Tuesday, September 18, 2012

An argument for ad orientem

Recently I was attending a Mass at which I was concelebrant--and because the number of concelebrants was many, we did not all assemble around the altar, because  of lack of room. As a result, many of us were facing the altar throughout the Mass.

The celebrant--who I did not know--was, by all indications, a faithful priest. He prayed the prayers in the Missal, and--with a few small things, followed the indicated ritual. In short, he largely "did the red and said the black" as my friend Father John Zuhlsdorf says. Father seemed to be a genial, friendly, cheerful fellow. I did not get to meet him after Mass, but I'm sure we would have had a pleasant conversation.

And yet...I wish Mass had been ad orientem--literally, "toward the east," meaning toward "liturgical east," or toward the apse of the church. I.e., all of us facing the same way.


Our celebrant had an expressive face; everything he was feeling, showed on his face. And, during the Eucharistic Prayer, Father chose to gaze out at the assembly when speaking many of the words of the prayers.

What's wrong with that, you ask?

Nothing, if we had been in a conversation. Had we been sitting at a meal, or enjoying a snack or a drink together, it would have been very engaging.

And that is the problem.

We weren't there to engage with him.

Now, I am not including the homily--which in this case, was delivered by another. But had he given the sermon, again, I would have been happy to have the priest be every bit as expressive as he was.

But when we are praying--when the assembly is praying--why should the priest be our focus?

When the priest is standing at the altar, in particular, how much of the prayers during the second half of the Mass, are directed at the others present?

Stop and think about that.

The priest says, "pray, brothers and sisters"...then offers a prayer to God. Then he says to us, "Lift up your hearts," and two more invitations, to which we respond. Then he prays the Preface--again, to God. Then the Eucharistic Prayer, which--contrary to what many seem to think--is 100% directed to God. Same with "Through him, with him," etc.

Then the priest addresses us briefly to pray the Our Father, then the prayers--again--are to God. Then, briefly, wishing us peace once more, before his attention is back to the Lord with the "Lamb of God." Then he shows us the Lamb, and then he prays, again, to the Lord--with us--in the response. Then his communion and then ours. Then the prayer is again to God, before the blessing and dismissal.

My point is, during the second half of the Mass--when the priest is standing almost entirely at the altar--relatively few of the words are directed to us. They are directed to God.

To be a priest is to a mediator; the priest mediates our prayers to God, and God's response to us. This is most fully at work in the Mass. Think about it, and you'll see that explains almost everything the priest does in the Mass.

So when the priest is at the altar, while obviously the Mass is "for us" to the extent it is for our salvation, the priest's focus is on God. He's pleading for us. He's offering the Eternal Sacrifice--in the person of Christ--for us. Not to us. For us.

Please don't misunderstand me. I can hardly blame a priest for feeling joy and love for the Mass, and for it showing in his face. On one level, you could say, "oh, I love seeing it, because it's so inspiring." I get that, too.

But I hope people don't come to Mass to see my face--but the face of Christ.

A friend of mine (in fact, he has a new blog; click here and go visit!) often refers to priests as "faceless"--meaning, he wants as a priest to "decrease" as St. John the Baptist said, so that He may increase. I understand and agree.

It's a reason I think ad orientem serves the good of the people. Because as important as it is to have priests who convey warmth and joy and faith, it is also important that it not be about us.

Let me know what you think.


Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Couldn't agree more, Father. Often the priest is a distraction and that's a shame. Not only that, but if the tabernacle is in the center he is doing everything with his back to Jesus. So He's talking to Jesus with his back to him. If I did that with a friend it would be incredibly rude. Poor Jesus deserves better.

David Bethel said...

I agree, I've only been to a Mass celebrated ad orientem once, but it seemed to me we were all directing ourselves to God, led by the priest. I do not understand how people can take offense at the priest "turning his back". For me it wasthe priest pointing and leading to Christ.

truthfinder2 said...

I wish the Mass were as you describe, ad orientam, all the time. I come from a (protestant)church background where every service seemed to be a "performance", complete with a band. --- Rosemary