Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ad Orientem

Ad Orientem*

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 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.


Anonymous said...

Father Fox, I first stumbled across your blog when someone posted a link to your column on "Practical Benefits of Confession". I am a regular reader, and I so thoroughly enjoy the teaching that you do through this blog, as well as your homilies (I'm Canadian, so I mainly skim the political posts!). Thank you for taking the time to do this service for your parishioners and your world-wide readers!

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox: Great article! I will keep you in my prayers. I wish we had some priests like you here in California!

justmemv said...

Keep up the good work, Father!

Anonymous said...

Hi Father,

Good post - it got me curious, so I checked out the Sacramentary. I could only find two places in the rubrics where it states "the priest, facing the people..." Once at the beginning of the Introductory Rite and once again at the beginning of the concluding rite. I could not find anywhere in the rubrics where it states anything about ad orientem.

Would the workship space be the primary factor for ad orientem? The altar at the Sistine Chapel was elevated and near the wall.

Fr Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R. said...

Dear Father Fox,

Your post "Ad Orientem" is one of the best on the subject I have read. I will be exploring the rest of your blog. But, for me, this post is a ray of hope in a continual delimma that I have been dealing with. This is no small thing. Although you had no idea of it at all when you wrote it, you have helped a brother priest immensely. Coincidence? I think not. Grace? Absolutely. I am deeply grateful. You have my deepest gratitude and the assurance of my prayers. Perhaps one day we will meet and I can further explain.

May our dear Mother of Perpetual Help and her loving Son watch over you.

Fr. Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Father, and God bless you. There are many good people who simply do not understand or appreciate the deep damage that was done by the interruption of our constant worshipping tradition. I often express it quite simply: if you were to line up the twenty-two or so different rites of the Catholic Church and look at them dispassionately, one of them, in the way it is celebrated, the use of secular styles of music, etc., stands out like a sore thumb for its diminished sense of awe and transcendence: the contemporary Roman Rite. By 1970, the Mass had become a sort of consecrated karaoke hour, an amateur show in which the liturgical rite was shaped to express the theme of the moment... NOT something to be gratefully received, reverently celebrated and entered into, and faithfully handed down. The Liturgy should shape US, not the other way around. God bless you and your fortunate people for your fidelity!
Fr Joseph Wilson
Middle Village, NY

Anonymous said...

For the various instructions for the priest to turn "versus populum" (to face the people) -- for instance, before the "Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium" (May the Lord accept the sacrifice) and the "Domine non sum dignus" (Lord, I am not worthy) -- you'll probably need to consult the official Latin (Novus Ordo) Missale Romanum (rather than the English Sacramentary).

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

A comment from England (if that's all right),

For the priest to celebrate Mass facing liturgical east requires no change in Canon Law, no change in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

It contravenes no Vatican II document, nor any subsequent liturgical directive.

It needs no special dispensation or permission.

Although it certainly might be a good idea to explain to parishioners what is happening first !

It is common sense that everyone, priest and people together, faces the same way, towards the Lord.

In a Mass facing the people, the priest and people appear to be speaking to each other, even when they are in fact praying.

This is because they are facing each other, as in any social gathering.

It is impossible to make this mistake when the priest and people are "facing God", so to speak.

The point to be emphasised is that the priest is leading the people in prayer, and this is more obvious when he is facing in the same direction as them.

You can't lead a procession or a group of visitors around if you are facing towards them.

You'd have to walk backwards to do that !

Similarly, a general can't lead his troops into battle unless he is standing in front of them, facing the same way.

A further point :

When the priest stands behind the altar, it somehow comes between him and the people.

When he stands before the altar, he can really be seen to be worshipping God, standing before God.

And when he turns round to greet the people, as the Missal requires him to do at certain moments in the Mass, then there is nothing between him and the people.

This was very obvious in the Pope's recent Mass in the Sistine Chapel.

Above all, facing liturgical east has been the traditional thing to do for centuries.

Facing the people is a novelty, only 40 years old.

And it destroys any sense of the the awsome mystery of the Sacrifice of the Mass, that "turning towards the Lord" which is so much to be preferred.

Facing the people inevitably produces the sense of an assembly, a get together, and very easily loses sight of God.

(Incidentally, as I never tire of reminding people, there is nothing "to see" at the altar.

The consecrated Eucharistic species appear no different from the unconsecrated bread and wine.)

