Another Debate We Can’t Ignore

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


  1. Although he has not indicated that the priests of the diocese should celebrate one or another, Bishop Morlino of Madison, Wisconsin has announced that he will celebrate ad orientem at his cathedral.

  2. “Sound liturgical guidance”? Is that only when the bishops speak on a posture which one supports? The hyperbole in comparing this to the US presidential election is really over the top. It is hardly a dividing issue – except for the marginal populations who are immersed in liturgy and Church matters.

    Actually, I thought the Naumann’s piece was the most sensible, stating that is he is not promoting one over the other. The other arguments are fine from the point of view of promoting unity in a diocese, but otherwise lacking. And clearly, some people are NOT fine with promoting unity in praxis in a diocese when it is a practice they disagree with.

    The problem is that posture has got pulled into the whole Vatican-II debate and has come to be seen as representing a turning back of the clock, restoration of the bad old days, etc., etc. I get that people like ad populum, and want to keep it. That is fine. I also get that posture is often an indicator of something else.

    But all the grandiose and sweeping judgements against ad orientem that I have read fail to realize that they are not just passing judgement on a few cranky traddies but on a practice that was common *across Churches* for well over a millennium (and before anyone quotes the Jensen article again – please read it carefully!) . How people can airily indict their history is quite inconceivable to me.

    1. Actually, Joshua, it’s not. Arguably, one could state that all three of them have differing opinions on the issue. The fact that they gave guidance rather than letting the divisiveness continue is what I am commending.

      I am not passing judgement on those who support this posture purely for posturing’s sake, but as you yourself state it is most often politicized and the supporters of it often, and in my experience always, have “theological” reasons to do so rather than doing it out of deference to the historical practice.

      You make reference to the fact that it is a small group who support this, and it is, but the fact that the church is becoming smaller in this nation, and the fact that “the marginal populations who are immersed in liturgy and Church matters” are the ones who are engaged in pastoral work and are forming the laity, this is an issue that needs to be addressed.

  3. Ok, hear me out, hear me out…

    The altar is on a rotating platform (kind of like those bachelor pad beds from the 70s), and the priest is on a platform encircling the altar (think the rings of Saturn) that is also rotating. The altar is going clockwise and the priest is going counterclockwise; the priest’s platform rotates at 7/8ths the speed of the altar’s. Also, the two platforms rise and fall 19 inches at irregular intervals.

  4. We’ve seen a lot of ink spilled advancing the position of Cardinal Sarah, and unfortunately not too many actual arguments in favor of Mass facing the people aside from its grounding in the GIRM, which is significant but not sufficient. The arguments pro ad orientem have thus driven the debate in many forums, putting the practice of facing the people on the defensive. I have found the debate somewhat one-sided in that way. Even Fr. Anthony at the Catholic Herald could not summon up arguments in favor of Mass facing the people, instead, ably calling out the bad arguments on the opposite side. Yet there are many good arguments — theological and liturgical– for the practice of Mass facing the people.

    The best recent thing that has been published on this subject is, I think, Mark Francis’s essay in the July 14 issue of the Tablet, “Which way does God face?” Unfortunately it’s premium content, so if you are not a subscriber you only get to read the first few paragraphs for free! But he argues against the return to a priest-standing-between-the-assembly-and-God configuration as a distortion of the ecclesiology of the reformed liturgy.

    I’ve written in Commonweal about the altar as the “axis mundi” — arguing that the reformed liturgy does not lack a common orientation or a cosmology that directs the heart toward God; it simply does it differently. I also raise the question of beauty and where it is to be found in the liturgy (my point: the events the assembly now sees at the altar have a more profound beauty than secondary aesthetic features such as vestments or church decor). You can read my short essay here:
    I regret that it couldn’t be longer (it’s a column and we have severe word limits!) but you get the idea.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        No, I’m just pointing out that the rubrics of the missal itself — also an authoritative guide — are hard to understand without either presuming ad orientem or at least taking it into account as a serious possibility. As for the GIRM, even PrayTell has shown that its Latin is hard to understand and can be taken in different ways, which is hardly ideal for a legislative document.

  5. @Anthony Ruff, OSB

    Both you and I know that there were extensive rubrics prepared by the NCCB for the ad orientem posture back in the 1995-1998 timeframe by the BCL. I assume you were still at ICEL then.

