Bishop Callahan on Ad orientem

Pray Tell has received this letter, sent to the Presbyterate of the Diocese of LaCrosse, WI, by Bishop William Callahan, on March 8th referring to celebrating Mass ad orientem. Although the letter mentions Cardinal Sarah’s support of  ad orientem, it does not mention Pope Francis’s response to Cardinal Sarah. The letter admirably emphasizes respect for people’s sensitivities and avoidance of division. But it seems to express some favor for the ad orientem posture.  

8 March 2017

My Dear Brothers in Christ,

May the Lord give you peace.

One of the most iconic moments in American musical theater is offered by Zero Mostel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” His character, Tevye the milkman, sings “If I Were a Rich Man,” and it is a showstopper. Tevye sings, “If I were rich I’d have the time that I like to sit in the synagogue and pray; and maybe have a seat on the Eastern wall…” The Eastern wall, even in secular theater is recognized as a special—even sacred place. So, my message to you today concerns itself with sacred things, “ad orientem.”

Asking that the grace of this blessed season of Lent be with you all, I particularly pray with you and for you during the celebration of the Mass, the source and summit of our faith. This treasure has been entrusted to the Church to be guarded and celebrated. It is not ours as priests to control and define the Mass, but to celebrate it as it has been handed down to us. I am grateful for you, brother priests of our Diocese who with great care and reverence celebrate this great Sacrament for the People of God.

The worthy and proper celebration of the Holy Mass has legitimate options; one that has become more prominent in the last year is the posture of Ad Orientem. This was begun by a statement of Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who encouraged the practice beginning in Advent of 2016. This has led a number of our brothers to start using this option. In some places, with proper consultation and education, it has been a blessing and has even helped to draw a parish together. In other places, where the same care to have proper consultation and education was not observed, it has become an issue of divisiveness.

Because of the new prominence of this practice the topic has been discussed with the College of Deans in addition to the Presbyteral Council. During both discussions, I have shown my support for this practice as well as a deep concern that it be implemented appropriately and after proper consultation with the leadership of a parish, after truly hearing and respecting the People of God and after good education of what is being expressed in the change of posture. 

Between the two meetings of priestly leadership, I somehow managed to confuse the ideas of permissions, approvals, etc. I write this letter to clarify the procedures I desire to be in place when considering the implementation of the posture of Ad Orientem as a regular practice in a parish.

 1.    It is my desire to be informed before any such practice is undertaken so I might ensure through the Office of Sacred Worship that Holy Mass is celebrated in a consistent manner throughout the entire Diocese, with proper consultation and support of the People of God and after an appropriate period of education and discussion.

2.    It is my hope that where consensus of the People of God is split over this practice and multiple Masses are offered on any given weekend that both approved postures would be offered.

I hope we will all enjoy a seat “by the Eastern wall” in our churches and that we will understand the significance of such a thought. In the meantime, know that I pray with you and our dear Priestly and Holy People. Have a blessed Lent and never tire of celebrating the Eucharist anticipating the coming of the Lord.

Dear brothers, you are close to my heart and always in my prayers.


Your Bishop



  1. I wonder if non-Jews who hear the song from Fiddler know what the Eastern wall reference is all about. And if Tevye wishes for “a seat on the Eastern Wall,” how can he face it? Good grief!!

  2. Regarding: “… and maybe have a seat on the Eastern wall…”
    – Compliments to the bishop for connecting culture to liturgy in a way.
    – Though he might consider that the ‘east wall’ has more to do with the Jews in the Diaspora; that were living west of Jerusalem; facing the land of Israel, and thus Jerusalem, and thus the Temple, when they pray. In addition the assembled would face the holy ark, usually against the east wall, wherein rests the Torah.
    – Sitting against the east wall means that these men (though in modern days, women might be included in some synagogues) are nearest to the holy land, which is sacred; the wall itself – not so much.
    – Those who sat near or against the east wall were seen by their community as men deserving respect, and who were wise and learned.
    – All and all, it seems to be stretch from these customs to the usual explanations for ad orientem in Eucharist celebrations.

    1. It really is quite depressing that, with everything that’s been happening in the country and the world over, this is what figures prominently in this bishop’s mind, that this is what “the College of Deans in addition to the Presbyteral Council” and “the meetings of priestly leadership” in this diocese spend their precious time arguing about.

