Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

Commentary on Mass Facing the Altar (Ad Orientem)

by St. Joseph Foundation

Descriptive Title

Commentary on Mass Facing the Altar (Ad Oreintem)


A general commentary on what canon law says about the validity of the ad orientem posture of the celebrant during Mass.

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Publisher & Date

St. Joseph Foundation, November 8, 1999

A diocesan bishop in the United States has decreed a new law for his diocese, which will take effect during the month of November, 1999. A letter with a copy of the decree was sent to the priests of the diocese containing background information. The law reads:

In churches and shrines, as well as oratories where Mass is open to the public, the priest celebrating the Eucharist at a freestanding altar is to face the people.

At any Mass that is or will be televised for broadcast or videotaped for public dissemination, the priest is to use a freestanding altar and face the people.

This statement is a response to the many requests that the Saint Joseph Foundation has received for comment on this legislation.

Anyone who believes that a diocesan law conflicts with universal law or is invalid for some other reason, is always free to challenge its validity. The Saint Joseph Foundation was asked to prepare such a challenge of the diocesan law in this case and, therefore, will withhold further comment for the time being.

Charles M. Wilson

Executive Director

St. Joseph Foundation

This commentary was prepared by the staff of the Saint Joseph Foundation and is the property of the Foundation. Permission is hereby granted to use, reproduce or distribute this document in whole or in part provided that due credit to the Foundation is given.

Ad Orientem Prayer

The reform of the liturgical books after the Second Vatican Council conceded to the celebrant of the Liturgy a wider application of the practice of the versus populum posture. While the Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI continued to embrace the immemorial tradition of the ad orientem posture the alternative posture received a strong endorsement as well. Indeed, it became popular to such an extent that some observers have concluded that the ad orientem position of the priest has been discarded. Sadly, undue criticism has sometimes emerged in regard to two lawful practices. Although the universal law foresees little conflict some local authorities have attempted to abnegate some of these provisions. Wherein lies the authority to regulate the Sacred Liturgy?

Codex Iuris Canonici1

Canon 838 - §1. The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.

§2. It is for the Apostolic See to order the sacred liturgy of the universal Church, to publish the liturgical books, to review their translations into the vernacular languages and to see that liturgical ordinances are faithfully observed everywhere.

§3. It pertains to the conferences of bishops to prepare translations of the liturgical books into the vernacular languages, with the appropriate adaptations within the limits defined in the liturgical books themselves, and to publish them with the prior review by the Holy See.

§4. It pertains to the diocesan bishop in the church entrusted to him, within the limits of his competence, to issue liturgical norms by which all are bound.

Canon 839 - §2. Local ordinaries are to see to it that the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of the Church.

Canon 135 - §2. Legislative power is to be exercised in the manner prescribed by law ... a law which is contrary to a higher law cannot be validly enacted by a lower level legislator.

The ad orientem posture of the celebrant during Mass dates to the earliest centuries of liturgical development. It has enjoyed a consistency throughout history enshrined both in immemorial custom and in law. Numerous scholarly studies have been undertaken which confirm the validity of this practice not only in the Latin Rite but in the Eastern Rites as well. The ad orientem posture is sometime referred to as the ad altare posture. The terms are nuanced and the reader is referred to other studies, which examine the underlying meanings. A fallacy exists among many observers who regard the versus populum posture as entirely new to the Church and that it was first introduced in the reform of Vatican II. On the contrary, the historical proof for its prior existence is substantial although the interpretation of the data is somewhat controverted. The Ritus servandus in celebratione Missae that compiles the rubrical directives for the 1570 Missal of Pius V countenanced the possibility of Mass versus populum. Conversely, the Institutio generalis Missalis Romani (IGMR) which compiles the rubrical directives for the 1970 Missal of Paul VI presume the time honored discipline of Mass ad orientem or ad altare. Consistent with the provisions of the Ritus servandus the Institutio generalis continues to countenance and, indeed, to expand usage of the versus populum orientation of the celebrant.

The reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council have allowed for a variance in the posture of the celebrant. Although the former tradition continues and is in no way abrogated, the celebrant is now permitted to turn towards the people for the entirety of the liturgy. Of this there can be no doubt and the optional practice has been widely and warmly received. Still the ad altare posture remains the forma typica and the versus populum posture exists as a lawful option. Indeed the altar ideally is envisioned to be free standing for two reasons: so that the celebrant may walk around it especially during incensation and to allow Mass versus populum. Many churches, of course, have an altar that is designed otherwise and often times this altar possesses such an extraordinary beauty that no one could rightfully destroy this patrimony. And since it does not seem desirable to have two altars it is also evident that the optional versus populum posture would be difficult to accommodate in those churches with beautiful high altars at least during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The question of a diocesan bishop’s authority to regulate the liturgy is not in doubt. Canon 838 §4 empowers the Bishop to enact norms; however, these norms must accord with the universal law. Canon 135 §2 expressly declares any attempt by a lower level legislator (e.g., plenary or provincial councils of bishops, diocesan bishop) to establish a law contrary to a higher law (e.g., papal law) as invalid.

