Did the Presider Face East in the Early Church?

By Paul Bradshaw

Those looking to the earliest Christians for a definitive answer to the question of which way the presider should face at the Eucharist – ad orientem or versus populum – are in for a disappointment.

The earliest Eucharist was a meal, and in accordance with the social customs of the time diners would have reclined around the room to eat, on couches in wealthy homelast-suppers, on cushions on the floor otherwise. Contrary to the usual depictions of the Last Supper, there would not even have been a central dining table, but small low tables set within reach of each diner. So orientation at the Eucharist would not have entered the picture until Christians abandoned the meal and moved the celebration from evening to morning; and in spite of claims to the contrary by some, there is no firm evidence for that transition taking place until the third century, and even then none of the evidence says anything about the direction that the presider faced.

Of course, we do know that it was traditional among early Christians to face east to say their own prayers. Origen, for example, firmly rejects the argument that if a house has a fine view in a different direction, one should face that way rather than towards the east. And obviously, when a group of Christians got together to pray, they would all have turned towards the east.

But we don’t know if this would also have applied when they later came to stand at the Lord’s table for the Eucharist, so that everyone would have been on the one side and left the other three sides empty, or whether they would have stood on all sides. Even the strongest proponents of the ad orientem position for the presider today have to admit that this evidence is lacking.

Some might presume that the rule of praying towards the east would have prevailed even for the presider; others that a free-standing altar table such as we find in archeological evidence from the fourth century onwards would naturally have led to people surrounding it on all four sides. Both of these can be no more than presumptions, because in the absence of explicit evidence, history is unable to settle the matter.

But what we can learn from the early Church is that it was never a matter of the priest “turning his back to the people” nor on the other hand of him “facing the people.” Two fundamental Christian liturgical symbols are involved. One would express the union of the body of Christ, even when dispersed throughout the world, turning to the one Lord in prayer; the other would express the union of presider and people with the Lord gathered around his table. It is all a question of which of these is judged the more appropriate in any given situation.

However, it must be admitted neither arrangement has much symbolic force if priest and people still remain very many feet distant from each other!

bradshawPaul Bradshaw, priest of the Church of England, is a specialist in the early history of Christian liturgy who has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1985. He has written or edited over twenty books and has contributed more than one hundred articles or essays. For eighteen years he was chief editor of the international journal, Studia Liturgica, and he is also a former President both of Societas Liturgica and of the North American Academy of Liturgy. His book, The Search for the Origins of Christian Liturgy, has become a standard textbook. It has gone through two editions (New York: Oxford University Press 1992, 2002), and has been translated into French, Italian, and Japanese, with Polish and Russian translations forthcoming.

Art piece: The Last Supper by Marcantonio Raimondi (after Raphael)


  1. I think the early church had a more acute awareness of Christ’s presence among them, “gathered in His name”. East, West, whatever; they knew they couldn’t ‘escape’ Him.

  2. “there is no firm evidence for that transition taking place until the third century, and even then none of the evidence says anything about the direction that the presider faced.” — The Didiscalia (c. 250 AD) does direct everyone, “ecclesial leaders” included, to face toward the east when they “stand to pray…Now, you ought to face to the east to pray, for as you know, scripture has it, Give praise to God who ascends above the highest heavens to the east.”

    “And obviously, when a group of Christians got together to pray, they would all have turned towards the east. But we don’t know if this would also have applied when they later came to stand at the Lord’s table for the Eucharist,” — I think the burden of proof falls upon the author to show how the prayer of thanksgiving offered at the Lord’s table is some how different from the other forms of Christian prayer which Christians were instructed to offer toward the east.

    A couple of other observations. No mention is made of the Jewish practice of facing the temple when they pray, which predates Christianity. It would have been natural for Jewish Christians specifically to have a common direction for liturgical prayer.

    And, an archeological observation, the universal practice of placing a single altar in Christian churches moves us away from the theory of many tables around the room. Furthermore, the earliest church that we know of, in Dura Europos (c. 230), was a house church with a single altar anchored against the eastern wall.

    It seems the author’s argument in favor of facing the people must put emphasis on the Eucharist being a meal eaten around a common table. I don’t think this is debated. The Eucharist is a meal. The question is, “What type of meal is it?” It’s a sacrificial meal. This is what is highlighted by the ad orientem posture. Just as gathering around a common table emphasizes the Eucharist being a meal, so the common direction of prayer toward the east emphasizes the Eucharist as a sacrifice of praise directed to God.

    1. @Steve Hartley:
      Let me try to clarify a few things.
      1. Didiscalia from 250 is in the third century, so we have no evidence before the third century of eastward liturgical direction. Documents speak of facing east for prayer, but it isn’t clear that it is for liturgical prayer too. It may have been, as Bradshaw stated, but there is no proof of it.
      2. It is highly problematic to draw on Jewish practices for the early Christian liturgical practice, since it is beyond dispute that the Christian Eucharist drew primarily from domestic table practice. Christian citing of, and imitation of, Temple practice comes much, much later, mostly in the Middle Ages.
      3. This is entirely confusing what “meal” means in this post. I was afraid this would happen, and thought of adding an explanatory comment immediately when I put the post up. We’re not talking about the THEOLOGY of the Eucharist, whether it is theologically a meal or theologically a sacrifice. We are talking about the actual PRACTICE of a real meal where people eat and drink lots of food and drink together, in conjunction with celebrating the Eucharist. Bradshaw is talking about Eucharist being celebrated as part of such a real live meal, and saying that we have no evidence this stopped being the case before the third century. After the Eucharist separated from a real live meal, of course our theology said it is a meal in its theological meaning (and also a sacrifice), but that is an entirely different issue. The point of this post is examine what we know about the directional orientation of the presider, given that the Eucharist likely was, as far as we know, part of a real live meal until the third century.
      4. Similarly, one can’t assume (or hope) that Christians faced East for eucharist like they did for all their other prayer – because the Eucharist was a real live meal and there’s no evidence such meals were done with everyone facing East. It being a real live meal shakes up the whole thing about eastward prayer, and so the burden of proof does not fall as you try to place it.

  3. “However, it must be admitted neither arrangement has much symbolic force if priest and people still remain very many feet distant from each other!” — I totally agree! 🙂

    1. @Steve Hartley:
      Paul Bradshaw is right if you want detailed evidence, But this point about distance is good.

      I have been in countless Anglican churches where the Table is moved forward so that the minister can face the people, but the table remains in the sanctuary, far away from the congregation, distanced from them by the Victorian clutter of choir stalls, etc.

      The best arrangement I have experienced for ‘ad orientem’ was at the Community of Servants of the Will of God in Sussex, where the celebrant stood facing the altar, with the congregation in a semicircle around him, also facing the altar. Nobody was more than fifteen feet away at the very most. We were all ‘oriented’ and we could all connect.


  4. But why should we bound by the practice of the first two centuries? As the Church grew there was a proper development of both theology and liturgy. The first Eucharistic gatherings were necessarily small and the liturgy was undeveloped. As the Church grew and the Eucharist was celebrated by hundreds, if not thousands, of people at a time different arrangements would necessarily have to be made. Instead of looking as the practices of a single era we should look at what had become the universal practices throughout the Church, knowing that the Church is always guided by the Holy Spirit and not just the first generation.

    Additionally, it is a false antiquarianism to think that the development of liturgical practices started when we have the first evidence of them. The truth is that there is little archeological evidence from the first two centuries. But we do know that the Church has always been conservative in its liturgical practices. With the first evidence of a standard liturgical practice, barring evidence to the contrary or disputes with its introduction, it is reasonable to assume that this had already been the common practice for some time.

    1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
      You’re both changing the subject and setting up a straw man.

      What starts this whole discussion is the claim that ad orientem is universally the apostolic practice. (Just google it, you can find that claim all over the internet.) Turns out that’s not true. We don’t have any evidence it was done for the first 200 years.

      So you change the subject and say, “Well then, it’s no longer about the earliest practice because we believe in development.” OK, fine, of course there’s lots of liturgical development (both for the better and for the worse), nobody disputes that. But’s let’s stay on topic for a second and talk about what the evidence is for the first two centuries, since history-based claims are being used as decisive precedent.

      Second, we Catholics believe in going back to the sources and undoing the bad developments of liturgical history – that’s a key teaching of Vatican II. This whole enterprise is not accurately dismissed as antiquarianism. And Vatican II, by its teachings, has put a different slant on the antiquarianism charge made by Pius XII: while Pius XII and V2 both go back to the sources, V2 does so in a stronger sense and with a bit less skepticism about retrieving earlier lost practices than Pius XII. No Catholic should cite Pius XII on this point without acknowledging the further development at V2.

      But the charge of antiquarianism is a straw man, for no one is suggesting that we should have a real live meal for eucharist, as in the earliest centuries, and do away with a missal and structured liturgy. Rather, we are looking at the real-live-meal practice to assess (and reject) the false claim that there is a universal apostolic tradition. There isn’t.

      But I’ve been in this business long enough to know that ideology is very strong, and the facts of history will not matter much to those who want to believe what they believe.


  5. What puzzles me is this:
    — the practice of the first couple of centuries is unverifiable.
    — the practice of the next millennium and some is verifiable, and suggests that facing the people was increasingly in the minority.

    Notice also that the presumption for facing the people in the first couple of centuries is balanced by other quite likely presumptions that support not.

    So based on a complete hypothesis of what **might** have been the case, we revive a practice and discard another which has a long history, and as a fundamental ritual practice, is deeply linked to our understanding. We claim (and blame) bad ecclesiology, faulty understanding, and whatnot for the older pracitce that endured over a millennium. What makes us so sure that our ideas are right and the other 1000+ years aren’t? Why should we privilege this secondary practice which does not have the weight of history – if not for the fact that it has become a deep symbol of acceptance – dare I say, uncritical acceptance – of reform? Talk about being driven by ideology!

    That is leaving aside the fact that much of the justification for various liturgical practices and decisions, even within the Consilium, was that this WAS early practice for many centuries – a fact which more knowledge has made less tenable.

    I would also disagree that “it is beyond dispute that the Christian Eucharist drew primarily from domestic table practice”. I think many of these theories of the sources of the Eucharist are being revisited and challenged even by scholars from other religious traditions, and rightly so. Certainly, the end of the Patristic Age and the Middle Ages saw a flowering of the application of cultic Temple motifs to the Eucharist. But sometimes they simply draw on nascent aspects that WERE possibly influenced by Temple practice. IMHO, the sources of the Eucharist are far from settled, and the strong reliance on the Old Testament by at least a section of the early Church makes me hesitant to rule it out – at least after the destruction of the Temple.