Every way you look at this question, the answer always is : "ad orientem" is better.

And that is why more and more priests are now turning towards the Lord.

Fr Martin Fox said...


My point was that the fact that four times the Sacramentary (aka Missal) says, "the priest, facing the people" . . . before going to to describe what else he does, is what proves my point. You don't say, "face the people" when the priest is presumed already to be facing the people. But you do it when either of the following is true: he is presumed to be facing away, or there is no presumption either way.

Since the Missal is written for all circumstances where the Mass is celebrated, including many churches and chapels where the priest cannot stand "behind" the altar and face the people, then this becomes very understandable: the Missal is written with both that in mind, as well as where a priest can stand "behind" the altar.

In short, the Missal does not preclude ad orientem. (I will lead to others to make the argument that it actually presumes ad orientem.) Indeed, someone explaining the holy father's manner of offering Mass on Jan. 13 made this very point -- there is no presumption either way.

Fr Martin Fox said...

... Oh, you probably want to know the four times the Missal says, "facing the people":

1. After the Sign of the Cross, in giving the greeting.

2. After washing his hands, saying "Pray brethren..."

3. Showing the Eucharist after the Fraction, saying, "This is the Lamb of God..."

4. Giving the final blessing.

Simon Platt said...

Thanks for this post Father.

I notice that the four times you list at which the rubrics specify facing the people are closely analagous to the rubrics of the traditional mass, which seems interesting.


Anonymous said...

Ad Orientem. Very nice. Our Pope is a great leader and teacher. After reading his book Spirit of the Liturgy, I explainded Ad Orientem to my people through sermons and bullitens and that we would use it for Advent and Lent. It went over very well for Advent (and Christmas). When I turned the altar back around last week, me and the majority of the people felt something was now not exactly right. Most want it turned back permanently toward the tabernacle & crucifix. I told them Lent is only a few weeks away. Since we are going to be adding the Extra-ordinary form during Lent as well, will probably just leave the altar turned around then.

Anonymous said...

Dear Father Fox,
We have been attending the extraordinary form of the Mass for ten years about 75% of the time.

About nine years ago, my husband's aunt came to visit us. She attended the extraordinary form of the Mass with us. Her comment after Mass was, 'That's just like a Polish Mass they have at home'. We took it to mean she didn't understand - even though a large portion of her life was spent attending the Extraordinary form!

I applaud your efforts in taking the time to educate those in the pews. However,Father Mc Afee makes a good point that there will always be those who will oppose you no matter what. (Comment on Father Z's blog)

Perhaps you could establish a time line (in your mind only) of when certain things will be introduced, and leave very little room for changes of these dates.
You are doing everything possible on your end. It will be up to the laity to learn and accept changes that give more glory to God.
Also, please check you email as I will be sending you a note after I submit these comments.

Andrea Brown

Father John Boyle said...

Thanks for this excellent article. It is very well explained. I shall keep a note of it and refer to it when the time comes (as it surely will) for me to explain this further to my parishioners.

I was speaking this evening with an anglican who told me that what puts many off coming over to Rome is the state of the Roman Liturgy. The way it is celebrated in most parishes does not express the law of faith. It is to be hoped that Pope Benedict's lead and the following of his example by priests such as yourself (and myself too) will lead to a true correspondence between the lex credendi and the lex orandi.

Oremus pro invicem.

Father John Boyle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

This is not only an excellent exposition of the theological implications of the positions taken by the celebrant but a very pertinent assertion of its sociological consequences.

Anonymous said...

The Traditional Anglican Communion whose petition for full sacramentsl and doctrinal union with Rome is at present being considered by the Pope has always celebrated its Eucharist in the traditional manner. If they are successful Fr Boyle's Anglican friend may have no problems with the liturgy.

Anonymous said...

Proceed calmly, by all means, but do proceed!

How we need to find our unity again and also our reverence and the sacredness that seems, in many instances, to have been 'left behind'.

Yes, one of our 2 parishes has some karoake at Mass and some sing-a-longs as father has a good voice.

At the round church we jsut hear about father's progress in fighting his addictions and issues.

Maybe one day we will hear the Gospel preached but not today.

Chase said...


