Ad Orientem in Gallup NM

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.


  1. In continuity with Jews, who faced the temple when they prayed to God (which was his footstool) since OT times, Christians were taught to face east. It is my understanding that Jesus ascended into the true temple in heaven, not made by human hands, to minister on our behalf — not the mere copy. It was the belief of rabbis at the time that the entrance to Paradise was to be found toward the east and Gehenna in the west. So it would make sense that Christians would turn eastward toward the true temple to offer their prayers in continuity and in fulfillment of the ancient Jewish custom. Furthermore, Scripture says that as lightning flashes in the east and goes to the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be. Judaism had no problem with the omnipresent God also being present in and relating to spatial dimensions. He filled the temple; He left the temple; etc. And in reference to the incarnate Lord it can be argued that his actual body is definitely in a certain place. It is in that direction that we turn toward the New Jerusalem to offer our prayer boldly approaching the throne of grace. That’s my two cents anyway.

    1. I think this would be more convincing if all our church structures actually faced due east. We probably need to become familiar with the Latin equivalents for “to the north” “to the south” and “to the west” as well as ad orientam “to the east” – I actually worked in a church where the altar was “ad occidens” with a pastor who was an advocate of returning to the “ad orientem” practice.

      1. At least Muslims have Mecca as their orientation point, formerly Jerusalem. Then you can devise a great circle of orientation from the point of prayer to Mecca, which of course would result in a different direction on the compass than what one might imagine it to be by map-ruddered intuition.

    2. But the earliest historical data is mixed. The first clear evidence that the Eucharist was a separate rite not part of an actual meal (with other food) dates only to the 3rd century. Church buildings from succeeding centuries witness a variety of practices. Even if ad orientem dominated, it was not exclusive.

      For all that, appeals to history are probably not that helpful. We’re in the 21st century and we should talk more about what either practice means for us today. It’s odd for Bishop Wall to say the church has always had ad orientem – the last 60 (or 80) years count too, don’t they? The fact is that returning to ad orientem has lots of agenda tied to it just now. It is mostly about what we think about how Vatican II was implemented and what Catholicism should mean at this time. The appeals to history come much later and are very secondary.


  2. SAD – if this is what a Catholic bishop whose diocese is on the southern border spends his time on, the church is lost.
    Another misguided effort and decision that is a not so subtle attempt to undermine Vatican II again.
    Also, a diocese that is overwhelmingly Hispanic – doubt this is even in their top 20 issues that need to be addressed.
    Actions speak louder than words – time is greater than space. Wall will retire some day and this poor diocese may yet see a servant bishop.
    This quote comes to mind: “Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”

    1. Ad orientem might work with Hispanic congregations, but the Navajo tend to be more circular and to be concerned about all directions. Our Lady of Fatima Church in Chinle, NM, is built in the form of a Navajo hogan. Photos of the interior (which I’m too illiterate to link) show how completely contrary to ad orientem thinking the Navajo approach is.

      1. Ironically, what is most likely the oldest church in Bishop Wall’s diocese (and arguably the oldest continuously operating church in the United States), San Estevan del Rey on the Acoma Pueblo, built in 1629, has the apse on the Western end. As does the church at Taos Pueblo. Given that Navajo rituals have long been incorporated into the prayer of these communities (San Estevan has a dirt floor that is annually renewed by the women of the Pueblo in a ceremony during which men are not permitted in the church) I can’t help but think there is reason they face west.

  3. I appreciate Fritz Bauerschmidt’s comments. When exactly do we find the first evidence of a concern for the direction in which the Eucharistic prayer is said? The church at Dura-Europos doesn’t give a hint, to my mind. Later buildings, like the Roman basilicas, are according to Bauerschmidt ambiguous. I don’t recall the earliest textual evidence, either, but I doubt it is prior to 300.

