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About Face?

by Gary D. Penkala

I. Ad orientem in the Roman Missal

Pope Francis celebrates ad orientem Trent Beattie, in the National Catholic Register, writes, "None of the sixteen conciliar documents contains an endorsement, let alone a mention, of the practice of the priest facing the congregation (versus populum) during the prayers of the Mass." While I had known for a long time that much of the liturgical practice of the 1970s derived from an "imposed" notion of what the liturgical documents said, I hadn't realized how these notions still contradict even what's found in the 2002 English translation of the GIRM.

The GIRM states that the Introductory Rites are led by the celebrant from the Presider's Chair:

When he has arrived at the altar, after making a profound bow with the ministers, the Priest venerates the altar with a kiss and, if appropriate, incenses the cross and the altar. Then, with the ministers, he goes to the chair.

During the Liturgy of the Word, the celebrant and ministers, like the people, are seated, except for the Gospel Acclamation and Gospel.

An Offertory Procession may take place, the faithful bringing forward bread and wine for the celebration of the Eucharist. No mention is made in the Roman Missal as to who receives these gifts or where. The celebrant may receive these at the chair or, as has become typical, in front of the altar, handing them to the ministers who prepare the altar. After the altar has been prepared, the Priest prays the Offertory Prayers, "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation…" either aloud, or silently (if there is music).

Incensing may occur, after which the Priest washes his hands, standing at the side of the altar. The Roman Missal then says,

Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says, "Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice…" [#29] emphasis added.

This is the first obvious example that versus populum (facing the people) is not at all assumed by the Roman Missal. If the Priest were already standing at the altar facing the people, the rubric would not need to say, "Face the people."

The Prayer over the Offerings, Preface and Eucharistic Prayer are then said facing the altar (ad orientem), since these require text from the Roman Missal, which has been placed on the altar.

Yet again, the Roman Missal assumes the Priest to be facing East — during the Rite of Peace, after the prayer "Lord Jesus Christ, who said to your Apostles: Peace I leave you…", the rubric notes:

The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: The peace of the Lord be with you always [#127].

If the Priest were assumed to be behind the altar facing the people, again there would be no need to say "turned toward the people."

Further, after the Agnus Dei, the Roman Missal says:

The Priest genuflects,takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: "Behold the Lamb of God…" [#132].

After praying with the people, "Lord, I am not worthy…",

The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly, "May the Body of Christ keep me safe…" [#133].

After distributing Communion, the Priest may return to the chair. The Prayer after Communion may be said either from the chair or from the front side of the altar.

Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the Priest says: "Let us pray…" [#139].

Brief announcments may be made.

Then the dismissal takes place. The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: "The Lord be with you…" [#141].

Then the Deacon, or the Priest himself, with hands joined and facing the people, says: "Go forth, the Mass is ended…" or another dimissal formula [#144].

It should be clear, from the number of times that the Roman Missal instructs the Priest to "face the people" that this is not assumed to be his default posture during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Ad orientem (i.e. facing liturgical East) seems to be the assumed posture.

But wait a minute, you might say. Doesn't GIRM #299 clearly state a preference for Mass "facing the people"?

It is desirable that in every church there be a fixed altar. The altar should be built separate 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 whenever possible [GIRM #298-299].

Fr. John Zuhlsdorf contends that this is actually a mistranslation of the Latin. More accurate is:

The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.

Hence, "wherever possible" refers to the altar being away from the back wall, not that the celebrant should always face the people.

II. Thoughts on Posture

Here are some theological and liturgical musings on the ad orientem arrangement.

Robert Cardinal Sarah:

Fifty years after its promulgation by Pope Paul VI, will the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy finally be read?

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution — indeed, it is entirely fitting — for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East.

Of course it is understood that there are parts of the Mass in which the priest, acting in persona Christi Capitis, enters into nuptial dialogue with the assembly. But this face-to-face has no other purpose than to lead to a tete-à-tete with God, which, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, will become a heart-to-heart. The Council thus proposes additional means to favor participation: "acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and songs, as well as… actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes"
[L'Osservatore Romano: Robert Cardinal Sarah, 12 June 2015].

Trent Beattie:

Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, emphasized that the priest must become the "instrument that allows Christ to shine through." In the pursuit of this goal, he references Pope Francis remarking that the celebrant is not the host of a show, nor should he be seeking affirmation from the congregation, as if the primary concern of worship were a dialogue between the priest and assembly.

On the contrary, Cardinal Sarah believes that in order to enter into the true conciliar spirit, self-effacement is necessary for the priest who leads public worship. This self-effacement is implicit in the rubrics of the Roman Missal, which presume the priest will not be facing the congregation through the entirety of the Mass.