Being the future of the Catholic Church I thought I'd leave my thoughts on this and the changes we've made in Piqua in general. I think ad orientem would be a fantastic change. I think doing so would actually make more symbolic sense, because the sacrifice is being made before God (who is currently behind you on the cross), not before the people. The priest doesn't have an obligation to show us his sacrifice; heck, in history, the high priests used to be the only ones allowed in the tabernacle where the sacrifice was made.

As far as it being controversial, yeah, that might seem like a problem. With my friends that I've talked to at Lehman and youth ministry, though, I think they would be perfectly content with the change. There was (still is) a lot of confusion about what Vatican II is all about, but I think our generation has received well enough education to understand the advantages of the way things "used to" be done. I've had classmates, knowing that I'm in Schola, come ask me whether we're going to be using more Latin. After seeing a bulletin a couple months ago, I told him it would be used regularly at the 9am Mass, which unfortunately seems to not have happened as planned. And numerous friends have expressed their love for the traditional sacred music we've been learning. Though most of them aren't as extremist as I am (i.e., I feel that we should return to kneeling and receiving Eucharist on the tongue), you do have a following when it comes to tradition!

I've talked to many older (i.e. grandparent-aged) people who like the things we're bringing back too. Of course, I've conveniently left out the middle-aged parishoners who seem to be the biggest thorns in your side. Not to start a flame war, but I feel as though a lot of middle-aged Americans make up the "whiny" generation. They whine now because we're trying to change Mass from what they're used to to what it should be. They go on strike every other week because they think that they deserve higher wages even business isn't doing good enough to support it these days. My personal, pre-mature advice is ignore them. If they can't handle change in the Mass, I have to question how serious of Catholics they are anyway. The young Catholic generation is ready for whatever makes being Catholic seem more sacred. If my opinion carried any weight, we'd have ad orientem tomorrow morning at 9 am.

Anyway, this probably got way too long. Thanks again for your contributions to the Piqua parishes.
Chase C.

Anonymous said...

Father, I applaud your remarks on the topic of whether to face East or face the congregation. As a member of a congregation I far prefer the priest have his back to me than to the tabernacle. Let us all face the tabernacle, and the East if possible!
In the Orthodox and Eastern Roman Catholic traditions the priests have conducted Divine Liturgy BEHIND the iconostasis and the congregation is devout in following the liturgy WITHOUT seeing "what the priest is doing".
If the Orthodox can do it, we can do it! (Without the iconostasis, that is, since that is not a part of the Laitn rite tradition!)

I truly hope we will go to the method you describe in the US Roman Catholic church.


Anonymous said...

2 corinthians 6:2

Fr Martin Fox said...


I appreciate your comments, and not merely because you mainly like what I'm trying to do; as a matter of fact, I like your comment that was, very politely, critical: i.e., you've seen less change than you want.

I like it because your voice, and those of the others you mention, need to be heard!

For good or ill, a lot of folks who are resisting a "re-orientation" of the Mass do so in the belief that they speak for most; there is no better solvent for that notion than having you and many others speak up!

You have a right to be heard, your pastor wants to hear what you say, and your fellow parishioners need to hear what you say.

Anyway, Chase, thanks for your love for your parish, and thanks for your prayers, your pastor needs them.

Daniel Muller said...

Thanks for your well-written essay, Father. I hope that your parishes will some day be able to contribute to the restoration of Holy Mass in this way.

(Wow, Father Joe stopped by! Hello, Father!)

Anonymous said...

I have been an occasional visitor and decided to leave a comment. I linked this excellent essay to my new blog on the TLM in Maryland.

Wonderful commentary, Father! Thanks for the insight!

Anonymous said...

Insightful commentary, Father! I keep saying that if and when you need a locale change, please, please, please come to the diocese of Cleveland!

Kimberly said...

Excellent article, Father Fox!

God bless you for your tireless efforts in being a true pastor to your flock. As a regular attendee of the TLM in Columbus, I enjoy reading your blog and appreciate your candor and openness in describing the challenges that faithful priests are beset with when implementing anything perceived as "change."

I will keep you in my prayers!

the owl of the remove said...

Father - I have also introduced the six candles and the crucifix and have received the same comments as you have - people also seem to want to watch the purification, which I find rather bizzare. Ad orientem would take care of all these problems - perhaps it should just be introduced and we take the inevitable hostility - your thoughts?

Vox Cantoris said...

