When Catholic Blogs aren’t, well, Catholic: UPDATE

Francis ad orientem

Pope Francis “ad orientem”

File this in the “something to think about” category.

When Pope Francis recently announced his picks for the red hat, he did so during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel in which he faced the East: ad orientem.  The headline of a popular putatively Catholic blog read, “For the record: Francis Turns Toward God — 2”.  The reason for the number “2” is that it was the second time the Pope had celebrated ad orientem, and the blog had similarly reported that first celebration as “Francis turns toward God.”  On another blog, a priest-commenter reported that ad orientem actually meant “toward Christ”!  In both cases, the whole context was that this was a significant theological development on the part of the Pope, a pope who apparently was signalling his doctrinal or liturgical orthodoxy by choosing to celebrate ad orientem. Who could possibly object to such reverence?  Obviously, to be a good Catholic, we must celebrate this way, right?  Who wouldn’t want to “turn toward God” or to “face Christ”?  Real Catholics are the ones who face the East (ad orientem) because that’s where God is, right?

Unfortunately for folks who might be taken in by that line of reasoning, this is NOT what the Catholic Church actually teaches.


Ad Orientem

versus populum 2

Versus Populum

Catholic teaching and practice, from the very beginning, reflected great diversity and practice on all of this.  In some ancient churches, there was an East-West orientation, and the priest and people would together face the East, where the sun would rise, analogous to God spreading light upon a darkened world.  However, there is also significant architectural evidence that this was not a universal practice, with the architecture of other churches facilitating a versus populum (toward the people) orientation.  Eventually, the ad orientem orientation became prevalent, but the option to celebrate versus populum remained a permissible option.  The point here is that traditional Catholic theology never made the claim that God was only accessible via one orientation or another.  Traditional understanding was that priest and people were together in praying to God during the Eucharist.  This was true whether facing East or facing the people.  The concerns of some Catholic conservatives today seem to rest on the idea that facing the people somehow makes the Mass a kind of “performance” by the priest, and that versus populum  is one small step from a Broadway production focused on people and not on God.

Let’s review.

1) Traditional Catholic theology emphasizes that God is everywhere.

2) The Church prefers, in accordance with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, that the Mass be celebrated versus populum whenever possible, but ad orientem is certainly permitted, especially if the architecture of the sanctuary makes that preferable.  Vatican II also teaches that “the full, conscious and active participation” of all the faithful at Mass is to be the number one priority when considering liturgical reform (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy).

deacon proclaiming Gospel

Christ present in many ways during Mass: the Proclamation of the Word, for example.

3) This same document, which as a Constitution of a general council of the Church is among the highest magisterial teaching documents of the Church, also addresses how Christ is present in the Mass:

To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical
celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the
same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”,
but especially under the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that
when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it
is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly,
when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in
my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) .

Back to these blog headlines and comments.  First, the language of the headline permits the inference by those who wish to make it, that the Pope — until now — has been oriented AWAY from God, but has now seen the error of his ways; I’m sure the writer would vehemently deny such a claim, but the language permits such an inference, whatever the original intent of the writer.  Second, the language suggests that God exists in a certain direction and not in another (specifically, versus populum).  The state of the Pope’s personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this blog, certainly!  However, the second suggestion flies directly in the face of actual Catholic teaching.  It is a shame that people might be misled — whether deliberately or not — to think that this represents Catholic teaching.

To recap: the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church permits, and always has, Masses celebrated both ad orientem and versus populum, although contemporary liturgical law favors versus populum.  The entire Catholic Church believes, as expressed by the world’s bishops and confirmed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, that Christ is present at Mass in the people assembled, in the proclamation of the Word of God, in the person of the ordained ministers, especially the priest, and in a special way under the forms of bread and wine.

We owe it to each other to try to be as accurate about these things as we can.  Our Catholic Tradition is simply too rich and pastoral practice too diverse to try to box it into categories that reduce the very Catholicity we seek!

