Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments Cardinal Robert Sarah recently called priests to a more liberal outlook on liturgical practice, in which the wisdom of tradition informs and enriches the celebration of the Mass. Unfortunately, his fraternal appeal to priests and bishops for a common orientation of priest and people toward the liturgical east (ad orientem) was met with surprisingly legalistic public rejoiners.
For example, Antonio Spadaro, editor of the prominent Italian Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, responded by tweeting number 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal: “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.” He went on to imply that the paragraph obliged priests to celebrate the liturgy versus popolum. No matter that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had long ago clarified that GIRM 299 contains a suggestion, and not a requirement, that the priest celebrate toward the people.
Cardinal Sarah expresses a liturgical vision broader than the absolutization of the decades-young post-conciliar versus populum posture, which the Council Fathers never mandated. Criticisms of the Cardinal have tended to proof-text legislation that has been distorted to impose a restrictive burden upon priests and faithful. Christopher Ruddy, associate professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America, has already written for First Things a penetrating analysis of the possible causes of resistance to Cardinal Sarah’s appeal.
As the press forgets this bout of ecclesial in-fighting, priests should not let polemical pushback obscure Sarah’s balanced and liberalizing vision of liturgical life. Cardinal Sarah’s ad orientem advocacy liberates the priest from the constant pressure to perform as the main attraction. True, he must responsibly exercise his free will and even creativity while presiding over the liturgy. He is not a robot programmed to spout a few magical incantations of sacramental voodoo. That said, ad orientem celebration frees the priest momentarily from the congregation’s stare, allowing him to focus more intently upon the sacred action he is to perform for and with the people. While a God-centered celebration is certainly possible versus populum, I know few priests who have not suffered unnecessary distractions from their sacred duties as the crowd yawns, smiles, cries, laughs, texts, or takes photographs.
Those called to devote substantial time and energy to preaching risk evaluating their ministry based on the applause of the laity for their rhetorical skills. Priests should preach often and well. Negligently planned or delivered homilies are not signs of holiness. However, Cardinal Sarah invites even the most golden tongue to silence itself before the mystery of the Maker. This just self-abasement before the One who gathers and unites finds eloquent expression in the priest who removes his idiosyncrasies from the people’s view as he lends his person so that Christ may act through him.
Cardinal Sarah’s words are not nostalgic longings for a pre-modern past, of interest only to the confident Catholic elite. Nor would his vision alienate those outside the fold. Celebrations ad orientem have a powerful evangelizing force, which should attract rather than repel fallen-away Catholics or those who never belonged to the Church.
Many fallen-away Catholics leave the Church because a priest ordained to represent Christ betrayed their trust through brusque words or more insidious actions. Common orientation reminds the hurt faithful that their Catholic identity is rooted in a relationship with God more profound and enduring than fragile ties to the Church’s imperfect ministers. Even when His priests are lamentably opaque channels of saving grace, Christ works through their mediation.
Non-Catholics also stand to gain from the return to Eastward celebration. Hypocritical moral failing is one of the chief obstacles preventing men from accepting the Gospel. Ad orientem celebration does not excuse the scandals of Church history or erase contemporary faults, but it does invite the outsider to look beyond false shepherds to the only wholly Good Shepherd. In an information age with a speech surfeit, men weary of words. The liturgy is a divine-human work that speaks more eloquently than pedantic discourse. The intrigued non-Catholic onlooker will more likely intuit something of the Mass’s transcendence if priest’s body language speaks of the Other.
As Cardinal Sarah notes, the return ad orientem requires prudent pastoral guidance and catechesis. The abrupt implementation of certain post-conciliar reforms inflicted painful confusion upon too many in the Age of Aquarius. Yet, the Cardinal also warns against a paralyzing timidity that would deprive the faithful of ad orientem celebration out of fear that they could never understand the profound theological motives for the reform. We mustn't succumb to clerical snobbery about the supposed obtuseness of the flock. Those with ears to hear can do much good for their flocks if they shepherd them toward the Lord who is to come from the East.
Michael Baggot, LC is a Legion of Christ brother and a summer intern at First Things.