Father, don't let the cranks disturb you. Keep going with the "Reform of the Reform." We need more priests like you. Yes, you must "educate" those ignorant, but don't let them discourage you. God bless you and keep you close always. May the Most Blessed Virgin Mary keep you close to her and always to her Son.

Anonymous said...

Dear Annie,

In Orthodox and Eastern Catholic parishes, you see the iconstasis, but the Latin Church has its corresponding part with communion rails and rood screens.

Anonymous said...

A very good explanatory article, Father.

gemoftheocean said...

Dear Father:

[I came across your blog because Fr. John Boyle mentioned this article.) I have never found the "face liturgical east so we are all facing the Lord" argument convincing. Still don't. You say:

"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?"

To which I say: Remind me again what you are holding in your very hands? Are you not ALSO facing Jesus Christ?

Far from thinking "He turned his back on us" I'm thinking "Buddy, you are not invisible, I CAN'T SEE THROUGH YOU." For these TLM affairs, fat chance (especially if one follows the Father Z alpha-dog school) of a woman or a girl ever getting to serve a TLM Mass. That means if you go back "to the old way" women get to go to the back of the bus again and will NEVER, not ONCE get see what you are doing. The men/boys will have had their chance to serve.

Yes, people are "looking" at you. It comes with the territory. But they are not "looking" at you in the sense of being mesmorized by you. IF you direct your attention to the elements on the altar, that is where they will look too. Don't make eye contact with the people at the offertory/canon and they won't make eye contact with you, but look at what you're also looking at. I.E. the elements.

I love your statement "regards well, I'm just doing these little bits here and there, they don't really need to see it." It's like people with money telling people without it "Money's not important." Yes, it's true in a lot of ways. But try not having any to pay the gas and electric bill with just charm and good looks, then get back with me. As a priest you will virtually ALWAYS get to see ALL of "what's going on." Let's say some horrible paralyzing infirmity overtook you [God forbid], and for that reason you couldn't say Mass. Would you honestly not mind if you NEVER got to see "what when on on the altar" again?

For those of you priests who are insistent on liturgical east, could you have a heart and at least install an over head web camera the altar? Like they have at US football games? No, I don't need to see *you* in the shot other than what your hands are doing. Then I can satisfy myself that you are not playing solitaire up there. If you're smart you'll rent Blackberrys beforehand and make some change.

FWIW, I'm old enough to remember TLM before Vatican II. Because I'm a woman, I'd have never gotten to serve Mass under the old system, and there are a few who's last names begin with "Z" for instance, that would do their darndest to make sure no woman would ever have that opportunity. I can deal with Latin. [I rather like it.] I can deal with no handshakes. I prefer it. I can ignore the old ladies off in some other world saying their beads (which used to happen all the time -- why not, it wasn't like they bought a missal or could see what you were doing) but I. Still. Wouldn't. Be. Able. To. See. THROUGH. You.

For me, "turning the priest around so he faces BOTH God and the people, so the people could see what was going on" was the BEST part of Vatican II.

God Bless,

[BTW, I love the Byzantine liturgy too .... with THAT ONE EXCEPTION.]

gemoftheocean said...

Yikes! that should have been "WHOSE last names being with Z...."

["never type when you're irritated at someone... never type when you're irritated at someone."]

Fr Martin Fox said...

Karen, I appreciate your visit, but I don't see any reason for you to be so "on the muscle."

I don't see where I say what you quote me as saying "regards well, I'm just doing these little bits here and there, they don't really need to see it."

It might be better if you didn't approach this so combatively and didn't put words into my mouth.

Anonymous said...

Thank for your words of wisdom Father! I'm part of the new generation of seminarians who support this view. We'll grow in numbers and help to educate the faithful with you!

Unknown said...

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 continues, then we can correct the mistaken belief that Vatican II "did away with that"

There's an opportunity coming up for that -- on his trip to the U.S. in April. He's going to say Mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York -- the first ever Papal Mass there -- and this Mass will be for priests, not the general public (who will see him at Yankee Stadium).

Now -- wouldn't it be great if he did ad orientem at St. Patrick's? In front of thousands of priests? It will be a historic mind-blower.

Adrienne said...

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.

Next question: (I've said my 5 Hail Mary's plus more to cover my next sin:) - when and how did the Holy Father make this suggestion? (I wish we had a crucifix on our altar.)

The other thing is, I was under the impression, at least as concerning the Tridentine rite, that nothing extra was to be put on the altar. What I'm guessing is that when the Mass is the NO those regulations don't apply.