UPDATE:  A reader e-mailed me with a question about the tabernacle, suggesting that this might be why the priest would face ad orientem: because that was the direction of the tabernacle containing the reserved Sacred Species consecrated during previous Masses.  However, this is not the reason for ad orientem.  Examining the ancient churches of Christianity, one finds that tabernacles were located in a rather wide array of places: sometimes on the altar itself, sometimes in separate locations altogether: the priest never adjusted his orientation because of the location of the tabernacle.  They didn’t then; they shouldn’t now.  That’s never been part of the liturgical theology of the Church.

versus populum

18 comments on “When Catholic Blogs aren’t, well, Catholic: UPDATE

  1. Joe McLellan says:

    If God is everywhere then shouldn’t the altar be on a revolving platform to cover all directions?

  2. Thanks for the conversation, An Ordinariate member and former Episcopalian/Methodist, I feel like I need to represent. Ad orientem liturgy is not just part of the extraordinary form (i.e. traditional Latin) of the mass. It is also standard liturgy in the Personal Ordinariates, for their congregations of formerly Anglican Catholics throughout the U.S. & Canada, the U.K. and Australia.

  3. Dear Chris, thanks for the comment. I want to clarify, however: “ad orientem” is not merely a part of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass (using the 1962 ediotion of the Roman Missal); it is also used with the Ordinary Form (even when that is celebrated in vernacular languages).

  4. […] Bill Ditewig offers some history and some insight into Catholic theology surrounding which direction the priest faces during […]

  5. Chick O'Leary says:

    I don’t think your assertion that “The Church prefers, in accordance with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, that the Mass be celebrated versus populum whenever possible, but ad orientem is certainly permitted, especially if the architecture of the sanctuary makes that preferable.” is supported by the documents and certainly not be the rubrics of the Roman Missal else why would specific instructions need to be made to the effect “Now facing the people, the priest…” Such instructions are in there at least a half-dozen times.
    The GIRM does say “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable
    wherever possible.” but is unclear as to whether the thing that is desirable is the facing of the people or the circumambulation of the altar.

  6. We will have to disagree with the translation and intent of the original Latin of GIRM 299. It is also clear from the entire tenor of the GIRM that the presumption is generally in support of a Mass celebrated “versus populum” although, of course, “ad orientem” is supported as well, as deemed pastorally appropriate. In reviewing the rubrics, I have examined closely the references to the priest “facing the people.” I find the rubric at the outset of the Mass, “When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the Priest and and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says. . . .” I see it again before the “Orate, Fratres”: “Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says. . . .” I find it a third time at #132 when “the Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud. . . .” I find it again at the dismissal (#141): “The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says. . . .” What I find interesting, of course, is that the rubrics and actions immediately prior to these citations almost always reflect a time when the priest has been turned away from the people. For example, the priest, deacons and ministers enter the sanctuary, resulting in them being turned away from the people as they enter the sanctuary. This would seem to justify a “turn toward the people” in order to facilitate the opening sign of the Cross. Before the “Orate, Fratres,” the priest has been involved with, on occasion, incensation and in every case with the lavabo: and these activities turn him away from the people, so he is instructed to return “versus populum” after those activities. The same kind of thing could be said prior to the Dismissal itself.

    The GIRM and rubrics support Mass in EITHER orientation and I would not presume to suggest otherwise. However, the praxis of the Church (especially in the Ordinary Form) is “versus populum” and that’s the way the GIRM and rubrics are written. There would have been no need for a paragraph such as GIRM 299 in the first place if this were not the case. While some commentators suggest that the Latin is referring to the separation of the altar from the back wall of the sanctuary, while others maintain (as do I) that the reference is to the preference for an orientation “versus populum” the simple fact remains that if “ad orientem” were being preferred, the GIRM could have remained silent on this matter altogether, since there would be no need for a “stand alone” altar at all.

    My point remains: whether celebrated “ad orientem” or “versus populum”, the teaching of the Church is that this is NOT result of an understanding that God is somehow present only in one direction. I’m not condemning EITHER orientation, and I acknowledge that both can have their place, to be determined by pastoral need. I’m merely responding to an interpretation of orientation which is excessively narrow and which inaccurately presents actual Church teaching.

