Opinion & Features

The worst reasons for ad orientem

Is Mass facing east the future? (CNS)

I was invited to make the case against ad orientem. But I can’t do that, for I’m not opposed to this practice and I have celebrated Mass that way myself on a few occasions. What I am opposed to is the way some people advocate for it.

It is said, for example, that Vatican II never called for Mass facing the people. This is true on narrowly literalist grounds, but ultimately misunderstands the Council. The Council’s reformist spirit made possible all sorts of practices not explicitly advocated in its documents. Nor did they need to be. The Council stated foundational principles which set the Church on a reformist trajectory, while only in a few cases getting into the specifics and locking down future developments.

It’s time to say it: the so-called “hermeneutic of continuity” proposed by Benedict XVI in 2005 has outlived its usefulness as a tool for understanding the Second Vatican Council. Its proponents, who frequently carry the proposal further than Benedict ever did, have shown in abundance that the proposal obscures rather than clarifies the paradigm shifts clearly called for by the Council. For liturgy, the paradigm shift is from Carolingian clericalised sacred drama to an act of the entire community. Just let the full weight of that shift sink in, including all the possible implications for liturgical practice. There is a reason why the Fathers of Vatican II decided that the 1962 missal would not remain in use in its unreformed state.

It is said that ad orientem was the universal practice of the early Church. While it eventually came to be predominant, the historical data is ambiguous. And the data from the very earliest centuries is too scant for any overly confident claims. And even if it were universal practice for all of Church history, this wouldn’t make innovation in the 20th century impossible. Everything in history was done for the first time at some point, and we would never have gone from the Last Supper to Tridentine High Mass if liturgical history weren’t chock-full of innovation and development.

It is said that ad orientem fosters humility in the celebrant and prevents his ego from taking over as it does in versus populum. Really? You don’t have to be a psychologist to see that a traditionalist priest’s motives for pushing his agenda on the community can be just as ego-driven as the motives of the chatty game show host celebrant. And of course, reverent, Christ-centered worship is also possible in either practice. Neither humility nor egoism clearly aligns with either practice.

It is said that some Lutherans and Anglicans/Episcopalians practice ad orientem without any controversy, so we should be able to do the same. This shows a stunning lack of sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of many contemporary Catholics and ignores that our history is so utterly different from theirs. Hence ad orientem has a very different meaning for us than it does for them. And one is suspicious of such newfound ecumenical sensitivity from quarters otherwise uninterested in the ecumenical project.

It is said that the now famous “quod” in article 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal clearly refers to the placement of the altar away from the wall but not the direction of the priest facing the people, and the latter is a willful liberal misinterpretation. I think Jonathan Day has taken care of this one at the blog Pray Tell, and shown that the Roman document is anything but clear.

Here’s something I’d like to ask people who argue that the supposedly universal apostolic practice of ad orientem has a claim on us: does this also mean that the faithful should stand and not kneel at the liturgy, as the Council of Nicaea decreed for all Sundays of the year and all of Easter season in 325? Does this mean that the Precious Blood should always be offered to the faithful along with the consecrated Bread, as was universal practice in the West for most of Church history and is still the practice in the East? Does this mean that tabernacles should not be in the centre of the apse, an innovation of the Counter-Reformation era?

In fact, I’d answer “yes” to all these questions. The more traditional practices lessen the divide between priest and people, and make clearer that everyone together offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice and shares together in its rich fruits. It was utterly foreign to the early Church, and most of the medieval Church as well, to have a church full of kneeling people facing the tabernacle like their priest but receiving Communion under only one form.

Time to call out the selective historicism of some people, I’d say. Time to see who really wants to return to apostolic practice, and who instead wants to return to the 1950s. Which is to say, time to see who is advocating ad orientem because it’s just one more way, while claiming otherwise, to chip away at the Second Vatican Council.

Pope Francis has a way of smoking out his enemies. So much of the opposition to him is being unmasked for what it is: opposition to the Second Vatican Council.

Once the smoke clears, and once we all get back on the same page, behind Francis and behind the Council, who knows where it will lead? Maybe, someday, to widespread ad orientem? Fine with me – but only if it’s for good reasons, based upon acceptance of the deeply reformist Council.

Maybe someday. But in my judgment, what Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger suggested in 2000 remains even more true today: now is not the time to introduce ad orientem. It has to be separated from its retrograde associations before we can begin to talk about whether and how it might fit within Vatican II’s understanding of liturgy.