Early this past summer, Cardinal Sarah gave a talk at a conference in London in which he suggested that priests take another look at the ad orientem posture during Mass.
Many, many blog posts and articles have been written and passed around since, and I’m sure there are more to come if, indeed, some priests and bishops have been inspired by Cardinal Sarah’s gentle suggestion that if one is going to revisit the practice, the First Sunday of Advent would be a good time to do so.
I have written quite a bit on this matter before, and in a minute, I’ll link to some of those older blog posts, but for the moment, I just want to share some of what I’ve been thinking about on this score in the wake of the Cardinal’s talk and the fallout from it. I offer these points in the hopes that they’ll be a help to the people in the pews who might be seeing this posture for the first time and are confused by it, as well as for priests who might be considering it.
- This shouldn’t be a big deal. Both postures are permitted – and ad orientem is even assumed by the rubrics in the sacramentary.
- If you see a priest celebrating Mass this way, don’t be shocked or offended. It doesn’t mean he hates you or thinks he’s better than you are. He’s praying. For you.
- Celebrating Mass in this posture – facing the same way as the people in the congregation – was the norm for most of Catholic history. It is still the way the liturgy is celebrated in most Eastern Catholic Churches (not Maronite Rite, in my experience), Eastern Orthodox Churches and even in some High Anglican parishes and some Lutheran churches. Here, for example, are photos of Lutheran services:
- Source of photo on left. Photo on right.
- To flesh out this last point – here’s a blog post from a Lutheran blog on liturgy expanding on the logic of ad orientem.
- So why did versus populum become the norm in Latin Catholicism? Many reasons, but when you read the literature of the liturgical movement on this score, the idea was that in turning the priest around (in conjunction with the vernacular) , the people would understand more of the Mass and feel more connected to the action at the altar. There is more, but I think that is the simplest way to look at it.
- But as is always the case, change produces unintended consequences. We can argue about this all day – and who knows, we might! – but in my mind, the primary and quite negative consequence of versus populum has been pervasive expectation that the personality of the priest has an important and even central liturgical function.
- In other words, ironically, the act which was supposed to involve the people more rendered the person of the cleric more important.
- In the Mass, the priest is, of course, of central importance because he serves as in persona Christi. But the genius of the Roman liturgy historically is that the ritual supports his role at the same time as it buries and subsumes his individual personality under vestments, prescribed movements and words, not to speak of the roles that other ministers play. He does not wear his own clothes or say words of his own choosing. He must be present, but everything about what surrounds him in the moment points us to Christ, not this individual human being.
- Which now brings us to possible complaints about this posture. These are simply an intensification of the complaints one hears about priest-celebrants all the time, and are reflective of the misplaced expectations congregations sometimes have of priests and which, in turn, I think are fed and enabled precisely by the versus populum posture, especially if a priest encourages it by his own liturgical stylings.
- This childish notion that one’s experience of the liturgy is somehow dependent on whether or not Father is looking at us when he is praying to God is just that. Childish. Add to that concerns about how much he smiles, how friendly and welcoming he is, the jokes he tells and how relaxed he is, and you have, not The Most Well-Educated Laity in History at Mass, but a bunch of needy infants. It also puts an inordinate amount of pressure on priests. Not only are they shoved up on pedestals, they are considered deficient if they fail to warmly crack jokes and make eye contact in the process.
- I’ll also be so bold as to offer some suggestions to parishes and priests considering incorporating this posture into liturgy.
- Don’t make a huge deal of it. Explain things simply. Emphasize historical continuity, that the rubrics assume it, and that many, many other Christians experience worship in this way. Explain the purpose is to help everyone focus on God as a community. Extra points for mentioning that this is the way Thomas Merton celebrated Mass.
- Consider making a joke or two about how the congregation might be relieved not to have to study your face through the entire Mass or something. I know! A joke!
- Start with daily Mass, school Masses or special Masses for smaller groups.
- Don’t elevate this change to The Most Important Thing About Our Parish. If it is a new initiative, consider coupling it with another new mission-oriented, Work of Mercy-type initiative for the parish. (or 2!)
- Catechize, explain thoroughly, but don’t clutch the podium, heave deep apologetic sighs, and generally act as if you expect the worst.
As I said, I’ve blogged on this before. Here are some links.
Back in 2008, I had three days in a row of focused discussion of this issue.
First – and actually, this is one of my favorite blog posts – I posted a photograph of a TLM, and just asked people to respond to it. I called the post “Necessary Conversations” because I wanted to encourage people on all “sides” to express their responses and listen to each other.
The next day, I reflected on those responses. At the end of the post, I highlighted one of the responses to the photograph, a response I still think about when I’m in the pew, and the priest in chasuble passes me in the entrance procession:
I see a man offering a sacrifice. The man has a cross on his back.
The third day, I reflected a bit on clericalism in this context.
Finally, I’m going to reproduce part of a two-year old blog post here, just because I like it and it encapsulates so much of what I want to say pretty succinctly:
As it happens, last weekend, we attended Mass in South Carolina, and this happened:
It was at Stella Maris Church on Sullivan’s Island. Stella Maris is a lovely, tiny church. I had hoped that it might be a little less crowded this time, since the summer season was, of course, over, but it was not to be. The place was packed, with, I believe, the overflow area packed as well. Fortunately, we got there just in time to get a seat in the main body of the church – which, as I said, is tiny and historic. It can’t be physically expanded…so they just have to pack them in in whatever way they can.
Tons of servers, good music, solid, focused preaching. Post-Mass prayers, which, in my limited experience, are becoming more and more common in the southern Catholic churches.
And, of course, the Eucharistic Prayer prayed ad orientem. The fact is, the sanctuary is too small to accommodate another freestanding altar, and that is just fine. It was all done matter-of-factly with no fuss and it didn’t seem that the engaged, loudly-singing congregation felt excluded, alienated and crushed by clerical privilege, but who knows, I could be wrong.