The question of celebrating Mass ad Orientem has, and for most Catholics, remains, "under the radar." But the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to offer Mass ad orientem, on the Baptism of the Lord, in the Sistine Chapel, now makes this a subject that needs wider discussion.
Now, what is ad orientem? Translated from Latin, it means "to the East." What it means is the posture of the celebrant at Mass during most of the Mass, when he is not facing the people. It does not mean facing geographical East necessarily, although that is a bonus, for reasons I'll explain; but rather, it means facing "liturgical east" --toward the Lord, whose resurrection and return have always been associated with the East.
For example, Christians have traditionally been buried with their feet toward the East, in symbolic anticipation of the Resurrection; and I have asked, and apparently this custom is still widely followed; I don't know, but I won't be surprised to find out the cemeteries and grave-diggers don't know the origin--but I haven't asked.
Now, you will most often hear this posture referred to as, "the priest with his back to the people." Well, that's accurate to some degree but unhelpful. How often do we refer to us having our backs to each other? Even in "churches in the round," a good number of people sit with their backs to people behind them; yet no one seems to think this is somehow a slight from one to the other; and the reason is because we are concerned with what we're turned toward--i.e., toward the Lord. So why is it that we all understand the need for everyone in church to be turned toward the Lord...except for the one leading our worship, offering the Sacrifice for us, in our name, with our participation?
Now, some will say, rightly, that we are all focused on the altar; but if we press the point, then we're conceding we want the priest focused on the altar...not the assembly. Is that right? And if that is what we really want, then we've hit on the very reason this issue matters.
Let's begin with an obvious point: the priest, the people, all of us are human; I mean, we're prone to human weakness. So, in our worship, we make allowance for human weakness, human needs, human ways of understanding, and human limitations. In the seminary, this--stated a different way--was called "the Sacramental Principle": God communicates with us in a fashion suited to our needs and limitations.
Well, here's the difficulty: when the people and the priest are facing each other at various points of the Mass, the most natural thing is that we look at each other. That is just plain common sense. On the other hand, it is rather difficult, although not impossible, that people can face each other, and not look...at each other.
So, for example, there are people who watch me purify the vessels at the altar after communion. While it is edifying--if they realize what it means--I don't see why it is something anyone should feel the need to observe; and yet they do, because the priest is "doing something." Something in us is distracted by that. That's just human. I.e., the time of silent prayer, after communion, is probably more reflective if the priest is sitting or kneeling; which, when time is not an issue, I do after the purification. But when the clock is ticking, or a baby is screaming, then I move Mass to a conclusion.
Now, for some, the reason they like the priest facing the assembly is that they want to see what he's doing. At St. Boniface, I have put six tall candles on the altar, along with a crucifix, on the altar between the people and the priest, at the suggestion of the holy father. One parishioner said it is harder to see what I'm doing.
In reality, one can easily see in between the candles, and in any case, except where someone is not Catholic, or uncatechized, we know what the priest is doing. And really, very little of what I do physically is obscured: I put bread on the altar, I put wine on the altar--the mixing of water in the wine, and the handwashing, are done at the side and still visible. When I extend my hands over the bread and wine, that too would be partly obscured; but the elevations of the Body and Blood are lifted high enough for you to see! So it's not that people would miss much of what I'm doing--they can still hear me pray the prayers after all, and respond--but rather, that they wouldn't see my face as I do it.
I do not mean to dismiss what is positive about that: the priest is, after all, alter Christus; he makes Christ present in a unique way. But I would point out that where Mass is offered ad orientem, the priest is facing the people at many points of the Mass, precisely where this makes perfect sense: when showing the Gospel Book and then proclaiming the Gospel; when preaching; and he turns toward the people at several points (but not all) when in dialogue with the assembly.
If we view this negatively--"he's turned his back on us"--we miss some positive meanings: "we're facing the same way; we're in this together."
