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Celebration of Mass Ad Orientem in a Parish Setting

by Rev. Timothy V. Vaverek, S.T.D.

Descriptive Title

Celebration of Mass Ad Orientem In a Parish Setting


Fr. Timothy Vaverek focuses on sound liturgical catechesis.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, October 1999

Though sometimes chaotic, the post-conciliar renewal has succeeded in creating a laity which is open to legitimate liturgical diversity.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in celebration of Mass ad orientem (i.e., facing the East rather than facing the people). The discussion to date has considered liturgical history, the meaning of celebration ad orientem, and the intentions of Vatican II. There seem to be many, however, who are still unclear about how the practice fits into the post-conciliar reforms, or who are uncertain whether it would be practical in a contemporary Eucharistic assembly. The present article seeks to address these concerns by presenting a brief history of celebration ad orientem in the post-conciliar liturgy, examining how a parish might be prepared for this option, and describing how the practice has been introduced and received in an actual parish.

It might be helpful first to clarify the meaning of ad orientem as a phrase and as a posture for prayer. Ad orientem derives from the Latin oriens meaning "the rising sun," "the East" or "the dawn" with the preposition ad expressing the direction "toward" or "to," hence "eastward" or "toward the East" would be possible English translations. This ancient Christian liturgical posture was traditionally interpreted as a bodily expression of the assembly's eschatological expectation. Christ himself is the rising sun whose dawn marks the consummation of all things in a restoration to Paradise (whose type, Eden, lies "in the east"). The rich scriptural, patristic and eschatological outlook expressed in the practice makes it a corporate action, not something done by an isolated priest celebrating "with his back to the people." Liturgically speaking it is the eschatological orientation of the assembly rather than their literal geographical orientation which is paramount. Only at a later date did the direction of eschatological orientation come to coincide with the direction of the tabernacle. Therefore, although the reserved Eucharist has profound eschatological significance, celebration ad orientem does not depend on the location of the tabernacle.

Celebration Ad Orientem In The Post-Conciliar Liturgy

Celebration of the entire Mass ad orientem was almost universal in the Latin Rite just prior to Vatican II, although modest attempts were underway to widen the practice of celebrating various parts of the Mass versus populum ("facing the people"). The Council Fathers recognized that the promotion of liturgical life was fundamental to achieving the spiritual renewal they desired as the goal of Vatican II. Therefore they insisted on the centrality of the liturgy as the source and summit of Christian and ecclesial life and on the consequent need for clergy and laity to carry out fully their distinctive roles within the assembly. Based on this theological vision the Constitution on the Liturgy presented norms to govern the reform of the liturgy, including the Mass (nn. 22-42 and 47-58). For our present purpose it should be noted that Vatican II itself did not call for an end to celebration ad orientem nor did it make any mention of celebration versus populum.

Pope Paul VI entrusted the Consilium with the task of overseeing the liturgical renewal according to the prescriptions of the Constitution on the Liturgy. The Consilium's Instruction of September 1964, approved in each detail (informa specifica) by Paul VI, required the liturgy of the Word to be done facing the people, but did not require the same for the liturgy of the Eucharist. Clarifying part of the Instruction in 1965, the Consilium indicated that "the faithful take part very well in a Mass . . . [even if] the celebrant turns his back to them" when at the altar (Documents on the Liturgy 383 [R28.3]). A letter from the Consilium in June of that year ventured the observation that since the introduction of the revised rites four months earlier, it had become clear that celebration facing the people "is most advantageous pastorally . . . [and] it is right to wish that the liturgy of the Eucharist might be celebrated facing the people" so that they could "follow the whole rite directly, thereby participating with greater awareness" (DOL415). The same letter, however, emphasized that facing the people at the altar is not necessary for pastoral effectiveness (DOL 415, see also DOL 428). An official Reply from the Congregation for Rites published in 1966 affirmed that "all priests [may] celebrate [the entire] Mass facing the people without permission of the Ordinary or the pastor" (DOL 4336).