    Although I appreciate the (rightful) distinction you made between theology and practice, I think one issue is that our research into history is sometimes driven by our idea of theology. It is easiest of course to see in conservative groups which retroject later ideas and notions into history. But I think it also can influence scholarly research – I can think of more than a few scholars in the past century and a half whose ideas and theories were based on the fundamental conviction that sacrifice was a later elaboration of what was at most a very nascent idea in the Eucharist. The corollary is the meal nature of the Eucharist and this in turn makes it easier to conceive of the ritual structure as embodying a meal (not saying that it didn’t……but again, I think the sources are wider and not yet fully known).

    1. @Joshua Vas:
      Joshua, you write:

      “I would also disagree that ‘it is beyond dispute that the Christian Eucharist drew primarily from domestic table practice’. I think many of these theories of the sources of the Eucharist are being revisited and challenged even by scholars from other religious traditions, and rightly so.”

      Source citation? Who are the reputable historians of liturgy revisiting and challenging this consensus?

      Second question: Is there anything in Bradshaw’s post that you think is historically wrong or not supported by the data?


    2. @Joshua Vas:
      This issue deserves its own response.

      There’s no getting around it, at least for those who accept V2: there were things that went wrong, & were mistaken, for well over 1000+ yrs of liturgical history. Catholics believe that active (or actual) participation of the entire congregation is important for many reasons, one of which is that it is the nature of the church as the Body of Christ, which should be expressed in the liturgical celebration. NB, something like this has been taught in various ways since 1903, culminating in a strong statement of it at V2.

      Against that standard, a Catholic today has to admit that for at least 1000 if not 1500 years, this was hardly taught or practiced. I’m aware of very, very little official teaching on the important of active liturgical participation as an expression of the nature of the church between, say, 600 and 1850.

      Whether it’s Gueranger extolling liturgy as source of piety in 19c, or Pius X on particepatizione attiva in TLS, or preconciliar Latin Masses with congregational Latin chant and lay missals for following in translation, or Vatican II vernacular with congregational participation: all these are a HUGE change from the previous 1200+ years. Between our more recent history and most of the tradition a great gap is fixed.

      So, yes: things did go off the rails in important ways already in the late patristic and early medieval era. V2 clearly admitted and sought to fix this. The insights of Gueranger and Pius X led ineluctably to this conclusion. NB. This doesn’t prelude lots of authentic Xtn witness and prayer and faith and heroism throughout history.

      It is in this context of V2 teaching that it was possible for the whole RC church to conclude that a practice 1,500 years old (ad orientem) is not obviously and clearly superior just because it was done for 1,500 years. The church officially approved doubting long-standing tradition at V2. Antiquity is no longer a sufficient proof.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        As one who does accept V2 what I cannot accept are your conclusions. And this is the rub, that a particular interpretation of V2 has appropriated to itself the exclusive right to pronounce on what V2 taught, summarily dismissing those who disagree with them with the charge of rejecting the council. Did council call for a reform of the liturgy? Yes, but this can be done in continuity with Tradition, as Pope Benedict has taught, rather than opposed to it. Even with the present reformed Missal it is possible to celebrate the Mass in a very traditional form. There is nothing in V2 that calls for a rejection of our liturgical tradition nor that we have a tabula rasa to create a liturgy without reference to Tradition.

        Also, if it is fair game to question how the Church has worshipped for at least a millennium and a half, then it must also be fair game to question practices that are not more than 50 years old.

      2. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        But questioning 1,000 years is not the same as questioning the last 50: the two are on the opposite sides of the watershed, Vatican II. And Vatican II not only allows, but requires – implicitly and explicitly – questioning and critiquing and rejecting some practices that are centuries old and go back to the early Middle Ages or late Patristic era. The practices of the last 50 years are officially allowed or encouraged or demanded by Vatican II. The same is not true of all practices of the previous 1,500 years.

        If one really unpacks what Vatican II is about and what its significance is, there is reason to ask whether you both fully understand and fully accept Vatican II – though I grant that you say that you do.


      3. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Where our fundamental disagreement lies is with the notion that Vatican II was a watershed. I have studied the decrees of the council and I just do not see it. Nor, as you know, am I alone in this opinion. Are we to say that Pope Benedict or Cardinal Sarah, the current Prefect of the Congregation of Worship, do not understand and fully accept Vatican II?

        As many others, you claim that the revolution that we have experienced is not only allowed by Vatican II but demanded. But most of the changes in liturgical praxis occurred after Vatican II had adjourned and were not called for by the council; in some case are directly contrary to what the council said. Consilium is not the council, nor are the various university theology faculties. To sum up: the council called for the retention of Latin and giving Gregorian chant pride of place; no mention was ever made of composing new Eucharistic prayers, versus populum worship, Communion in the hand, standing for Communion, etc., etc., etc. How far to go in the reform called by the council is, of course, a matter of prudential judgment but the directions of the council would have been satisfied with the reformed rubrics of 1965 coupled with an expanded Lectionary. The decision to go beyond this and issue a new Missal, and then to restrict the use of what is included in the Missal were not a decisions of the council but came afterwards.

        If we are going to insist on what is officially allowed then let us both use an objective standard rather than our personal preferences: the current Roman Missal, which is the official promulgation of the reforms of Vatican II. As I have stated before, the present Missal allows for a very traditional form of the Mass. Will you not accept this reform?