    In fact, we have a Prot. # letter on what that specific paragraph means, as the translation from the IGMR to the GIRM was not exact, and we know the IGMR actually is the universal law. We also know that this Prot# letter may be an individual response, it is of a higher order than the Cardinal’s remarks.

    Ever wonder why the Roman Congregations always seemed to know what was going on with the BCL back then?

  6. The question isn’t whether there are compelling arguments in favor of Mass facing the people (of course there are), the question is are the arguments in favor of versus populum so good, so compelling, so objective, that the only response they *demand* from us is that versus populum be upheld as the universal and exclusive manner of celebrating the reformed Latin Rite – that they demand ad orientem be largely discouraged or forbidden? My answer to that is a resounding no – at best the most compelling arguments put versus populum on equal footing with ad orientem, but do not demand ad orientem be abandoned or relegated to the extreme minority position it holds in the Church today.

    The only exception to this would be the argument of uniformity (not to be confused with unity). If the goal is to make the liturgical practice uniform across a diocese so as to not confuse or anger some people, then fine – but that goal can be just as easily accomplished by demanding ad orientem be exclusive.

    In response to Rita’s earlier comment about these arguments being one-sided – I think the reason the versus populum position is often on the defensive is because ad orientem had to be on the defensive for far far longer and has had a chance to really think through the arguments in its favor. Those in favor of versus populum didn’t need compelling arguments, they had the power and influence of the Church behind them enforcing it and largely still do (even under Benedict).

    1. @Jack Wayne:
      What’s compelling is in the eye of the beholder at this point, Jack, unfortunately. I would argue yes, the arguments in favor are that compelling. You and others would disagree. I respect your right to disagree, but that doesn’t change my mind.

      1. @Rita Ferrone:
        But if what is compelling is in the eye of the beholder, then the answer is still no, the arguments are not compelling enough (and this equally applies to ad orientem). People experience the two postures differently and that experience is colored by one’s personal history – I find ad orientem more the communal posture where the altar is the “center of the universe,” for example.

        Also, I wanted to take an issue with your Commonweal article in regards to the crab story. The story is obviously, from context, not about a woman who naively misunderstands what is going on at Mass because it is ad orientem, it is a mean spirited jab very much in keeping with common Protestant attitudes towards Catholics at the time (particularly if the story takes place in the Unites States). I attend concerts at a local Methodist church, and they didn’t even have a free-standing altar until a massive remodeling project that took place in the 1980s. I strongly doubt “ad orientem” worship would have been so foreign to someone “long before the council” because it was almost universal amongst virtually all liturgical Protestant groups. Even if it was a naive misunderstanding, it was likely the product of the woman being taught all sorts of goofy things about what Catholics believe when she was growing up (like that we worship Mary and all secretly have horns).

      2. @Jack Wayne:
        A “mean spirited jab”? By whom? Not by me. Your comments are colored by resentment to such an extent that I think it must be very hard for you to laugh or to imagine that anybody in a story is naive, since they all seem to you to be “out to get you.” Lighten up, Jack! Methodist altars attached to a wall are no argument against misinterpretations (hilarious ones included) of the Catholic Mass, which have been rife through history. To me the story is obviously about the priest’s gestures (signs of the cross and such), seen from behind, gestures which are absent from the Methodist service and present in the Catholic liturgy.

        As for your first point, which seems to be that everyone has to be convinced in order for a liturgical practice to be adopted as universal, all I can say is that this isn’t the way it has happened for any other issue that I can think of in the Catholic liturgy. Decisions come about through the exercise of authority, with sufficient support to uphold them — not by universal acclamation.

      3. @Rita Ferrone:
        Now I think you are reading too much into it. I love laughing at my self and even poke fun at some Catholic liturgical practices. I certainly am not resentful or think anyone is out to get me. Do you feel that if someone recognizes that there might have been biases, racism, or sexism in the past that it always means the person is resentful or paranoid? Perhaps I was wrong and it was more innocent than that, though it seems reasonable to think she had been told goofy stuff about Catholics based on what I’ve heard about that era.

