Let’s face facts with the facts! Beginning at sunset today, the Church’s minister is encouraged and “invited & encouraged” to celebrate the Mass Ad Orientem. This is nothing new under the sun! In August 2016, the media blasted on megaphone, Robert Cardinal Sarah, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, for his comments made in a Conference in London in July 2016. I will attempt to explain in the most basic terms the matter at hand (and by no means do I mean to exhaust all the possible avenues) and then make a brief conclusion at the end.
Ad Orientem. It is incorrect to speak of Ad Orientem as the priest giving his back to the people. The correct understanding is that the priest is facing the same direction as the people. Consider that the captain of the ship always faces the same direction as those navigating and steering the ship. Therefore, the priest is facing the Eternal City, liturgically or literally, for it is there where Christ will return. Every priest in the Roman Tradition has the capability of celebrating in this manner, but what is important is well prepared instruction & catechesis to the people. Furthermore, praying Ad Orientem should not be considered a more holier approach to offering God the perfect worship of the Mass. While some of our grandparents and those of the generation prior to the Second Vatican Council have their personal baggages to a return to Ad Orientem, on deck is a new generation that looks to celebrate the sacred liturgy in this fashion sometimes with the best intentions and sometimes with intentions that need further discernment.
Versus Populum. For those of us born and raised after the Second Vatican Council, we are accustomed to the priest facing the people. As the minister standing in the person of Christ, he stands to offer prayers in the midst of the faithful. He stands with the faithful to face Christ who is at the center of the Eucharistic mystery. The Spirit of the Second Vatican Council, an expression often misunderstood, has been the launching point for commonly celebrating the liturgy in this fashion. At times, the liturgy is celebrated with reverence and other times, the liturgy has been abused and it may be the reason why many wish to return to a continuity in Ad Orientum.
My personal thoughts: I personally do not have a preference on which direction to face the people. In a certain sense, the direction the priest chooses to face is secondary. What is most important is the care for souls. If the priest wishes to face liturgical east, instruction and dialogue is extremely important. To lack may cause a huge revolt from the pews, a misunderstanding, and a rupture in unity. To see Christ at the center of the Eucharistic mystery invites the priest to offer prayers to God and to avoid giving in to the liturgy as performance or prayers talking to people. A prayerful spirit to pray to God who is bigger than our understanding, to pray to God who desires to encounter us in the sacraments and Word proclaimed —- is the purpose of liturgy. So we must preach the truth of the way we worship, but we must preach it in charity. For without charity — what we preach is only half the truth.
But don’t let my word be the final word. They are simply my reflections as the Church faces a new chapter this Advent. Some other credible sources on the matter … only some:
Professional Musician Richard J. Clark’s article entitled: “Ad Orientem” and Granovetter’s Threshold Models of Collective Behavior.
Abbot Jeremy Driscoll with his interview with Catholic News Services.
Christopher Ruddy on First Things with an article entitled: Who’s Afraid of Ad Orientem?