  4. Robin Jensen’s work would be valuable in helping Bishop Wall understand liturgical history and orientation.

  5. Thank you, Fritz, for this well-balanced and irenic post.

    I would tend to agree about “versus Deum” for the reasons you give, in the abstract. A good case can be made, however, that at least in churches with the Counter-Reformation arrangement of altar mounted by tabernacle — an arrangement much maligned by liturgists but still defensible — it would be theologically quite accurate to say “versus Deum” in the same way in which Paul VI says that although God is really present in many ways, He is most fully present to us in the Blessed Sacrament.

    The claim that ancient Christians had a variety of viewpoints on eastward celebration is difficult to maintain, and the rare counterexamples like St. Peter’s basilica do not establish an alternative trend. At some point, everyone has to come to grips with texts like this, from St. Basil the Great — who, because he is Byzantine, ought to appeal to modern liturgists:

    Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. … For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals. … What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? … We all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. (On the Holy Spirit, 27:66)

    1. God is present par excellence in the Blessed Sacrament – but according to Thomas, not as in a place, not ‘in’ the tabernacle.

      Basil the Great writing on “apostolic” practice says much about the beliefs of one bishop in the 4th century but of course is not necessarily accurate data about the practice of the apostles or early Christians.


    2. St Peter’s is hardly a rare example of an early Roman church facing west. St. John Lateran, St Mary Major, San Clemente, Santa Maria and Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, San Pancrazio and Santa Prassede all have the apse on the western end. Several other early basilicas face approximately north. San Stefano Rotundo is circular with the altar in the center. Of the four major basilicas, Paul Outside the Walls is the only one to face East.

      1. Just a small adjustment in fact as I understand it from a workshop I attended last year. The altar in San Stefano Rotundo, the speaker at the workshop stated, was actually just a bit off center so that the space in which one stood before the altar was directly below the dome. Here the communion recipient stands erect between heaven and earth.
        As it was explained to us, the dome is the Holy Spirit descending down upon the people, and in some Roman basilicas, the baldacchino or the ciborium above the altar represented the Holy Spirit coming down upon the gifts.
        I would stand corrected if my information is inaccurate or incomplete.

    3. In speaking to what an eastward facing orientation can mean to us today; with a big beautiful image of the Lord on the eastern wall (like the Pantocrator in the ancient churches and modern ones as well) I think it can be a much more naturally powerful symbol of turning toward the Lord in prayer; whereas the altar as a symbol of “the living stone” is less natural and therefore more difficult to be perceived. I think most people today would look at the altar in a utilitarian way. It’s a big table. But, turning around to pray lends to a dramatic change in atmosphere and ambiance. This is the way I have experienced it and the people in the congregations in which I have introduced it.

  6. Rather than ad Deum, perhaps we should be referring to ad Christum. Some might be more comfortable with ad altarem. Whatever the case, the symbolic presence of Christ in our midst is the altar of sacrifice / banqueting table. I believe it was Gordon Truitt who first said that it does not make any difference from which side we face the altar, we are still facing Christ. I would add that we are all circumstantes, both lay and ordained.

    1. Yes! And we all are simultaneously the Body of Christ gathered to offer the sacrifice of praise.

    2. Well stated! Our focus should be on the altar, among our brothers and sisters, lay and ordained, all and each the presence of Christ. With what we now understand of our universe/ multiverse, is there really “ East or West?”

    3. This doesn’t need to be a kulturkampf, but it is. Of course there is an undercurrent of “VII was a disaster, a hijack, a betrayal, a bomb” in the agenda of at least some of the “New Liturgical Experts”. But we loyal church people have our own prejudices. And one of them is dislike of rubricism, at least in some of us. The desire to beat the traddies could obscure the truth of the matter. The truth is that liturgy always involves making choices. What if the experts in favor of facing the people weren’t right, and the experts for facing the back wall or apse aren’t right either? Right, I mean, in saying that it’s something we HAVE TO Do? What if it is just a choice, which says something about our worship to the people worshipping, since we don’t need to reach God anything? So, what choice would having the priest face the same way as the people imply? My thought is that it would demonstrate that the priest is not a teacher, or an entertainer, or a leader. Maybe he does those things outside Mass, but at Mass he is a minister of Jesus Christ’s High Priesthood. He is just like us, offering the gifts to God on high, and asking him to make them holy. Seen in this way, it is not the priest turning his back on the people, it is the priest becoming one of us, in an act of worship, a delegate of the Bishop empowered to offer the Sacrifice for the people of God, of which he is part.