      4. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        I mean no offense, but I’ve answered this very question so many times on this blog, I don’t have the energy to do it again. Really. It’s all been said already.

      5. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        “Are we to say that Pope Benedict or Cardinal Sarah, the current Prefect of the Congregation of Worship, do not understand and fully accept Vatican II?”

        As an aside to this discussion, I wanted to pick up on this point, which was raised above. Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah have opinions about Vatican II which are just that — their opinions. And their high positions in the church do not make those opinions either correct or definitive.

        I have no problem at all saying that they don’t understand certain aspects of the Council or that their interpretation of the Council is faulty in some respects. Their views represent a dissent from the consensus view, as a matter of fact. The consensus view happens to be more correct than their view, with respect to all sorts of measures: evidential, historical, theological. To respect their office and to obey their decrees is the duty of Catholics. But no one has to agree with their opinions about “what the Council wanted.”

      6. @Rita Ferrone:
        If you wish to hold that the views of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah are merely non-binding opinions then you should also acknowledge the same for the present scholarly consensus view. It holds no teaching authority. There is no Magisterium of the Academy. Nor can you charge those who reject this consensus view as rejecting Vatican II; they are only rejecting a particular opinion concerning the council.

        But the views of Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah do hold more weight than that of mere opinion inasmuch as they reflect the broader Ordinary Magisterium. Additionally, an authentic interpretation of the council must take into account those documents issued by the Church, including the present Missal and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Thus those provisions in the Missal which allow for a very traditional form of worship cannot be viewed as merely concession to a recalcitrant minority but as fully legitimate options that reflect the teaching of Vatican II.

        It is here that the “consensus view” fails, in trying to isolate Vatican II from Magisterial teachings, both Ordinary and Extraordinary, that came before it. Such an attempt not only robs previous Church teaching of any authority but does so for Vatican II itself. Either the Church teaches with a divine authority throughout history or it never does, including Vatican II. Moreover, if it had been the intention of Vatican II to break with past teaching it would have said so explicitly, and not in ambiguous language over which we are arguing 50 years later.

        Do I accept Vatican II? Yes, because I accept the entirety of Church teaching. What I do not accept is an interpretation of the council that would isolate it from and overthrow what the Church has taught in the past. To argue for such a position because of a consensus view is to argue from authority, an authority that I do not accept.

      7. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        “It holds no teaching authority.”

        You seem to think that the Catechism and the magisterium back your point of view. I am sorry to inform you that it’s very much not like that, in fact. They reflect the consensus view I am speaking about and Fr. Anthony is speaking about, which in fact reflects the ordinary magisterium. Honestly, I don’t know what you’ve read that leads you to this fantasmagorical idea that all magisterial authority agrees with Pope Benedict and Cardinal Sarah in one great chorus. That’s a fantasy. In effect, you are assigning to them the role of “correcting” everyone else. It doesn’t square with reality.

      8. @Rita Ferrone:
        I see nothing in the Catechism that would lead to the views that you hold. As for assigning to Pope Benedict and Cardinal the role of correcting everyone else, that is indeed their job: to exercise their magisterial authority to correct the non-magisterial opinions of scholars, irregardless if they are the consensus among them.

        But restricting ourselves to issues of the liturgy, it is the Roman Missal that is the magisterial statement on the matter. As to the question of versus poplum, the magisterial pronouncement contained in the Missal declares that this is completely valid. This is what Cardinal Sarah has rightly pointed out, as other official responses from the Congregation have done. The non-magisterial opinions of academic liturgists about what “should be” do not negate what the magisterial decrees of the Church say “is”.

      9. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        Well, you’ve changed the subject now from what Vatican II is and did, to what grounds we have for regarding ad orientem as legitimate. Many things are legitimate that are not optimal, and one of the hallmarks of the Council was its generosity in allowing for exceptional circumstances while not abandoning the norms it set for the Church. When I say consensus, I mean not only a scholarly consensus or the consensus of experts but also the consensus of the bishops who implemented the Council, and almost universally turned the altars around. I disagree with your statement that it is the role of Benedict and Sarah to correct everyone who disagrees with them. It certainly is not. We have a new Pope now, who is totally comfortable operating within the consensus I am speaking about, and he has in fact reined in Sarah when his statements urged priests to act otherwise.

      10. @Rita Ferrone:
        Well this thread did start with the question of ad orientem. : )

        I agree that there was a consensus of the bishops after the council on this question but you are conflating what Vatican II did with opinions on how to implement the reforms of the council. We should not fall into the trap of post hoc ergo propter hoc.

        Pope Paul VI, who implemented the decrees of the council with the promulgation of the new Roman Missal, included the rubrics for ad orientem not as a concession but because the council never considered, nor mentioned, mandating Mass versus populum. Neither did it even present it as preferable. Vatican II did not address this at all. This might have been the preference of liturgists who used the council as an opportunity to introduce it, but it was not among the decrees of the council itself. This is true also of many other changes introduced after the council, e.g., the abandonment of Latin. This actually goes against what Vatican II decreed.

        As to the question of what is optimal and what is not, well this is a matter of prudential judgment.