I know I'll have to wait patiently until Wed. and your return for an answer.

Fr Martin Fox said...


If memory serves, the holy father made the suggestion, as a cardinal, in The Spirit of the Liturgy; most notably, he's actually done it at Masses as pope.

As to what may be placed on the altar, the rubrics for the current form of the Mass do allow for candles and a crucifix to be placed on the altar.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox,

Just after Vatican II, if all the priest had the same concern and apprecation for liturgical changes and there profound effect on the laity, as you share in this reflection, I sincerely wonder if a priest like yourself would today even have a to write on this topic.

Still, have courage Fr. Fox and be not afraid to follow Pope Benedict in his liturgical example of humility before the Lord.

Peace to all.


gemoftheocean said...

Okay Father, sorry if you thought I was putting words in your mouth: Here was your exact quote, which I was trying to paraphrase: "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."

Perhaps some people are "distracted" - I am not so constituted.

As far as "on muscle" no, this isn't even a smack with a wet noodle. I'm not even out of first gear.

Look, since Father Z recently said he wasn't offended by the Jew's prayers "Thank you Lord for not making me a woman" then I hope he's not offended by my prayer for him "Please make Father Z a woman for one week so he can see how he sounds to a lot of us XX types." I was hoping everhone of the Trad variety wouldn't get the same prayer from me. Some people learning the hard way, for others it's not required.

Vatican II threw the women a few crumbs. I'd like to guard some of the positive things I think we got.
Things like girls being able to serve Mass and the people being able to see what's going on, should they desire to.

How about you put the tabernacle at the back with all the candles the people who don't want to look at you can turn around and face the tabernacle, you can put them all on the left side of the church, and the people that do want to see what you're doing can sit on the right side of the church facing you and God which you are holding in your hands. That way you can look at the tabernacle. The people who don't give a rip what's going on at the altar don't have to look at you (I mean, what's for them to see, right? They can look at the tabernacle. and instead of you turning towards them where proscribed, they can turn to you.)

And you can not make eye contact with anybody. I don't need to look at you, I just don't want to have to have xray vision to look THROUGH you.

It's like the priests that say "Let us place ourselves in the presence of the Lord" -- I always want to say "How did you manage to find your way outside of His presence?"

I do hope I won't have to throw in
a lot of smilies in posting. That gets old and people used to be able to read irony without them being littered all over. But it is the internet age....


Anonymous said...

I was thinking recently about how many people have lapsed and wondering if a return to the liturgical traditions they knew as children would encourage many of them to return to the Church.

I'm certain it would.

I am sure that few of the people who complain about the return to traditional practices will actually stop going to Mass.

But many more, and especially those of the pre-new Mass generation and even more so young people, will start to go or stay when they might have lost their faith.

I speak as a 21 year old. I have many other friends the same age who have the same opinions and they are the most dedicated Catholics I know. They are the people who will still be Catholics, 10, 20, 40 years from now... until death.

It is amazing to see the increase of faith and zeal that occurs when they are introduced to the traditional Mass.


Paul said...

Excellent post, Father. It's been wonderful to follow your reform efforts in your parishes through your blog. Keep up the good work. You are in my daily prayers.

Paul in Long Beach

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...


Perhaps people who feel attached to Mass versus poopulum might feel more reassured if they knew that a Mass facing the people would be preserved in cases of genuine pastoral need.

As long as the table altar could be moved out of the way ..

gemoftheocean said...

Well, Dr. Peter. If "the Powers that Be" could make Joseph of Cupertino levitate, then making a ciborium, chalice, etc. levitate should be no challenge. Just for you I'll throw in a smile. :-D

Anonymous said...

Father -

How much of this could be linked to priests' lack of faith - not in God but in their community?

I'm an educator for a high tech company and we've expanded into the area of 'distance learning' where students log in from all over the world for our classes. Once we start, we don't really have any idea if the students are paying attention, multi-tasking, or even still near their computers. Teaching is tough to do when you lack eye contact and basic body language responses.

Priests might face a similar dilemma when they turn their backs to the congregation. (I know, I know. But facts are facts.) They are humbly and devoutly saying the holiest prayers in Christendom, but surely they can be forgiven if they wonder what's going on behind them: Is the silence a symbol of devout congregants? Are they actively listening? Bored? Sleeping? Are the kids in back tossing spitwads? Or has everybody quietly left the church and it's just You and me, Lord?

