Why ad Orientem Matters

In what has become a controversial interview with the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne, Prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, encouraged the practice of priest and people facing east (ad Orientem in Latin) together during certain parts of the Mass.  Unfortunately, his repeated calls for a return to the constant practice of the Church until the Second Vatican Council, like those of Cardinal Ratzinger before him, have mostly been ignored.  This is because the idea of the priest “turning his back on the people” signals an antiquated liturgical practice that was left behind with the reforms of Vatican II.  To dismiss this practice solely base on this, misses the  point of the point entirely and so it will be highly beneficial for us to investigate why the Cardinal is right.

It is helpful to begin by looking at some of the recent history.  The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, is silent on the issue of orientation.  What the Constitution does emphasize is “active participation” of the laity during the Mass.  In order to supposedly facilitate this active participation, the instruction for implementing the Constitution Inter Oecumenici mentions a celebration versus populum (“facing the people”) as a possibility but does not prescribe it.  In the General Instruction for the Mass that followed in 1975, said that:

In every church there should ordinarily be a fixed, dedicated altar, which should be freestanding to allow the ministers to walk around it easily and Mass to be celebrated facing the people, which is desirable whenever possible.

This translation was interpreted by many to mean that Mass facing the people was desirable.  But the phrase “which is desirable whenever possible (‘quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit)’ refers to the provision for a freestanding altar and not to the desirability of celebration towards the people.

Very often liturgical purists will argue that celebration versus populum came out of nowhere.  Certainly there was enough vagueness to open the door for its widespread practice, but the Church did very clearly and validly offer it as an option.  The desire to have Mass offered ad orientem must not be based on a mere love for antiquity.  We must avoid the trap Pius XII warned of related to the “liturgy of the early ages..[It] must not be esteemed more suitable and proper, either in its own right or in its significance for later times and new situations, on the simple ground that it carries the savor and aroma of antiquity. . . . [I]t is neither wise nor laudable to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device” (Mediator Dei, 61).  The point that the Cardinal is making is a more balanced one in that he thinks this experiment was a failure and that we need to change it.

In his book Key to the Doctrine of the Eucharist, Abbot Vonier calls the sacrifice of the Mass a “profoundly human thing.”  What he means by this is that despite the fact that it is centered upon a divine act, what surrounds that divine act is done by men and under their control.  More to the point, the Church is the custodian of the Sacraments and she has the power to add to the institutional signification and adorn the action making it a celebration that adds a certain clarity to the divine action.  While the Church cannot change the Sacraments themselves because they are divine instituted, she can and should surround them with meaningful liturgical forms.  These liturgical forms are sacraments of the Sacraments in that they are meant to more fully reveal what is actually happening, always with the goal of making it easier for men in a given culture and time to enter more fully into the mystery of the Sacrament.

This is why we can say that the liturgy is organic and can change based on a given culture and time.  But it cannot just simply be any change that people want to see, but instead each new development must be tested by whether it is in harmony with the essence of the liturgy or whether it detracts from it.  It is only in this light that we can evaluate whether the change in which has been deemed organic enhances the understanding of the Mass or detracts from it.  It is most assuredly the latter for several reasons.

The principle of “active participation” of the faithful requires that first and foremost there be an understanding of what they are actively participating in.  What is primarily going on during the Mass is a sacrifice.  This topic has been covered in other places, but it bears repeating that what is actually going on is Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross being made present to the Church so that the members can personally and actively participate in it.  But most Catholics would associate the Mass with a community meal.  Where would they get this idea?


With priest and people facing each other, it certainly looks like a closed in community with the priest at the head of the table.  This closed in community has come together to share, like all meals do, the sustenance of life.   But the Eucharist is not a community meal in the strict sense.  First of all, not everyone present shares in it.  Second it is based on a misunderstanding of the Sacramental nature of the Mass.  While it was instituted in the context of a Jewish festal meal, what Christ commanded the Apostles to repeat in memory of Him was not the meal, but the new reality He created.  Even if it were viewed in terms of that particular meal, the circumstances of the Last Supper were vastly different.  As was custom, the diners reclined on couches arranged in a semicircle, with small tables being used for holding food and dishes.  In other words the meal had an open orientation with all the diners facing the same direction.

Furthermore, that meal that Jesus shared cannot be understood without the notion of sacrifice.  The Jewish Passover meal was one that centered on the sacrifice and eating of the Passover Lamb.  The meal Jesus shared with the Apostles was marked by the fact that the victim of the sacrifice was Himself.

How would restoring the orientation of the priest change this?  When the priest and people are facing the same direction, there is no question as to the nature of what is going on.  The community is making the offering of the Son to the Father.  The priest serves as representative of the people, conformed sacramental to Christ the Priest and the altar is raised above the people to show the upward motion of the sacrifice.  The liturgy with priest and people facing the same direction then makes evident not just the sacrificial character of the Mass but also the Real Presence.  It is not accidental that in the years since the implementation of versus populum that a belief in the Real Presence has steadily declined—lex orandi, lex credenda—how we worship affects what we believe.

A quick word on the use of the term ad orientem (Latin “to the east).  The reason this term is emphasized is so that we do not fall into the trap of thinking the priest is turning his back on the people.  Like all Sacraments, the Eucharist has not just a past and present orientation, but a future as well.  We are to celebrate the Eucharist “until You come again.”   We are to be on the watch for His return.  To emphasize this connection between the liturgy and the cosmos, our watching ought to be towards the east (or at least towards the apse which represents a “liturgical east” in those churches not suitably oriented).  According to Origen, this eastward direction of prayer is something that has marked Christian prayer from antiquity and was handed on from Christ and the Apostles.  St. Thomas says the facing east during prayer is fitting because

the Divine majesty is indicated in the movement of the heavens which is from the east. Secondly, because Paradise was situated in the east according to the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:8, and so we signify our desire to return to Paradise. Thirdly, on account of Christ Who is ‘the light of the world’ [John 8:12; 9:5, and is called ‘the Orient’ (Zechariah 6:12). Who mounteth above the heaven of heavens to the east (Psalm 67:34), and is expected to come from the east, according to Matthew 24:27, ‘As lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of Man be’” (ST II-II, q.84, art.3, ad.3).

Cardinal Ratzinger made the common sense observation that ordinarily when we speak to someone we face them so that when we speak to God in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, priest and people is one voice.  Therefore they should be facing the same direction.  This is also why the Pope Emeritus makes a sharp distinction between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  During the Liturgy of the Word, there is a certain dialogue that goes on and thus it is fitting that the priest and people face each other.  But in the Liturgy of the Eucharist the direction changes, something that ought to be revealed in the liturgical form (with the exception of the few times of dialogue).

We can see then that with a proper understanding of an ad orientem posture it helps to more fully reveal what is happening at Mass.  This is at the heart of Cardinal Sarah’s repeated protestations of the current practice.  If our goal is conversion and turning to the Lord, we ought to seriously consider changing our position.

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