Despite the evident preference of the Consilium for celebration of the liturgy of the Eucharist versus populum, the 1969 Missale Romanum did not require or even mention the practice in its treatment of the various forms of Mass (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM], 74-252). On the contrary, then as now the forma typica of the Mass (GIRM 82-126) envisions celebration ad orientem during the liturgy of the Eucharist. The priest is specifically instructed when to face the people (namely, for the "Pray brethren" [GIRM 107], the Sign of Peace [GIRM 112], the "Behold the Lamb of God" [GIRM 115] and the post-communion prayer [GIRM 122], although the rubric in the sacramentary at this point [n. 142] states that he turns only for the blessing). Presumably, the priest may turn after the consecration in order "to show to the people" the Host and Chalice. He does not turn for the Preface dialogue, the Mystery of Faith, or the Our Father. He has the choice of offering the post-communion prayer and final blessing at the altar rather than the chair (GIRM 122). It is important to note that the use of celebration ad orientem in the revised liturgy differs from the Tridentine practice of celebration "at the altar" because the opening rites and liturgy of the Word now take place at the chair and lectern. Permission for celebrating the entire Mass facing the people was evidently extended or granted anew because the practice is mentioned as a consideration in the design of altars (GIRM 262).

This brief survey shows that the reforms following Vatican II required the liturgy of the Word to be celebrated versus populum while providing for the continuation of the Church's immemorial practice of celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist ad orientem. These basic orientations were established by the liturgical books and were not left to be determined by other ecclesial authorities, such as the Episcopal Conferences. Permission was explicitly given to priests to celebrate versus populum instead of ad orientem if they wished (much as priests may choose the penitential rite or whether to have a communal exchange of peace). Celebration ad orientem therefore remains in the contemporary liturgy as both an ancient treasure and an example of legitimate liturgical diversity.

Preparing A Parish For Celebration Ad Orientem

Although celebration ad orientem is an ancient and approved posture, it would be irresponsible to introduce it—or any liturgical practice—without properly preparing the people. This preparation requires a sensitivity not only to liturgical theology, but to the history of the local community. That history includes the parish's previous liturgical catechesis and experiences, especially any "trauma" which may have taken place since the Council. Unfortunately there are parishes where the issue of orientation was polemicized at the time of the reforms. On the other hand, decades have passed and in hindsight many issues no longer seem so important to the older generation. For those under 40 there is little or no memory of "the changes" and there is a noted openness to recovery of heritage.

Preparation should avoid as much as possible old arguments, instead focusing on a sound liturgical catechesis to assist the people in understanding what is happening at Mass so they can more fully and actively share in the offering Christ makes to the Father. If the baptismal union with Christ's Paschal Mystery is the conscious foundation of liturgical participation in a parish, then the use of legitimate rubrical options will present no difficulty for the faithful (the Church would not permit them otherwise). If the faithful are prayerfully engaged in being united to Christ's offering during the Eucharistic Prayer, then it will matter little whether they can see the priest's face or the elements sitting on the altar. If the people and priest understand that they are in distinct ways joined in Christ's single priestly prayer to the Father, there will be no danger of them viewing their own prayer as a private, isolated, or individualistic act. Of course, if this proper catechesis is absent, then people and priest are not fully conscious of the meaning of their participation and are likely misinterpreting many aspects of the liturgy (including the correct meaning of celebration facing the people).

The type of catechesis suggested above has other practical advantages as a basis for introducing eastward celebration. The priest avoids taking up with a new generation the divisive, unsound arguments which were used years ago to induce adherence to the practice of celebrating the entire Mass facing the people. He also avoids the burden of trying to prove that celebration ad orientem is preferable. Such approaches would easily become a polemic in which the priest would be left championing his choice and, at least implicitly, attacking those who choose the other option. This is untenable liturgically and practically since the Church has approved both postures. Far better to stand on the solid ground of the post-conciliar liturgy which does not force us to justify either position for celebration. By beginning with the genuine liturgical theology of the Council, the priest is able to avoid making posture a major issue at all (since the Church herself does not). Celebration ad orientem can then be introduced irenically as one of the legitimate options provided for in the reformed liturgy, an example of approved diversity. This approach avoids the bitter controversies of the past and prepares people to accept calmly the use of differing postures by pastor, assistants, visiting priests, or other parishes.

Changing Orientation At St. Joseph’s

When I came to St. Joseph's parish in 1992. I found a community with a solid liturgical life. The preceding pastors had largely avoided excessive traditionalism or progressivism. The people were accustomed to assuming the appropriate liturgical roles and to singing the entire Mass in a variety of musical styles. The church, built in 1951, happens to be laid out along a truly east-west axis with the sanctuary at the east end. The building and interior is a colonial design which was modestly "up-dated" in 1975 by extending the central portion of the sanctuary 8 feet into the nave and turning the first rows of pews sideways so that the altar is "in the midst" of the congregation. A mosaic was erected using the old high altar as a base; this had the effect of leaving a narrow shelf just large enough for the tabernacle. The tabernacle is thus located 6 feet above and 20 feet behind the freestanding altar without being on a "high altar" (as noted above, this eastward location of the tabernacle is not the basis for celebration ad orientem). The church seats about 330 people.

