On July 5, at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London, Cardinal Robert Sarah urged priests and bishops to celebrate Mass ad orientem or “toward the East” beginning on the First Sunday of Advent. Since these remarks, there has been confusion relative to the authority of the cardinal’s statement. Some have wondered if this statement by the cardinal, who is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW), is a formal decree, requiring that all priests prepare to celebrate the Mass ad orientem beginning on Nov. 27.
In point of fact, this statement by the cardinal does not have official ecclesial authority behind it. For this change to take place, there would need to be a formal decree from the CDW. Cardinal Sarah’s words were delivered less in the mode of formal pronouncement and more as a pastoral suggestion to attendees, who would like to see a greater restoration of ad orientem celebration.
In reality, ad orientem celebrations of the Mass are not precluded by liturgical law (and can already be found throughout the United States). The Second Vatican Council made possible and desired the celebration of the Mass versus populum (“toward the people”), but it did not require this celebration. In this sense, there does not need to be a formal decree in order for a priest or bishop to celebrate ad orientem.
Yet, in all matters liturgical, there is much more at stake in this argument than meets the eye. Why would someone want ad orientem celebrations of the Mass? Why would someone prefer versus populum celebrations? Is there a way beyond yet another liturgical war that fractures the Church for a generation?
Turning to the liturgical East
In order to understand the pastoral wisdom of ad orientem celebrations of the Mass, one must attend an Eastern Rite or Orthodox liturgy. The temptation of post-conciliar Catholics is to describe ad orientem celebrations as the priest turning his back on the people. When I attend the Melkite Byzantine liturgy on Notre Dame’s campus, the priest is not turning his back on the assembly. Rather, there is a mutual turning by the assembly and priest alike to offer the Eucharistic sacrifice. The priest is praying with us, the assembly, acting both as Christ and as a pilgrim awaiting the imminent return of our Lord. Ad orientem worship emphasizes that the Eucharist is always directed to the future coming of Christ into the world. We turn toward the liturgical East because we await the advent of our Lord when all creation will become a place of Eucharistic love. Every major prayer directed toward God is offered by priest and assembly alike toward this East, the place of the rising sun, because we are commonly crying out toward the God who will come again to judge the living and the dead. Many are attracted to ad orientem celebrations for this reason and find them to be less clerical, not more.
For this reason, it is problematic to argue that all ad orientem celebrations are a restoration of preconciliar Catholicism. Many have seen Cardinal Sarah’s statement as a rejection both of the Second Vatican Council’s desire for participation and a deeper understanding of the presence of Christ in the Scriptures and in the assembly gathered in prayer. There is no evidence that ad orientem worship requires such a rejection, and in fact, it could lead to a deeper participation in the Eucharistic vocation of the laity, who are not spectators at the prayer of someone else but common members of the Church herself, joyfully offering the Eucharistic Prayer as well as other collect prayers ad orientem.
On the other hand, some of those who argue for ad orientem worship advocate for the return of this practice because they see versus populum celebration (as well as the Mass coming out of the Second Vatican Council) as intrinsically disordered. They believe there is something wrong with the Order of the Mass, requiring either radical reform or starting anew. This is a problematic attitude, one that ignores the possibility that both versus populum and ad orientem can and should exist within the same Church.
Turning to the altar
Some, including Cardinal Sarah himself, have characterized versus populum celebrations of Mass as centered on humanity and not on God. The argument proceeds that because the priest is facing the people, the Church has formed a closed circle in which we no longer await with hope the coming of Christ into our midst. We see ourselves as the fullness of this presence. Of course, this is a temptation in any parish’s worship. In fact, it is just as likely that an extraordinary-form parish, one that celebrates ad orientem every Sunday, could suffer from the same temptation adoring not God but the beauty of the liturgy and the uniqueness of this Latin-Mass community set apart from the rest of world and Church alike. Idolatry is a common sin of the human condition no matter our liturgical orientation.
Versus populum celebration need not be understood as a closed circle of the redeemed, who do not face the Lord. Rather, both priest and people turn themselves toward the altar, where Christ is made present among us. This altar is at the center of our gathering, just as in the Book of Revelation, everyone gathers around the Lamb once slain. The Church herself is to announce this Good News to every corner of the world until the entire human family gathers in adoration and communion at the Supper of the Lamb. The community isn’t at the center of this Eucharistic worship. The altar of divine sacrifice is — where Love itself dwells among us, sending us forth to become this face of love for the world.
Avoiding liturgical war
It would be a shame if arguments about liturgical orientation at Mass led to a further increase in the liturgical wars that seem to rip apart the Church in each generation. There should be opportunities for both ad orientem and versus populum Eucharistic celebrations, even within the same parish. This is not a matter of turning back the renewal brought about by the council. Rather, it is recognizing the fullness of our Eucharistic tradition.
There are good reasons for both versus populum and ad orientem celebrations. Both can become idols if we understand orientation as the priest facing or turning his back on the people. This frames the issue in terms of us. Rather, both orientations can express the Church’s Eucharistic life using sacramental signs. The priest doesn’t face the people as much as we commonly face the presence of the Lord made present on the altar. The priest doesn’t face away from the people as much as we commonly face the liturgical East.
As St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, the Eucharist is to build up the fellowship of the Church, providing a foretaste of heaven itself. If we are not committed to this mutual charity, then our liturgical orientation will simply be another idol that we adore rather than an efficacious sign that brings us more deeply into the triune life of God.
Timothy P. O’Malley is the director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy.