Ad orientem Mass today? Celebrating the Mass facing with the people (ad orientem)

December 31, 2009

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.

Source: Fr. Coulter

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


The Church Must Be Willing to Be A Sign of Contradiction

December 29, 2009

It is often demanded of the Church today (both by non-Catholics and Catholics) that she ought to strive to fit in more, be kinder and gentler than in the past,  and that her essential mission is merely to accept everyone and make sure they feel good about themselves.  She ought to be more appealing and less “alienating” then her membership will increase. When the Church solemnly and unequivocally speaks on moral questions so is often criticized for being too harsh, or perhaps of being judgemental and  intolerant, or out of touch with modern realities. In recent discussions on this very blog many critics of the Church’s positon on same-sex marriage have accused her of being “on the wrong side of history.”

But is this really the role of the Church? Is it really her role to to be with the times? Surely not, since she is the Bride of Chirst and also Body of Christ (for in this holy Marriage she and her spouse are one). 

In the Gospel for today (the 5th Day of the Octave of Christmas) Simeon turns to Mary and says:

Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted (and you yourself a sword will pierce)so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Lk 2:34)

Simeon looked to Jesus and saw that he would be a sign of contradiction to many. Surely Jesus would not be the affirmer in chief but rather, as one who spoke the truthand feared no man, he would stand clearly and announce the truth without compromise. Some would love him and many would hate him, but no one could remain neutral. He would make us choose, tertium non datur (no third way is given).

And to the Church Christ said two very important things:

  1. If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me. (John 15:18-21)
  2. Woe to you when all men speak well of you, for that is how their fathers treated the false prophets.(Luke 6:26)

So, that world hates us is not necessarily due to the fact that we have done anything wrong. It is often a sign that we have done something precisely right for it is often our lot, as the Body of Christ,  to be a “sign of contradiction.” That is to say that we must announce the Gospel to a world that is often and in increasing measure, stridently opposed to it. St. Paul admonished Timothy to preach the Gospel, whether in season or out of season (2 Tim 4:2). Increasingly now it is out of season and the world hates us for what we say. But we can do no other, for if we are  faithful, we must speak.

Pope Paul VI said it so well in the very “out of season” encyclical Huamane Vitae:

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. There is too much clamorous outcry against the voice of the Church, and this is intensified by modern means of communication. But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.”  She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.  Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man. (H.V. # 18)

We in the Church must courageously accept our lot. Simeon spoke of it clearly in the beginning as he held the infant Christ (and thus the infant Church). And then, looking at Mary, who also represents the Church as mother and bride, he says. “A sword will pierce your heart too!” So the Church as Body of Christ and the Church as Bride and Mother cannot evade the fact that we will often be called to be a sign of contradiction. And we will often be required to suffer for our proclamation. The world will try and shame us, try to cause us to experience guilt through indignant outcries and labels such as: Rigid, backward, conservative, right wing, fundamentalist, homophobic, judgmental, intolerant, harsh, mean-spirited, hateful and so on. But do not be amazed and do not buy into the false guilt. Simply pray and accept the fact that the Church is a sign of contradiction and we must continue to address ourselves to the conscience of a world that seems bent on going morally insane. To this world our announcement of the Truthof Gospel must be courageous, clear, consistent, constant and quite often a sign of contradiction. This is our lot, we can do and be no other.

Source: Archdiocese of Washington

Straight No Chaser – 12 Days (original from 1998)

December 23, 2009

Fact: demanding, liturgical churches attract youth

December 22, 2009


A common lament in many churches today is the lack of young people. It seems that many youth today can’t leave faith of their parents fast enough once they are on their own. This is true in Catholic churches and it is especially true in evangelical churches, at least according to this interesting article in the Broken Arrow Ledger entitled “Where have the Young People Gone?” Some excerpts (emphasis added): 

“Nationwide polls and denominational reports are showing that the next generation is calling it quits on the traditional church. And it’s not just happening on the nominal fringe; it’s happening at the core of the faith.” 