The parish is suburban/rural taking in the outskirts of a city with a population of 200,000 and a number of small towns in the surrounding countryside. The 550 registered families are of middle and lower-middle class background; most have high school and perhaps some technical or junior college education, many are college graduates, and a few are professionals. The age of the parishioners is evenly distributed from cradle to grave. Half are native to the area or have been here over 15 years, a quarter have been here 5-15 years, and a quarter have been parishioners less than 5 years. We have three Sunday Masses with about 550 communicants each week. About 10 percent of our 11:00 Mass are students from Baylor University.

Each year since 1992 a 4-6 week series of sermons has been devoted to the Mass: its structure, the meaning of the Paschal Mystery, the role of the baptismal and ministerial priesthoods, etc. Also two 3-4 week series each year have been devoted to the spiritual life with an emphasis on the Eucharist. The goal has been to develop a Eucharistic spirituality which discovers the daily Christian life recapitulated and nourished in the Paschal Mystery of Christ. The assumption is that "full, conscious, active participation" in the Eucharist is impossible if there is no conscious, active participation in the daily apostolate rooted in Baptism and Confirmation. The Eucharist is about all of us bringing our lives and our relationships into union with Christ.

Based on the parish's history and my six years' experience with the people, I made the pastoral judgment in late 1997 that they would have no great difficulty in adapting to celebration ad orientem. Certainly nothing had suggested a participation so superficial that the use of an approved posture would endanger their worship. At the same time, I felt they had come to know me well enough to trust that I would not subject them to liturgical "gimmicks" or anything that did not accord with the wishes of the Church.

A final consideration was a diocesan one. Fortunately, like the parish, our diocese has largely avoided the type of extremism or ideological conflicts which may have plagued other dioceses since the Council. I made the practical judgment that the present Office of Liturgy would probably be uncomfortable with celebration ad orientem, but would not interfere with a seasoned pastor who was following legitimate options. It would have made no sense to proceed if the initiative would have been immediately suppressed. One can debate whether a diocese has the authority to forbid what the liturgical books permit, but I feel it would doubtlessly be wrong to place the people in a liturgical "cross-fire."

In January 1998 I began a month-long series on liturgical participation in preparation for changing orientation in early February. During the homilies I did not specifically deal with rubrics or orientation, but with the fact that at Mass everyone is called to a deep, communal participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice of Christ. For three weeks before the change, I took 5-10 minutes after the postcommunion prayer to discuss my plans. At that time I simply stated that: I) the choice of position was left by the Church to the celebrant (much like the choice of penitential rites, opening prayer, and use of the sign of peace), 2) that I was not going back to the "old way of saying Mass" since the entire Mass would not be celebrated at the altar, 3) that I would not be praying "with my back toward the people," rather we would be praying to God together (I humorously observed that no one would come into the Church and pray facing the choir loft, but would turn toward the image of the Lord, the tabernacle, or one of the statues), and 4) that my action did not mean that I felt it was wrong to "face the people" during the Eucharistic Prayer since I would do so at some celebrations as would visiting priests. Periodically during the two months following the change I briefly repeated this explanation for clarification and for the benefit of those who may have been absent.

Responses To Celebration Ad Orientem At St. Joseph’s

In the year since I began celebration ad orientem, there has been little in the way of spontaneous reaction from the people. No more than a half-dozen people have asked me for further explanation of why I made the change. Some of these people said they liked it when the priest was looking at them, but after a brief discussion said they understood my point that since the Eucharistic Prayer was not addressed to them there was no real reason why the priest should be looking at them —we are praying to God together. Three or four people have spoken favorably about the change, stating that they have found they are praying more attentively because they are less concerned about "watching" the priest or what is happening. Much to my surprise I have had only one remark (a positive one) from a visitor. I have also been told secondhand that a scout leader who was visiting with his troop later told his pastor that my posture was "no big deal" to him or the boys and that he was curious to know if this "was a coming trend or an old-fashioned thing." In the last few months I have made it a point to solicit opinions from parishioners and found that they have become accustomed to the change and have no strong feelings one way or the other. They say that it is quite common for different priests to celebrate Mass differently. These observations are admittedly anecdotal and in no way scientific.