Now, we might compare these alternate approaches in the liturgy, and look for comparisons with ordinary life. When do we tend to be facing the same way as a leader? When we're going somewhere together. When do we tend to be faced by the leader? Some TV shows, lectures, classrooms. Perhaps you can supply, in the comments, more comparisons that might shed light: but note, none of these is necessarily more "active" or "passive"; and if you say, but the people in Church are not in motion as those walking would be, I would point out that, in fact, the Mass does call for the assembly to be "in motion" from the beginning of Mass to the end.
There was a trend for awhile of situating the celebrant's chair in the front row of the assembly; while this is contrary to what the Mass calls for, isn't it interesting what this meant: that the priest would, during Mass, sit...with his back to the people! Yet where did this come from? The Dark Ages before Vatican II? Nope; it was precisely an innovation to carry out the "new spirit" of Vatican II. Yet when the Mass actually encourages a similar posture at the altar, somehow this is seen in the opposite light. I think this is due greater reflection, without polemics.
See, this is going to be a touchy subject; because there are a number of Catholics who will be surprised by all this; it won't track with what they think Vatican II and its aftermath were all about (because in many cases, it won't track with what they were told), it will upset some, it will delight others, it will puzzle still others, it will occasion a lot of questions, and it will need a lot of explaining--since folks who may not be partisans about this will sensibly ask, "why?
My firm hope is that our holy father himself plans to talk more about this subject; I feel very confident he will offer Mass publicly in this fashion again. If he does not, that would be unhelpful in prompting the discussion that is needed. But if he continues, then we can correct the mistaken belief that Vatican II "did away with that" (in fact, Vatican II said not a single, solitary word about this subject), and that, therefore, a priest is not allowed to offer Mass ad orientem.
I was just reviewing the Missal, and it's right there, in red print: at various points of the Mass, it notes when the priest "faces the people"; why would the Missal highlight this if, as so many assume, the Missal expects him to be facing the people throughout? Rather, what the actual rubrics of the Mass say (as opposed to what people and even priests think they say) -- or, rather, don't say -- is which way the priest is facing at most of these moments, leaving the matter open. But at certain points, the priest is told he must face the people; meaning, obviously, he may--or may not--at the other times. It's all very clear, all one has to do is actually read the Missal.
I have found it shocking and distressing that at least some folks in the pews do not consider the pope's wishes and guidance on these matters to be of overriding importance. This came up as I have introduced a bit of Latin (my critics would not call it a "bit"--but anyone who cared to compare the ratio of Latin to English words used in our Masses here would find I am right; they are reacting to Latin per se, not to its quantity); when people asked why, I cited the Second Vatican Council and Popes Paul, John Paul II and Benedict; to which came the response, from some: who cares? One parishioner accused me of worshipping the pope.
Now, in fairness, in one homily, I said that some had told me they didn't care about Vatican II, and that drew audible gasps from the assembly; and when I was installed as pastor, at each parish, part of the ritual is that the pastor publicly swears--on the Gospels--that he will teach and celebrate the mysteries faithfully. That was very well received. (If you have never seen that ritual, it may be because it doesn't have to be done publicly; but in this diocese, a pastor must make this oath.) So I am confident most parishioners reject this mindset; but it's out there.
So, this will require quite a lot of discussion and explanation--which is why I'm posting this. I know many parishioners read this and I want to get people reflecting on this.
It is necessary to say that I have no immediate plans actually to offer regularly scheduled Masses ad orientem; I think it would be best for all concerned that any change such as that be discussed, explained, and handled without too much abruptness; and given all else that is going on in our parishes, I just don't know when the right time will be for any of that. So those who think I'm up to something, well, I'm showing my cards right now. After all, I didn't make the pope do what he did; and when the pope acts, it means something! So I am inviting reflection on, and consideration of, what the pope is teaching us. But I do think there will come a time it would be good to try this. When, where, how? I have no idea. I am trying to proceed calmly, I hope others will observe the same approach.
* Sorry for the second headline. For some reason, on my laptop, the main headline doesn't appear, but it does on my office computer. Since others may be similarly affected, I did this to have a headline for everyone. Sometimes blogger acts goofy.