      11. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        It was Benedict who introduced the idea of drawing a bright line between the Council and its implementation. You will not find that approach evident in much of the writing around that time, and it’s questionable whether the bright line is really warranted. The same is true of the other hermeneutical move he made by insisting that the documents of the Council are to be regarded in isolation and to the exclusion of an understanding of the Council as “event” or “starting point.” By focusing solely on the documents, you close the circle. But the big question is: Does this represent the best and truest and most faithful interpretation of the Council. I don’t believe that it does. Peace.

  6. I would suggest, as I am wont to do, that the sacramental revolution of Pope St Pius X, which to some extent was a completion of long-unfinished work of the Council of Trent also begat further developments in Vatican II.

  7. @ Fr. Anthony Ruff
    I think my point was the practice that emerged from the first two hundred years was to face eastward. Unless there is any direct evidence proving that Christians did the contrary prior to the third century, it doesn’t make any sense to think the practice manifested out of thin air and over took whole Church thereafter. Considering its ancient and near universal use emerging from the nascent Church, I have to assume the practice is of apostolic origin. Especially, given the fact that it was a very difficult time for the Church to organize because of persecution, the absence of a formal missal, and the conservative nature of the early Church careful to preserve what was handed on to them, I have to think this practice came from apostolic tradition. Also, many the early fathers themselves tell us they received the practice from the apostles, it was ancient to them; and some seemed to have difficulty explaining exactly why they faced east except that that’s what they were taught from the Apostles. In this context, I think it is very important to point out the Jewish practice during the Second Temple period; because the practices and beliefs of the early Christians did not develop in a vacuum. The foundation was already there in the customs of Judaism. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots and easily see how orientation in Christian prayer developed. So, sure, the evidence may be circumstantial, but the first two hundred years are not absent of any evidence. It can rationally be inferred from what we already know. Gathering around the dinner table is not what emerged. The burden of proof is on those who oppose facing eastward.

    1. @Steve Hartley:
      So when they had an actual meal in conjunction with Eucharist for a couple centuries, which is the presumption in absence of any contrary evidence, and you want to assume they always moved all their tables around so they all faced East, as they did in their other prayer? In the absence of any evidence whatsoever, I suppose it’s possible. But I wouldn’t presume so.

      Uwe Lang, in his book “Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer,” says on p. 40 that “the relationship between Judaism and Christianity in the first two centuries A.D. was more complex than is often assumed” and “Nonetheless it would seem, at least in my view, that facing east was a rather marginal tradition in Judaism and was eventually given up…”


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Since my extended quotation from Lang was removed, I will summarize. Lang was not speaking of the Jewish orientation of the presider vs. the congregation but that of the orientations of the entire congregation, Jewish and Christian, towards the east or toward Jerusalem. He argues that both practiced a common orientation and that the common orientation of the early Christians was towards the east.

  8. A main premise of those who argue for ad orientam seems to be that ad populam is based on a novel understanding of the reform authorized by SC. Believing in what they term a more reverent and worshipful approach to the “holy sacrifice of the Mass”, they propose a further reform of the liturgy to make it look and feel more like the Mass of old. We are told that since ad orientam was the practice for more than a millennium it must have been rooted in apostolic practice. Sorry, but there is another reason to suggest that it was a maldevelopment. Ad orientam in Eucharistic worship originates with the practice of worshipping in public buildings following the end of Roman persecutions. The liturgies that emerged from this era were developed by clergy and for clergy. There was little understanding of the royal priesthood of the baptized nor of the rich consequences of chrismation. Without that understanding the notion of actual participation by the whole church in the remembering of Christ’s sacrificial offering could not take hold. Instead, vesture and rubrics and rituals were proscribed by and for clerical rites centered around the consecration of the elements. The Real Presence became an accomplishment of the power of priests that obscured its significance as a sacrificial banquet. The reforms of VII, much to the chagrin of “traditionalists”, reconnected the intimate and imminent Christ of the last supper to his mysterious and transcendent offering of his flesh and blood on the cross. Now priests and priestly people, each focused on the altar of sacrifice, offer sacred mysteries to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit. These rites recognize the need of the entire assembly to have their faith built up while offering a true sacrifice of praise.

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      Your remarks still do not address why it is better for the priest and the assembly to face one another across the altar rather than both facing the altar in a common direction. Unfortunately the use of the term ad orientem obscures the modern debate would better be described as versus populum vs. cum populo.

      1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        I wouldn’t accept your description at all. The common direction shared by priest and people in the modern Roman Rite is toward Christ at the center. They share a common orientation in the Tridentine Rite too. It’s just that the priest has his back to the people, and he hides the elements for the most part.

      2. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        If, instead of “towards the people” and “towards the east,” we all decided to call it “towards the altar” ……… might we all agree?

  9. There’s no getting around it, at least for those who accept V2: there were things that went wrong, & were mistaken, for well over 1000+ yrs of liturgical history.

    The problem here is, if you accept VII, it is untenable to posit that it provided an irreversible doctrinal development regarding full active participation. SC3 is clear these requirements don’t extend to Eastern Rites, and indeed elsewhere VII confirms these rites should be delatinized.

    Further post VII the Church did not require the Eastern rites to be so reformed, despite not providing for such participation, and indeed has confirmed the continuing validity of the unreformed latin rite.

    Therefore the most which can be said, if you accept VII, is that it preferred a valid older option as more suited to our own times (SC1). In different pastoral circumstances, such as prevail for the eastern faithful or perhaps in the future, one who accepts VII must allow a different approach (such as that applied before VII) could be reused.

