Shortly after Cardinal Sarah made a mess and, Francis-like, sparked some uncomfortable dialogue in the Church, I spoke with a priest of my acquaintance whose thoughts on liturgical orientation I couldn’t have predicted. A smart, practical padre in his mid-fifties, he's known to have zero interest in liturgical niceties and scant patience for liturgical crusaders of whatever stripe. So I was surprised when he said he had recently attended a Mass celebrated ad orientem. He wanted to see what all the fuss was about, and he sat in the pews because he wanted to see it from the people's perspective. It was a new experience for him, and he confessed that he liked it.
What impressed him was that, contrary to stereotype, this ancient style of worship engendered a spirit of cooperation and communication between priest and people. When the celebrant turned around to speak to the congregation—to say things like “Pray, brothers and sisters”—the words took on special force; one's awareness of being directly addressed and invited to participate was heightened. Precisely because the priest had turned with the people to address the Lord, his turning back toward them and speaking to them was imbued with greater significance. In other words, vive la différence. Just as speech gains power from being framed by silence and loses much of its meaning when it is incessant, so one posture is enriched and informed by another. Even lovers would tire of facing each other if they did so every second of the day; and, liturgically, when there is no such thing as not facing the people, well, even that tends to lose some of its efficacy.
Which highlights an obvious but underappreciated point. The term ad orientem, for all its theological resonance, is something of a misnomer when applied without qualification to the Ordinary Form of the Mass. It would be helpful, perhaps, to supplement it by speaking of a “mixed,” “dual,” or “inclusive” approach. Indeed, the dichotomous way in which we habitually frame our discourse about the two styles of celebration—as if ad orientem and versus populum were matter and anti-matter, so antithetical that disaster would result from their combination—fosters misunderstanding and polarization. In this climate it's not surprising that many pious Catholics, including some priests, imagine that at a typical ad orientem Mass the celebrant's countenance is rarely seen. In reality, of course, the celebrant or acting minister faces the people much, if not most, of the time—specifically (1) at the greeting, (2) during the readings, (3) during the homily, (4) to introduce the intercessions, (5) at “Pray, brothers and sisters,” (6) at the exchange of peace, (7) at “Behold, the Lamb of God,” (8) at Communion, (9) to introduce the prayer after Communion, and (10) at the final blessing and dismissal.
Clearly, this is a “both-and” approach, reflecting an appreciation for each of the two different postures in their complementarity. And surely (to forestall invidious comparisons) we can see that a similar dynamic is operative, albeit less visibly, in a Mass celebrated versus populum. Here, as Cardinal Ratzinger observed, there is an interior turning toward the Lord at various times, preeminently during the Eucharistic Prayer—a turning that is typically manifested in the priest's tone of voice and downcast eyes, trained intently on the Missal, the altar crucifix, the eucharistic elements, or the most holy Body and Blood of the Lord. Admittedly, this interior turning does not always or infallibly occur; it demands recollection on the part of the celebrant. But when it does occur it is noticeable, even palpable. It is the difference between prayer—of which “inwardly turning to the Lord” could serve as a basic definition—and something that is not prayer, such as declamation, instruction, or performance.
Absolutists on either side of the debate will continue to issue anathemas. Against them the universal Church has wisely insisted on the liceity of both forms of celebration, refusing to allow local churches to suppress one in favor of the other. Both are good, after all, and each has its own characteristic beauty or virtue. The “mixed” style, as we have called it, imparts a powerful sense of transcendence without failing to inspire solidarity and active participation; likewise, the versus populum style fosters a distinctive sense of intimacy without compromising awe and holy fear. Of the two, the latter seems to be the more delicate flower, more easily blighted by clerical narcissism, against which it possesses little natural immunity. It is often beautifully cultivated in monasteries and religious communities, where reminders of divine transcendence abound and the celebrant's temptation to grandstand is (fraternally) held in check. In parishes, alas, its ubiquity far surpasses its blossom.
This fact, painful to admit, helps to explain the urgency of Cardinal Sarah's remarks, as well as the apparent insecurity of those who raised such a hue and cry against him. If the superiority of versus populum celebration were so absolute, its success so manifest, its harvest so rich, then why this need to stop the growth of so small a competitor? Does the rose begrudge the violet a bit of sun? Whatever one thinks of the prudence of the Cardinal's remarks, still, why the need, not just to emphasize that he was speaking unofficially—a fair and necessary caveat—but to make strained arguments for the supposed legal privilege of the status quo? Did Goliath complain that David had no right to take the field? Or did he laugh at his impudence?
In this case, however, there's no reason David and Goliath can't be friends, and even share the same altar. Indeed, one great benefit of the freestanding altar recommended in the Missal's General Instruction is that Mass can so easily be celebrated on either side of it. Move a few candlesticks, perhaps, and voilà. Then, too, if life goes on even as a growing number of parishes offer Mass in both the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms, then a fortiori we have little to fear from the prudent introduction and regular provision of Masses ad orientem. The reaction, where it's been tried, has been mostly and even spectacularly easygoing. Perhaps we'll see more of those who attend the Extraordinary Form begin to attend the Ordinary Form as well. Or vice-versa. It's a brave new world of rather medieval diversity-in-unity, and any attempt to impose Tridentine-grade uniformity will only lead to further frustration and division. Meanwhile—to cast an eye beyond these intramural disputes—perpetuating an intolerant or dismissive attitude toward “looking east” certainly won't strengthen our fraternal bond with the Orthodox churches.
Those who harbor such an attitude must reckon with an inconvenient truth. Despite half a century of deprecation and de facto prohibition, the desire for ad orientem worship continues to grow, especially among younger priests and lay faithful. Why? Partly, no doubt, the practice's fall into relative desuetude has given us the privilege of discovering it anew. The more basic and adequate explanation, however, is obvious: it continues to strike a profound chord in the human heart. In a culture of talking heads and information overload, of emotional manipulation and manufactured fellowship, of mutual admiration societies and collective navel-gazing, it's hardly surprising that many people want to opt out of the cult of personality; that they want to pray with instead of being prayed at; that they want to gaze, together and as one, beyond themselves. In all of these ways ad orientem worship just feels right; it's a powerful and natural “word” in our bodily vocabulary of worship—as ideological as bowing or kneeling. Its growth will be surer for being gradual and amiable. It's a native, not an invasive, species. And its roots go deep.
Fr. Charles Shonk, O.P. is a parochial vicar at St. Patrick Church in Columbus, Ohio.