Bishop Edward Slattery, of Tulsa OK, believes authentic participation is not facilitated by the priest facing the people at these times, because then the priest becomes the central focus: "The metaphor I use to describe this is of a door. The only time you notice a door is when it's locked. Otherwise, you don't even think of the door, because the purpose of an unlocked door is to lead you from one place to another."

"The priest is supposed to lead the people in Christ to the Father," the bishop added, "yet when the priest faces the people, he becomes a locked — rather than an open — door. Instead of thinking about Christ going to the Father, the faithful are thinking about the personality of the priest."
[Trent Beattie, National Catholic Register]

Sancta Missa website:

Q. Why does the priest not face the people for most of the Traditional Latin Mass?

A. The priest offers Mass facing the same direction as the people, because he and the people together are offering worship and sacrifice to God. He is not turning his back on the people to exclude them. Rather, as a Christian community, are all facing ad orientem (i.e. toward the east) waiting in joyful expectation for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who will return to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire (Rite of Baptism, 1962).

What in the early Church determined the position of the altar was that it faced Eastward. To quote Saint Augustine: "When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth…, but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God."

This quotation shows that the Christians of those early days, after listening to the homily, would rise for the prayer which followed, and turn towards the East. Saint Augustine always refers to this turning to the East in prayer at the end of his homilies, using a set formula, Conversi ad Dominum ("turn to face the Lord").

Q. Why does the priest not face the people in the celebration of the Extraordinary Form?

A. Because he is offering the Mass in Christ's name and in His Person, in persona Christi, to God the Father and is leading his people in adoration and worship. He is facing east, the rising sun, which is symbolic of the 'New Jerusalem' and he is leading his flock as the Good Shepherd does. When he needs to address the congregation he turns to face the people and says, for example, Dominus vobiscum ("The Lord be with you") or Orate fratres ("Pray, brethren").
[Sancta Missa]

Musica Sacra website:

The point of facing east is to emphasize the essential character of the liturgy: that of a procession out of time and into eternity in Heaven. We see and taste this procession in the course of the liturgy. The celebrant, standing in the person of Christ, leads the way, but we are all moving together, as a community and as the people of God, as part of the same procession that begins at the Introit, continues though the Offertory, and culminates with our reception of Holy Communion. The practice offers a psychological and spiritual benefit. It permits you the worshipper to contemplate the purely sacramental character of the Mass and focus less on the personality of the celebrant. From the celebrant's point of view, it permits a more intense focus on the mystery of the sacrifice taking place rather than on the personalities of the worshippers.


  1. Vatican Council II said nothing about the direction of the celebrant during Mass. It presupposed Mass ad orientem. Mass facing east was the norm from ancient times and even during and after Vatican Council II. There has never been authoritative liturgical legislation requiring any change. The Roman Missal (official liturgical book from which Mass is celebrated) not only permits it, the rubrics actually presuppose it, (e.g., the priest is told to "turn toward the people" at the Orate Fratres ("Pray, brethren…")
  2. It has been the practice in the entire Church, East and West from time immemorial. Contrary to a prevailing misconception there is no evidence for celebration of Mass versus populum in the first nineteen centuries of the Church's history, with rare exceptions (Cf. The Spirit of the Liturgy, by Cardinal Ratzinger, pp. 74-84.). The practice of reducing an altar to a table for a service facing the people began only in the 16th century — with Martin Luther.
  3. Moving the altar closer to the nave, separating it from the reredos, and proclaiming the readings from the ambo are a welcome return to more ancient tradition and in harmony with the intent of Sacrosanctum Concilium. However, the almost universal celebration of the Mass versus populum, while permitted deprives the Mass of its traditional cosmic and eschatological symbolism.
  4. Churches have traditionally been constructed facing the rising sun. Facing east weare turned in expectation toward the Lord who is to come (eschatology) and we show that we are part of an act that goes beyond the church and community where we are celebrating, to the whole world (cosmos). In churches not facing geographical east, the Cross and Tabernacle become "liturgical east."

The drama of salvation history ispowerfully symbolized in the renewed liturgy when it is celebrated ad orientem. The priest faces the people as he calls them to prayer. Then he turns to lead them in the common plea for mercy (Kyrie eleison). He prays on behalf of the people as he continues to face the Lord. He turns toward the people to proclaim the Word and instruct them. After receiving their gifts, he turns again to the Lord to offer the gifts to God. He then turns to the people to distribute the Risen Christ at the eucharistic banquet. While there is some positive symbolism in Mass versus populum, there is also a very negative symbolism. "The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself" (Ratzinger, p. 80).
[Musica Sacra website Ad orientem]

While I make no claim that every Mass must be celebrated facing East, it is interesting to note what this could mean in the parish situation. One can understand the title of this article, About Face in the military sense (meaning "Turn around"). This turning around, though, could also be an effective antidote to the unfortunate reality that in some situations, the custom of standing facing the people is "about Face" – face time for the celebrity priest.

Article written 03 May 2016

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