Leadership requires faith. When in combat a leader calls for his squad to follow, he turns his back on them and leads the way. He is facing his objective and doing his job. He knows that the others will follow because they have trained together and prepared for this moment.

So perhaps as priests spend more time in catechesis facing their people before they offer Mass, explaining what is about to happen, they can feel more confident as they turn around and lead those people towards the Risen Christ.

Fr. Ron Williams said...

Fr. Martin, I'm just curious. Benedict XVI has celebrated Mass "ad orientem" many times in the past, both as cardinal and as Pope. Why should this recent Mass in the Sistine Chapel make such a difference?

Craig said...

Father Williams, for starters, every MSM outlet in the world has publicized it making us plain, ordinary, folks in the pews inquire about it and appreciate the catechesis provided by Father Fox.

Keep it up, Father Fox. You are showing us the future and we love it.

Fr Martin Fox said...


You may not consider your approach irritating, but I do; and normally, when two people are in conversation, then what's considered polite is not subject solely to the determination of only one party.

My point about the purification is not that I don't want people to see it; I cited that to demonstrate that the priest, facing the people, can distract them. The purification doesn't have to be done at the altar; at one of my parishes, it happens at a side table. But the servers at the other parish are used to doing it this way.

You are simply mistaken: Vatican II said not one word about the priest offering Mass facing the people. If you can find a citation in the documents of Vatican II that says contrary, feel free to post it, and I will eat crow. But you won't, because it's not there.

(Vatican II also said nothing about girl servers, fyi.)

I think your complaint that Vatican II "threw the women a few crumbs" is very revealing. Sorry, but Vatican II wasn't about a power-struggle between men and women and I'm so sad that's the lens through which you view it. Everything in Vatican II was for both men and women.

Your insistence that you see what's happening at the altar strikes me as rather strange, frankly. Don't you know what's happening? What do you think you are missing? In fact, if you attend Mass where the priest offers ad orientem, most of the time, nothing will be happening at the altar, out of your sight. As I said in my post: you would miss seeing me set the plate or ciborium of not-yet-consecrated bread, and the chalice(s) of not-yet-consecrated wine, on the altar; then you would miss seeing me extend my hands over the gifts at the epiclesis (although you'd see that I was doing it because it would be very apparent from behind me), and you would miss seeing me actually hold the host and the cup as I spoke the words of institution; but you would see me elevate the Body and Blood--twice. What else do you think you're missing out on?

At any case, this isn't something either you or I get to decide. This is decided by the bishops, in union with the pope, who in turn practice "democracy for the dead" (in Chesterton's words) by respecting Tradition. And all that is firmly on the side of ad orientem.

Fr Martin Fox said...

Father Williams:

I wasn't aware Pope Benedict has celebrated Mass, ad orientem, publicly, as pope, before Jan. 13. Am I mistaken?

I.e., I think it is the public nature of it, as pope, that is noteworthy.

Simon Platt said...

pdt commented thus:

"Priests [...] are humbly and devoutly saying the holiest prayers in Christendom, but surely they can be forgiven if they wonder what's going on behind them"

which I found interesting.

A few years ago the priests at a church in my home town came up with a plan to throw out the pews at the back of the church and put in "nice stacking chairs", tables etc. to form a multi-purpose space. When quizzed on this, the curate explained to me how depressing it was for him to celebrate a sparsely populated weekday mass and gaze out at a large number of empty pews.

So I asked another priest I know, then PP at another big church in another town in our diocese, whether he found it similarly depressing to celebrate weekday masses vesus populum in the presence of few of the populus. "Oh, I never look at the congregation", was his response. Now that's the attitude! His focus is where it jolly well should be!

Surely versus populum celebrations are a problem because they tempt priests to focus on whom they are facing? I think that your post alludes to this possibility, as do one or two of the comments. I'd be interested to hear what priests have to say about this particular point.

Fr Michael Brown said...

Excellent post, Father. I may borrow large parts of it as we introduce an ad orientem ordinary form Mass in Lent once a week.

Father John Boyle said...

Simon: the number of people at Mass has never bothered me, particularly since I started celebrating the Extraordinary Form and ceased looking at the people. I am celebrating Mass, not simply for the people who are present, but for and in union with the whole Church - militant, suffering and triumphant. That's enough company!

