Controversy erupted after an address given at a recent conference on sacred liturgy held in London. Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, made an appeal to all priests everywhere to begin, with prudence and according to their circumstances, to celebrate Holy Mass ad orientem. That is, he made an unofficial but earnest appeal that during the Eucharistic, clearly sacrificial part of Mass, priests should face the altar on the same side as the congregation. Priest and people together should face toward the liturgical, symbolic east whence Christians have, since earliest times, believed that Christ will return. He made good arguments. There are many good arguments, as a matter of fact.
Many of the more progressive, liberal bent reacted sharply against His Eminence’s plea. They responded that celebration versus populum, “facing the people” (which I, jocose, sometimes call adversus populum), is more desirable according to the rubrics. They cite, in English, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal 299, the official version of which is in Latin: “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.”
The problem is that that English translation is inaccurate. That version twists the Latin so as to state that versus populum celebration is preferred. That’s not what the Latin says: “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit … The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration towards the people can be carried out at it.” Without going into the Latin weeds in this brief space, the correct translation hangs on quod, which refers to the first clause.
Our sacred liturgical worship is of critical importance to our Catholic identity. Consequently, both our eternal salvation and how we shape the world around us in the meantime depends on it. Our liturgical choices shape us. We are our rites. Hence, continuity with perennial tradition is a sine qua non.
Pray for bishops and priests: they implement our sacred rites. Pray that their minds and hearts be opened and that their actions reflect a loving balance of prudence and courage.