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Ad Orientem: Thoughts on debating the non-essential

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 15, 2016

When it comes to discussions of the liturgy, some readers find my viewpoint appalling, while others regard it as a breath of fresh air. The reason is fairly simple: I have an extremely “intellectual” piety, which means I find nearly every liturgical form and setting to be a distraction rather than an aid to worship. For me the best liturgical form and setting for the Mass is the simplest. I have no tendency to dress the Mass up with human ornamentation, attempting to make it more beautiful than it already is in itself. I am certainly annoyed by studied indifference or cheap frivolity, but I am also left cold by elaborate ceremony (both in the Mass and elsewhere).

My favorite Mass has always been the unadorned daily “low” Mass of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, said in my own language. As far as suiting my own piety goes, nothing else comes close. I don’t go to Mass to be moved emotionally. This applies equally to elaborate musical settings, particular liturgical “styles”, and efforts to make the community feel good about itself. It is true that I revere Palestrina and generally deplore “Glory and Praise”, but—just between you and me—I find that both distract me from the essence of the Mass.

What is the value of all this embarrassing self-disclosure? Simply this: It is important to reflect on how our own personalities, tastes, and piety affect our judgment of liturgy. If we recognize that we each respond to God on somewhat different wavelengths—or, to put it differently, that we are all inherently biased in different ways—we can escape false certainties about what is “the right way” to do things. Liturgical discussion can be less passionate, and far more fruitful.

In any case, before anyone decides to burn me at the stake, I should point out that, whatever else might be said about my own liturgical preferences, my sensibilities at least put me within the tradition of that “noble simplicity” which is supposed to be the chief characteristic of the Roman Rite. Detracting from the Rite’s nobility by banal translations or any sort of frivolity is out. But so is detracting from the Rite’s simplicity by convoluted phraseology, excessive repetition, or elaborate cultural ornamentation.

The Mass, of course, must have a form; if it were formless it could not be the Mass (or anything else). That form, obviously, ought not only to effect but to communicate the fundamental purpose of the Mass. It should draw those present to unite themselves to the sacred action—the making present of the Word in Scripture; of the Word made flesh in obedient sacrifice to the Father for the remission of sin; and of the Word physically ingested so that we may be assimilated to Christ, extending and building the Mystical Body of Christ—that is, the Church, the Kingdom of God. Moreover, the particular form which is used to make all this present and active must be established by Christ’s own authority in the Church He established. The Church is the sole custodian of these sacred mysteries.

This means that the first requirement for authentic participation in the Church’s liturgy is the same sort of obedience to the Church that Our Lord offered to His Father in effecting our salvation. No matter how strongly we may feel about this or that manner of “celebrating” the Mass, the single most important factor in the attitude we bring to Mass is obedience to the Church. This applies equally to bishops, priests, deacons, religious, and laity, according to the example of Christ: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8), and “being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8).

Cautionary Principles

In this context, an assessment of the best liturgical forms and settings is inescapably hampered by two problems which can never be reduced to a single solution. The first problem is that the Mass is an exceedingly rich mystery. Indeed, it is a grand mystery which contains many mysteries. God encompasses this richness in His own fullness, but we humans grasp mystery from our poverty, by focusing on one aspect at a time, only gradually coming to a balanced apprehension of something approaching the whole.

This problem results in a key liturgical principle: (1) It is impossible to devise a liturgical form which conveys the full richness of the sacred mysteries; it is inescapable that each form and setting will highlight some realities and, in that very process, obscure others.

The second problem is that each human personality tends to see and respond positively to some goods more than others, and to react differently to proposed goods that may be only imperfectly understood, or indeed not understood at all. This problem results in a second liturgical principle: (2) No single liturgical form or setting is best for everyone, nor best for anyone all the time.

An argument can be made (I know, because I have made it) that, assuming we are properly disposed, a liturgy that we find ugly or annoying—a liturgy which causes us to suffer—will do us more spiritual good than one which satisfies our own particular sensibilities, no matter how “right” we believe those sensibilities to be. There is not one of us who is worthy of the Mass, no matter how badly it is celebrated. The greatest benefit lies in recognizing our own poverty in the face of the Divine mystery, instead of permitting the manner of celebration to distract and anger us—or permitting our souls to become attached to the splendor of the celebration more than to its essential action.

Ad Orientem

With this in mind, let us consider the controversy stirred by Cardinal Robert Sarah’s recommendation, as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, that priests celebrate Mass ad orientem (literally, “to the East”). Phil Lawler, who clearly feels more strongly about this than I do, has provided excellent commentary and follow-up on the reaction Cardinal Sarah has provoked. Judging by this reaction, you would think the Cardinal’s suggestion is somehow unspeakably novel and seriously dangerous! The resistance may have a sinister element, of course; it may be rooted in the secularism which has so sadly warped Catholic judgment in our day. At the same time, it seems only fair to recall that we are speaking here of an option that already exists but is almost never used. Whatever the reasons for this neglect when so many other options are used regularly, we must acknowledge that the ad orientem posture is not a prioriity for huge numbers of Catholic bishops and priests.

Having said this, there are still three main reasons for preferring this orientation (as opposed to versus populum, “facing the people”):

  • First, in the context of early Mediterranean and European Catholicism, it became traditional to orient churches on an east-west axis, so that when the priest said Mass he and the congregation could face toward Jerusalem, the geographical location of our salvation in the passion, death and Resurrection of Christ.
  • Second, and at least partly because the sun may be taken as a powerful symbol of the Divine light, this eastward orientation became associated with looking toward the coming of the Redeemer—looking toward the coming of Christ in glory. But here the direction is specified in Our Lord’s own words: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Mt 24:27).
  • Third, the “ad orientem” directionality typically means that the priest and people will face the same direction, such that the emphasis in the liturgical form is on the priest’s offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice in persona Christi to the Father.

This third point is rather obviously at the very center of the argument today. After all, not all Catholic churches are oriented on the East-West axis and, obviously, there are many places in the Catholic world now where facing east orients us toward Jerusalem only the long way around, or where we must face some other direction (such as north or south) to look toward Jerusalem at all. (You may smile, but I recently received a message from a Catholic in Malaysia who asked what the value was of facing east there, since nobody really wanted to look toward Korea or Japan.) For the first two points then, we are left primarily with a symbolic rather than a literal meaning—although I hasten to add that there is nothing wrong with that.

As many commentators have noted (most prominently Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope), when the priest stands at the head of the people, all facing (symbolically) toward Christ, it reduces the emphasis on the Eucharistic dimension of community formation and increases the emphasis on the Eucharistic dimension of propitiation and sacrifice to the Father. It seems very reasonable, then, that if the Church finds this shift in emphasis will create a more accurate and more balanced appreciation of the sacred mysteries, then increasing the use of the ad orientem posture might play a very salutary role in our time.

The Other Side

But other legitimate thoughts are quite possible. The Last Supper is the pre-eminent model for the Mass, and (presumably) was not orchestrated in this way. The Mass is also a sacred meal in which we eat Christ’s Body and drink His blood, a veritable foretaste of the heavenly banquet. The positive theological elements which received new emphasis with the introduction of the versus populum posture in 1968 include the universal priesthood, the universal call to holiness, the social dimensions of Eucharistic transformation, and an awareness of baptism as an initiation into the full Eucharistic life of the Church.

To take just one example, lay people fifty years ago would often say that they had “heard” Mass. The linguistic implication is that the Mass was something that priests alone did, and it was the privilege of the laity to listen in as they did it. I would not want to press the implication too far, but it is worth noting that even those with the greatest appreciation for Holy Orders do not use this language today. The point is that, with versus populum, we are not dealing with something that lacks its own intrinsic Catholic value.

Yet the strongest argument for the ad orientem posture remains. Although he did nothing about this as pope, Joseph Ratzinger suggested just what we have been discussing. He thought it likely that the ad orientem posture could refocus our attention on the sacred character—the very real “otherness”—of the Mass, and so might serve as a corrective to congregational narcissism. To accept this argument, of course, one must accept that there is an excessive celebration of the community in Catholic worship today, with too little emphasis on the need to transcend merely human community; and that the versus populum orientation contributes significantly to this problem.

My own dilemma is that I can accept the first point without accepting the second. I agree that an excessive, non-repentant and often frivolous celebration of the community is far too common today. But I am not so sure that this has been in any significant sense caused by the orientation of the priest. Self-celebration, shallowness, secularism, and frivolity vary greatly from place to place, even when the orientation of the priest does not change. One may well ask whether it was really the versus populum posture which led to our contemporary diminution of the sense of the sacred at Mass.

Unanswered (Unanswerable?) Questions

Many have suggested that priests tend to become “personalities” who occupy center stage when they face the people, eliminating our focus on the sacred mysteries themselves. But is this really true? Related questions: Has there never been a kind of showy, regal pomposity in those who have celebrated Mass “facing East”, both before 1968 and in some quarters today? Have there been only a very few instances of priests facing East who mumble through their prayers with little care and less understanding? Has no priest facing East ever rushed through Mass, eschewing both reverence and contact with his people? Have the faithful always, or even typically, joined themselves to the central realities of the Mass whenever the ad orientem posture was the norm?

And, perhaps more important: Have we not seen many fine priests in more recent years who are perfectly capable of celebrating Mass facing the people with a becoming care and dignity, keeping their focus and that of the congregation clearly on Christ throughout?

It may be that versus populum was not so much a cause as one more opportunity for abuse by those who, for reasons that we have discussed many times before, had already fallen into a narcissistic secularism, devoid of that reverence, obedience and joy which is proper to the celebration of all the sacraments of the Church. At some point in all such historical discussions, we must beware of the common fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc. The orientation question may be critical. Or it may not.

Finally, we must beware of all the personal, cultural and theological variables: What impact will a reversal of orientation have on people today? Will it be just another change that impresses on them the Church’s lack of stability? If it becomes another frequently used option (not a norm), will this enhance or undermine our sense of liturgical timelessness? One of the problems with the liturgical changes following the Second Vatican Council (I mean apart from failing to follow the Council’s directives, poor implementation and widespread disobedience) was the introduction of rapid and sweeping changes which seemed to put everything up for grabs. This was a very bad way to communicate the eternal! How do we make improvements without falling into the same trap?

At the risk of even greater self-disclosure, I will confess that I am uncomfortable with liturgical surprises (read “options”). Like a child (every child is a traditionalist when it comes to family celebrations), I want tomorrow’s Mass to be said “right”—meaning the same way it was said yesterday. As a case in point, I do not like flipping between two versions of the Creed (the Nicene and the Apostles’). Predictability is, for me, a significant liturgical virtue. Do options foster novelty?

More questions: If most people today have never experienced ad orientem before (and they haven’t), will it seem strange, off-putting, or rude (as a straw poll among my very Catholic grandchildren suggests)? Will the message be that the laity are more involved in the action of the Mass, or less? Even if the necessity of Holy Orders becomes more obvious, will the priestly character of all the baptized be less fully understood, reducing their felt responsibility for mission and holiness? (See liturgical principles 1 and 2, above.)

I do not know the answers. The debate is certainly legitimate; it ought to be of at least passing interest to anyone who cares about building up the Body of Christ. It is obviously of interest to me. But I do not know the answers, and I have no horse in the race. I also have no liturgical talents, and no vocation to that very significant sphere of Catholic service. What I do know is that the word “Eucharist” means thanksgiving—as in “thanksgiving for the works of God”. And since I am unworthy of even the meanest Mass, I intend to remain grateful for all of them.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: WNS3234 - Jul. 19, 2016 9:49 PM ET USA

    I've frequently offered Mass in the extraordinary form and I have also offered the ordinary form ad orientem, with as clear and prudent a catechesis as possible. The biggest complaint against the ad orientem use did not surprise me. I was told that it made the "presider" look as if he has a special power that others do not. The priest was doing some clandestine thing that defied inclusivity. Really?? Oh, my.

  • Posted by: billG - Jul. 15, 2016 7:27 PM ET USA

    Re: the title of your essay - From Ratzinger's Spirit of the Liturgy, P. 81: "A common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialog, but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come." Re: your assertion that you "do not know the answers" I submit he does.

  • Posted by: Mike in Toronto - Jul. 15, 2016 6:32 PM ET USA

    Excellent essay. My own view is that I would like to nominate the "Ad Orientem" issue for the 2016 Tempest in a Teapot Award.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 15, 2016 6:16 PM ET USA

    My piety parallels Dr. Mirus'. When I would attend daily Mass at the Catholic Center at Georgia Tech, it was a model of simplicity: 18 minutes of liturgical cadence and silence. After our FSSP community was established, I have nearly exclusively attended the Low Mass: 50-60 minutes of organized periods of priest-server back and forth. The exceptions are dialogue and sung Masses, where the whole of the laity join the server in offering the responses. In between the dialog is blessed silence.

  • Posted by: jeremiahjj - Jul. 15, 2016 5:26 PM ET USA

    I stand with those who wish the priest would "turn around." I went from being a 20-year-old Methodist to an Episcopalian in 1956 and thought it weird that the priest faced away from the people. Then I found out why it was done that way. Now that I'm 80 and have been Roman Catholic for 25 years, I still do not like priests facing the people because too many of them react to us instead of God the Father. Turn 'em back around. Them's my thoughts, to use bad grammar. Others are welcome to differ.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 15, 2016 2:54 PM ET USA

    Historically speaking two points are of interest. First is that so much of the Mass of 1970 proved so similar to changes implemented by protestant reformers as did the reasons provided. Second, we have the copious writings of popes, prelates and saints about the liturgy. These writings reflect clearly a certain temperance that is essential to any discussion of the topic. They reflect sobriety and even intransigence. Traditionally that wisdom animates any prudent discussion of the liturgy.