As everyone knows, over the past four years, our parish has gradually gained experience with this ancient practice, both in the traditional Latin Mass, and in the newer form of Mass. We’ve experienced it at daily Mass on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and in the past year, we’ve had Mass this way on holy days of obligation, and on Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil.
While I understand not everyone shares my enthusiasm, even so I must tell you that the response when we’ve had Mass on the high altar has been overwhelmingly positive. Many have told me that they find this spiritually meaningful and nourishing. Many tell me that it just makes sense to them. Given that this is so meaningful to many, I think it’s best for all concerned if we try to meet the different needs of all.
Some will say, but it’s not something I care for. I understand. That’s why we have lots of Masses offered using the low altar, with the priest turned toward the people. Surely we can all have a live-and-let-live attitude, and allow for some legitimate diversity? No one is being denied anything; we are simply providing more options.
When I talk about this as Mass “toward the Lord,” I don’t mean to emphasize a posture toward the tabernacle, although that is incidentally true. Rather, the main point of this posture – usually called “ad orientem” (which means toward the east) – is that the priest and people are all oriented (1) the same way: that’s the main thing; it is also (2) toward “liturgical” east, almost always symbolized by the apse of the church. The emphasis on “east” is because of so many associations, from Scripture and Tradition, between the east, the source of new light – i.e., the rising sun – the Resurrection, and the hope for Christ to come again. Above all, that common posture is toward the sacred action on the altar.
This arises from a misunderstanding of Vatican II.
There is a very common misperception that Vatican II requires a priest to face the people at the altar. This is not so. Vatican II actually said nothing whatsoever about this. Even when the Mass was revised in the wake of Vatican II, the new Mass did not require the priest to face the people! To say it again: there is simply no rule or norm that dictates whether the priest is facing the people, or on the same side of the altar, with the people.
Anyone who wants proof of this can simply look at the Missal (the large book of prayers used by the priest for Mass); at various points, it specifically instructs the priest to face the people. But there would be no need to give that instruction if he was already and always facing the people. Rather, what this indicates is that the priest might either be facing them, or not – depending on the arrangement of the altar.
That said, it is true that in the years after Vatican II, it became extremely common for the priest to face the people across the altar; so much so, that this was the only experience of the Mass most Catholics, and most priests, had. It was Pope Benedict who really highlighted this issue in his book (written before he was pope) called The Spirit of the Liturgy. There, he explained beautifully – and I think, persuasively – that there were unanticipated downsides to having the priest facing the people; namely, that Mass can become too much about the priest and his personality, and the people are expected to focus on him. Also, unrealized benefits to having both the people and the priest in a common posture: that the priest isn’t the central focus, and that there is a more obvious emphasis on all concerned, priest and people, having a shared focus on the Lord himself. He encouraged exploration of this legitimate option; and that is what I have been doing.