        I took you as being too serious about it, the woman’s misinterpretation was apparently proof that ad orientem liturgy would need a massive educational campaign lest people actually come to believe such things and could be used as real evidence against it. Apparently, from what I have seen here from you and others, every misinterpretation or bad pre-concilliar experience is damning evidence against ad orientem. Mean teacher nun? Uncaring priest? Strict Catholic parents? A protestant comically misunderstanding the hand gestures of the priest? All valid arguments against ad orientem, apparently. The resentment there is so thick as to be suffocating.

      4. @Jack Wayne:
        Did I damn or suffocate anyone? Don’t think so. But since that’s how you see it, let’s both be a little less serious then and call it quits. 🙂 At least I never brought up mean nuns or uncaring priests!

      5. @Rita Ferrone:
        I’m glad you and I BOTH agree that you didn’t damn or suffocate anyone. I’ll call it quits as well, as I feel you are taking my comments too personally. I never said anything about your personality or character in any of my replies, but apparently I’m a resentful person who thinks everyone is out to get me, and now you think I’m accusing you of damning specific people. I did childishly call you resentful after you called me such, and for that I apologize, and I apologize if the Methodist woman in your story had no ill will and I misinterpreted it.

        We need to remember that this is an internet comment section. Reacting to ideas is fine, but neither you or I can judge the character or personality of another person by a few little paragraphs.

  7. Wonderful words from Cardinal Sarah’s new book (as reported as Chiesa):

    As prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, I am intent upon recalling once again that celebration “versus orientem” is authorized by the rubrics of the Missal because it is of apostolic tradition. There is no need for particular authorization to celebrate in this way, people and priest, facing the Lord. If it is physically not possible to celebrate “ad orientem,” a cross must necessarily be placed on the altar, in plain sight, as a point of reference for all. Christ on the cross is the Christian East.

    1. @Rita Ferrone:

      If we suppose, as many do, that based on its structure the Eucharist draws a great deal from the Temple services, the synagogue, the Seder, and the Sabbath, then we have many data points we can pull from. It might be worth looking into the layouts of each of those rites.

      1. @Shaughn Casey:
        Shaughn, liturgical scholars do not suppose that the structure of Eucharist draws on all these things, with Temple service at the top of the list. There is consensus that the Eucharist grew primarily from domestic table practice. Use of Temple imagery and practice comes much, much later – mostly in the Middle Ages.

      2. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        Fr. Anthony,

        You’re quite right. It grew /from/ it, and it developed over time into something else. I think you know my mind on this; I’m not a huge fan of archaeologizing the liturgy, especially when, as you’ve said many times, the early evidence is at best unclear. Insisting on one or the other orientation based on “early church evidence” is a non-starter for those reasons. It doesn’t especially bother me that temple imagery is a later development. At some point, except for unique places like the City of Rome, one orientation becomes normative and continues that way up until the 20th century, at least for the Catholic Church. Other developments are, of course, more troubling; there was a time, for example, when the church was happy to accommodate other languages and did so — Old Church Slavonic arose out of that sense of accommodation and desire to spread the Gospel to Slavic people. I won’t rehearse the back and forth on that here, but suffice it to say, I’m mostly content that people can get vernacular if they want and, though often with difficulty, they can get Latin if they want.

        As you know, I’d really just prefer a cease fire; I’m not personally thrilled with versus populum worship, but I don’t particularly begrudge people who actively involve themselves in it. I think we both lament when parishioners come, vegetate, communicate, and leave, regardless of the orientation. It’s the endless brinkmanship on both sides in these debates that vexes me. Having said that, I understand why ad orientem supporters are so vocal, as it’s been ubiquitously suppressed for decades even though it’s a valid form of liturgical expression.

  8. Anthony Ruff, OSB : @Shaughn Casey: Shaughn, liturgical scholars do not suppose that the structure of Eucharist draws on all these things, with Temple service at the top of the list. There is consensus that the Eucharist grew primarily from domestic table practice. Use of Temple imagery and practice comes much, much later – mostly in the Middle Ages. awr

    While I would not want to put the Temple liturgy at the top of the list, I am increasingly dubious about some of the historical claims made by those who would want to see early Christianity as entirely eschewing in their worship anything associated with the Temple cultus. Is there any reason to think, for example, that the imagery of the letter to the Hebrews has nothing to do with Christian liturgy? It seems to me that this view has more to do with the prejudices (both anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic, as J. Z. Smith has argued) of 19th-century German biblical scholars than it does with any historical evidence.

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