  3. The bishop makes about as much sense as our president. Just smile and ignore him. But pray for him and the presbyterate of Wisconsin!

  4. “I am grateful for you, brother priests of our Diocese who with great care and reverence celebrate this great Sacrament for the People of God.”

    I celebrate the Eucharist with and for the People of God. This makes me wonder where the good bishop received his training in theology, liturgy, and scripture. He reminds of one of his illustrious predecessors, Cardinal Raymond Burke. To have omitted any reference to Pope Francis about the “prominence” of this practice is disturbing. Let us pray for the folks of La Crosse.

  5. Clunky analogies aside, this approach seems entirely reasonable. If I read the bishop correctly, he’s basically said:

    1) I want to know about it.
    2) I want it to be handled in a pastorally sensitive manner.
    3) If it will be divisive, try to do both to alleviate the tension.

    1. @Shaughn Casey:
      I largely agree with you, Shaughn.
      I do wonder about Catholic identity, though, when such a key symbolic item is shifted to two rather different images – within the same diocese, which is maybe manageable, but within the same parish, which concerns me.
      Also, what happens when the next pastor changes what the last one did?
      I suppose we’ll just have to live with ambiguities for a good long time as this issue keeps fermenting.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:

        I think this is where pastoral sensitivity comes in. I look at it from background where parishes frequently had a mix of liturgical styles. One parish I knew of would literally swap out the crucifix between services because one was “high” and one was “low.” One good pastor had them close to being one body. The next came in and over-emphasized one to the point that the parish split.

        You have the advantage, of course, in that a bishop assigns clergy rather than the parish calling a rector. Here’s hoping the bishop is sensitive about it.

  6. I love it! The Turn Around Church (TAC). Going for a quick spin round the compass. This in my humble and wildly moderate opinion is really quite funny!

    Did anyone let him know that Sarah is now history?

    Did anyone suggest to him that churches cannot be architecturally modified on the whim of a pastor or an assembly or the rotation of the big and little hands on the clock?

    So where does that leave the Abbey? The church is on a north-south alignment. Do you plan moving the entire sanctuary for next weekend, give us all something about which to be joyful?

    This reads to me like a spoof out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, except they weren’t as silly.

    And the sun doesn’t always rise in the East, only on Sept 21st and March 21st, the Equinoxes. So how do we rotate our churches to be heliotropic? I wouldn’t have thought photosynthesis was the purvey of liturgists.

    Oh well, perhaps Francis did get it right. I remember a recent previous Pope moving an idiotic Dutch bishop, Gijssen, from Rotterdam to Iceland. whatever the Icelandians had done to deserve that, who knows, except the majority of church goers there are Lutheran.

  7. I praise the good bishop for his pastoral approach to a very sensitive and important topic. “The worthy and proper celebration of the Holy Mass has legitimate options,” unfortunatly many “liturgists” and bishops refuse to accept this fact and apply it fairly. We are, after all, talking about a “legitimate option” contained in the Missal of Paul VI. What are people afraid of? Educate the people about legitimate diversity in the celebration of the Eucharist and move on. They’ll understand. I did it myself to great success. No divisions, no problems.

  8. Oh, how I wish that pastoral sensitivity had been exercised when the liturgical reforms were first introduced. Then we would have been spared the rancor that we have experienced over the last 50 years. Neither Vatican II nor the new Mass called for the suppression of a traditional form of worship. I applaud the bishop for reminding us of this.

  9. While I have never understood the idea that the orientation of the priest represented a different ecclesiology (though perhaps different emphasizes), I am sympathetic to those concerned that having a diocese or parish divided over this issue could be problematic for unity. However, the choice of music is often a huge divide between and within parishes and is potentially more divisive than any priestly orientation. The Missal also contains numerous options that are pretty arbitrary on when to use them. I just not sure you can reject an option in the name of unity when we already have so much diversity.

  10. After Cardinal Sarah came out with his statement, I confess to having on a number of occasions tried to persuade conference participants to transform their group photos into “ad orientem” group photos, in which everyone turns their back to the camera…


  11. Re-reading this, I think Bishop Callahan’s letter is a masterful piece of diplomacy – to judge from the comments, even Pray Tell readers weren’t able to spot that he’s actually against the practice and taking skilful steps to rein it in.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *