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Ad orientem: the single most important reform January 15, 2008

Actions speak louder.

Before he ascended to the throne of Peter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote frequently about the liturgy, and explained his love for the Mass celebrated ad orientem-- with the priest facing toward the altar, toward the east. Now as Roman Pontiff he has made his argument all the more eloquent, simply by celebrating Mass ad orientem himself in the Sistine Chapel.

If you read about the ceremony in the secular media, you almost certainly read that the Pope had "his back to the people." While that description is not inaccurate, it is reflects a distinct perspective. You could just as well observe that the Holy Father and the other worshipers in the Sistine Chapel were "facing in the same direction."

When the priest-celebrant faces the altar, he looks like what he is: the leader of a community at prayer. Everyone is facing the same way; everyone is involved in the same action. When the priest faces the people, on the other hand, he appears to be a performer, with the people as his audience.

The liturgical changes of Vatican II were intended to encourage more active participation by the laity in the Eucharistic liturgy. But think of any other situation in which one man faces a group: a classroom lecture, a musical concert, a product demonstration, an after-dinner speech. In those situations we ordinarily expect the group to be passive: to listen but not to participate. The speaker or soloist is the focal point of the action; he commands the spotlight.

The holy Sacrifice of the Mass does not belong to any priest. This is the Sacrifice of Calvary. The celebrant is not the central actor in the liturgy, except insofar as he acts in the person of Jesus Christ. When we shine the spotlight on the person of the priest-- on his face and features, his gestures and expressions-- we can easily become distracted from the true meaning of the Eucharistic liturgy.

How often, in the years of liturgical turmoil since Vatican II, has a priest been carried away by the knowledge that he is the center of attention? How many times has the celebrant adopted the attitude that the Mass is his "show," and felt free to adapt the liturgy to fit his own personal style? And how frequently have lay Catholics-- even informed, pious Catholics-- slipped into the same attitude, so that they tell their friends, "I like Father Smith's Mass."

In reality, of course, the Eucharistic liturgy is an act of the entire Christian community, in which priest and congregation pray together as one body. As the Catechism teaches us, "The whole Church, the Body of Christ, prays and offers herself 'through him, with him, in him,' in the unity of the Holy Spirit, to God the Father." So the time-honored custom of the Church was to have the priest stand at the head of the people, all facing in the same direction, forming one body united in worship.

When priest and congregation face in the same direction, toward the altar, their posture reflects the unity of the Catholic community at worship. When they face in opposite directions, with the priest facing toward the people, that unity is broken. Liturgists refer to the usual posture for Mass today as versus populum. The Latin phrase sounds as if the priest is in competition with the people, and sometimes I think that is true.

If I could choose one reform to encourage greater reverence among Catholics and a better appreciation for the meaning of the Mass, it would be a return to the tradition of celebrating Mass ad orientem.

As it happens, however, no reform is necessary. Neither Vatican II nor any subsequent liturgical directive required priests to face the people. In 2001, when asked whether priests could still use the ad orientem posture in celebrating Mass, the Vatican's Congregation for Divine Worship replied that both postures, ad orientem and versus populum "are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct." In fact, the Congregation added, "there is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position."

Now, with his own public celebration of Mass ad orientem, Pope Benedict has called public attention to this option and shown the beauty of the liturgical tradition.

My own preference for the ad orientem liturgy is based mainly on practical concerns. As long as the celebrant is put in a position that tempts him to think he is "on stage," I cannot foresee an end to the unauthorized experimentation and self-indulgence that have marred the Roman liturgy since Vatican II. But Pope Benedict has more profound and more persuasive reasons for his own preference.

In his beautiful work The Spirit of the Liturgy then-Cardinal Ratzinger explains how the Christian community developed the practice of facing the east, toward Jerusalem, toward the site of the Resurrection, as a "fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again."

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