Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Eucharistic Prayer Facing Heaven, not the People

This is a slight reworking of my bulletin column for the upcoming Sunday.

In June, the Archbishop gathered all the priests of the Archdiocese for a three-day convocation; this happens every five years. The topic was the seven sacraments; and in the course of answering questions, the speaker made a point that I want to share with you about the Eucharistic Prayer. And it is this: that the focus of the prayer – the one to whom the words are directed – is God the Father in heaven.

Why is this important?

Because many people think the prayer is addressed to them. Indeed, they have been encouraged to think so! Howso? Because many, many priests treat this prayer as an exposition, and a kind of sacred “show and tell.” If you’ve been at a Mass where a priest tends to do this, this is what happens: the priest is standing at the altar, but his gaze, his focus, is on the assembly. And when he comes to the part that recalls Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper, he will treat this as a kind of re-enactment of those events.

But that is not what is going on. Instead, what is happening is the priest is speaking to God the Father, in heaven; and the prayer is recalling what Christ did at the Last Supper (and on Good Friday, and on Easter, for that matter). Moreover, the focus on the Father in heaven begins several minutes earlier, but you may not have noticed.

The most decisive shift* comes after the priest has placed the bread and wine on the altar, perhaps incensing them, and then washed his hands, what does he do? He looks at the people (and turns toward them, if he is not facing them at that moment), and says, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” And what do you say? “May the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our good and the good of his holy Church.”

It is at this point when the priest begins addressing God the Father at length; and then, when all have said or sung “Amen,” he invites everyone to join in the prayer to the Father. This is when the priest sings or says, “Lift up your hearts,” etc. Then the priest prays another prayer – to the Father – and then all sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” – again…to the Father. And after that, the priest prays the Eucharistic Prayer – alone – to the Father.

Here’s why this matters: it is important to realize that what we are doing at Mass is not merely or mainly “horizontal” – i.e., directed toward one another – but much more “vertical” – i.e., directed toward heaven. Mass isn’t just talk, talk, talk; but rather, it is action, action, action – by the Holy Trinity. People wonder why folks don’t come to Mass – I think this is a big reason why.

Now, I don’t want to make other priests out to be bad guys. They are trying to be helpful. What’s more, this is what they were taught to do. And…this is why the direction the priest faces at this point of the Mass matters.

Most people have only experienced the priest facing them across the altar; they don’t realize that there is any option. In fact, there is: the priest has the option of offering Mass at the altar while facing the same way as the people (aka, ad orientem). Some say the priest has his “back” to the people, but this emphasizes the wrong thing: where is his face turned? The same ways as yours!

My point being, that having the priest facing the same way as the people – at this very point of the Mass – can do a lot to clarify what’s going on. When the priest faces the people, it’s very easy for both him, and the people facing him, to think that the focus is on each other. Whereas, when the priest and the people are facing the same way, together, then it’s much clearer who the focus is: it is God, and what we look for him to do for us.

FYI, in order to give more parishioners a chance to experience this, at the 7 pm Mass on Tuesday, August 15, for the Assumption, I will offer the Mass in this fashion: meaning, when I am at the altar for the sacrifice, I will use the high altar. I realize this will be unfamiliar to some, and also that some may not prefer it – but give it a try. And do let me know your reactions, whether pro or con.

* In reality, the entire Mass is focused on the Father; but when you have readings proclaimed to the assembly, and a homily, this is obscured. (And readers who prefer the Traditional Latin Mass are smiling knowingly right now.) The point I'm making is that, in the context of the Ordinary Form, there is a distinct moment when the heavenly focus should be crystal clear.


Eileen Krauss said...

Dear Father, I'm a visual person & get distracted easily. If I don't have the host to look upon, I am not able to concentrate on what is really happening at that time. I lived through pre Vatican council 2 & was always distracted & could not focus on what was happening. I don't focus on the priest, but rather what is happening to the bread & wine as Christ did at the last supper, Good Friday & Easter Sunday. So I feel I get more out of the mass with the priest facing the people. Take care & Good Bless, Eileen

TJM said...

I get FAR less out of a Mass when the priest faces the people. Priest and people should be facing the liturgical east during the Eucharistic prayer. Versus populum was probably the most deleterious change foisted on the Roman Mass. Congratulations on doing what the rubrics and tradition prescribe. You obviously recognize that the Mass is about worshipping the Lord not ourselves. Best, Tom

phil dunton said...

You nailed it, Father. You should celebrate all your Masses facing the East! St. John the Beloved in McLean, VA adopted this practice a year or so ago. There were a few objections at first but you have done a wonderful job explaining why it should be done that way.

Anonymous said...

Crystal clear! Thank you, Father.

Fr Martin Fox said...


A lot of folks would respond just as you do; and most likely, nothing I can say will change your preference in this.

But let me offer this.

I'd point out that there are major differences between how you experienced Mass before Vatican II, and how it is when the new Mass is offered ad orientem. The prayers are mostly said aloud, for one; and the priest and others face the people at various points, for another. My point being, if you think celebrating the new Mass ad orientem means it'll be what you experienced back then, I think you're in for some surprises.

It is true that you will see somewhat less of what the priest does with the bread and the wine (although you'll see some of it). To be honest, I'm puzzled about why that is so important, because (a) it's the same action, every single time -- it never changes -- and (b) you know that the priest is doing it, and what he's doing. And, as I said, you're hearing the priest pray the prayers while all this is going on -- although, as I said, this was not true in the older form of the Mass.

TJM said...


What Father Fox is pointing out is true. I often attend a Novus Ordo Mass in Latin where the priest faces the liturgical east for the Eucharistic Prayer, for everything else pretty much, he faces the congregation. If you saw it, you would see the logic. When the priest is engaging the congregation in prayers directed to them, he faces them, when he is praying to the Lord, the priest and the Congregation face in the same direction. It is magnificent. Now I rarely go to Mass where the direction is with the priest facing the congregation for the entire Mass.