The legal sources that provide the foundation for canon 838 §4 are found in the following texts:

1917 Codex Iuris Canonici

Can. 1261 §2. Si loci Ordinarius leges pro suo territorio hac in re tulerit, etiam religiosi omnes, exempti quoque, obligatione tenentur easdem servandi; et Ordinarius potest eorundem ecclesias vel publica oratoria in hunc finem visitare.2

Vatican Council II, Constitutio Sacrosanctum concilium, 4 Dec 1963, AAS 56 (1964) 97-138.3

22. (1) Regulation of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church, that is, on the Apostolic See, and, as laws may determine, on the bishop.

(3) Therefore no other person, not even a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority.

SC Rites (Consilium), Instructio (prima) ad exsecutionem constitutionis de Sacra Liturgia recte ordinandam Inter Oecumenici, 26 September 1964, AAS 56 (1964) 877-900.4

22. It is for the bishop to regulate the liturgy in his own diocese, in accordance with the norms and the spirit of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, the decrees of the Holy See and of the competent territorial authority.

Vatican Council II, Constitutio dogmatica Lumen gentium, 21 Nov 1964, AAS 57 (1965) 5-71.5

26. Moreover, every legitimate celebration of the Eucharist is regulated by the bishop, to whom is confided the duty of presenting to the divine majesty the cult of the Christian religion and of ordering it in accordance with the Lord’s injunctions and the Church’s regulations, as further defined for the diocese by his particular decision.

Vatican Council II, Decretum Christus Dominus, 28 Oct 1965, AAS 58 (1966) 673-701.6

15. It is therefore bishops who are the principle dispensers of the mysteries of God, and it is their function to control, promote and protect the entire liturgical life of the Church entrusted to them.

35. (4) All religious, whether exempt or non-exempt, are subject to the authority of the local ordinary in the following matters: public worship, without prejudice, however, to the diversity of rites.

Whether a diocesan bishop, in the exercise of his moderatorial responsibilities, may restrict the use of options for the sake of uniformity throughout his diocese has been debated. One such doubt was proposed and given a response by the Apostolic See.

Query: When the rubrics provide several options, may the competent territorial authority for the whole region or the bishop for his diocese direct all to observe a single way of doing things, for the sake of uniformity?

Reply: Strictly speaking (per se) this is lawful. But always to be kept in mind is the preservation of that freedom, envisioned by the new rubrics, to adapt the celebration in an intelligent way to the particular church and assembly of the faithful in such a way that the whole rite is a living reality for living people.7

It must be remembered that this opinion which was given almost 35 years ago in 1965 was applied directly to the interpretation of n. 22 of the instruction Inter Oecumenici. At that time the revision of the liturgical books had barely commenced. Since the principle of Sacrosanctum concilium 22 has been reiterated in several conciliar documents and provides the language for canon 838 § 4 the response to the aforementioned dubium remains relevant and bears somewhat on the present discussion. However, it must be said again that the ad altare posture is the forma typica of the Ordo Missae of 1970 as it was in the Ordo Missæ of 1570. In both ordines the priest is required to turn to face the congregation at certain brief moments during the Mass. The notable difference lies in the expressly permitted option in the Ordo Missæ of 1970 to turn and face the congregation for the entirety of the Mass. The only posture which is presented as an option is the versus populum posture.

To further illustrate the point one might examine the penitential rite of the Ordo Missæ of 1970. Form A, the Confiteor, is the forma typica while Form B, and Form C (with its 9 paradigmatic formulas in the NCCB Sacramentary) are ad libitum, i. e., they are options.

An example of the way in which the dubium relative to n. 22 of Inter Oecumenici might be applied practically is found in the following scenario. The competent territorial authority or a diocesan bishop, "strictly speaking (per se)" could restrict the penitential rite to use of only Form B or Form C since these are the optional texts. That same authority, however, could not disallow use of Form A, the forma typica. The illustration applies similarly to the competent authority’s moderation of the celebrant’s posture at Mass. The competent ecclesiastical authority "strictly speaking (per se)" could restrict the celebrant’s posture to one of the optional postures. Since, a sole option is countenanced and a range of options is non-existent, in fact, the competent authority mentioned in canon 838 § 4 could not place any restrictions. And he certainly could not disallow the typical ad altare posture.

