Saturday, November 6, 2010

A reflection on Liturgy celebrated "ad orientem"

Instead of the usual “Rev. Know it all” this week, I would like to share some reflections on a recent experience. At the end of a conference on the Church Fathers, I said the ordinary form of the Mass, the so called Novus Ordo, in the English language. It was no different from any other Novus Ordo Mass, with one exception.

For the Offertory, Canon and Our Father I faced the altar, not the congregation. I said the opening prayers from the presider’s chair, where I remained for the readings. I wore a microphone as usual. I then read the Creed and the prayers of the faithful, went down to receive the offerings of bread and wine, and then went to the altar directly, not going around behind it. The deacon and I turned to the congregation at the prayer “Pray brethren..” I next turned to the congregation at the sign of peace and then again at the “Lord, I am not worthy...” After the distribution of Holy Communion I returned to the presider’s chair and finished the Mass as usual. The music was very simple, very little organ, mostly plain chant in English, some Latin used in the ordinary parts of the Mass, all prayers and readings in English. I had warned the congregation that I would do this one time only as part of the conference that we were having at the parish. I faced away from the congregation for about 14 of 55 minutes, all told.

I did it as an experiment. I suspect that the Council Fathers of Vatican II never envisioned Mass facing the people. I wanted to know what the Mass of Vatican II would really be like, some English, some Latin, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied singing and a balance of facing toward people when addressing them and facing the altar with them when addressing the Father. I think this is what is called in the rubrics of the Missal when it indicates that the priest should face the people six times during the Mass:
1)When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124).
2)When giving the invitation to pray at the end of the offertory, "Pray brethren" (GIRM 146).
3)When giving the greeting of peace (GIRM 154).
4) When displaying the Host and Chalice before Communion and saying: "Behold the Lamb of God" (GIRM 157).
5) When inviting the people to pray before the post communion prayer (GIRM 165).
6)When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).

The fact that these rubrics exist, seems to assume that the priest is facing away from the people at some time during the liturgy.

After Mass, comments were varied. Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated. In particular I got angry fingers in the face, from someone who said that “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” How do you prove something that never happened? Rome has never said anything about having to face the people during Mass. One must do so only six times. It is one of the great mysteries of our times why, overnight, most of the altars in Catholic Churches were turned around.

There had been some experimentation in the 1950's by people like Balthasar Fischer based on the assumption that the first Christians had celebrated Mass with the celebrant facing the congregation. According to the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, the custom of facing away from the people originated among the Frankish clergy in around 700 or 800 AD. I would like to know why they write this.

For two reasons, I doubt that the Mass was ever said completely facing the congregation. Facing east, which usually means facing away from the people is the usual posture in liturgical prayer of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian traditions. It is still the custom in most of the Eastern rites, at least during the Eucharistic prayer. They have done this from time immemorial and still do. They wouldn’t have changed it just to accommodate the Frankish barbarians of the west, 700 years after Christ. This custom of congregation and clergy facing the same direction in prayer was universal until about 1967. The first Christians were Jews for a century after Pentecost, at least according to sociologist Rodney Stark. Facing a sacred direction and not a congregation was normal in the synagogue services from which the Mass developed. Orthodox Jews still face east, or more precisely toward Jerusalem, away from the congregation for much of the service. It is a natural gesture.

I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life. You cannot imagine what it was like to say words like “we” and “our Father” and “us” while standing at the head of a congregation that was turned together in a physical expression of unity. No matter how one might argue to the contrary, it is impossible to say “we” while looking at 500 people and not be speaking to them.

The Mass is a prayer addressed to the Father, and despite our best intentions, we clergy address it to the congregation at whom we are looking. You cannot help it. The human face is a powerful thing. Last Saturday night I realized for the first time that I was part of a family of faith directed toward the same heavenly Father. I felt as if I was part of a church at prayer. It was not my job. It was my church. I never realized how very lonely it is to say Mass facing the people. I am up there looking at you. I am not part of you. For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God.