    1. @Mariko Ralph:
      I, and I think most people, would hold that the V2 development regarding active participation is irreversible.

      Vatican II limited itself to the Latin rite – of course. The eastern rites were not as in need of reform as the Latin rite, but any reforms they undertake are left to them. I’m not a specialist in Eastern rites and will say no more about them.

      “Post VII church… has confirmed the continuing validity…” – yes, but in obvious and direct contradiction of Vatican II, which clearly taught and legislated that the unreformed old rite should not continue in use.

      You have to understand how deeply rooted the reformed rite is in EVERYTHING taught at Vatican II in every document, and how deeply the reformed rite is tied to EVERYTHING the church believes and does since Vatican II. The liturgical reform is not incidental or superficial or merely ceremonial or optional.

      Similarly, you have to understand how deeply the unreformed rite is tied to EVERYTHING about the preconciliar church which has long since developed and evolved. The old rite can’t be defended, really – unless and only if the Roman Catholic Church officially revokes most all of Vatican II.

      I can’t predict the future. Perhaps, at some future time, an ecumenical council will revoke all the documents of Vatican II – or revise them, in effect, out of existence. Then, I think the pre-conciliar Latin rite will have a viable life in the Roman Catholic Church. But only then.

      These things are all inter-connected.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        The distinction is not between those who accept Vatican II and those who do not, but through which lens we vies the council: that of rupture or that of reform in continuity. The latter accepts the council united within a continuing valid Tradition. The former views the council in isolation and in opposition to Tradition. But there is a major problem with this approach: it robs the council of its authority. The authority of Vatican II, as of all councils, rests on the infallibility of the Church throughout history. If the message of the Vatican II is that the Church was in major error until then, then this infallibility disappears and all we are left with is mere opinion.

  10. @Fr. Anthony Ruff

    “at least in my view, that facing east was a rather marginal tradition in Judaism and was eventually given up…”

    Facing east was eventually given up by the Jews. But, not because it was a marginal tradition. On the contrary, it seems that there was a lot of discussion about the direction toward which to pray. And we know eventually they focused on the Temple. But, in the gemara in Bava Batra (25) when discussing what direction Jews should pray it says this. “ANYdirection(except,perhaps,east becauseoftheheretics)is legitimate because the Shekhina (Divine Presence) is everywhere – Rabbi Yishmael, R. Sheshet and others.” The other cardinal directions were discussed. But, it’s interesting that it explicitly mentions as if it was already well established that the “heretics,” that is, the Christians face eastward in prayer, so the Jews should abandon that direction. Granted, the Gemara wasn’t written until after the year 200 which we were talking about. But, if you think about it, the Jews had already excommunicated Christians from the synagogue as heretics around 90 AD and probably had little to do with them. So, the practice of facing east would trace at least to before 90AD. Which places it at the least in the end of the Apostolic Age.

    1. @Steve Hartley:
      Yes, Christians faced East for prayer. “Of course,” as Paul Bradshaw wrote in his post. I won’t try to adjudicate the disagreement between you and Lang on the history of this practice in Judaism.

      Note, the topic of the post is something else, though – the position of the presider at Eucharist which took place in the context of a real live meal. Scholars have no proof whatsoever that it was eastward. Paul Bradshaw would know of such proof if it were there.

      You want to believe otherwise, and we can leave it at that. I sense that perhaps your motivation isn’t about using historical data accurately, but fighting a current-day liturgical fight. That makes it hard to look at the historical data, or to see why a top-notch historian such as Paul Bradshaw reaches the conclusion he does.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        I hope we’ll be hearing much more from Professor Bradshaw and his colleague Maxwell Johnson discussing the gradual development of an eastern and western euchology. How it grew from church to church with the unfolding of the anamnesis, epiclesis , and other prayers of oblation, and the gradual unfolding of the various concepts of eucharistic sacrifice from the 2nd century into the later middle ages.

  11. Those who advocate ‘ad orientem’ should also advocate the assembly standing throughout the EP (whole liturgy actually). It’s already challenging for the assembly to perceive any participation in the lengthy, opaque (current translation) EP while the priest faces them across the altar, standing and praying while they are kneeling, distant, (mostly) silent. Ad orientem while the assembly remains kneeling only makes this worse.

    Standing would make clear the assembly’s true role – real participation in the Body of Christ’s self-offering. After all, ad orientem’s historical provenance is the same as assembly standing throughout. The two make sense together. Even better, for the EP, call everyone out of the pews and forward to the altar (rail?).

  12. I can understand calling for “facing the altar” or “around the altar” rather than versus populum, but if this is the intention then why is it better for the priest to be on the other side of the altar and why the objections for him being on the same side of the altar?

    1. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
      Simply this: for lay people to see the altar rituals is essentially a Catholic thing. Thomas gets a bad rap for his “seeing-is-believing,” but Christians have been into seeing for centuries: icons, Eucharistic adoration, rose windows, etc.. The danger with the same side of the altar is not only the blockage, but the quasi-gnostic streak of silent prayers, clergy-centered liturgy.