  7. If a presider facing ad orientem is facing Christ, then what is he facing when he turns around. The visuals speak to power and magic as the priest turns around after the Consecration with the ta-daaa moment. If that’s what some bishops want to do then why not create a fenced in sanctuary because that too is historical.

    Thank Fritz for your reflection, but if one takes a step back, this whole “face the east, face the Christ, face God” move is one of personal power and the ones celebrating the rite this way will use a completely different language to make their reasoning even more powerful. If looking toward the people means that one has to turn around to face God, then it follows that a presider does not have to look for God among the people…because He’s not there.

    Possibly the reason the scandal reference is used is that when practicing the “patrimony” the Bishop wants, members of the Church can no longer look the patrimony in the eye.

    1. Because of course there’s never a risk of the perception of “personal power” when Father stands facing the congregation.

      If anything, ad orientem should appeal to those worried about democracy and anti-clericalism. At least everyone is facing the same direction, as opposed to having the important people…whether clerical or lay…facing differently from the congregation.

      1. I think we need an accurate phenomenology of how ad orientem is actually perceived by various real people today. This isn’t it.

        It never works to tell people what something should mean to them based on ones own ideology.


      2. I wish we had a better idea of how different people perceive ad orientem.

        For me, as a convert from a preaching-centered tradition, I find ad orientem helpful. It makes it clear that I’m not the audience (as I was used to being); the priest is leading all of us in prayer. (I see this most visibly at Adoration and Benediction, when which role the priest is in at each point is more clear.) But I’m certain that this is different depending on each person’s history.

    2. Ed, I have to say that your criticism of ad orientem doesn’t strike a chord with me. It’s not about power, or magic moments. If a priest is empowered to offer the Sacrifice, then the power is in him, regardless of how folksy, friendly, or deferential he is. Frankly, if the cure for clericalism is versus populum worship, then the cure doesn’t work and never will.

      1. “If a priest is empowered to offer the Sacrifice, then the power is in him…” : this isn’t, technically, a false or heretical statement, but it sure is an unhelpful one. It gives the impression that the primary agent is priest, when it is Christ. It also gives the impression that the priest has ‘power’ apart from the rest of the Church.

        There is a truth to what you’re saying, but – based on the whole spirit of the Vatican II documents and the Vatican II-reformed liturgy – it’d be better to express it to make it clear that the liturgy is all gift, it’s all Christ’s work, it is Christ’s priesthood foremost, and that the ordained celebrant and the community, through the gracious dispensation of God, offer themselves in sacrifice when they together – not downplaying the irreducible role of the sacramentally ordained minister – celebrate the liturgy. The priest’s ministry isn’t for himself, it’s for the community and in relationship to them.

        At least that’s the logic of the reformed rite as I read it.

        As for ad orientem or not, that is a separate question, and I think my concern above holds for any position of the celebrant.


      1. I’m sorry I didn’t make myself clear. When I was growing up, altars were usually placed against the back wall so priests would naturally have their backs to us. After Vatican 2, altars were moved away from the wall so that priests can stand behind them and face the people. These I call tables or to be more precise, altar tables. My question is how do you celebrate ad orientum without moving the altar back?

    1. Patrick Freese: it may work like you say but only in some cases. Many churches now have no room in front of the altar table for a priest to stand with his back to the people and it’s not so easy moving these altar tables either. Also in the portfolio of photographs where you gave a link, Cardinal Mahoney is facing the people during the consecration and another priest, probably at a different Mass, is facing away from the people. Many churches do not have this flexibility.

