It is deeply heartening to see a bishop encouraging Mass ad orientem

Bishop Wall celebrates Mass ad orientem (courtesy Diocese of Gallup)

Ad orientem represents the deepest kind of union between priest and people: facing God together, physically as well as spiritually

An elderly priest, and retired scholar, wrote me an indignant, thundering letter last year. 

Though always to the left of me, politically and theologically, I always knew him as a man who respected disagreement — and me. He was one of those old liberal lions who had navigated “dissent” from Church teaching with that lawyerly skill which can make a departure from “the faith delivered once for all” seem like a mere difference of opinion. In all things, he was the consummate gentleman-scholar. Which is why I was so taken aback by the octogenarian diatribe concerning his ecclesial sod. 

I had recently written as a lay theologian — in a column following the McCarrick revelation — that the clerical abuse crisis can and should be correlated to liturgical and theological turns away from God. This was well before Benedict XVI or Cardinal Sarah had done the same. And I had only briefly suggested that McCarrick’s crimes were only possible for a priest whose “interior altar” was turned away from God, and towards worldliness. But the offending implication was that post-conciliar liturgical innovations were partly to blame, and my elder friend wanted me to know — over four pages — how deeply offensive such barely-veiled preferences for Ad Orientem were to him.

Mindful of his deep personal attachment to the event of the Council itself — he was ordained during it — I wrote back: “Like you, I love the documents of the Council, but many aspects of its reception seem very much bound up with a kind of lifeless, secular Catholicism that I think is part of our problem.” I reminded him that Benedict XVI had written Summorum Pontificum, in part, to bring “two expressions” of “one Roman rite” into living contact, and that far from creating some division, the ordinary and extraordinary forms belonged in communion with one another, expressions of the one faith delivered once for all. I suppose, on some level, I wanted to underscore that, whatever our disagreements, he and I belonged in communion too. 

But sadly, he fell silent after that, and we haven’t spoken since. Whatever the real reason, I took his silence — and the angry letter which preceded it — to be a sort of concession. The letter, as much as the silence, was born of a certain frustration that not only had the revolution not gone to plan, but that despite his best efforts, and despite his generation’s best efforts, it had not taken root in the next generation. I’ve thought a lot about his letter over the last year, and I’ve also thought a lot about the prospects for the next generation of Catholics. What is being handed on?

This week Bishop James Sean Wall of the Diocese of Gallup in New Mexico wrote a very different letter — one I found deeply encouraging from a new generation of bishops. In his July 22 letter, “Turning Towards God: Celebrating the Mass Ad Orientem,” Bishop Wall announced that “the 11:00am Sunday Mass will henceforth be celebrated ad orientem at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Gallup.” Bishop Wall began his letter by citing Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter on the sexual abuse crisis and his judgment that “we have become too lax in our approach to the Eucharist.” He cites Saint Paul: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread and drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” The Church needs practices which increase our reverence, and thus he concludes, rightly, that “exercising the option to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” facing towards God rather than facing towards the people is just such a practice of increasing our reverence, and one which is drawn out of the deepest wellsprings of “the Church’s patrimony.” 

The bishop notes, and seems well aware, that this can be “a contentious topic.” Perhaps he’s received the same sort of four-page-letters. But he is resolute, and rightly so, that ad orientem worship “is one of the most ancient and most consistent practices in the life of the Church,” and that versus populum is extremely new as a universal standard. Yet the distinction is not a temporal one, but a relational orientation. Facing ad Deum means “facing Christ together at Mass…meeting Christ who comes to meet us.” 

Bishop Wall treats the common objection that such worship entails the priest “turning his back” to the people. This is technically true, but misses the point, namely that such a practice literally turns everyone, united together as one body. The implication, then, is the opposite of some kind of separation between priest and people, but rather the deepest kind of union, facing God together, physically as well as spiritually. 

I read Bishop Wall’s letter with a kind of countervailing joy against the grief that my venerable critic’s letter had delivered last year. One letter reveals a generation’s frustration at failing to hand on something new, while the other turns the altars of all our hearts in the same direction.