      1. @Todd Flowerday:
        But what is there to see, a cup of wine and a plate with a piece of bread sitting on the altar? But there is even a problem with using the altar and the sacred Species as the focus. These are the One who is being offered in sacrifice, they are not the One to whom the sacrifice is being offered. The object of the Sacrifice is God the Father, the One who is being addressed, and it is He who should be the focus of the Eucharist. As the People of God, we are standing with the priest acting in persona Christi in addressing the Father. This action of the Eucharist is shown more clearly with the priest and the faithful turned in the same direction.

      2. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        These are good questions, but they rather swim against the mainstream of the Catholic imagination, not just today or after Vatican II, but through the centuries. What is there to see in a monstrance? A round piece of wheat baked who-knows-when and consecrated who-knows-when.

        In a way, I’m sympathetic to your view. When I served a community that worshiped antiphonally, it wasn’t important for me to see the elements. Nor would it seem to be vital for back-pew Catholics. But it would seem to be a point for many.

        I also observe that as a priest, it’s fine for you to say. “Move along. Nothing big’s going on here.” But except for your occasional experience as a con-celebrant, would you pray the anaphora from, say, the back pew or a transcept or the sacristy? After all, you could be oriented in the same compass direction, say all the right words, and God’s power still confects the sacrament, right?

        Speaking of concelebration, most every time I can recall larger numbers, clergy stand in a semi-circle. Not behind the principal celebrant, facing in the same direction.

      3. @Todd Flowerday:
        I am glad that you brought up concelebration. With a small number of concelebrants they stand on either side of the priest. When the number becomes larger they extend to the sides. The one place that they do not stand, except when they are unfortunately forced to concelebrate from the pews, is on the opposite side of the altar. I have even witnessed Masses with students who have been invited to come up and join the priest. Where do they go? To the same side of the altar as the priest, facing an empty church! This is, indeed, the more natural place for those who join in the action of the priest. But if you are worried that the people cannot see, that is why there are the two elevations immediately after the Consecration.

        As for adoration of the Eucharist in a monstrance, here it is the Eucharistic Presence alone that is the focus of the faithful, there being no sacrificial action directed to the Father. But notice that here, even with an altar facing the people, the priest comes around to the same side of the altar as the faithful to kneel down in adoration, the priest and the faithful facing our Lord in the same direction.

      4. @Fr. Anthony Forte:
        I don’t really need an explanation or description of adoration. I just observe it is part of a strain of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting that brings an incarnational aspect into the Catholic imagination. Check about those two elevations, though.

  13. Fr Forte seems only to be able to see things through a preconciliar lens.

    GIRM 1969 certainly has rubrics instructing the priest to be versus populum at various times because, back then, the normative posture for the presider was indeed with his back to the assembly. Altars detached from the rear wall or reredos were rare. Those rubrics persist today, despite the fact that versus populum or indeed versus Christum has become the norm and free-standing altars are almost universal. The context now is therefore different, and the rubrics need to be updated.

    Similarly with adoration. The customary place for the priest to reverence the monstrance before the Council was on the same side of the altar as the assembly, and that has been unthinkingly perpetuated in many places. But I have attended celebrations of Benediction where the priest was on the far side of the altar, as he would be at Mass. Once again, a new context is producing variant practices.

    Clinging to the past may not be the answer.

  14. Fr. Forte dismisses the need to see the gifts and The Gift on the altar. Just a cup and a plate on which lies a single piece of bread, he says. Seriously? What should also be observed there are many cups from which all may take and drink…and many altar breads (including one large one that can be broken into many pieces) from which all may take and eat. Methinks at Father’s altar there is indeed one cup with a small amount of wine from which he alone drinks….and a single host that he can consume all by himself before reaching into the tabernacle to retrieve the pre-consecrated hosts from Masses gone by. Is this authentic Tradition or just a custom from a time when Mass was regarded as something the priest said on behalf of others. It’s the ecclesiology……..!

  15. @ Fr. Anthony Ruff,

    “Note, the topic of the post is something else, though – the position of the presider at Eucharist which took place in the context of a real live meal.”

    Yes, I’m aware that this is the foundation of Mr. Bradshaw’s argument. But, the scholarship is not conclusive on exactly how the meal would have looked like in antiquity. Another great scholar, Louis Bouyer said this on the topic,

    “The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been the primitive one, and that especially of the last supper, has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era, did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a sigma table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to ‘face the people’ to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.”

    So, who exactly is misusing history? I would argue that what came out of the catacombs, so to speak, was the practice of facing east during the Eucharistic prayer: “the east, as the more honorable direction in creation, is appointed for the worship of God” (Pseudo-Justine Martyr 100-165), and, of course, the Didiscalia instructs the clergy and the people, “in your gatherings, in the holy Church…you ought to face to the east to pray” (250). In our gatherings at Church and during the Latria of God — Sounds like the Eucharist to me. Furthermore, the artwork in the Catacombs is also telling of the Christian practice by depicting the miracle of the loaves around a convex table as described by Boyer. What, pray tell, is the evidence that Christians partook of the Eucharist gathered around a table?

    1. @Steve Hartley:

      If you read Bradshaw again, you’ll notice that he said:
      Contrary to the usual depictions of the Last Supper, there would not even have been a central dining table, but small low tables set within reach of each diner. So orientation at the Eucharist would not have entered the picture until Christians abandoned the meal and moved the celebration from evening to morning.

      Bouyer, whose scholarship has been largely debunked, adopted a positon based romantically on illustrations of the meal such as the woodcut accompanying Bradshaw’s text above, or the Leonardo, with a central dining table rather than separate low tables.