That’s the opening paragraph in a press release promoting a new book, “Already Gone,” by Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, with Todd Hillard… 

Two-thirds of young adults who have grown up in evangelical churches are leaving, according to Ham and Beemer. 

Nancy Mabry, youth director at St. Stephen’s United Methodist Church, agrees that evangelical churches are losing twenty-somethings, but she credits a reluctance to make any sort of commitment as the underlying cause. 

If young people can’t commit to a skating party on Sunday evening until Sunday morning, they’re going to have difficulty making long-term commitments to anything else, Mabry said. 

When she was in her 20s, she said “If you didn’t have a fever, you went to church. Some people say they don’t come to church because Sunday is the only day they have to spend with family. Why don’t they spend it with their family in church? Now, church is an option,” Mabry said. 

What is the solution? There is a hint of it found later in the article: 

There is an exception, however, according to Mabry. Traditional churches that are liturgical churches and smaller evangelical churches seem to be retaining their twenty-something members in greater numbers than larger and mega-churches. 

The Rev. John Wilke, senior pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, has read the book and said he found it to be a fascinating study. 

He cited one of Luther’s writings as something for church leaders to consider: “A faith that costs nothing and demands nothing is worth nothing.” 

“I think that is where the church is today. I get too many things in the mail from churches that say, ‘Come just the way you are, you don’t have to change,’” Wilke said. 

“While God loves you where you are, he expects you to change. We don’t put the fear of God in our churches, we don’t have that respect. We’ve made Jesus our homeboy. He’s not our homeboy, he’s our Saviour.” 

Wilke said the only church he knows of that is experiencing growth in the 20-to-29-year old age group is the Greek Orthodox Church. 

“The Greek Orthodox Church is a liturgical church. Kids want to return to something different from what they get from the world. If we want to reach these kids again, we are going to have to return to what the early church was doing. We need to raise the bar,” he said. 

Read that last part again: a demanding, liturgical Church is actually attracting youth! 

Over the past forty years, the goal of many Catholic parishes has been to make it as easy as possible to be a Catholic so that everyone, but especially the youth, would be willing to come. There has been very little preaching about sin and repentance or about the demands the Faith puts upon you. Furthermore, the underlying assumption for many has been to make the celebration of the Mass more “relevant” to the younger generations, so that they will be more attracted to coming. However, this study shows the exact opposite has occurred: kids have rejected the easy way and instead favor churches that are more demanding and more traditionally liturgical. 

Youth want to be inspired; they want to be called to something above themselves. A demanding, liturgical church naturally does this and as a result attracts youth without even explicitly trying. 

Source: The Divine Life

Fr. Barron comments on Abortion and Health Care

December 19, 2009

Retooning the Nativity

December 18, 2009

Moral Tsunami

December 11, 2009

Source: Mark Mallet


What does this have to do with the word “Persecution“? The past three years, as I have traveled North America on concert tours, the image of a wave has continually come to mind…

Just as the Asian tsunami began with an earthquake, so did what I call a “moral tsunami”. This spiritual earthquake struck just over two hundred years ago, when the Church lost its powerful influence in society during the French Revolution. Liberalism and democracy became the dominant forces.

This generated a powerful wave of secular thinking which began to disturb the sea of Christian morality, once pervasive in Europe and the West. This wave at last crested in the early 1960’s as a small white pill: contraception.

There was one man who saw the signs of this coming moral tsunami, and he invited the entire world to follow him to the safety of high ground: Pope Paul VI. In his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, he affirmed that contraception was not in God’s plan for married love. He warned that embracing contraception would result in a break down of marriage and the family, an increase in infidelity, degradation of human dignity, particularly of women, and an increase in abortions and state controlled forms of birth control. 

Only a few followed the pontiff, even among clergy.