      1. Michael, FWIW, while the Church’s liturgical treasury is great passion of mine, the whole ad orientem debate is of little interest to me. I’m not even sure I’d support the move if my pastor suggested its reintroduction at my parish, since the church is wider than it is deep and the sanctuary is rather shallow between the altar and front steps. Our previous parochial vicar did masses ad orientem from time to time but the church’s architecture did the celebration a disservice, and like you said many churches built since the 60s would struggle as well.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your essay on this, Neil, which I am very interested in reading.

      I tried to download it, but even though I am a member, I could not get the full text. The pdf download ended on page 7. Is this a glitch in the system, or were you only permitted to post a small part of the monograph, so that we will go forth and purchase the rest? 🙂

      Would appreciate any suggestions about what to do to get to view the whole thing. Thanks.

      1. Hi Rita,

        Sorry it’s only a sample on Academia. The book is still under copyright, and I don’t feel comfortable putting the whole thing on Academia. But if anyone contacts me directly at padreodonoghue AT yahoo DOT com I’ll send them the full text.

  8. Within a church building, the liturgical “east” end is the end where the altar is. So ad orientem still applies as a term. Many seem to mix this up with actual geographical east.

  9. I once again suggest the venerable Church of Ireland practice of celebrating the Holy Communion at the north end.

    Grady, of blessed memory, once told me about his meeting a lady vicar who used that position at her altar that was fixed to the wall. She told him that she did so, not out of a party position, but so she could be aware of what’s going on in the church. A very sensible rationale indeed.

    1. “I once again suggest the venerable Church of Ireland practice of celebrating the Holy Communion at the north end.”

      Venerable in the sense of being a Reformation compromise commanded in England in order to telegraph the fact that the Prayer Book service was not a sacrifice, which it was felt that people might interpret it as being if the then-universal Roman Catholic (and Lutheran) practice was followed.

      1. I think the ex-Catholic reformers were trying to emphasize the sacred meal aspect of the liturgy by bringing tables and placing them lengthwise in the sanctuary with the minister at the head. Later the tables were placed altar-wise but the minister remained at the head on the north end. The C of E did evolve her notion of sacrifice from the days of Cranmer but continued with the use of the north end. Even Newman is said to have used this position at SMV.

        My suggestion was simply to point out a third possibility and was not intended to critique sacrifice. Actually I was wearied by the squabbling about what should be a matter of indifference.

        For what it’s worth my Church of Ireland ceremonial does say that the north end may be a bit awkward for the vessels. Alas, nothing is perfect.

  10. Seriously, this is the conversation we’re having in the church today??
    God save us from clerics and liturgists eager to expose how much they don’t know about what makes a difference to people living in the real world.

    1. Perhaps we are seeing a the concilium being implemented in a return to the sources and applying it to the needs of our own time.

  11. I think that many people, now used to versus populum, see ad orientem as something anachronistic at best, rude at worst. “Why has the priest got his back to us?” is a frequently-heard comment.

    This, of course, is connected with the fact that all ministry is relational. It’s much more difficult to minister effectively to someone if you have no eye contact with them. People now instinctively realise this anthropological truth, and no amount of attempted justification will change that.

    Then there is the fact that the incarnation of liturgy that we have today is participatory in a way in which the previous incarnation of liturgy was not for many centuries. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the postures, gestures and orientation that we use reflect this reality. We are no longer passive spectators, looking on while someone else does everything for us in celebrating the sacred mysteries that are hidden from our view.

    I also think there can be a certain amount of unthinkingness associated with the desire to cling to a notionally eastward-facing position. The point is easily made on the occasion of a group photo. If one suggests an ad orientem photo, with everyone turning their backs to the camera, it becomes clear just how silly all this is.

    1. So a versus populum group photo where everyone turns their back to the camera except for one person is less silly?

    2. There are plenty of “passive spectators” at any liturgy. People aren’t magically transformed just because someone is facing them, or because they’re expected to recite responses or to sing songs (whether sublime or banal and insipid). That’s just the “anthropological truth” called human nature.

