What's at stake in the debate over facing East during the liturgy

In a recent liturgical conference in London, Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, argued that priests should consider turning toward the East for the celebration of the eucharistic portion of the Mass.

Turning toward the East, or ad orientem, is technical liturgical language for the priest and people facing in the same direction. The suggestion is nothing new. The decision to allow Mass facing the people has had its opponents since it was allowed shortly after the end of the Second Vatican Council. And more recently it has been championed by none less than Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in his many writings on the liturgy.

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Shortly after Cardinal Sarah gave his speech, the Vatican Press Office issued a statement “clarifying” his remarks. In it they made clear that the provisions for Mass facing the people remain in place. We shall see if that ends the matter.

Cardinal Sarah’s speech is likely to cause some conversation in the coming months, as surely some clergy and laity will want to follow his advice. I would like to sort out fact from fiction in the debate over which way the priest should face at the liturgy.

Fact and Fiction

Opponents of Mass facing the people often point out that the Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” contains no provision for the practice. They are correct. The issue was discussed in the commission that produced the document as well as in the debates on the floor of the council. (Annibale Bugnini’s account of the reform, The Reform of the Liturgy: 1948-1975, is an invaluable resource for this material.) But shortly after the constitution was approved in December 1963, the first instruction for implementing the reform appeared. “Inter Oecumenici” (1964) stated: “The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there” (No. 91).

The prescribed placement of the altar was also stated clearly in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (1969, 3rded. 2002), the church’s official liturgical law. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

296. The altar on which the Sacrifice of the Cross is made present under sacramental signs is also the table of the Lord to which the People of God is called together to participate in the Mass, as well as the center of the thanksgiving that is accomplished through the Eucharist.

299. The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.

The alert reader will observe several things. First, the altar is described as both the place where the “Sacrifice of the Cross is made present” and “the table of the Lord.” (A fuller theological statement would argue that the eucharistic sacrifice and the sacred meal in which we participate are two sides of the same coin). Second, it is interesting to note that facing the people is not mandated. That is, it has never been forbidden, perhaps because too many chapels were built in such a way that having an altar separate from the wall was not architecturally feasible. Nonetheless, the preference is clear that the main altar of a church is to be separated from the wall to make Mass facing the people possible.

Another “fiction” that is sometimes repeated is that the General Instruction presumes that the priest will face East. Critics point to four points in the description of the Mass (Nos. 124, 146, 157 and 165) when the priest is directed to turn towards the people. Two cautions are appropriate here. These directives may be in place to deal with the possibility that the priest can face East, in which case the Instruction makes clear that there are times when he must face the people.  But the document does not direct the priest to turn around again to the altar after the prayer over the gifts and the eucharistic prayer—that is, it does not presume that he will be facing East.

One last fact: At the time of Vatican II some argued that the original position of the priest was facing the people. This, too, seems to have been a fiction. All of the evidence we have from the early church shows that facing East whence the Lord was expected to make his final coming was expected. In church building that could not be oriented (e.g., St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) the priest faced East, which was also toward the people.

What Is At Stake?

There is a great deal at stake in the argument over which way the priest should face. Three reasons are often cited for facing East. The first is that the people are involved in a common action and therefore should face the Lord in offering the eucharistic sacrifice. The second is that the personality of the priest now dominates in the liturgy—to its detriment. Third, the current arrangement makes the celebration a self-enclosed circle in which the community becomes the object of its own worship. These arguments are not unreasonable; there have been many situations that warrant these criticisms over the past 50 years.

On the other hand, the arguments do not seem sufficient to warrant changing the current practice of facing the people during the celebration of the Eucharist. The abuses and excesses of the decades following the institution of the liturgical reform are for the most part a thing of the past. No doubt there are occasional exceptions, which some bloggers are eager to pounce on.

The decision to make versus populum celebration a possibility rested on a profound theological insight, one which is profoundly traditional. The Eucharist is the action of the church—head and members. This sacred action is a sacrifice (self-offering along with Christ) that takes the form of  meal, in which the body and blood of the Lord are given and shared. (This latter point invites more emphasis than I can expand on here. Suffice it to say that current attitudes toward receiving Communion in a consumerist culture often obscure the fact that Communion is something we share with one another as the body of Christ). It was perfectly clear to St. Paul (I Cor 10-11) and St. Augustine (Sermon 227, 272) that we receive the body of Christ in order to become the body of Christ. Hence the importance of the council’s clarion call for full, conscious and active participation in the liturgy.