The summer of 1968 is a record of God’s hottest hour … The memories are not forgotten; they are painful … They inhabit the whirlwind where God’s wrath dwells.  —James Francis Cardinal Stafford, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See,, November 17, 2008

And so, the wave neared shore.


Its first victims were those boats anchored at sea, that is, families. As the illusion of sex “without consequences” became possible, a sexual revolution began. “Free Love” became the new motto. Just as those Asian tourists began to wander down onto the exposed beaches to pick shells, thinking it safe and harmless, so too did society begin to engage in free and varied forms of sexual experimentation, thinking it benign. Sex became divorced from marriage while “no-fault” divorce made it easier for couples to end their marriages. Families began to be tossed and torn apart as this moral tsunami raced through them.

Then the wave hit shore in the early 1970’s, destroying not only families, but individual persons. The proliferation of casual sex resulted in a swell of “unwanted babies.” Laws were struck down making access to abortion a “right.” Contrary to politician’s caveats that abortion would only be used “rarely,” it became the new “birth control” producing a death toll in the tens of millions.

Then a second, merciless wave thundered ashore in the 1980’s. Incurable STDS such as genital herpes and AIDS proliferated. Rather than run for high ground, society continued to grasp at the crumbling pillars and falling trees of secularism. Music, movies, and the media excused and promoted immoral behaviors, seeking ways to make love safely, rather than make love safe.

By the 1990’s, the first two waves had disintegrated so much of the moral foundations of cities and villages, that every kind of filth, waste, and debris washed over society. The death toll from old and new STDS had become so staggering, that measures were being taken on an international scale to combat them. But instead of running to the safety of solid high ground, condoms were tossed like life buoys into the rancid waters—a futile measure to save a generation drowning in “free love.” 

By the turn of the millennium, a third powerful wave hit: pornography. The advent of high-speed internet brought sewage into every office, home, school, and rectory. Many marriages that withstood the first two waves were devastated by this silent surge which produced a deluge of addictions and broken hearts. Soon, nearly every television show, most advertising, the music industry, and even mainstream news outlets were dripping with immodesty and lust to sell their product. Sexuality became a soiled and twisted wreck, unrecognizable from its intended beauty.


Human life had now lost its inherent dignity, so much so, that persons at all stages of life began to be viewed as dispensable. Embryos were frozen, discarded, or experimented upon; scientists pushed for cloning humans and creating animal/human hybrids; the sick, elderly, and depressed were euthanized and the brain damaged starved to death—all easy targets of the last violent thrusts of this moral tsunami.

But its onslaught seemed to reach its pinnacle in 2005. By now, the moral foundations had been nearly completely washed away in Europe and the West. Everything was floating—a kind of swamp of moral relativism—where morality was no longer founded on natural law and God, but on whatever ideologies of the ruling government (or lobby group) that floated by. Science, medicine, politics, even history lost its footings such that intrinsic values and ethics dislodged from reason and logic, and past wisdom became muddied and forgotten.

In the summer of 2005—the halting point of the waves—Canada and Spain began leading the modern world in laying down a new pseudo-foundation. That is, redefining marriage, the building block of civilization. Now, the very image of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, had been redefined. The very root of who we are, people made in the “image of God,” had become inverted. The moral tsunami not only destroyed the foundations of society, but also the fundamental dignity of the human person itself. Pope Benedict warned that the recognition of these new unions would lead to:

…a dissolution of the image of man, with extremely grave consequences.  —May, 14, 2005, Rome; Cardinal Ratzinger in a speech on European identity.

For the destruction of the waves is not over! They are now heading back to sea with “extremely grave consequences” for a world caught in their undercurrent. For these waves are directionless, and yet forceful; they appear harmless on the surface, but contain a powerful undertow. They leave a foundation which is now a shapeless, shifting floor of sand. It has led this same Pope to warn about a growing…

“…dictatorship of relativism” —Cardinal Ratzinger, Opening Homily at Conclave, April 18th, 2004.