    3. To add to this *Waste of time* – if one tries to enumerate the meanings of the Eucharist, facing east would be way down on the list. Eucharist is a communal action. Facing east is an idea – why does it have to be taken literally? It reminds me of the celibacy man made rule – too many would deny eucharist because of celibacy; thus, celibacy becomes more important than the sacrament of the community. It puts the cart before the horse. The same with *facing east* – it puts the cart before the horse and ignores the very meaning of eucharist.
      Find this whole post and exercise to be like counting the number of angels on a pinhead.

      1. People wouldn’t need to waste their time if celebrating ad orientem weren’t so controversial to those who personally don’t like it.

        It’s not like the move towards ad orientem for a handful of Masses nationwide has reached the level of misinformation, bullying, and material wastefulness the switch to versus populum did.

    4. While I am no proponent of the older way (which is hardly entirely back-to-people, lest we forget), as it were, I must say that the following asserts much more than is actually demonstrated in this context:

      “This, of course, is connected with the fact that all ministry is relational. It’s much more difficult to minister effectively to someone if you have no eye contact with them. People now instinctively realise this anthropological truth, and no amount of attempted justification will change that.”

      Which brings to mind questions such as: what hard evidence do we have to support our assertions that doing X/not doing Y in liturgy results in A/does not result in B? And which of the reformed practices in the conciliar liturgy appears at a 50 year remove to be most fruitful (and based on what evidence) and which least, and in between?

      Which may be another way of saying that, while I have zero interest in the liturgical restorationist agenda, that doesn’t mean there’s considerable work that could be done to make discernments about the fruitfulness of the conciliar liturgical reforms even from within their own asserted framework.

  12. I have always found it ironic that priests of a certain age strongly oppose ad orientem worship during the Eucharistic prayer but then leave the sanctuary, join hands with members of the congregation, and face the altar for the Our Father.

  13. A non-Christian friend accompanied me to my first EF Mass (which was also my first experience of ad orientem). I mentioned afterward that the direction the priest faces was one of the biggest differences between that Mass and most other “typical” Masses. My friend said she would have thought all Masses were celebrated ad orientem since the priest seemed to be so “one with the people.” Some people could quibble about the way my friend described it, but it was a positive impression quite different from the one she was supposed to have according to the comments in this and other similar threads.

    Since then, I’ve usually noticed that the only people who find ad orientem off-putting are those who were conditioned that way. When one approaches it without bias, ad orientem comes off as very humble and communal.

    1. When one approaches it without bias, ad orientem comes off as very humble and communal.

      Jack, I think that most of our people do approach this question without bias, and their perception is that this practice is far from humble or communal. Often they may perceive it as strange, remote, or even incomprehensible. When a priest arrives in a parish and imposes it where it did not previously exist, there is often an impression of a lack of consideration, divisiveness, even arrogance.

      We now have two generations who are accustomed to something different. You can tell them until you are blue in the face that ad orientem is more reverent, respectful, “theologically better”, “what the Church wants”, or anything else, and it will make no difference. They are used to a different way of doing things, and they find ad orientem to be alien. Yes, you can say they are conditioned, but in fact of course they are conditioned by custom.

      And in case you tell me that this is only my opinion, I meet and work with hundreds of different people every week, and they tell me what they think, mostly without being asked!

      People embraced this way of celebrating in the same way that they embraced the vernacular, Communion in the hand and under both kinds, an increased role for lay people, and much else. I don’t think we will ever easily put the clock back.

      1. It never ceases to amaze me how it was apparently quite fine to impose things…including things mandated by neither Council nor even Consilium…when it was what liturgical progressives wanted. Including imposing things at the high financial expense of wrecking churches to accomplish said wishes.

        Now, when someone “imposes” what has always been permitted, we hear how it’s just such a “divisive” shock after two generations.

        The ironies defy credulity.

      2. Dr Fratantuono,

        The mantra of “never mandated by the Council or the Consilium” conveniently ignores the fact that, as the reforms got underway, the people doing the mandating were the bishops of the world themselves, as they discovered the pastoral advantages of changes in practice.

