Facing Christ

I was on an airplane this evening, and in thinking back on it I am reminded of the absurdity of the idea that a pilot should face his passengers while flying the plane. How could he lead them to their destination safely if he were looking at them instead of where the plane was going?

An image from an old catechism.

Here follow some scattered thoughts…

Recently I read an interesting commentary (in Italian) on what happened not too long after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), ushering in the near-universal change in the direction that the priest faced during Mass. While for many centuries priests generally faced “away from” (or, perhaps more accurately, “in the same direction as”) the people, now he turned and faced his congregation. Along with the change came ideological sloganeering that led countless people to hold the idea (uncritically) that in the past – in the “bad old days”, that is – the priest “had his back to the people“, as if priests then were rude elitists, and now a great injustice had finally been set aright.

The thing is, this change was never legislated by the Church. Never! There was never a decree from a Pope that said “all priests must face their congregations during the celebration of Holy Mass” or anything of the sort. There was never a decree from a lower-level authority (such as the then-Congregation for Rites). There was never a mention of this change in even a single document of the Second Vatican Council! This was a change that was imposed not through any legitimate exercise of Church authority but through the victory of an ideological agenda that found resonance in a certain cultural context. It was, so to speak, the wrong idea at the right time.

So this commentary that I read asked the question: How did this happen? What was it about our culture in the West in the 1960s and early 1970s that so eagerly received a change that, in fact, had been proposed not by Church authority but by some academics and activists who, for whatever reason, asserted that this was the way things should be done in the modern era, bucking centuries of tradition?

There are a lot of possible answers to this question, and not having access to the article I read I won’t post the author’s particular answer at this time, because I am afraid that I will not do it justice. But I have an answer of my own: Arrogance.

Our time has been marked by an incredible arrogance that asserts that after however many thousands (or even millions) of years that human beings have been on this earth, we have finally figured out the right way to do things in this current time. Either the past had it all wrong, or – if we subscribe to the very prevalent idea that the truth is relative – then the truth for our current time is different from the truth for past times.

There are many examples that we could give, ranging from big current issues like gay “marriage” to seemingly-smaller issues like changing the direction of our worship (thereby throwing out centuries of tradition in favor of a fad).

Our time is marked by a certain contempt for the past and the claims that it makes on us.

The questions that I have on this Roman evening are: How much do these attitudes affect us – you and me? What “slogans” do we take for granted and have not thought critically about?

The idea that the priest used to celebrate Mass “with his back to the people” is ridiculous. It is to laugh. What a mockery of the Church that Christ founded! What a negative spin on things! What a self-insult! – for those who say such things insult their own intelligence and critical thinking skills.

The purpose of this post is not to propose an apologetic for the priest’s celebrating Mass facing “with the people” (or “away from” the people) – i.e., the way that priests celebrated Mass for centuries (and still are permitted to do without any permission from anyone whatsoever). Perhaps I will post that on another day.

No, the point of this post is to encourage all who profess the Catholic faith to love the Church, embrace her, try to understand her, give the benefit of the doubt… Not buy the negative spin, not reject her (implicitly), reject her traditions, speak contemptuously about them, and otherwise be anti-intellectual when it comes to our heritage. As Blessed Cardinal Newman said, “Trust the Church of God…”.

There are very good reasons why the priest almost always, until not all that long ago, celebrated Mass that way. Besides being good reasons, they are even beautiful.

Again, does it make sense for a pilot to be seated facing his passengers!?

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5 Responses to Facing Christ

  1. Charlotte says:

    Very interesting analogy!

  2. Pat says:

    I once heard it described as the Priest turning his back to Christ.

  3. Richard M says:

    “There are a lot of possible answers to this question, and not having access to the article I read I won’t post the author’s particular answer at this time, because I am afraid that I will not do it justice. But I have an answer of my own: Arrogance.”

    While motives in human affairs are almost always mixed, I really do think that arrogance – we could say pride, if you like – is indeed the most likely answer.

    The book to read here, for those interested, is Uwe Michael Lang’s “Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer” (Ignatius Press, 2003). And its foreword was written by none other than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who noted what you note here: “There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions.” He notes that much of the confusion came from a misinterpretation of the 1969 GIRM that accompanied the new Mass; but the truth is, the switching around of altars, and the facing of celebrants toward the congregation began in many places even before the Council ended (and there had been a few experiments with it even in the years before the Council). Clearly, there was a restless desire by certain elites in the Church (even well before the Council) to radically transform how the Mass is celebrated; and all they needed for their warrant was the *event* of the Council, not its actual texts.

    We can return to ad orientem worship, and a few parishes here and there are doing so already. But to restore this tradition will require more pastoral sensitivity than the reformers of the 60’s employed. It will require much catechesis, and patience.

  4. pat Kilgro says:

    Would love to hear the reasons for the priest facing forward. I feel bad as a 81 year old cradle Catholic I have enjoyed the priest facing us and did not know it was not an order.I can see facing the tabernacle would be more meaning ful. I am enjoying your blogs very much.God bless you olv ftpayne Al.

    • Thanks for your comment, Pat! It’s nothing to feel bad about, but it is good for us to understand why things used to be the way they were and why they changed and so forth. I hope to post some more on it in the near future. Thanks!

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