Indeed, these seemingly innocuous waves have as their…

…final measure of all things, nothing but the self and its appetites. (Ibid.)



The powerful undercurrent beneath the surface is a new totalitarianism—an intellectual dictatorship that uses the state’s coercive powers to control those who disagree by accusing them of “intolerance” and “discrimination,” of “hate speech” and “hate crime.”

Who are those being accused of such things? Primarily those who have run to high ground—to the Rock, which is the Church. They have the vantage of seeing the dangers that are present and near and the ones yet to come. They are extending words of hope and safety to those in the waters… but for many, they are unwelcome words, even regarded as hateful words.

But make no mistake: the Rock has not been untouched. Breakers have crashed upon it, soiled it with debris, and eroded much of its beauty, as waves have swelled near the summit, pulling into the mirky waters many theologians and even clergy.

In the intervening 40 years since Humanae Vitae, the United States has been thrown upon ruins. —James Francis Cardinal Stafford, Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary of the Holy See,, November 17, 2008

Scandal after scandal and abuse after abuse have beaten against the Church, caving in portions of the Rock. Instead of shouting warnings to their flocks of the coming tsunami, too many shepherds seemed to join, if not lead their flocks down to dangerous beaches. Pope Benedict recognized this when he described the Church as…

…a boat about to sink, a boat taking in water on every side. —Cardinal Ratzinger, March 24, 2005, Good Friday meditation on the Third Fall of Christ



As the waters of the “culture of death” begin to pull back into the ocean, they are sucking not only vast portions of society with them, but large chunks of the Church as well—people who claim to be Catholic, but live and vote quite differently. This is leaving a “remnant” of faithful upon the Rock—a remnant increasingly forced to crawl higher up the Rock… or quietly slip into the waters below. A separation is occurring. The sheep are being divided from the goats. Light from darkness. Truth from falsehood.

Given such a grave situation, we need now more than ever to have the courage to look the truth in the eye and to call things by their proper name, without yielding to convenient compromises or to the temptation of self-deception. In this regard, the reproach of the Prophet is extremely straightforward: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness” (Is 5:20). —POPE JOHN PAUL II, Evangelium Vitae “The Gospel of Life”, n. 58

With the Catholic Church’s recent document banning gays from the priesthood, and her immovable position on marriage and gay sexual practice, the final stage has been set. The truth will be silenced or received. It is the final showdown between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” These were the shadows foreseen by a Polish cardinal in an address in 1976:

We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of the American society or wide circles of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-Church, of the Gospel and the anti-Gospel. This confrontation lies within the plans of divine providence. It is a trial which the whole Church . . . must take up.  —reprinted November 9, 1978, issue of The Wall Street Journal 

Two years later, he became Pope John Paul II.


The Asian tsunami actually took place on December 25th—North American time. This is the day we celebrate the birth of Jesus. It is also the beginning of the first persecution against Christians when Herod sent the Magi to disclose baby Jesus’ whereabouts.

Just as God guided Joseph, Mary, and their newborn Son to safety, so too will God guide us—even in the midst of persecution! Hence the same Pope who warned of the final confrontation also exclaimed “Be not afraid!” But we must “watch and pray,” particularly for the courage to remain on the Rock, to remain in the Flock as the voices of rejection and persecution become louder and more aggressive. Cling to Jesus who said,

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you and insult you, and denounce your name as evil on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice and leap for joy on that day! Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.” (Luke 6:22-23)

Upon his installation as the 265th pope, Benedict XVI said,

God, who became a lamb, tells us that the world is saved by the Crucified One, not by those who crucified him… Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves. Inaugural Homily, POPE BENEDICT XVI, April 24, 2005, St. Peter’s Square).

Let us pray with renewed fervor for the Holy Father and for each other that we will be courageous witnesses of love and truth and hope in our days. For the times of Our Lady’s Triumph are near!

—The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe
December 12th, 2005