I love the Tridentine Mass, or as we are supposed to be calling it now, the “extraordinary form.” I think that the Holy Father has been very wise in allowing its revival for those to whom it is meaningful. Its sense of solemnity is very beautiful and enshrines an essential dimension of the mystery of worship. I taught Latin for about 25 years, I understand the complex rituals of the old Mass. They mean a lot to me. Still, I don’t think that we should return to the exclusive use of Latin. I think the Council Fathers were right to simplify the mass.

The Holy Spirit anticipated the difficulties of our times. The simplification of the complex and beautiful gestures of the Tridentine Mass are entirely appropriate for the times we live in. In the same sense, there should be a pastoral balance between the common language and a “sacred language.” People pray best in their own first language. Remember that Latin was the vernacular when the Mass was in Greek. Latin itself was a concession to the popular mind. This being said, we the clergy should admit that we enshrined the liturgical abuses that were at the heart of the rebellion against tradition. We have become stuck in the 1960's and are unable to look without prejudice at the hemorrhaging of our congregations. We have failed to inspire them with a sense of the sacred and sublime and generations have been lost to the Lord and the Gospel.

I know that most people in my congregation would be offended if I started to face the altar regularly, because they are unaccustomed to it. I would be accused of factionalism or some such crime, so I don’t think that the market will bear it, but from now on every time I say Mass staring at the congregation and they hear Mass staring at my ugly mug, I will remember what could, what should have been. I fear I am as much a performer as a priest. I want to be a priest, but the show must go on.

The Rev. Know it all


  1. "I will remember what could, what should have been"

    With respect Father, shouldn't we always strive for the ideal? People don't like what they don't know. Maybe you could help them come to know it better.

    Thank you for this post. It is an honest look at the situation. You are in my prayers.

  2. I am SO in agreement. I (a former Protestant minister of 18 years) and my entire family are converts (five years ago) and one of the most difficult adjustments is from the Church of history, of the books with which we feel in love to your average local North American parish. I'd be happy to worship at exactly the kind of mass you note.

  3. Father Simon:

    I celebrated mass ad orientem at St. Peter's in Rome in 2003 a couple years after my ordination. It was the only way to say mass at the side altars in the basilica. It felt so right. I have never been comfortable with saying mass facing the people since that day. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I know that facing the altar as a rule for mass would create a firestorm. But it was the way of worship until 40 years ago. I pray that the Church will return to this form of right worship

  4. I have been doing the weekday Mass ad orientem in our Lady Chapel for over two years now. I love it, and wish that I could do it in church for the Sunday liturgy as well. Perhaps in time. . .

    1. Father Gregory: Now is the time. It is not a rush to celebrate ad orientem, but more and more priests are doing it.

  5. Father, this was a touching and sincere post. I came across it via Father Z's blog. You and your congregation will be in my prayers.

  6. Just as a practical note, in my ever-so-spoiled community, both Ordinary and Extraordinary Form are used regularly, and according to a well-established schedule; while in the Ordinary Form either orientation may be used, there is a tendency towards circular rather than parallel, with a few specific priests prefering parallel. The upshot, though, is that we in the congregation usually know what to expect, well before we get to Mass --- and without wishing to contradict Rev. Knowitall, it's one thing to warn folks against a single occurrence and another altogether to let them know that a particular usage will become usual. Former-wise, in a sense they're still not really warned, because untill they know from experience what the referent of the warning is, they likely don't grok the full meaning of it. Surprise itself is apt to discomfit many more than the intrinsic geometry involved.

  7. Father, when you wrote; "I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life." This passage from Matthews Gospel came to mind,
    "statimque Iesus locutus est eis dicens habete fiduciam ego sum nolite timere" (Matthew 14:27).

    Please do not be afraid of being a brave pastor of souls.

  8. Father,
    Please don't give up! Perhaps starting at the Wednesday morning mass, and starting to preach on versus Deum. After some time perhaps Wednesday and Saturday morning. The market will bear what it understands, and faith will take care of the rest. Thank You, Father,
    You remain in my prayers!


