earth will enable you to provide a good environment for music later.

      1. @Paul Inwood:
        The French medieval cathedrals had the problem of gloriously excessive height in their vaults, and the English the problem of gloriously excessive length in their plans. (One mercy is few had ginormous domes on drums over their sanctuaries to suck up the sound entirely.) This was OK in an era when congregations didn’t engage in singing or spoken dialogue, and where choirs provided a diaphonous nimbus of sound.

        The old Roman basilicas worked much better for an interactive aural liturgical experience (of the four major basilicas, S Maria Maggiore is an acoustical marvel of sorts in that regard; of the minor ones, I am fond of S Sabina).

        I’ve not visited S Francesco in Assisi, but its overall design (except for the sanctuary-end transept) strikes me as likely to be quite fine acoustically – if memory serves, the vault is just under 20m high, about the same width as the hall nave, about five modular units long.

      2. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Thank you – you expressed many of my thoughts. In many ways, the church has never improved on the basilica plan. Certainly, there are other plans that are successful, but they are not any better. I have played for choral concerts at S. Francesco in Assisi, and you are right – it is a marvelous space. I was also struck by S. Lorenzo in Florence – one of the best acoustical spaces I have ever been in.

        Regarding Paul’s comments about the other factors – height, materials, etc. – yes, of course that’s true, and those are highly important to consider. I was trying to narrow the focus of my comment, because the OP specifically mentioned a longitudinal plan in a negative way. Still – to borrow one of our favorite phrases – all things being equal, the basilica plan is much better for music (including congregational singing) than a fan/auditorium shape. Then you can place the organ and choir elevated in the back, where the transmission of sound is much better than being stuck in a corner or against a long side wall. The sound also comes from behind, which then encourages the PIP as the sound travels down the long axis. Whether you like it or not, it’s the truth – you can’t argue with physics.

      3. @Doug O’Neill:
        Though, in classic basilican form before the advent of liturgical organs, choirs were seated antiphonally or in a squared U shape in a section between congregation and sanctuary. Which can work immensely well for a cappella liturgy with the normal proportions and architectural forms and materials of the classic basilicas.

        Lagniappe: here’s a nice visual of the fine proportions and lucid design of S Francesco in Assisi looking from the sanctuary towards the main entrance – it exalts but embraces rather than overwhelm a congregation:

        Modern buildings often lack the dimension of exaltation, which makes the embrace seem puny and stingy. (Or, if they are grandiose, they overwhelm and skip the embrace. )

      4. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Good point. That arrangement would usually get in the way of the modern communion procession for Mass, although it would be interesting to try it for the office liturgies.

  8. Jack Wayne : @Todd Flowerday:…it seems to me that the pre-concilliar model was that the priest and people are both beholden to the liturgy and really can’t toy with it too much without breaking the rules. In the post-concilliar model, the dynamic shifts and you have the people and liturgy beholden to the priest. Ideally, the priest will do what is “best” for his flock (and I think the vast majority of priests, regardless of liturgical preference, want this), but what is best is in a lot of ways subjective even if you ascribe to the idea that Vatican II laid out a whole framework for how to approach liturgy.

    Though perhaps the scope of the variation might now be greater, this sort of thing could certainly have applied under the old liturgical regime. Fr. Mueller might have spent much effort to establish a sung Mass with congregational participation in the chant ordinary as the Sunday norm, only to have Fr. O’Flaherty succeed him and shift the main Sunday Mass to Low Mass with devotional hymns.

    It seems to me that if priests are convinced that certain practices are better than others, then one thing they have to do is convince the people as well. That means that the people can’t be accepting the practice simply because “Father says it is right,” but because they have understood its rightness. Otherwise when the next pastor comes in and changes things again the people will probably be annoyed but still accept it because “Father says it is right.”

  9. With others, count me a skeptic on acoustics being a natural support for ad orientam. Public basilicas taken over in the 4th century likely didn’t have government officials reading proclamations into the apse. In the Tridentine period, clergy were reciting prayers not into a smooth curved space, but into a partial wall studded with statues and decorative additions.

    With Liam, I would say that acoustics should trump visuals in terms of what a church *should* be. At any rate, the primary minister of music doesn’t serve the liturgy from one end of a longitudinal space; they are arrayed across the bottom of it.

  10. Some insist that we must say the priest “turns his back to the people.” Well, okay. Let’s be consistent, then. Shall we say the priest keeps his back to the crucifix? When he distributes communion, is his back to the consecrated hosts remaining on the altar? When he preaches, is his back to the sanctuary? When he processes, is his back to everyone behind him as he advances to the sanctuary? When he recesses, is everyone’s back to him?

    You may say, “Well, Shaughn, that’s absurd.” Yes, precisely — it’s absurd to insist on emphasizing an interpretation full of negative connotations when none are intended. I prefer to focus on where the priest and the congregation are facing, rather than on where their backs are.

    It’s also fruitful to consider where the altar rests, rather than where the priest stands. An altar in the center, as has been noted, places greater emphasis on Christ’s immanence. An altar placed at the eastern end of the church (whether literally or figuratively) emphasizes the liminal nature of Christ’s transcendence and immanence and hearkens back (in my mind, anyway) to the Jewish Temple, with the veil leading to the Holy of Holies. That’s particularly true if the tabernacle is placed on the High Altar. We debate at length which of these placements is to be preferred, but I’ve noticed those conversations have typically been more civil than the back and forth about which direction the priest faces.

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