        Of course it is possible to say that “the bishops never voted for X”, but the plain fact is that when, immediately following the Council, they saw the good that X could do, they asked for it, time and time again, in short order. And the same thing with Y and Z and many other changes which people like yourself apparently continue to reject. These changes were not imposed, they were requested. Read Piero Marini’s book A Challenging Reform where it is all documented in detail.

        The difference in the situation that we have now is that the people are generally not requesting ad orientem celebrations, but these are nonetheless being imposed on them in some places.

      3. Judging from the way you quickly dismissed my own experience, I wouldn’t be surprised if the same dissmissiveness happed in real life in your conversations with hundreds of Catholics each week. Also, people are less likely to notice a bias that favors their own preferences.

      4. Jack

        I would say that among English-speaking Catholics, the pattern I’ve observed fwiw over the decades seems to be that, despite the reputation of unhappy people being the loudest sheep in the flock, other than hardy (or worse) gadflies Catholics have internalized the pattern of either not bothering to speak or speaking equivocally to staff and ministers whom they perceive as unlike to agree with them. It’s exceptionally easy for people to talk past each other, so they hear what they’d prefer to hear, or to misinterpret the intended scope of a comment and how it relates to other topics.

  14. It’s a small thing but I’m hard of hearing and I depend a lot on reading lips. If the priest has his back to me what am I supposed to do, wing it or just follow along in a missal as best as I can?

  15. What Paul Inwood said…

    Maybe a praytell survey of priests old enough to remember the first time they presided at Mass facing the people. What do they remember about their celebration of the liturgy ideas?

  16. The most compelling argument I’ve encountered for celebrating ad orientem is a spiritual/anthropological-theological one. Several priests have told me that it’s easier for them to truly *pray* the Mass – i.e., to be inwardly oriented toward God in prayer – when they’re not facing people looking at them. Ad populum can lead priests to assume a more performative stance, rather than a prayerful one. Needless to say, it’s more difficult for the faithful truly to pray the Mass and enter into Mystery if the presider – the person leading them – isn’t praying, but rather is declaiming or reciting or simply reading the words.

    1. I hear what you’re saying, but I disagree fundamentally. The logic of the Vatican II reforms is also in fundamental disagreement.

      There are two views of liturgy. There is much overlap between them, to be sure, but the two views are in tension. They are:
      1. Liturgy is something the priest does *for* the people, *on behalf of* the people. If it is done well, the people are inspired, edified, impressed, moved to prayer. They might also (though this is more recent, with roots in late 19th century and more implementation in the 1940s and 1950s) even know and understand what the priest is doing by means of their lay missal translations, and unite themselves with the priest’s prayer.
      2. Liturgy is something a community does under the leadership of the ordained priest, who has an essential role in persona Christi in making possible the fullness of the community’s action. The nature of the true church – a hierarchically ordered community – is expressed in the communal liturgical action.

      The problem with your comment, with admirable desire for reverence and being centered on God, is that it seems to support #1 rather than #2.

      That some (or many) priests have not done #2 well is no reason to return to #1. It is a reason to deepen our understanding of Vatican II liturgy and learn to do it well. Building up a liturgical culture based on V2 will take decades, maybe centuries, but it is the Church’s desire and plan of action. Let’s help priests preside well versus populum so as to unite everyone with God and each other. It’s a learned skill, and it means engaging people, not ignoring them to focus on God.

      There is certainly a case to be made for ad orientem. But it has to fit into view #2, not view #1. And the time for doing it probably isn’t here yet, since it is at the present time a symbol of lots and lots of other baggage that makes it divisive.


      1. Though one way to get to that time is for ministers who embrace the conciliar reforms to consult their communities broadly and deeply about what assumptions are shared ad what symbols and baggage are actually decisive in a broad and deep way rather than just assuming they are so.

        Instead of just leaving it to ministers who don’t not embrace the conciliar reforms to do in their way.