Last, as the church historian Massimo Faggioli has frequently and astutely argued, liturgical reform is an interpretive key to the whole of the council. A reversion to the pre-conciliar position of the priest at Mass would be a profound signal that the forward steps the church took in Vatican II are in question. I suspect that a good number of people who make the ad orientem argument are in favor of just such a reversal.

In 2000, the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Disciple of the Sacraments issued a statement responding to an inquiry regarding ad orientem and versus populum. They were on target in insisting that the question really depends of making Christ the center of the celebration. I would add that it is important to keep emphasizing that the body of Christ is present both on the altar and in the assembly—not to mention in the priest and the word of God as stated by the “Constitution on Sacred Liturgy” (No. 7) and the General Instruction (No. 27). What is very much at stake in our liturgical celebrations is the reverence we have for all of these modes of the presence of Christ.

John F. Baldovin, S.J., teaches liturgy and sacraments at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.

Correction, July 22: Due to an editing error, the timing of the liturgical conference held in London cited in the first paragraph was initially incorrect. The conference was held in July, not May.    

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William Rydberg
1 year 4 months ago
Interesting analysis from a learned Jesuit, that lacks only one thing which his own Jesuit Fathers would not, it seems have failed to recommend. Proclaim a Fast, and ask the Lord. Before you rush to respond. Think
William Atkinson
1 year 4 months ago
Once while traveling in Ethiopia a priest (Coptic Catholic) facing the crowd holding up bread and wine and consecrating the Eucharist; the crowed stood up and noisily with loud exaltation and beat of drums welcomed The living Christ into their presence.
PEGGY KRUSE
1 year 4 months ago
Because the priest is standing in the place of Jesus Christ and saying the words He addressed to His disciples (or apostles only?) at the Last Supper, I don't understand why the priest wouldn't face the congregation AND look at the assembly when he says "This is My Body...." instead of bending over the host and cup and speaking to them as is the practice of our most recently trained priests.
Todd Orbitz
1 year 4 months ago
The author references “Inter Oecumenici” (1964) as if the associated instruction was groundbreaking. However, it deviated not at all from several precious Instructions of the SCR dating back tot he 1700's. Rome has for the past couple hundred years insisted on the altar being seperated from the wall. That many, if not all chose custom contra legem does not mean that “Inter Oecumenici” (1964)is somehow groundbreaking. In point of fact, the older Missale includes specific rubrics for incensation of a freestanding altar.
Andrew Czarnick
1 year 4 months ago
You are correct. The Easterners have pretty much always used free standing altars, except for those rites (or more precisely within geographical areas in which there was pressure to adopt Latin customs) which had been heavily Latinized. They all intentionally face ad orientem and to top it off, have the iconostasis and/or curtains that further block the view from the nave. The only ones who face the people are the ones who swapped one sort of Latinization for another. The purpose of the free standing altar in those instructions of the SCR had absolutely nothing to do with facing the people, but rather of preserving a more liturgically correct altar rooted in an older tradition of making it possible to make use of a ciborium magnum and even drapes. Once inscensing was originally done around the altar as well. If one watches the movement of the priest with the thurible it looks much like a stylized "around the altar" when you can't actually get around it. Thus, I am perfectly happy with free standing altars-if they are sufficiently monumental with grand ciboria towering over them, or at least a suitable tester. I do think it's more proper, but I'd never have allowed all the ruining of sanctuaries as happened immediately after Vatican II. I also see absolutely no point in facing the people. I've attending countless traditional Eastern and Western liturgies and I'd have it no other way than ad orientem. Facing the people seems like such a dated gewgaw, a faddish thing like shag carpet or that cheap wood paneling that people used to cover walls with. The claimed theological underpinnings also seem to hold up as about as well as old cigarette ads with doctors giving them the thumbs up. Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of Christ's sacrifice on Calvary, in a secondary or even tertiary sense it's also a sacred meal. As it has been celebrated in both East and West for the better part of 2000 years can encompass any "insights" one might have. We share in communion, we're being made into the Body of Christ? Wonderful! I don't need Fr. Freelove gazing into my eyes and flashing those pearly whites to make that hit home, all the less do I need to see my fellow parishioners (who range from the devout to the apathetic) gawking at each other and Father and the Windows and whoever else is up there. Ad orientem is the tradition of both East and West. Don't bother bringing up Roman basilicas-it's obvious that even though the altar 'faces the people' the real point was to face East oblivious of where the people were. They actually probably faced east too, or were off to the sides possibly behind drapes anyway. I say bring back ad orientem, but more importantly bring back more beauty and dignity to church architecture. Even if versus populum is going to largely continue (and it will) it can at least be in a more dignified manner and space.
