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Cardinal Robert Sarah’s call on July 5th for a wider celebration of the Ordinary Form Mass ad orientem was predictably dead on arrival, given the lack of support from higher authority and most of the episcopate, as well as the widespread sense among clergy and laity that such orientation represents the priest's turning his “back to the people” in a pre–Vatican II, clericalist manner.

The swiftness and vehemence, however, with which the Cardinal’s suggestion was rejected remains striking. The intensity of that rejection reveals much about liturgy, the reception of Vatican II, and the Church’s identity and purpose.

On Saturday, July 9th, Pope Francis received Cardinal Sarah in audience. On the following day, July 10th, Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor of Civiltà Cattolica and papal confidant-interviewer, tweeted that the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (GIRM) dictates that the priest must face the congregation at various points during Mass. (Several commentators responded that such instructions presuppose that the priest is otherwise facing in the same direction—ad orientem—as the people.)

That same day, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, in whose diocese Cardinal Sarah had delivered his July 5th address, released a letter to his priests. After noting the importance of dignified liturgical celebration, he claimed that No. 299 of GIRM, which calls for a free-standing altar, holds that versus populum worship “is desirable wherever possible.” (Others have argued that the “desirable wherever possible” phrase pertains not to celebration versus populum, but to the existence of a free-standing altar.) He also warned his priests against a clericalism that would impose the celebrant’s “personal preference or taste” upon the liturgy.

And on the following day, July 11th, the Vatican Press Office Director, Federico Lombardi, S.J., issued a clarification regarding Cardinal Sarah’s original comments and recent papal audience. Father Lombardi reiterated the claim that GIRM No. 299 supports versus populum worship. Stating also that the expression “reform of the reform” should be avoided, he said that “new liturgical directives are not expected.” Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah, he concluded, were “unanimous” in their agreement on these points. At that point, the Cardinal's appeal had been totally rejected. The rebuttal was swift, decisive, and total.

These interventions—like other, more vehement responses in some quarters of the blogosphere—leave one with the impression that, as the Catechism says of the death penalty, ad orientem celebration should be “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Why the lack of a catholic appreciation for legitimate liturgical diversity? No one can truthfully claim that the Ordinary Form prohibits ad orientem celebration. So, who’s afraid of ad orientem worship, and why?

The real issue, I believe, is not restorationism (which, ironically, was one of the mistaken reasons for the introduction of versus populum in the mid-twentieth century) or clericalism (this layman finds his Christian dignity and equality affirmed by ad orientem worship, which makes visible the solidarity of clergy and congregation, as well as the self-effacement of ordained ministers before the Lord). The real issue is much deeper: the Church’s identity in time and eternity. That identity touches on history, Vatican II and its reception, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

As the liturgical scholar John Baldovin, S.J. states in Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to its Critics, “historical honesty requires us to admit that the idea that the early liturgy was habitually celebrated versus populum was mistaken” (p. 112). There is a danger in relying too much on the work of specialists, be they theologians, historians, or exegetes. Sound scholarship is a gift to the Church’s life and mission. But the historical scholarship that seemed to justify versus populum worship has been largely debunked. (A similar pattern is at work in the creation of Eucharistic Prayer II and its purported connection to Hippolytus of Rome.)

These historical questions lead to conciliar ones: What is the relationship between Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum concilium, and its post-conciliar implementation? Sacrosanctum concilium, after all, says nothing about liturgical orientation. Is it possible to acknowledge specifically, beyond a bland admission that “mistakes were made,” that the post-conciliar liturgical renewal—like most efforts at reform—has had its successes and failures? How does one reconcile the extremely broad consensus behind Sacrosanctum concilium and the divisiveness that has marked its implementation? Ad orientem worship thus raises the perennially contentious matter of conciliar hermeneutics.

Given these historical and conciliar questions, ecclesiology comes to the fore: How could such consistency of liturgical orientation over nearly two millennia be changed so quickly by curial-papal decision? Sacrosanctum concilium was approved on December 4, 1963; the Consilium responsible for implementing the conciliar liturgical renewal was established on January 25, 1964; and the Congregation of Rites’ Instruction Inter oecumenici, the first magisterial document to speak of versus populum celebration, was published with papal approval on September 26, 1964, to go into effect on the First Sunday of Lent, March 7, 1965. That’s light-speed for a Rome proverbially accustomed to thinking and acting in terms of centuries.

In his Vatican II diaries, the French Dominican Yves Congar criticized the preparatory conciliar drafts for their papal-centrism and magisterial positivism: Their source, he notes, is always “the Church” [i.e. the hierarchy] and especially “the popes,” rather than scripture and tradition. The controversy surrounding Cardinal Sarah’s address indicates a similar contemporary need for a more profound ressourcement. To what extent are we stewards and/or owners of tradition, and to what extent do Catholic magisterial practices help and/or hinder the Church’s life and tradition? Fidelity to the apostolic tradition does not mean stasis, but it does require a profound continuity—particularly with regard to the Church’s most precious gifts, its liturgy and sacraments. One might ask whether the Orthodox Churches would ever reform their liturgies with such rapidity and radicality.

Finally, ad orientem worship raises the issue of the Church’s relationship to its past, present, and future, to its identity across time. Despite Vatican II’s conviction that believers’ commitments as citizens of both the heavenly and earthly cities ought to be mutually reinforcing (e.g., Gaudium et spes, No. 43), we have witnessed a diminishment of the Church’s eschatological awareness. A minor, but telling, example is the title of Chapter VII of Lumen gentium. The Flannery translation, the most commonly used, renders that title as “The Pilgrim Church.” The Vatican website’s translation renders it, more faithfully, as “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven.” The rejection or marginalization of ad orientem worship feeds this “presentism” and the concomitant eschatological deficit. I am convinced that a significant reason for opposition to ad orientem worship is the sense that it pulls believers away from each other and the “real world,” that it is “churchy” and self-referential. There are, however, few more visible means than ad orientem worship for connecting the Church to its past and future, bodily orienting it in solidarity to its Lord, and thereby contributing to a renewal of the Church’s mission in the world.

If, as Father Baldovin notes (following the Congregation for Divine Worship), the sine qua non in these matters is worshippers’ orientation to the Lord—whether ad orientem or versus populum—why have we seen such restrictiveness? Cardinal Sarah’s address has opened a necessary conversation. Let’s hope for an ever more catholic reply.

Christopher Ruddy is associate professor of historical and systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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