      2. Anthony Ruff, OSB: How does the priest’s ability to pray the Mass – and therefore to lead the faithful in prayer – not constitute “something a community does under the leadership of the ordained priest”? In other words, what about my comment suggests to you that it supports #1 over #2?

        For the record: My own preference happens to be for versus populum, and I’m a big fan of V2. I agree that learning to preside well facing the people is a learned skill… and one that very (very) few priests possess.

        My comment – as I said at the outset – was aimed only at naming the most compelling argument I’ve heard for ad orientem. It’s an argument that touches a chord… because in my experience there are too few priests who truly *pray* the Mass. More often than not they read or declaim or assume a performative stance – sometimes speaking in such a rote way that one wonders if we’re not engaging in empty ritual rather than in the worship of the living God. If ad orientem helps priests to pray the Mass better, that’s worth noting, at least in my book.

      3. Dear Silvia, thanks for this clarification and I’m sorry I misunderstood you! I couldn’t agree more – actually praying the Mass is what we need presiders to do. And everyone else too!

      4. “Building up a liturgical culture based on V2 will take decades, maybe centuries, but it is the Church’s desire and plan of action.”

        This presumes quite a lot. Who knows how many councils will occur in the coming centuries? Who knows how Vatican II will be authoritatively interpreted and developed in forthcoming magisterial decisions over the centuries? Benedict XVI had just as much right to initiate a “desire and plan of action” as Paul VI; so too Francis and some future Alexander XX.

        It’s the notion that Vatican II was some sort of super council, some omega point, some eternal and unending “hodiernum tempus” (suspiciously housed in a perpetual 1975 ambience) that has, I would argue, caused the most harm in the liturgical arena.

      5. Lee, you’re correct and I can’t predict the future. But 99.99999% of the popes and bishops have accepted V2 since 1965 so a turn-around is not easy to imagine. Even Benedict XVI supported Vatican II and the “Ordinary Form” liturgy, though he wanted Summorum Pontificum to influence the reformed liturgy. And Francis has said that the liturgical reform is “irreversible.”

        But as I say, I can’t predict the future.


  17. This thread thus far seems to have ignored the fact that Eastern Churches (both Orthodox and Catholic) have all avoided the novelty of facing the people for its own sake.

    It’s one thing to say that one prefers the new practice or thinks it’s an improvement over the traditional form. But to contend that it’s inappropriate for contemporary worship seems to me to speak more ill of contemporary praxis than of nearly the entirety of Eastern *and* Western Christian ritual tradition.

    1. Felipe,

      This very point came up in a Facebook discussion of Bishop Wall’s edict.

      And one point that was made in response is that in many instances it would make no difference at all whether the clergy are facing the people or not, since they are hidden behind the iconostasis and cannot be seen….

      1. A comment like that could only come from someone who has never attended a Byzantine Liturgy.

        The priest is visible for most of the Divine Liturgy as the Royal Doors are closed only for the anaphora (eucharistic prayer) and many parishes do not even close the Royal Doors for that. There are also prayers chanted outside of the sanctuary and these are also always chanted facing east.

      2. I agree with you, Alex, while noting that the difference, certainly in many of the Eastern-Rite liturgies that I have attended, is that the prayers that are chanted outside the sanctuary are not done with the presider raised up at a distance with his back to the people but by the presider with the people gathered round him, at the same level, all facing east. That feel very different.

      3. Oh then you know very well that the priest is visible to the assembly even when behind the iconostasis as long as the royal doors are open.

        Also the deacon chanting the litanies usually stands on a raised platform.

      4. I think Paul makes an interesting point. Ad orientem feels very different in a small chapel than it does when the priest is in a distant sanctuary. The idea of “everyone facing the same direction” is somehow more convincing to me in more intimate settings.

        I should add that, as a deacon, my most common experience of Mass is of the celebrant having his back to me. But because I am, as it were, “close to the action” I don’t feel in any way left out.

