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Medieval Church History

“Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: “they have turned their back to me” (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord! ” (Sarah). When Robert Cardinal Sarah make this call during an address at Sacra Liturgia, a liturgy conference in London, it unleashed a storm of controversy that had been simmering beneath the surface for some number of years. Catholics the world over either rejoiced at his suggestion, or seethed that he would call for a return to what they see as a backwards time.

By requesting priests throughout the world “turn towards the Lord”, he very public ally expressed support for a liturgical practice that has fallen by the wayside in the last half-century. In a time when tradition is viewed as something of questionable value, a rebirth of the historical expressions of worship would fight the self-focused mindset that has become common, both in society and in the Church. A return to the historical liturgical orientation known as ad orientem would benefit the Church, the laity, and society.

There are two orientations of the liturgy that are used throughout the Church. Currently, the most common is versus populum, or Mass facing the people. This is the orientation you would see if you were to attend almost any Mass throughout the country. The other orientation allowed by the Church is ad orientem. Ad orientem is historically the most prevalent. A Latin phrase, ad orientem translates to “to the east”. Referring to the direction the priest faces while offering Mass, ad orientem has been the most common orientation for Mass since the beginning of Christianity.

When saying Mass ad orientem, the priest and congregation face the same direction, liturgical east. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, which decided to reform the liturgy of the Church, this was the default orientation for the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. While the Council called for some changes to be made, interestingly, the replacement of ad orientem was never mentioned. In the Eastern rites, ad orientem is still universally used. Throughout the history of the church, the priest facing east with the people is the most common arrangement to be found.

One thing that influenced the development of ad orientem as the dominant liturgical orientation was the architecture of churches and basilicas built soon after the legalization of Christianity. As soon as Christians were allowed out of the catacombs, churches sprung up across the civilized world. While they were all different, one thing each building had in common was their basis in Roman basilicas, built with the apse in the east and the entrance in the west.

Influenced by its roots in Judaism, the early church saw it as only natural to pray facing in the direction of their Lord’s eventual return, which is Jerusalem. While this practice has become uncommon in terms of private prayers, its influence can still be seen in the way churches of all types are commonly built. While the architectural reasoning for ad orientem is clear, there is a deeper connotation underlying this orientation. At the heart of ad orientem lies the symbolism of Christ returning from the east with the rising sun.

The parts of the Mass that are directed to God are said facing east, towards Christ’s return, and the parts directed towards the congregation are proclaimed towards the assembled faithful. When the priest and the people face the same direction, with the priest at the head of the assembly, he is fulfilling his vocation to represent them before God, and to intercede for his flock. At the same time, the laity unite with the priest by facing the same direction, presenting their prayers in union with the sacrifice he offers on their behalf.

Within the framework of this common orientation, the worship of the entire church is focused vertically, towards God. The major drawback of versus populum worships is that it is aligned horizontally, where the priest and the people appear to be talking to each other, instead of speaking together, to God. By shrouding the personality of the celebrant, ad orientem facilitates both the priest’s and the congregation’s worship better. Without having to think about the people in the pews watching him, the priest is free to enter more deeply into the Mass.

Likewise, with the priest’s face obscured, the focus shifts away from the particular priest’s personality, and back to the action of the Mass. People naturally watch the faces of others, and this biological instinct doesn’t cease the minute one enters a church. Ad orientem is a striking visual reminder that Mass is not centered on the people in church, but on Jesus, made present on the altar. By offering Mass ad orientem, the theocentric nature of the Mass is more clearly articulated.

Interestingly, ad orientem as the default position of the Roman Rite is assumed by the rubrics of the Missal. As Peter Kwasniewski points out, “Every edition of the Novus Ordo Missae, from the earliest down to the latest revised translation, contains rubrics that clearly presuppose that the priest is facing the altar or “liturgical east” and that he will need to turn around to address the people at various points. ” (Kwasniewski, np) For example, the Roman Missal has distinctions between standing at the altar, and standing at the altar, facing the people: “23.

The Priest, standing at the altar, takes the paten with bread and holds it raised slightly above the altar with both hands, saying in a low voice: Blessed are you… 29. Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says: ‘Pray, brethren…’”(Roman Missal, qtd Kwasniewski np). If the priest were meant to face the people throughout the entire service, there would no need to note this distinction within the Missal, that is to say, the phrase “turned towards the people” would not be necessary if he were already facing them.