Simon Platt said...

Thanks Fr. Boyle.

Father Schnippel said...


I routinely (regularly?) celebrate one of the Sunday Masses at the Cathedral in Cincinnati. As size goes, they don't get much larger than this one: seats 900 in the main body of the Church comfortably, and while other churches seat more, those are usually in a fan shape or round variety, while the Cathedral is in typical/traditional Cathedral shape; ie one long aisle. (In fact, in my travels around the diocese, I've had Mass where the furthest pew from the Altar is still closer than the closest pew in the Cathedral, and those back pews are in a different area code, I'm convinced!)

Well, a Church that seats 900 and serves an inner-city or non-territorial congregation just is not going to be full; not even close! (Except for those uniqe things that happen at Cathedrals, beside the point.)

We rope off the back 2/3rds of the seating area to try to bring people closer to the front, with the result that you get quite a large section that is empty.

The first time you celebrate there, it can be a bit unnerving, but for the most part when I am at the Altar, I focus on the prayers and species/gifts.

Plus, I keep in the back of my mind that the Church is always full, you just may not be able to see the angels who are taking up the rest of the pews that have been reserved for them.

I will say going from the Cathedral to a St. Susanna's in Mason (HUGE!) to a St. Mary's in Peebles/St. Jerome's in California (both very tiny) can be quite jarring, if you're not used to the transition.

Fr Scott Bailey, C.Ss.R. said...

When I celebrate Mass I focus on God, not on the people with very few exceptions. Even though I celebrate Mass versus populum I do not look at the people except when I specifically address them (greetings, homily, orate fratres). After the consecration my attention is on the Most Holy until after the ablutions. Even then I only look at them for the final greeting.

The Mass is about the worship of God. It isn't a dialogue between priest and people but between God and men.

And, if I were in conversation with you and didn't pay attention to you wouldn't you consider me rude? Why shouldn't God get the same consideration?

Dr. Peter H. Wright said...

This is a most fascinating thread.

Could I say how much I agree with the comment from Fr. Scott Bailey, C.SS.R. ?

We must never forget that the Mass primarily is an act of worship.

The priest addresses God, through the Son, in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

You normally face someone when you address them.

Particularly when that Someone is God.

Mara Joy said...

Excellent post, Father. And you have a wonderful pastoral spirit/mind/attitude, in how you are dealing with this issue (and others I am sure,) both in this post, and your responses to comments, and how you are implementing it in your parish. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

Dr. Wright,

Well said. I believe that is exactly what the Vicar of Christ, Pope Benedict, is telling his priest sons worldwide with his recent actions.

Peace to all


Simon Platt said...

Thank you, Frs. Schnippel and Bailey, for your comments which I found both interesting and reassuring.

Anonymous said...

Fr Martin: two other thoughts as to why I like the idea of ad orientem:

1) The analogy of a ship at sea: With the priest facing ad orientem, I often imagine the priest at the bow of a ship, leading all of us on the heavenly pilgrimage (and amid the waves that are the vicissitudes of the common experience of human life). The term “nave” may well be a derivative of the Latin for ship: “navis.” Also, I think of World War II images of priests celebrating Mass aboard a ship where the priest is near the bow, with a temporary altar, and the faithful serviceman are packed in behind him: they all seem to be "sailing the same direction."

2) It also invokes for me an old prayer, which was/is common in the extraordinary Roman rite: "Introibo ad altare Dei..." I will go unto the altar of God. Especially with the small steps leading up to the old altars, one has the sense of gradually, reverently, humbly approaching something majestic and grandiose - and what is more majestic and grandiose than God's holy altar, on which the sacrifice of Calvary is made present, in the here and the now? (And, of course, it also ties in with the phrase from the ordinary liturgy whereby the priest invokes the angels to take the sacrifice on the altar in our church up to God's altar in Heaven - something evocative of the Apocalypse.)

There is just something profoundly mysterious and transcendent about ad orientem liturgy - particularly when before those grand altars, which both humble the priest and the faithful and remind us that we are (and must be) small before God, but at the same time elevate our hearts, minds and souls to something that is royal, beautiful, that dwells high above us and is far greater than any one of us - a towering and even imposing monument to God's great glory, love and mercy. Such architecture prefigures the glory of the Heavenly Jerusalem!

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