Beth Cioffoletti
1 year 4 months ago
I am conflicted about this (not that that is a bad thing). If the 2nd coming of Christ is true, and Christ truly will come from the East (as does the sun every morning), then we should be facing East. All of us. But if the Christ is within us, among us, even now, then what difference does it make what direction we face? We should face each other. The priest being in the middle seems a good idea. (and I'm still intrigued by the way Muslims face Mecca when they pray -- direction is important.)
William Atkinson
1 year 4 months ago
So we're now down to telling Jesus which way and direction HE has to come, a lot of very wise religious leaders have predicted his coming and end of world, amazing how man's ability to tell the almighty what to do and how to do it.
William Atkinson
1 year 4 months ago
Come on folks, it's the 21st century, time for voodoo Christianity to go away, meat on Fridays, kneeling, turn toward the sun, unleavend bread, limbo, even midnight mass, get a hold of your senses, remember Jesus's story of pulling your ass out of the well on the Sabbath, do and act like Jesus would if He was celebrating at your family or community supper with sodas, beer, hamburgers and hot dogs (Eucharist).
Lisa Weber
1 year 4 months ago
The ad orientem positioning means that the priest is faced away from the congregation much of the time. Not only can a person in the congregation not see what is happening, hearing the words is often difficult also. The general effect is that Mass has nothing to do with those in the congregation and that is certainly the feel of Mass celebrated that way. It is as if the hosts at a dinner party sat with their backs to the guests. It is unwelcoming.
Tom Jones
1 year 4 months ago
"Alert readers" will notice that Baldovin has relied on the same mistranslation that Fr. Lombardi did in his supposed clarification. That mistranslation in fact was corrected by the Congregation for Divine Worship. As read here in Baldovin's version it leaves the impression that Mass versus populum is preferred but in fact as the the CDW pointed out in 2000 that is incorrect. On 25 September 2000 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a clarification (Prot. No. 2036/00/L) regarding #299 in the new Latin GIRM. That clarification says: The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in n. 299 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which the position of the priest versus absidem [facing the apse] is to be excluded. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds: Negatively, and in accordance with the following explanation. The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account. First, the word expedit does not constitute a strict obligation but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum (detached from the wall). It does not require, for example, that existing altars be pulled away from the wall. The phrase ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.
Lynn Jacklevich
1 year 4 months ago
At St. Teresa of Avila parish in San Francisco, the altar is truly in the center of the church. The pews form arcs around it with font and ambo anchoring the 'ends' of the oval. It is truly a family around the table. So welcoming and wonderful for worship and relationships. I feel lost when I attend Mass at a "normal" church.
Alan Norman
1 year 4 months ago
I don't particularly have a horse in this race and my regular Mass is ad populum, but I read the penultimate paragraph with a sinking sense that the cat was finally being let out of the bag, and the rest of the piece rendered more or less redundant. Ad orientem must not be up for discussion because that could open up into a wider discussion of the fruits of post-Vatican II reform, and might jeopardize the party line that we're doing just fine - and give the satisfaction of vindication to our enemies to whom it must at all costs be denied. Thus the Mass becomes a hostage in the Great Catholic Culture War. Ora pro nobis.
Vincent Gaitley
1 year 3 months ago
We are all God's madmen now. What dithering, blathering nonsense! So, there never was a prohibition on facing the people, but altars built into the walls made it impossible to do so. Fine. But reversing any relational position would add weight to fears of a reversal to pre-counciliar views? Huh? Admit it, there is nothing at stake. But once, however quant it may seem now, everyone faced the Eucharist together.

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