Besides the change in the Mass after the Second Vatican Council, we have learned that Latin is still used by the Church and has a proper place in our worship. Therefore I want to discuss a second change made after 1965, the direction which the priest faces during Mass. We will examine three points: one, what is the teaching of the Church about the orientation of the priest at Mass; two, what is some of the history and tradition of the priest facing toward the East; three, what can the priest’s position teach us about the Mass and our participation in it.
What does the Church teach about the priest’s orientation at Mass? After the Second Vatican Council, one most evident change was the construction of freestanding altars. The celebration versus populum (towards the people) was adopted throughout the Latin Church, and it became the prevailing practice during Mass for the celebrant to stand behind the altar facing the congregation. This has led to a widespread misunderstanding that the priest’s “turning his back on the people” is characteristic of the Tridentine rite, the old Latin Mass of Pope Saint Pius V; whereas the priest’s “turning towards the people” belongs to the New Mass of Pope Paul VI. It is also widely thought that the celebration of Mass “facing the people” was required, even imposed, by the liturgical reform of Vatican II.
In reality, the Council did not even mention the issue, only an instruction afterwards said it was desirable to set up a main altar separate from the back wall, so that the priest can walk around it and a celebration facing the people is possible. Contrary to what often took place, the Church never instructed that the old high altars should be torn down, rather that a freestanding altar should be present in the sanctuary – perhaps in addition to the high altar.
The Sacramentary we use, the Missal of the renewed Mass, it gives the instruction at several points during Mass that the priest should turn towards the people.* In order for the priest to turn towards the people, this implies that beforehand the priest and people were facing a common direction, that is, towards the altar for the core of the Eucharistic liturgy.
In summary, the Church teaches that it is legitimate and often advisable for the priest to celebrate Mass facing the people, but the Church has never forbidden or excluded that possibility that a priest can celebrate Mass facing the other direction, something the sacramentary envisions.
So why did the priest used to always celebrate Mass facing the other direction? What is the reason for this orientation?
The first thing to remember is that the Eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God, just as all Christian prayer is an act of worshipping God. So how this can be communicated most fittingly in liturgical gesture? When we speak to someone, we obviously face that person. Accordingly, if whole liturgical assembly, priest and people, face the same way, they turn towards God to whom prayers and offerings are addressed in this common act of worship. It is a mistaken idea that in this case the celebrating priest is facing “towards the altar”, “towards the tabernacle”, or even “towards the wall”. (cf. Ratzinger, Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 139-143)
I have often heard the phrase that Mass is being celebrated with the priest “turning his back on the people”. This is confusing theology with physical position. The crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God. The priest isn’t turning his back on the people; he is joining the people in prayer. At Mass, all of us are praying together to God through Jesus Christ. Whether the priest celebrates towards the people or not, all of us – both you and me – are turned towards God as our first spiritual movement in prayer.
The physical position must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is towards the community. (CDW, 25 September 2000, Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estévez)
Notice that during the Eucharistic prayer, the prayers are not addressed towards you – but to the Father. At that moment in the Mass, the priest is not speaking to the faithful; he is offering prayer to the Father as a representative of the entire Church.
This is why, since the earliest times, Mass has been celebrated with both the people and priest facing the same direction, ad orientem, toward the East. Even after Churches were built where it was not literally possible to face East, then at least symbolically the priest and people were turned toward the Lord. It had nothing to do with trying to obstruct people’s view of what is happening, or of the priest turning his back on the people. Nor is it even primarily for the sake of facing the altar or tabernacle. Rather, when the priest and faithful together face the same way, it manifests our common act of worship; it symbolizes our common pilgrimage toward the returning Lord, the Sun of Justice and our hope in the resurrection and the world beyond the here-and-now, our pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
The priest and people can both face the same direction. And celebrating ad orientem, the Eastward position, is both biblical and patristic and has been done throughout the history of the Church. So what can this teach us about the Mass?
Pope Benedict XVI addressed the topic in a Wednesday audience saying how liturgy evokes the mystery of the transcendent God: “a joyful celebration which includes, on the one hand, the adoring people, the liturgical assembly, and on the other, the Lord Who returns and is again present and active… The heart of the liturgy is in this intersection between priests and faithful on one side, and the Lord and His might on the other.” (Pope Benedict audience 9/14/05, 3)
As he put it the next Wednesday audience, the liturgy is where “God and man meet each other in an embrace of salvation”. (Pope Benedict audience 10/5/05, 3)
The Mass is to have the sense of an ordered, solemn ceremony addressed to God. There is what we call a vertical dimension – that mystery of the transcendent God. Although ordained to administer the sacraments, it is not the priest who gives grace; it is not I who shed my blood on the cross. When the priest faces the congregation, we can forget or misunderstand that only Christ is the source and giver of all grace. ad orientem avoids focusing attention on the personality and mannerisms of the celebrant and reminds us that the priest stands at the altar in persona Christi, offering the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.
Again we can ask: what is full and active participation in the Mass? Yes, participation includes external actions, like reading and singing. But external actions are secondary to out interior action of prayer. Cardinal Ratzinger, before being elected pope said: “Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: prayer (the oratio). It must be plainly evident that prayer (the oratio) is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the action (actio) of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.” (Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 174)
Theologically, the Mass includes God speaking to his people (versus populum), especially during the Liturgy of the Word. But today, during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we can recall that the Mass is directed at the same time towards God (ad orientem). We now know that the Church allows us to continue this long tradition of priest and people facing the same direction, for together we join in offering our prayer to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. To Jesus Christ be all praise and glory forever.
* The parts of Mass in which the priest faces the Congregation are: The Sign of the Cross, Opening Greeting, and Penitential Rite; Orate Fratres; Pax Domini; Ecce Agnus Dei; Final Blessing and Dismissal.
See also: Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer by U.M. Lang (Read an interview with the author)
And a discussion by George Weigel Turning toward Christ, together