I’ve posted on various occasions about Mass celebrated ad orientem, “facing east” – that is, with priest and people facing the same direction, toward the altar. You can easily use the search feature on the blog to find some of those prior posts.
Yesterday, Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, gave great impetus to the movement to resume celebrating Mass in this manner on a wider scale. I quote him somewhat at length, with emphasis added (source):
I want to make an appeal to all priests. You may have read my article in L’Osservatore Romano one year ago (12 June 2015) or my interview with the journal Famille Chrétienne in May of this year. On both occasions I said that I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite. Indeed, I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the center.
And so, dear Fathers, I ask you to implement this practice wherever possible, with prudence and with the necessary catechesis, certainly, but also with a pastor’s confidence that this is something good for the Church, something good for our people. Your own pastoral judgement will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year, when we attend ‘the Lord who will come’ and ‘who will not delay’ (see: Introit, Mass of Wednesday of the first week of Advent) may be a very good time to do this. Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!
I would like to appeal also to my brother bishops: please lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way, particularly at large celebrations in your dioceses and in your cathedral. Please form your seminarians in the reality that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the center of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshipers. Please facilitate this simple but profound reform in your dioceses, your cathedrals, your parishes and your seminaries.
The good cardinal stated at least twice that Pope Francis has encouraged him in his work. And of course, this form of celebration is not unknown to the Holy Father himself – I have posted about it here and here.
A relevant point to be emphasized at this point, perhaps, is the fact that this form of celebration is what is foreseen by the current Roman Missal. To celebrate Mass this way is to celebrate according to the rubrics. Don’t believe me? Here are some sample rubrics:
1. […] When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says: “In the name of the Father…”
29. Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says: “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice…”
127. The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”
132. The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: “Behold the Lamb of God…”
133. The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly: “May the Body of Christ…”
Just a few examples. In fairness, it is worth mentioning that the rubrics are silent about which direction the priest faces in other instances. The rubrics for the Novus Ordo are notoriously incomplete: just one example is how, above, it says that the priest faces the people for the Sign of the Cross, but it doesn’t say when he turns away from them again. Only in knowing the rubrics of the Extraordinary Form is it possible to fill in some of the lacunae in the Novus Ordo rubrics.
The bottom line is, according to the rubrics the priest almost always faces the people when addressing them – and God when addressing him. And this makes sense theologically, since the priest is a mediator between the people and God. Standing in persona Christi, who “lives to intercede for” us (Hebrews 7:25), the priest brings the people’s prayers to God and then brings God to the people.
If you’d like to learn more about the ad orientem celebration of Holy Mass, I recommend this post by Father Finelli, which includes links to several tracts that he wrote on the subject. He has implemented in his parish church precisely what Cardinal Sarah suggests, and noted the many blessings that it has brought. Father Heilman has also recently written about this subject with great conviction, having also had firsthand experience of the effects of choosing to celebrate Mass according to the rubrics.
I am well aware of the controversy that surrounds this topic. It causes strong emotions to arise in many who discuss it, and often even irrational responses. A large number of priests and bishops carry great baggage about this matter and will hear nothing of it. Why we often cannot talk about this subject in a calm manner is evidence – to me – of the activity of the evil one in trying to cause division and strife in God’s Holy Church.
I’ve had people say things to me like that celebrating in this way means that the priest “turns his back to the people”. Well, to me, that implies that the priest has made a choice to be rude. But most of us have learned our manners and being rude is the last thing on our mind if we celebrate that way! What a negative way to think of it – a way that often precludes reasoned discourse!
For me, arguments in favor of ad orientem worship have always been self-evident; I understand well, however, that that is not the case for all. Perhaps we can all simply open our hearts to something that Pope Francis himself has no problem doing, and one of his main cardinal-collaborators has spoken about on several occasions, and try to understand the reasons for it. That is what I hope to have accomplished with this post, and what Cardinal Sarah is obviously doing in his increasingly frequent talks that touch upon this topic.
The final word to Cardinal Sarah:
We priests must be worshippers first and foremost. […] We must remember that we are not the authors of the liturgy, we are its humble ministers, subject to its discipline and laws. We are also responsible to form those who assist us in liturgical ministries in both the spirit and power of the liturgy and indeed its regulations.
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