Cardinal Robert Sarah’s address to the Sacra Liturgia conference a couple weeks ago created quite a stir. He pleaded with priests worldwide to return to offering the appropriate parts of the Mass ad orientem beginning in Advent, as in current practice the vast majority of Masses have the priest facing the people (versus populum).
“Orient” of course means east, and so ad orientem is the posture in which the priest celebrant and the people face east together (sometimes “liturgical east,” if a church is built facing some other direction), looking over the altar at the crucifix at various junctures, including most of the liturgy of the Eucharist until the communion. The practice is Scriptural (Jesus promising his return like lightning seen in the east, Matt. 24:27), apostolic, ancient, and traditional, but largely abandoned in the post-conciliar whirlwind. The rationale is best given by Joseph Ratzinger:
Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.
In short, people and priest pray to God together as they anticipate the second coming of Christ.
All that notwithstanding, England's Cardinal Vincent Nichols sent a letter to his priests effectively forbidding the ad orientem posture, and the Vatican press office issued a statement stating that no new regulations were forthcoming.
Liturgy is neuralgic, and so the matter has generated a lot of good commentary. For those who would like to get up to speed on the contretemps, I here offer a roundup of links on the affair:
Cardinal Sarah's Speech—A Stealth Success? (Phil Lawler at CatholicCulture.org)
‘Ad Orientem': Right Worship Leads to Right Conduct (Msgr. C. Eugene Morris at the National Catholic Register)
We Can Have It Both Ways (Fr. Mark Drew at the Catholic Herald)
How to Celebrate Mass “Ad Orientem” (Fr. Ryan Erlenbush at The New Theological Movement)
On Facing East During Mass (Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. at Crisis Magazine)
On Orientophobia: Coming Out of the Liturgical Closet (Dr. Adam DeVille at Catholic World Report)
An Interview with Dom Alcuin Reid (at Catholic World Report)
Jesus Will Return from the East. But at the Vatican They Have Lost the Compass (Sandro Magister at Chiesa/L'Espresso)
I’d also like to remind readers that the issue of ad orientem posture isn’t merely a minor matter of moment for fastidious liturgical nerds, as if the Mass were a mere matter of aesthetics cordoned off safely on Sundays. Rather, liturgy breaks the bounds of the sanctuary and affects all that we do and indeed the wider culture as it brings God's people to God. The cultivation of culture—first, among Catholics themselves, and then outwards from there—depends on a proper cultus, a liturgy in which God is sought and found. As Pope Benedict XVI made clear in his 2008 address at the Collège des Bernardins, Benedictine monasticism (for example) generated many of the glories of later western Christian civilization as a secondary result because its primary aim was quaerere Deum, seeking God. Restoring ad orientem posture to the ordinary form of the Mass would go a long way to putting God back at the center, and help shape Catholic culture and Catholic witness and service thereby.
Leroy Huizenga is Administrative Chair of Human and Divine Sciences at the University of Mary in Bismarck, N.D.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?