Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Facing the People: Cardinal Burke’s Opinion

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 11, 2012

I found Cardinal Raymond Burke’s lament over resistance to Summorum Pontificum interesting, but for a reason you might not expect. Cardinal Burke definitely decried the lack of cooperation by bishops in some dioceses with the Pope’s desire that the extraordinary form of the Roman rite be more easily celebrated. But he also made a fascinating comment on the ordinary form.

He said that the ordinary form, in which the priest typically faces the people, can encourage a deeper appreciation of the “transparent devotion” with which priests should celebrate either form.

This is interesting because it is a point seldom noted by those who yearn for greater access to the extraordinary form. More often their arguments run the other way. The older “ad orientem” (the priest facing away from the congregation and toward the East) typically trumps the newer “versus populum” (the priest facing towards the congregation). For example, Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became pope, speculated that reverting to the “ad orientem” practice might instill a greater sense of sacrality in the ordinary form of the liturgy, providing an emphasis on the priest offering sacrifice to God on behalf of the people.

And of course it might have this effect. But Cardinal Burke sees an alternative value. Perhaps remembering the sloppy manner and even breakneck speed in which the Mass was frequently said in Latin (but certainly no stranger to the sometimes unfortunate emphasis on the personality of the celebrant in the ordinary form), Cardinal Burke suggests that facing the people can (and certainly ought to) be a way to more effectively communicate the reverence with which a priest says Mass.

I can, of course, hear the howls of protest from here, as people line up on various sides of this issue. But it seems to me that what this shows is that liturgical preferences are not necessarily tied to questions of stronger or weaker faith. It is difficult to predict who, in his heart of hearts, will really prefer one thing to another. Personal preferences vary widely, even among those equally committed to fidelity as Catholics.

Of course, Cardinal Burke also says he’d like to see the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel brought back, whereas I regard them as external to the Mass proper, historical accretions that were wisely deleted in the reform. More howls from some quarters, I know, but I treasure the ordinary form’s clarity about the parts of the Mass, its restrained emphasis on essentials—a feature of that noble simplicity which has always been more characteristic of the Latin rite than of the various Eastern rites.

The point is that we all have our preferences, and there are legitimate arguments on all sides of these questions. In this context, it is a wonderful thing to work peacefully for the improvement of the Sacred Liturgy—and an even more wonderful thing to follow serenely whatever rubrics are currently in force. As Our Lord saved us through obedience to the Father, so should we always worship in obedience to the Church.

We must never confuse spirituality with consolations: The spirituality of obedience to the Church, which infallibly unites us to Christ, should always supercede whatever emotional consolation we may gain by having things done our way.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Jul. 26, 2012 10:08 AM ET USA

    For me, it's about the reverence the priest has for his office and for his action in the Mass. Facing either way, if the priest is not reverent and communicative, the poignancy of his action is blunted. I think the priest should be more of a conduit in order to not be an obstacle. This is where the quality of teaching at the seminary is obvious. Some seminaries send out fine-cut priests while others send out the rough-cut. More uniformity there would be helpful.

  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Jul. 18, 2012 3:58 PM ET USA

    I love the prayers at the foot of the altar and the Last Gospel. The Mass starts with a Psalm(42) from the Old Testament and ends with a reading from the prologue of St. John's Gospel where we hear about the Incarnation. It's beautiful. If you really study the Old Rite you'll find a very deep theological richness to it that one does not find in the Mass of Paul VI. Everything about the Old Mass means something significant, everything from the vestments to the chants to the posture of the priest

  • Posted by: JimK01 - Jul. 16, 2012 7:14 PM ET USA

    In my early life, prior to Vat II, I sometimes attended Mass at a Carmelite Monastery. I always wondered why the priest faced the nuns while having his back to the people. Later, after turning around for the NO, he now faces the people with his back to the nuns. Does it really matter which way he faces, or on which side of the altar you are? I'm simply glad to have the Mass - as opposed to Catholics in some other countries. Certainly there are more important topics to concern ourselves with.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 15, 2012 3:36 PM ET USA

    The fundamental issue involved is salvation of souls. Christ's salvific sacrifice at Calvary is re-presented to His Father at every Mass- an expression of infinite undying love. Nobody is saying the liturgy cannot be modified by those charged with pastoral leadership in the Church. The salvation of souls is the supreme law. This is the ultimate law of charity and it transcends all others. Actions must be directed to an end. Sadly the end is not the same among all pastors. Thus, a problem occurs.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 13, 2012 2:17 PM ET USA

    Speaking of emotion, for how many of us is the "face palm" the most frequent gesture we employ? Perhaps I lack appropriate ascesis, but I just can't stop it.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 13, 2012 2:14 PM ET USA

    If I were to choose one thing to restore to the liturgy, it would be the genuflection at the "incarnatus" of the Creed. Today, even (or mostly) priests choose to ignore the rubric to bow.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Jul. 13, 2012 10:08 AM ET USA

    I am compelled to add that 12 minutes was just about how long it took many priests to say daily Mass in what is now the extraordinary form, back in the 1950s when I was a kid. We must be careful not to judge either form by the attitudes of the priests. The way those highly committed to the EF now say Mass is unlike the way many said it when it was universally used. A danger of separatism is that what you get when surrounded by the like-minded seems like an improvement.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 12, 2012 11:51 PM ET USA

    "...whatever emotional consolation we may gain by having things done our way." From the New Marian Missal (1960): "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God....But as many as received Him to them He gave power to become sons of God, to them that believe in His Name, who are born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." Priest and people facing in the same direction, outward, toward the Transcendent, rather than inward.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 12, 2012 11:25 PM ET USA

    I am blessed to have witnessed the effect Cardinal Burke refers to, while at the same time recognizing that at various moments in the NO Mass, versus populum makes no sense. My parish has had two consecutive 30-something associate vicars whose care, piety and devotion in conducting the NO Mass have been revelatory. That said, when a priest leads the people in prayer to the Lord, he ought, according to logic and theology, face Christ present in the Eucharist and/or a crucifix, not the people.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 12, 2012 8:39 PM ET USA

    We attended morning Mass during the late 1970s at a nearby Novus Ordo parish. Not the nearest though. The closest one had raised enough concern that my parents began attending the next closest. It practiced First Confession two years after First Communion among other outside-the-box thinking. I remembering chattering on trips home from Mass during that summer as we noted incredulously on our new watches that Mass had lasted exactly 12 minutes from start to finish. Those were the days.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 11, 2012 8:27 PM ET USA

    There's a good deal accurate in this article and, as the author suggests, a bit that might lend itself to animated discussion. Nonetheless, there is an egregious difficulty that is recurrent among apologists of the Novus Ordo. It involves the word "emotion." Is emotion involved? Certainly. But emotion is not the impetus. Our Lord's obedience was directed to His Father. This made all the difference. Perseverence ultimately resulted in Summorum Pontificum, and this too has made all the difference.