Nevertheless, it is repeated multiple times, for example preceding the Preface (n. 127) as well as at the “Behold the Lamb of God” (n. 132). Since both of these contain a directive to turn to the people, the implication is that between the two, the priest has turned to face east. Directly following rubric 132, the priest is once more instructed to stand “facing the altar”. The juxtaposition of “facing the people” and “facing the altar” clearly demonstrates that ad orientem is the orientation assumed by the Roman Missal.

As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was known for saying in his liturgy related works, the Church must strive to maintain a hermeneutic of continuity, not seeking to rid herself of the past, but striving to continue to worship in a form consistent with the development of tradition. One powerful yet simple method of accomplishing this goal is to return to ad orientem worship. When we worship turned to face the east, we worship in the same way that our forebears, along many great saints, priests, and lay people, have for hundreds of years.

This continuity with our liturgical heritage is consistent with the majority of Christian tradition, as Mass facing the people, versus populum, has only become widespread in the last 60 years. Many people today will attempt to appeal to tradition when defending versus populum, saying “This is what we’ve always done…”, but unfortunately their memory of “what has always been done” only dates back 50-some years. An eastward orientation also lessens the gap between the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, used widely before Vatican II, and the Ordinary Form of the Mass, used commonly today.

Implementing ad orientem on the parish level is precisely the type of “mutual enrichment” that Pope Benedict called for. (Benedict, np). The reasoning for a return to ad orientem is abundantly clear, however, many people still have objections and harbor doubts about the validity of the orientation. For a large part, a lack of catechesis on this historic position is at fault. One of the most commonly voiced objections to ad orientem is that the priest would be “turning his back on the people”. The complete opposite is true.

When the celebrant turns to face the east, he is facing the same way as the people. Symbolizing leading them towards the Lord, he is in his proper position at the head of the procession. No leader would lead a march walking backwards and looking into the crowd of followers, and the priest saying Mass is no exception. In all other areas of life, we expect leaders to go ahead of us, showing us the way, but for some reason, we expect our priests to turn to face us, as if we are the most important thing going on in the church.

Another common objection is that it would be ridiculous for the priest to not be facing the people he is addressing, and this is a valid point. This objection stems from a misunderstanding of what ad orientem worship actually entails. In a versus populum arrangement, the priest looks at the people when he speaks to the people, and also looks at the people when he speaks to God. In contrast, ad orientem requires the priest to turn around to address the people, and turn back to address God.

One benefit of this distinction is that the divide between the parts of the Mass addressed to man and the parts addressed to God is made clearer. For example, the Liturgy of the Word is conducted facing the congregation, as this is the part of the Mass where God speaks to us. Conversely, the Liturgy of the Eucharist is, for the most part, conducted facing the altar, since that segment is addressed to God, by the priest, on behalf of the congregation. Continuing on with our tour of common objections, we eventually arrive at someone protesting that “If people can’t see what’s happening on the altar, they’ll stop coming to Mass! Centuries of history would prove otherwise.

Throughout all of Christian history, it has been made explicitly clear that the consecration doesn’t depend on line of sight. Whether by curtains hanging from the baldachins of early basilicas, the rood screens of medieval parish churches, or the iconostases found in eastern churches, the sanctuary of the church has always been at least somewhat divided from the nave, precisely because the sanctuary is where Heaven touches Earth at the consecration.

If a church with a wall separating the congregation from the priest can thrive, there’s no reason to think that having their line of sight briefly interrupted will cause people to simply stop attending. In fact, when people can’t see the consecration taking place, it makes the rubric instructing the priest to elevate the consecrated Host above his head, high enough for it to be visible becomes clear. Veiling the consecration behind the priest also has the effect of emphasizing the Sacraments as a mystery. No one can fully understand what happens, and to try and over analyze robs them of some of their gravity.

Being able to see the consecration doesn’t help to explain something that, ultimately, isn’t explainable. When the facts are presented, the case for an eastward orientation of the liturgy is apparent. By drawing attention away from ourselves, ad orientem raises our worship higher and directs it more clearly to God. By returning to this traditional orientation, the Liturgy of the Church will be revitalized and receive some much-needed refreshment. The restoration of ad orientem in the Mass should be a priority for the Catholic Church in America and throughout the world.

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