      5. FCB
        In a past life, I’ve been in a community where there was an experimental seating arrangement for a few months where the area I sat (as a non-minister) meant that the presider’s back was generally facing me. And that’s when I realized it didn’t seem to make as much of a difference as I had been led to believe it would. While I don’t promote reverting to preconciliar praxis in this regard, it is also not high on the list of Hills I’d Rather Die On, as it were.

  18. I’ve always wondered whether the idea that versus populum and ad orientem are somehow incompatible is limited only to certain parts of the world. In many historic churches in Europe for example, it is normal to have daily mass in a chapel set up for ad orientem, but then the major liturgies of Sunday to be versus populum at a central altar.

    Come to think of it, the papal basilicas of Rome each have some Sunday Masses at the high altar where the priest faces the assembly but then have other Sunday Masses in a chapel where the priest faces “ad orientem” (this is true for St. Peter’s, St. Mary Major, and St. John Lateran certainly, though i’m not sure about St. Paul’s Outside the Walls).

  19. What a good, reasonably civil discussion this was. A few things have since crossed my mind:
    1. To me, the decisive advantage of versus-populum is visibility of the Hosts and the chalice among us. Bear in mind that in the 1960s, the novelty (having some ancient precedent) of versus-populum appeared almost simultaneously with the novelty (having HEAPS of ancient precedent) of speaking the Eucharistic Prayer aloud and in the vernacular. I think it’s odd when the priest says very audibly that he is offering these objects, in union with Jesus Christ’s perpetual self-offering, but blocks the congregation’s view of them with his flowing-vestment-clad body. Of course, it doesn’t seem so odd when the Eucharistic Prayer is said secreto and in Latin, as in the 1962 Missal.
    It’s unfortunate that, in this post and elsewhere, so much of the discussion of versus-populum relates it to the view of the presiding priest’s face rather than the view of the Hosts and chalice. Do some of our clergy overestimate how much the ad-orientem issue is about them?
    2. Bishop Wall’s letter itself never refers to Pope Francis, who now has care of our souls, but takes considerable guidance from Pope Benedict, who does not. Is the letter deliberately anti-Francis? Well, in the date-paragraph Bishop Wall calls Mary Magdalene’s day a memorial, three years after Pope Francis elevated it to a feast. Was that some sign of resistance to Francis’s acts? Or might this paragraph, complete with “Our Episcopate” (in the body of the letter Bishop Wall doesn’t call himself “we”), have come from another, more partisan hand?

    1. “Is the letter deliberately anti-Francis?“

      I think you may be reading the letter deeper than Bishop Wall intended. Not every discourse in the Church revolves around the Holy Father, and I’m not sure why so many people fixate on obscure phrases or omissions as evidence of a supposed conspiracy against him. Sacred Liturgy is not a pet project of Francis as it was Benedict, but Francis has publicly celebrated mass ad orientem on multiple occasions when the space makes that form preferable, most notably at the tomb of JPII and in the Sistine Chapel.

      1. A genuine answer to my question “Is the letter deliberately anti-Francis?” would require reading Bishop Wall’s mind, but for the body of the letter, the answer seems to be no. True, Bishop Wall shows an attention and reverence usually reserved for papal teaching to words that did not come from a pope. But making a case for ad-orientem does not in itself indicate hostility to Pope Francis, since, as you point out, he usually steers clear of liturgical issues. Nor do I catch hints of such hostility between the lines of the letter.
        The date-paragraph (“Given in Gallup . . .”) is a different story. Pope Francis has strongly opposed the pursuit of perks and pomp by popes and bishops. The “Our Episcopate” and the demotion of St. Mary Magdalene’s day (its elevation was very widely noted) in the date-paragraph sound like a counterblast to him. To me, they do not sound like what the author of the body of the letter would have written. Bishop Wall’s letter on the order of administering sacraments has no date-paragraph.
        It has not been authenticated who first said that the only ones who should refer to themselves as “we” are sovereigns, editors, and people with tapeworms.

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