On the Night He Was Betrayed, He Took Off His Helmet…

One June 15 the first Mass since the devastating fire was celebrated at Notre Dame in Paris. The video of this Mass is available here.

A few things struck me:

  1. They really hadn’t thought through the whole ad orientem thing—i.e. when the celebrant should face the people and when he should turn toward the altar. In particular, I don’t see the logic of facing the people for the preface and then turning to the altar for the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer. Clearly, this was not something the bishop was used to doing.
  2. I was glad to see that they didn’t skimp, music-wise. It is a great thing when a group of Christians can sing the Mass without instrumental accompaniment. It also showed (in light of the recent PrayTell poll) how effective sung dialogues can be. At their best, the French have real style when celebrating the reformed liturgy.
  3. I found it extremely (and surprisingly) moving when the bishop removed his helmet as he began the institution narrative. It brought to mind the extraordinary vulnerability Jesus displays in his words and actions at the Last Supper. As we enter into that mystery, we too should cast aside all protections.


  1. It is SO French that they are all wearing identical and rather chic protective headgear.

    And if you have all your priestly life been celebrating facing the people, you have to step out of ritual mode when celebating facing ‘east.’ It can be quite distracting, until you get used to it. You can see the Archbishop’s unease on the video.

    However, it is good to know that they went back so soon. It is a statement of faith. And interesting to see what the condition of the interior is. I note one of the Nave piers is shored up, which suggests that the structural damage in places where the vault collapsed might be considerable.


  2. It was a wonderful and inspiring Mass, at least as far as could be experienced via video.

    I look forward to the blessed day — a foolish hope, perhaps — when partisans of versus-populum stop deriding ad-orientem celebrations as “turning your back to the people like in the bad old days,” and the partisans of ad-orientem return the favor by ceasing and desisting from theologically ridiculous statements like “the priest’s turning his back to God!!!”

    The polemics on both sides tend to sound about as asinine as the old azyme debates, and one day I hope they will be just as irrelevant. Priests should be able to celebrate either form of the Roman rite comfortably with either orientation, and preside over the liturgy without awkward self-consciousness. Both orientations are laden with appropriate and orthodox symbolism when understood the right way as opposed to ideological caricatures, and both sides need to recognize that.

    1. I hope my post didn’t come across as deriding either practice. I’m actually happy to have either. I just think that whatever you do you should do in a way that makes sense theologically and liturgically.

      1. Didn’t come across that way at all! I completely agree with you. Natural coherence in the ars celebrandi in either orientation is much better than self-conscious awkwardness and confusion.

  3. Doesanyone know of any recent documentation regarding interim assessments of the structural integrity of Notre Dame De Paris after the fire?


    1. The most recent news I have read in the French press (in connection with this mass) is that they are still in the process of stabilizing and assessing the structure. That’s why the plaza in front of the cathedral is still closed to the public. I’ve read that the archdiocese would like to build a temporary structure on the plaza once it is safe, to use as the cathedral during reconstruction. Now THAT would make an interesting design competition.

      1. I wonder how feasible that would be in material and monetary terms. Given that Saint-Sulpice offers a space to accommodate worshippers that is similar in size to the cathedral and is only 1.2 km away (and near a cluster of Metro stops), and freeing up the parvis to accommodate work crews for the cathedral work, it would seem an unnecessary or perhaps imprudent cost.

  4. I think in this case the use of ad orientam had much to do with the fact that they were celebrating the feast of the dedication of the cathedral, which in the case of Notre-Dame is the anniversary of the consecration of the altar (as construction continued for another century before the entire church was consecrated.) Since both the current altar in the nave and the high altar with its famous pieta are inaccessible, they used the nearest accessible fixed altar. And since this was in the chapel that normally houses the Crown of Thorns, they used the empty reliquary as the ambo.

    I’ve always found it moving that at Notre-Dame the final blessing of mass is followed by turning toward the statue of Notre-Dame and singing a Marian antiphon. Given that the statue survived the collapse of the great crossing vault, it was even more so.

    1. The Mass was celebrated in the apse, not in the closed chapel of the Crown of Thorns. The ambo used is simply a music stand with a red cover.

  5. Why do people who are so concerned with ‘ad orientem’ position do not seem to take account of real meaning of the “Sursum Corda!” which is at the beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer dialogue –in all the EP’s of East and West in the Church — and tells us to ‘lift our Hearts” to God with no directional indication than one is near or around the altar? After all the altar free standing is where the ‘the Sacrifice of the Mass is accomplished – with no other directional reference but to the Holy Trinity – so the ‘need is to lift up our selves/our Hearts to the Holy Trinity and to take part in the heavenly Sacrifice. So the localisation of our worship should be there, The Rite of the Consecration of the Altar does take this approach too. (We are certainly not ‘lifting up our Hearts’ to only the Tabernacle or some image. )

  6. Actually, I think it makes sense to have the preface facing the congregation. The preface explains the mass in a particular way, so it’s something that you want the congregation to hear and take in, and when you want people to hear and take in what you are saying you look at them.
    What I really find annoying is when a priest turns round to face the congregation and says, for example, ‘The Lord be with you’, and has already turned around before the congregation can reply, e.g. with ‘and with your spirit’. It feels like the rudest thing ever. Also, would I be right in thinking that this wasn’t an ‘ad orientem’ mass but an ‘ad populi’ mass with the altar in the wrong place?

  7. this wasn’t an ‘ad orientem’ mass but an ‘ad populi’ mass with the altar in the wrong place?

    Actually, not a bad description.

    As to the preface–it seems to me that the celebrant is giving thanks to God “over” bread and wine, so it is odd to have them behind his back.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.