  9. father- beautiful post- praying for you....I think you are on the right track :)

    and thanks for the Byzantine shout-out!

  10. Oh, for more priests like you who would have the courage to do the same!!! I am embarrassed sometimes by the priest who is offering Mass. It is as if he is a performer, and the HE is the central figure of the Mass. I will pray very fervently that the Holy Father will take the lead in suggesting these changes. Of course it will fracture some parishes even more but what else is new since Vatican II? We attend the Extraordinary Rite every Sunday at our parish, and it is a breath of fresh air. I am reminded of the dignity and solemnity and the focus on worshiping God that has been largely lost since Vatican II mandated the vernacular. AND we are not subject to multi-lingual Masses, sometimes 2 or 3 different languages within the same Mass. Education is the way to inform the congregation why this change is being made. Unfortunately some think the Mass should be entertainment and a feel-good experience, especially with shoddy music. It's time we re-learned everything about the Mass.

  11. I would love to attend an N.O. mass such as you describe. I started attending the TLM last year on Sundays and Holy Days, but for daily mass I attend N.O. masses. I began to wonder how hard it must be for priests to remain other focused when they have to constantly face the congregation instead of all of us facing the same direction and praying toward the Father.
    Be of courage and may God bless and protect you.

  12. Wonderful post, Father. I don't think it has to be one or the other.

    At my home parish (where I was received into the Catholic Church two years ago), we have one Novus Ordo 'high mass' where almost all of the ordinary is in Latin and Father celebrates 'ad orientem.' The rest of our masses are the pretty standard U.S. Novus Ordo.

    This lets the congregation experience the Latin and 'ad orientem' as they wish, or avoid it as they wish ;-).

    The amazing thing is that now the high mass is usually our most crowded, and Latin responses have started to creep into our other Masses too. Most people-- at least in our parish-- were more receptive to a more traditional Mass than Father might have originally expected.

    God bless you!

  13. Fr., i love ad orientum. i love praying with our priest instead of at him:) it is a special treat in our parish, but i hope one day it will be the norm. Wonderful post. God Bless you & our pastor for re-introducing it!

  14. Way to go, Father! Keep up the good work! Remember Cardinal Ratzinger's words: "Wherever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy." [Spirit of the Liturgy, p.70]

    Mind you, shortly after publishing these words, he started wearing a white zucchetto.

  15. Father,

    Thank you for this beautiful post. I encourage you to share this experience with your congregation and give some catechesis during your homilies concerning ad orientem worship. I also encourage you to choose a Mass at which you will regularly celebrate ad orientem. We learn not just through teaching but also through experience. God bless you.

  16. Poignant reflection. Thank you. I think you have hit on the one change we could make to increase reverence and the sense of mystery at Mass.

  17. Father,
    Thank you for this beautiful post. When I was in a pre-theologate program living in an old convent a priest friend came by one Saturday to offer Mass. He did so ad orientem, much as you described. Before that Mass, I had been working on my theology thesis about the reform of the reform of the liturgy and was caught up in all sorts of details, but did not give think ad orientem posture was nearly as important as a host of other things. At that Mass I experienced the priest praying on our behalf to the Father and offering the sacrifice of the Mass for us in a profound way. I now realize that this one change may have been the most destructive to our liturgy, and it was not even called for by the council fathers! I agree with you whole heartily.

  18. THIS is exactly what I wish for with all my heart! I have only been to ONE Mass such as you describe but I wish they were all like it. YES to praying WITH the priest to GOD, instead of at the priest! I hope you take the suggestions here to heart, and start celebrating Mass ad orientem more often.

  19. I favor the idea of providing options so people have a choice of at which kind of Mass they can best worship God. Those who pray best with the ad orientum Mass could go to that one. Those who pray with greater devotion when the priest faces the assembly could go to that Mass. That way the likes of the priest could sometimes be fulfilled and the likes of those assembled could be fulfilled at other times.

    Personally, I don't think it's about feelings---priest or laity, but that's me.

  20. What is so wrong about defending the practices of the Church??

    It would be improper for the priest to "face the people." But, if the priest is on the other side of the altar, he is not facing the people, he is facing the altar, just as the people are not facing the priest, but facing the altar as well. Rather than the altar being at one end, the altar is at the center of worship.

    Oh, how I wish I would read at least once someone who would DEFEND and happily EXPLAIN the liturgical practice that is utilized at 98 percent of the Masses said around the world today, rather than yet another statement of disagreement and protest against it.

    Are there no more defenders of the Church anymore??

  21. And, properly understood, a priest celebrating Mass is not "one of the people" or the "head of the congregation." He may want to be, he may want that personally subjective feeling of unity with them, but he is not one of them. Sorry, but he simply is not.

    Rather, the priest is alter Christus, not one of the people, as in the ancient Jewish worship where the priest represented the people, but an alter Christus, an "other Christ," who acts, not as a congregant, a mere preacher as in Protestant worship, but in persona Christi. In short, the priest is set apart. And rightly so. It is sad that he should feel "lonely" due to not being "part of the people"; it is sad because the priest very purposely is not supposed to be part of the people. And, frankly, the people don't want him to just be one of them. They can get that at any Protestant church. Instead, they want a visible sign of Christ Himself.

  22. Pray it Father! I would have loved to be at that Mass.

  23. "I will remember what could, what should have been."

    No, sorry Father, that's not good enough. With all due respect, this is no time to go soft. It's time to be a father.

    The only reason the "market won't bear" ad orientem worship in your parish is that liturgical instruction and catechesis have been so sorely lacking in the Church in general. Obviously, you now know - not just intellectually, but in your heart - what is right. It's now up to you to make sure your people do too. Sure, some will fight it, but that's what children do.

    Instruct your flock as to what ad orientem worship means and why it's so important and then proceed to do what you know to be correct. Please!

  24. Father:
    My prayers are with you. May God bless your courage and strengthen you as you remind us of our obligations and the beauty we can find within them.
    A Connecticut Catholic

  25. Father,
    It sounds like you might have already read Fr. Uwe Michael Lang's book, "Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer", an argument for a return to "ad orientem" worship. In the foreward of this book, written by the then Card. Joseph Ratzinger, he encourages the book a wide readership. I really enjoyed reading it and found that it gave me a greater understanding of all the issues underlying a view of why a priest is not turning his back to the congregation but facing with us towards the Lord and the fulfillment of life's pilgrimage towards the Heavenly Jerusalem or the heavenly liturgy of the wedding feast of the Lamb.

    The EF form of the liturgy and older Catholic church architecture speaks more prominently of all the heavenly realities of Mass in the way that the most modern Catholic churches are lacking in "speaking" the proper theology of Mass. I think that Catholics have been so poorly catechized and lack the knowledge to understand the Mass properly. Please do keep saying Mass "ad orientem", Father, it really is a great way to open up people's minds to a truer understanding of worship--that it's not just a community meal or about our "physical" participation only.

    I wrote a post over at Catholic Phoenix that you might be interested in called "Architecture as Sacramental: Returning to the Garden of Eden". Please stop by and keep up the good work of changing Catholic culture for the better!

  26. Father, I feel deeply for how you must be torn. My prayers are with you.

    Encouragement though... twenty five years ago, conversations like this about facing away from the congregation/tward God would not have happened, and now, thanks partially to the internet and partially to posts like this from good Priests like you, progress is being made.

    Thank you for the post. I pray daily in front of the Blessed Sacrament and will remember you as I do.


  27. I may be the only dissenter here but I do not agree with the priest facing away from the people.
    If you are to represent Christ then you should be with us and face us. I have read the arguments for the facing away but for me facing away is tantamount to Christ giving the sermon on the mount with his back turned to everyone.
    I also feel that it is a cop out as it only magnifies the remoteness of the priest from people. In these days of declining belief the priest has to have a face that identifies with the people.

  28. Philomena,
    remember that we are not the only ones present in the church praying with the priest--the angels, the saints, and the souls in purgatory are present, too. The priest, remember, is praying "in persona Christi" with all beings present to God in the Tabernacle. God is actually in there, and that's why the priest used to face the altar because the Tabernacle was on it. So, the priest is not turning his back on us but actually facing God along with everyone else. The pope has told priests that they should put a crucifix on the altar when saying Mass "facing the people" lest he forget who he is praying to--certainly not to us. This would be properly seen as a compromise rather than the ideal.

  29. Philomena--The Mass is not fundamentally a sermon. The sermon is still said FACING the people. The Mass is fundamentally a sacrifice. It has much more to do with the Crucifixion than the Sermon on the Mount

  30. A.M.D.G.

    Dear Father, your post touched me very much. I am 24, and have been going to the Latin Mass for four years. My change to becoming more in love with Our Lord has come from courageous Priests like yourself who have come to realize that if we don't go through life with "AMDG" (Ad majorem Dei gloriam.... All for the greater Glory of God) as the reason and goal for all we do, there is no point in doing it.

    May Our Lady guide you and watch over you as you continue to live your life as a Priest who chooses to live AMDG.

  31. I guess Father know it all that DaVinci got it wrong! Jesus broke the bread and blessed the cup with his back to the disciples? And as to the Council I would assume any know it all would be well aware that the liturgical reforms were a result of the Council and so the Fathers of the Councils till used the old form of facing away from the people. And good Father if facing the altar makes praying the Our Father difficult then one should focus on the altar and not the people as we poor sheep already know we are not praying to you but to God, around whose altar we gather. Damn that DaVinci for painting such an untruth.

  32. Pax et bonum!

    Recently i proposed it to my spiritual director, to celebrate versus Deum at Christus Universorum Rex and at the four Advent Sundays, because it brings some sense of eschatology. He did agree, but last sunday, a half hour before the Mass... "Son, let's walk a little bit more and then, with a smaller congregation... ... ..." There's some kind of fear.
    I pray. And now i'll pray for you too, Father Simon. From here (Brazil). I did translate the post to ars-the.blogspot .
    God bless you.

    PS: sorry for my bad english.

  33. Thanks for this post Father. I am a revert to the Church and I remember coming back to Mass after so many years and being confused. "When are they going to talk about God, I thought (meaning God the Father) and then I realized that they were talking to God." I know it is stupid, but I think that that confusion could have been averted, and the sacrificial nature of the Mass reinforced, if Mass was ad orientem.

    Recently, I asked my wonderful and faithful pastor about this and he said that he was not trained to do Mass ad orientem and that you had to have permission from the bishop first to do that. Any comments?

    1. On July 7, 2007, Pope Benedict XIV released a motu proprio stating that priests no longer had to ask their bishops for permission to use the 1962 missal at mass. It's possible your priest didn't know, or didn't want to know. But it's kind of silly to think he can use a 50 year old missal without permission, but has to ask in order to say the mass ad orientem.

      As far as I know, the rubrics don't forbid ad orientem at the Novus Ordo mass, suggesting it's allowed. Training might be a legitimate beef. Offer to raise funds to send Father on a retreat where he can learn. If he demurs, it's probably because he doesn't want to do it, or is afraid that the bishop will get letters if he does.

  34. @Bender

    The role of the priest changes during the Mass, as evidenced by the 'person' in which he speaks.

    At some points, Father is one of us, at others, he speaks as Christ.

    So his being "in persona Christi" is transient.

    Father certainly is set apart from the congregation to a point at all times...which is why he's in front!

  35. Father, awesome points about being at the head of your congregation in a physical expression of unity, and the impossibility of addressing the Father while looking at 500 people who are looking at you. Pax et Orationes, - Nic Carvalho, Seminarian for Peterborough, ON, Canada.