      Even if you accept Bouyer, a moment’s thought will show that the horseshoe shape he proposed would provide a configuration where those at the far ends would in fact be facing the presider at an angle.

      Furthermore, it’s even possible to visualize the altar, whether it be round, oval or rectangular, as having only one side that runs the whole way round the edge, with participants — presider, ministers, congregation — all ranged along different portions of the same side. That ties in very neatly with the concept of everyone, no matter which side they are on, facing the same direction, i.e. facing Christ.

      1. @Paul Inwood:”Bouyer, whose scholarship has been largely debunked, adopted a positon based romantically on illustrations of the meal such as the woodcut accompanying Bradshaw’s text above, or the Leonardo, with a central dining table rather than separate low tables.”

        I could see disregarding a modern or medieval depiction of the Last Supper, but no mention of the Miracle of the Loaves as depicted in the Catacombs of Rome. These images of course predate the third century, and scholars agree that these images represent the “fractio panis” of the early Christians. I think it would be misleading to ignore their significance in this debate.

        I think everyone can gather around the altar in the shape of a horseshoe and get as close as possible. It’s not a matter of blocking people’s view or the priest doing his own thing, but the focus of the Oratio being offered outward and upward toward heaven. I’m all for promoting active participation in the Sacred Liturgy as the Second Vatican Council has taught us. But, too often with the priest facing the congregation, he looks at the people as he is addressing God and it becomes a distraction. Rather than help the people become better engaged in the holy mysteries it has done the opposite, and put a lot of focus on being engaged with the celebrant. This wasn’t the intent of the Council. It’s simply a matter of focus and emphasis. The focus of the Eucharist is the Sacrifice of Praise offered to the Father, together with the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross which is made mystically present. Everyone takes part in this offering. By looking away from everyone, the diological part of the Mass is clearly set aside and the vertical demention is emphasized. This is clearly how the early Christians prayed individually and collectively according to the Didiscalia. Many in my generation sees this as going to the sources and updating the liturgy to the needs of our times.

    2. @Steve Hartley:
      You speak of “coming out of the catacombs,” which I take to be sometime in the 4th century, and your quotation is from 250. Bradshaw says there is no evidence of liturgical orientation before the 3rd century. That fits together, actually, and corroborates Bradshaw’s case.

      Bradshaw is a respected historian. I’d like to take you seriously, but I have the impression that the issue is too important to you for you to be impartial. You want and need the first two centuries to have liturgical orientation – for present day ideological reasons, I suspect. This has made conversation rather difficult.


      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
        Fr. Anthony,
        I respect Mr. Bradshaw as a historian, and I understand that there is no direct evidence for which side of the altar the presider was on. I’m not contending that at all. And I really would like to have this conversation. My wants and needs have no place in this. Ideological? No. I’m merely pointing out some things that might give us a hint to the practice prior to the third century about the topic in question. It would be ideological to ignore some of these things and pretend that they have no significance whatsoever.

  16. Anthony Ruff, OSB : @Mariko Ralph:You have to understand how deeply rooted the reformed rite is in EVERYTHING taught at Vatican II in every document, and how deeply the reformed rite is tied to EVERYTHING the church believes and does since Vatican II. The liturgical reform is not incidental or superficial or merely ceremonial or optional. Similarly, you have to understand how deeply the unreformed rite is tied to EVERYTHING about the preconciliar church which has long since developed and evolved. The old rite can’t be defended, really – unless and only if the Roman Catholic Church officially revokes most all of Vatican II.

    I rarely comment on this blog, but I felt I had to say something about this. I am a strong supporter of Vatican II and the OF, but I was really taken aback by these comments, which I just don’t think can be defended (the OF is related to “EVERYTHING taught at Vatican II in every document”? an absolute binary dichotomy between OF/V2 and EF?). This surely needs to be nuanced quite a bit. It smacks of the black-and-white thinking that you find in ultra-conservative circles.

    Fr. Anthony, I usually have a lot of time for your writing – in this case, perhaps you were using rhetorical hyperbole to make your point?

    1. @Fr. John Whelan:
      Thanks for the good question. I think it’s a little of both. I was perhaps overly emphatic and engaging in some hyperbole. But I really do believe that everything is interconnected. That’s really all I was trying to say. I don’t mean there are artificial parallels, where each line of each document of V2 is really saying something about liturgy. I do truly mean, though, that there is a vision running through the documents, and it holds them all together and makes them interdependent.

      But I’m really just stating (however inadequately) what has been stated in the scholarly work on Vatican II by John O’Malley and Massimo Faggioli and many others.


  17. Yes, understood: these things are all interdependent. I guess the difficulty I have is with polarisation. I’ve got O’Malley’s books, but I think there’s there’s an really fascinating study to be written on the creative dynamic of new and old in the V2 reforms, in liturgy and other areas (not that “new” and “old” are absolutes themselves, as much of the “new” stuff amounted to ressourcement). Maybe that will have to wait another 50 years, when people have reached a less partisan perspective. It will make a good PhD thesis for a bright student circa 2065.

  18. In the drafts of “Sacrosanctum Concilium” there are detailed explanations to many articles (“declarationes”), and here is also treated the setting of the santuary (included the altar and the celebratio versus populum). The declarationes were cancelled in the version submitted to the Council. Some of them have returned in the Instructio “Inter Oecumenici” (1964).

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