We all are aware of the ad orientem debate raging now. Like the recent U.S. presidential “debate,” we may want to just simply tune out and ignore it; after all, it often is reduced to the two sides screaming over one another. Unfortunately, like the presidential debate, we cannot afford the luxury of apathy.
In many dioceses, including my home diocese of Birmingham, Alabama, there has been a small but vocal number of priests who are zealously promoting and implementing this posture after Card. Sarah endorsed it in a private talk in July. Bishops have largely remained silent. This silence has continued to cause confusion as proponents of this posture continue to (wrongly) state that the GIRM recommends or even assumes ad orientem during the liturgy.
Only three bishops in this country, as far as I am aware, have issued clarifications for this murky topic.
In a terse email to his presbyterate and diaconate, Bishop Anthony Taylor in Little Rock, AK gave clear guidance. Taylor stated that since the GIRM states that whenever possible, priests should celebrate the Mass facing the people, they should. Bishop Taylor stated that since in his own diocese it is always possible to celebrate facing the people, “outside of Mass celebrated in Latin in the Extraordinary Form, [he] expect[s] Mass will always be celebrated facing the people in [that] diocese.”
Bishop Martin Amos of Davenport, IA, in a strong letter to his presbyterate, later published in his diocesan newspaper, stated:
The pervasive nature of electronic communication has facilitated the distribution of [Cardinal Sarah’s] opinions. Therefore, in order to prevent confusion and foster unity within the diocese, I am sending you this letter to clarify matters as they stand.
The Cardinal Prefect offered his own, private opinions on this and other matters. His words do not, and indeed cannot, constitute a change in ecclesiastical law or practice. Therefore, the law of the Church stands, as exemplified in paragraph 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). … There are cases where it is not possible to assume this posture, so the Order of Mass makes some accommodation for it (GIRM 127, 132, 133, 141). However, it is clear that the normative position of the priest when presiding at Mass in the Ordinary Form is facing the people, or, better, of the priest and the assembly facing the Altar together… To be clear, this is the posture that priests are to take when celebrating the liturgy (in the Ordinary Form) in the Diocese of Davenport. I am confident of your obedience in this matter.
The Most. Rev. Joseph Naumann, the archbishop of Kansas City, KS, just sent a letter to his presbyterate on 21 September addressing this subject. Naumann wrote that “it is incorrect to assert either [orientation] is superior over the other… because of my concern for the liturgical unity of our people within the Archdiocese, and the welfare of all our priests, I am not inclined to affirmatively promote changing to “ad orientem” worship by priests at this time.”
Thank you, bishops, for your sound liturgical guidance.
NB: Bishops in other nations, notably Card. Nichols, have addressed this issue. If readers are in possession of other directives from American bishops on this issue, please add links in the comments below.- djw