The Bishop of Gallup NM, James Wall, has issued a letter explaining why he has decided that the principal Mass at the Cathedral will henceforth be celebrated ad orientem. Anyone who has followed these discussions will not find anything particularly novel in his reasoning (though the inclusion of the well-know Flannery O’Connor anecdote is something new in these debates), and I predict that those who are already convinced will find it convincing and those who are unconvinced will not. I myself have no strong view on the practice itself, but I will offer a few comments on things I do have views on.
- I’m not sure, tactically speaking, that opening with a mention of the sexual abuse crisis is very smart. Given the outrage that many Catholics feel, it invites the reaction, “Priests are raping children and bishops are covering it up and this is what you do in response!” I’m not saying this reaction is a fair one, but it is a predictable (and avoidable) one. And the linkage between the issues is really not even attempted, except to note that the Pope emeritus seems to link them somehow.
- With regard to his claims that “praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning” (quoting Benedict XVI) and that “versus populum worship is extremely new in the life of the Church”… well… yes and no. “Yes,” inasmuch as, all other things being equal, the early Church seemed to have a preference to pray facing east. “No,” inasmuch as ad orientem and versus populum are not mutually exclusive. Anyone who has been in the ancient churches of Rome can see that when the celebrant was facing east he was often facing the people. It is, I believe, true that the motivation in such cases was often not the desire to face the people, but was often related to the location of a martyr’s shrine or the particular situation of the building, but the net effect was that the celebrant was often facing the assembly and there seemed to great concern that he not do so. The half-truth promoted in the 60s that the universal ancient practice was to face the people should not be replaced with a new half-truth that the universal ancient practice was to face away from the people. We just have to accept that ancient practice was varied and often motivated by very different concerns from those we have today.
- I don’t know who first introduced the term versus Deum, but I vote that it be retired at once. It is theologically infuriating, since it reduces the Christian God to a spatially locatable deity dwelling in some geographical spot, like Mt. Olympus. And before someone brings up the Eucharistic tabernacle as the spatial location the celebrant is facing, I’ll note 1) that Thomas Aquinas denies that Christ is spatially present in the sacrament and 2) a properly ordered cathedral has the Eucharist reserved in a separate chapel. The opposition of the terms versus Deum and versus populum also seems to suggest that we cannot “face” both God and neighbor at the same time, when the Gospel message is that in the Incarnation God has become out neighbor in Christ. Indeed, if we take both the Incarnation and Matthew 25 seriously, then we are much more likely to be facing versus Deum when we are facing versus populum. There are better arguments for ad orientem celebration than those suggested by the term versus Deum.
- Bishop Wall cannot be dismissed as simply a liturgical conservative longing for the pre-conciliar liturgical status quo. The other liturgical/sacramental initiative he has undertaken is the restoration of the order of the sacraments of initiation, which is on the list of liturgical desiderata of many who are enthusiastic about the post-conciliar reforms. Those who are dubious about ad orientem celebration should be cautious about ascribing to advocates of the practice a rejection of the reforms. It seems to me that it is possible to fully embrace the vision of the reformed liturgy and still think that ad orientem is the more fitting mode of celebration.