My own response has been rather subdued. I certainly find it natural to pray at the altar while facing toward the apse. That direction is, after all, the one I have used my entire life while praying in Church except when I celebrated Mass. It is refreshing to pray without having to consider how I am appearing to the faithful. I experience my role within the assembly as the head of a people in pilgrimage and prayer before God rather than as someone praying "in front of" or "at" the community. My sense is that I am praying as part of the assembly, not apart from or "with my back to" them. It is also apparent to me that our prayer is not just a dialogue internal to the assembly, but one which moves from the entire assembly to God. At the same time, I remain comfortable celebrating Mass facing the people, as I do for weddings, funerals, and in the daily Mass chapel due to physical constraints.

The response of priests, deacons, and diocesan personnel has been virtually nonexistent (at least in my presence). The few negative opinions which have been offered have acknowledged that celebration ad orientem is a legitimate option, but have expressed anxiety that the use of the option might somehow undermine the work of the Council or offend against local custom. My response has been to note that the Church long ago decided that eastward celebration was not a threat and that certainly we have not done such a poor job of catechesis since the Council that the participation or sensibilities ("local custom") of the faithful would be violated by a Mass celebrated using approved options. I do not defend my choice as the better option and I insist it is not a matter of personal piety—for no priest legitimately imposes his personal piety on the people. I have tried to focus on the positive aspects of celebration ad orientem. the Council legitimated and encouraged liturgical diversity as part of the Church's renewal; exposure to approved options therefore promotes the work of the Council and enriches the people of God. I suggest there is no need "to protect" the people from the treasures of the Church's liturgy or to impose a rigid uniformity contrary to the spirit and letter of the post-conciliar reforms.

The current sacramentary makes provision for the celebration of the liturgy of the Eucharist ad orientem although priests are permitted to celebrate versus populum if they choose. I have found that introducing celebration ad orientem in a parish is "no big deal" provided the priest(s) and people are properly prepared. By adhering to the theology and reforms of the Council—which includes acknowledging the legitimacy of all approved options—one also avoids giving cause for offense to those in or out of the parish who have different preferences. We are now 30 years past the post-conciliar changes. Wounds caused by the implementation of the reforms have healed for many people. For an entire generation there is simply no memory of the old rite or of the changes. Though sometimes chaotic, the post-conciliar renewal has succeeded in creating a laity which is open to legitimate liturgical diversity. My experience suggests that as long as one does not act in a polemical, arbitrary, or authoritarian fashion, the people naturally accept celebration ad orientem as an expression of the liturgy they are accustomed to celebrating.

Sadly, proper preparation is not always present. The current ambiguity concerning the role of the priest and the reduction of liturgy to its "horizontal" dimension has given rise to an ideological interpretation of celebration facing the people. This false interpretation readily fosters an exaggerated reaction which can so focus on the priest that the distinction between ministerial and baptismal priesthoods risks becoming a separation which could place the laity outside the sacred action. It is critical to recognize that these errors arise from an impoverished spirituality, not from the position of the priest during Mass. Consequently, where the priest stands at the altar cannot cause, prevent, or correct these errors. A great deal of patient catechesis will be needed before those who suffer from such errors will be able to exercise their priestly role in life and liturgy as envisioned by the Council. Fortunately, most parishes are not steeped in ideology and preparation for the use of a legitimate liturgical option should ordinarily require only a brief period of catechesis.

In closing I wish to emphasize how important it is to avoid needless liturgical conflict. It is an unfortunate reality that sometimes one inherits a parish or diocesan situation which is ideologically charged. It is necessary then to be patient and to remember St. Paul's injunction to show charity toward those who are easily scandalized. Pushing forward in such a circumstance often reinforces a person's ideological stance and can serve to make the celebration of the liturgy a battleground rather than a place of communion. Apart from a community united in a well-formed Eucharistic spirituality, celebration ad orientem will accomplish nothing of lasting value. As part of genuine liturgical renewal, however, it can and does contribute to the ultimate goal of the Eucharistic celebration: the full, conscious, and active participation of the assembly in the Paschal Mystery as we expectantly await the coming of Christ, the Oriens ex alto ("Dawn from on high").

Reverend Timothy V. Vaverek was ordained in 1985 and has been pastor of St. Joseph’s Parish in Waco, Texas, since 1992. He earned his S.T.D. at the Angelicum in Rome in ecclesiology and ministry. He now serves on the board of the Society for Catholic Liturgy. This is his first article in HPR.

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