  7. Will Riley says:

    I can’t help but notice your broad generalizations about Catholic theology and liturgical orientation are carried only by the force of your own assertion as to what it reputedly is. A few citations might be helpful. Your reliance on GIRM as to praxis is not outcome determinative, for assuming that even you are right liturgical law can be changed, as the 60s taught us, with the stroke of a pen. I am unsure what you mean by God being “present only in one direction.” On its face it is nonsensical. The orientation of the assembly is important for us, not God. Our current common orientation has fostered a spirit of liturgical narcissism, in particular in the clergy. I don’t need to look at you, and you don’t need to look at me.

    The question is were the liturgical changes that were brought about by Paul VI what was intended by Sacrosanctum. A growing number believe it was not and represents a rupture in the organic development of the liturgy. However, the discussion has moved along as witnessed by this blog post. Time for a critical reassessment.

  8. To understand what I was doing you have to read what was being said on the other sites involved, especially concerning God being present “only in one direction.” It is precisely because this is nonsensical that I wrote the piece in the first place. I’m presuming readers already have a familiarity with the GIRM and related liturgical law — all of which, as you say, can change. To reiterate, my post is not about which orientation is better than another. BOTH are recognized by the Church; both have positives and negatives associated with them. I was simply going to the RATIONALE being offered by a certain segment of the population, and pointing out what I believe to be the flaws of that position, which does NOT reflect the fullness of the Tradition.

  9. TIM. McAULIFFE says:

    In St Peter’s Basilica the congregation facing the altar is Not facing East.

  10. Will Riley says:

    St. Peter’s direction for the congregation is liturgical east. A related concept to physical east. The building may not be facing the true compass direction of east, but that is not the important thing.

  11. Will Riley says:

    The important issue is not truly the compass rose, but that the assembly is facing the risen Lord. Facing one another, in this period of history, reinforces the inward bent, the curvatus in se, of our time and makes the community the center of worship which is a very grave problem. To quote Father Baron, “It is not about us.” The Mass is not something we create, it is not about us, but it is about something we participate in. What we participate in is set forth well by the author of Hebrews. Our music, our architecture, and our current common inward orientation reinforce the wrong message. Lex credendi, lex orandi. Until we rid ourselves of the adolescent liturgical preoccupation with ourselves (which is an outgrowth of the 60s) we will remain in a grave situation with regard to The Lord.

  12. No one I know is suggesting otherwise.

  13. As a deacon I would find it strange if I was not facing the congregation. We all celebrate the Lord’s banquet together around his table. We are one in communion with Christ.

  14. Deacon John Gerke says:

    We spend so much time arguing about either/or when the real answer is both/and.
    Our God is so much bigger than we are. Lets try to find a way to accept and to love all God’s people whether they trend to the right or the left. There is goodness and holiness throughout.

  15. Will Riley says:

    Deacon Barry,

    Your Eucharistic theology is only about half complete. You have left out the participation in the eternal Sacrifice of Jesus Christ the High Priest. Your theology, in so far as you meant to give a full exposition, sounds a bit more Lutheran than Catholic. The liturgy is the Lord’s action.

  16. Eamon says:

    The assertion that Christians used to celebrate Mass versus populum is something both Benedict XVI and Msgr. Klaus Gamber, who was a leading liturgical historian, disagree with. As Msgr. Gamber documents in ‘The Reform of the Roman Liturgy’, no Christians, East or West, celebrated Mass versus populum ever. Even in the basilicas, the people were not positioned in a place where the Mass would have been versus populum.

  17. Whether you agree with the assertion or not is irrelevant to the major point of my reflection. I do not challenge “ad orientem” (or “versus populum”); I simply challenge the overly facile and inaccurate characterizations of certain other commentators concerning WHY “ad orientem” is to be preferred.

  18. […] Again, I’m no scholar, but I wondered if other background information was worth including in this discussion, especially something accessible to us lay folk (in the academic sense, and religious for that matter). The first post I found, via Patheos, had some good insights. Here’s Deacon Bill Ditewig: […]

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