The Bishop of Boise told priests last month that the ordinary form of the Mass should not be celebrated in the ad orientem posture, and that material from “independent websites” is not appropriate for religious instruction regarding the liturgy.
“I am instructing priests in this diocese to preside facing the people at every celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Mass,” Bishop Peter Christensen wrote in a February 28 letter to priests, which was published in the March 27 issue of the Idaho Catholic Register.
“There are priests who prefer ad orientem. I am convinced that they mean well and find it a devout way to pray. But the overwhelming experience worldwide after Vatican II is that the priest faces the people for Mass and this has contributed to the sanctification of the people.”
The bishop wrote that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal is “unambivalent” about liturgical orientation, and “makes it plain that the universal Church envisions the priest presiding at Mass facing the people.”
While liturgists have debated the precise meaning of the liturgical document that references the direction a priest faces during the celebration of the Mass, the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship clarified in 2000 that the document does not forbid the ad orientem celebration of the liturgy.
In 2016, Bishop Arthur Seratelli, then-chairman of the U.S. bishops’ conference liturgy committee, wrote to U.S. bishops that while the General Instruction of the Roman Missal “does show a preference for the celebrant’s facing the people ‘whenever possible’ in the placement and orientation of the altar,” the Church “does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem.”
“Although permitted, the decision whether or not to preside ad orientem should take into consideration the physical configuration of the altar and sanctuary space, and, most especially, the pastoral welfare of the faith community being served.”
While neither universal canon nor liturgical law require the permission of a bishop before a priest celebrates the Mass ad orientem, Seratelli wrote that “such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.”
Ad orientem, or facing the east, was, until recent decades, the long-standing historical posture for celebrating Mass in the Latin rite, and has been understood to reflect the community’s watchfulness for the return of Jesus Christ from the east. In the ad orientem posture, both the priest and the people face the apse of the Church, or the tabernacle, during the celebration of the Mass.
The ad orientem celebration of the Mass fell out of customary use in many parts of the world after 1969-1970 revisions to the Roman Missal, although those revisions did not explicitly call for a change in liturgical orientation. The possibility of the versus populum, or facing the people posture was mentioned in a 1964 Vatican instruction regarding the placement of altars. In recent years, some Vatican officials and U.S. bishops have promoted and encouraged a return to the ad orientem posture.
Christensen’s letter said that in his diocese, the ad orientem orientation would be prohibited. He explained that “it was clearly the mind of the Council that the priest should face the people.”
Deacon Gene Fadness, a spokesman for the Diocese of Boise did not explain what document of the Second Vatican Council conveys the “mind of the Council” on the matter, which is not mentioned in Sacrosanctum concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s constitution on the liturgy.
Fadness did tell CNA that “In all liturgical matters, Bishop Peter carefully considers the statements of the CDWDS, the instructions in the ritual books and Canon Law, and his responsibility as chief liturgist of the diocese.”
Christensen’s letter also told priests that “in instructing the faithful regarding questions of posture, gesture, reception of Communion, etc., clergy are to refer always to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Order of the Mass, and other officially promulgated ritual books for the form of liturgy they are celebrating; or to documents propagated by the Holy See or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and approved by appropriate authorities.”
“Sources such as independent websites and social media platforms that are unaffiliated with the Holy See or the USCCB are not to be considered trustworthy or appropriate for catechesis,” the bishop wrote.
Fadness declined to name the independent websites the bishop had in mind, but when presented with examples of such websites, namely Word on Fire, Our Sunday Visitor, and Catholic Answers, the spokesman told CNA that “The Bishop has no problem with solid Catholic sources such as Word on Fire, Our Sunday Visitor and Catholic Answers. But, of course, he is not bound by what any contributing writers to these sites say, and he prefers that his priests give priority to the GIRM and approved USCCB documents as catechesis for the faithful on liturgical matters.”
The deacon told CNA that Christensen “is the Bishop for our diocese and has full authority to determine liturgical practices within it.”
He cited as an example of the bishop’s authority a March 2019 decision to require Catholics to kneel in the Mass after the Agnus Dei, as is the norm in the U.S., but was not the practice in Boise until Christensen’s intervention.
In his February letter, Christensen offered additional liturgical norms for the diocese, instructing that while Catholics are permitted to receive the Eucharist while kneeling, priests should not use kneelers or Communion rails that might encourage the practice. The bishop also requested that priests celebrating the Extraordinary Form of the Mass notify the bishop they are doing so, and instructed that “elements from Missal use at the Extraordinary Form liturgy are not to be imported into Masses celebrated under the Ordinary Form.”
At least two parishes in the Diocese of Boise offer Mass in the Extraordinary Form, one of which is administered by the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter.
Christensen, 67, has been Bishop of Boise since 2014. He was named Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin, in 2007. Fadness told CNA that Christensen’s aim was “reminding his priests that the integrity of the instruction within each Missal must be respected insofar as possible.”
The letter was sent to priests in February, but published at the end of March, after the public celebration of Mass had been suspended across the U.S. because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Asked about the timing of the letter’s publication, Fadness explained that the diocesan newspaper “publishes only twice monthly.”
“The Bishop is merely asking that the Ordinary Form be followed during a Novus Ordo Mass and the Extraordinary Form be followed during the Traditional Latin Mass,” Fadness explained.
“Some of our priests were mixing Extraordinary Form practices with the Ordinary Form, which was causing confusion among the faithful, some fearing that we were introducing pre-Vatican II practices.”
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