The discretion to celebrate ad orientem or versus populum is exercised by the celebrant. Prudence and circumstances compel him to consider those who are touched by his decision if he is going to depart from local usage. Common sense will dictate whether the physical environment of the presbyterium and the altar place any constraints. Respect for local de facto or de iure custom demands sensitivity. Clearly, the rector of a church or the caretaker of the oratory or chapel can grant or deny access to the sacred place to all the faithful or to specific individuals based on the willingness of the persons to conform to established customs of the place. Indeed, the rector or caretaker would be obligated to deny egress to a sacred minister who bore certain ecclesiastical penalties.

In reference to the posture of the priest during Mass the prescriptions differ for Masses with a congregation and for Masses without a congregation.

In a Mass with a congregation the rites and rubrics provide that during the Liturgy of the Word the celebrant sit or stand at the celebrant’s chair however it may be situated in the presbyterium. During the Liturgy of the Eucharist, i.e., from the Preparation of the Gifts until the Dismissal is pronounced, the priest faces the altar, turning to the congregation for specified brief moments and then returning to face the altar.8 As an option the celebrant may turn towards the congregation for the entire Liturgy of the Eucharist.

In a Mass without a congregation the rites and rubrics require the priest to face the altar during the entire Mass, turning to the minister or server only for specified brief moments and then returning to face the altar.9 The celebrant’s chair plays no role.

The permissiveness for the priest to celebrate Mass versus populum is mentioned in the 1964 decree Inter Oecumenici, the first instruction on the orderly carrying out of the Constitution on the Liturgy. However, the concession is found not in Chapter II which outlines the changes to the Ordo Missae rather it is mentioned in Chapter V which relates certain principles on the design of churches and altars:

91. The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.

The suitability of a free standing altar contained in Inter Oecumenici 91 (and repeated in n. 95) is reiterated several times in subsequent documents.10 While the aptness of an altar versus populum is certainly fostered the Consilium also declared:

We wish to emphasize, however, that the celebration of the whole Mass facing the people is not absolutely indispensable for pastoral effectiveness. The entire liturgy of the Word, in which the active participation of the faithful is amply achieved through dialogue and song, already proceeds facing the people and is all the more intelligible now that it uses the people’s own language.11

Above all because for a living and participated liturgy, it is not indispensable that the altar should be versus populum: in the Mass, the entire liturgy of the Word is celebrated at the chair, ambo or lectern, and, therefore, facing the assembly.12

Most recently the ad altare question was revisited and the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments published the following commentary:13

3. The arrangement of the altar "versus populum" is certainly something desirable in the current liturgical legislation. Nonetheless, it is not an absolute value over every other one ... It is more faithful to the liturgical sense in these cases to celebrate at the existing altar with the backs turned to the people than to maintain two altars in the same sanctuary. The principle of the oneness of the altar is theologically more important than the practice to celebrate turned towards the people.

4. It is appropriate to explain clearly that the expression "celebrate turned to the people" does not have a theological sense, but only a topographic-positional sense. Every celebration of the Eucharist is "ad laudem et gloriam nominis Dei, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae sanctae." Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always turned to God and turned to the people. In the form of celebration it is necessary to be attentive not to reverse theology and topography, especially when the priest is on the altar. Only in the dialogues from the altar does the priest speak to the people. All the rest is prayer to the Father mediated through Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be able to be visible.


1. Code of Canon Law: Latin-English Edition, Canon Law Society of America, Washington, DC, 1983.

2. Private translation: If the local Ordinary issues laws on this matter for his territory, all religious also, even if exempt, are bound to observe them. To this end the Ordinary can visit their churches or public oratories.

3. Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Postconciliar Documents, ed., Rev. Austin Flannery, O.P., (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1975) (Hereafter Flannery).

4. Ibid., Flannery.

5. Ibid., Flannery.

6. Ibid., Flannery.

7. Notitiae 1 (1965) 254.

8. See IGMR, nn. 86, 107, 115, 116, 122, 198, 199; see Ordo Missae, nn. 2, 25, 128, 133, 134, 142, 143.

9. See IGMR, nn. 213 and 227; see Ordo Missae, nn. 2, 19, 24, 27, 28, and 34.

10. See SC Rites, Instruction Eucharisticum mysterium 54, IGMR 262, Ordo dedicationis ecclesiae et altaris 8.

11. Consilium, Letter, Le renouveau liturgique, n. 6, 30 Jun 1965.

12. Consilium, Letter, L'heureux développement, n. 6, 25 Jan 1966.

13. Notitae 29 (1993) 249.

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