GALLUP - Bishop James Wall of Gallup announced Monday that each Sunday a Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral will be said with the celebrant facing the same direction as the faithful, in order better to respect the Blessed Sacrament.
Such worship, he said in a July 22 letter to the Diocese of Gallup, is “a very powerful reminder of what we are about at Mass: meeting Christ Who comes to meet us. Practically speaking, this means that things will look a bit different, for at such Masses the Priest faces the same direction as the Assembly when he is at the altar.”
“More specifically, when addressing God, such as during the orations and Eucharistic Prayer, he faces the same direction as the people, that is, toward God (ad Deum). He does so literally, to use a phrase dear to St. Augustine, by 'turning toward the Lord' present in the Blessed Sacrament. In contrast, when addressing the people, he turns to face them (versus populum).”
The bishop wrote that “since the recent solemnity of Corpus Christi, the 11:00am Sunday Mass will henceforth be celebrated ad orientem at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Gallup.”
Bishop Wall opened by reflecting on Benedict XVI's recent letter in which he noted a certain laxity in how the Eucharist is approached.
“We would do well to remember,” Bishop Wall wrote, “that the Eucharist is not simply a nice 'sign' or 'symbol' of communion with God, but rather truly is communion with God.”
He said the emeritus pope's letter “provides an opportunity for us to reflect on how better to respect the Most Blessed Sacrament,” noting arriving early for Mass to pray; remaining afterward to offer thanksgiving; dressing appropriately; keeping the Eucharistic fast; regular, even monthly confession; and reverent reception of the Eucharist.
“There is, however, one particular practice that I would like to highlight here,” said Bishop Wall. “It is about exercising the option to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facing 'toward the East' (ad orientem) or 'toward God' (ad Deum) as distinct from 'toward the people' (versus populum).”
He acknowledged that such celebration can be “contentious” and that “to make changes to the way we pray can be difficult,” adding that “by explaining and advocating for this, I am in no way trying to disrupt the way the people of this Diocese pray.”
“Rather, I am trying to open the treasury of the Church’s patrimony, so that, together, we can all experience one of the most ancient ways that the Church has always prayed, starting with Jesus and reaching even to our own day, and thereby learn from the 'ever ancient, ever new' wisdom of the Church.”
The bishop wrote that “celebrating Mass ad orientem is one of the most ancient and most consistent practices in the life of the Church.”
However, he said that “celebration of Mass ad orientem is not a form of antiquarianism, i.e. choosing to do something because it is old, but rather choosing to do something that has always been.”
“This also means, in turn, that versus populum worship is extremely new in the life of the Church, and, while a valid liturgical option today, it still must be considered novel when it comes to the celebration of Mass,” he noted.
In ad orientem worship the main point, the bishop said, is that it “shows, even in its literal orientation, that the priest and the people are united together as one in worshipping God, even physically with their bodies.”
He added that describing such Masses as ones in which “the priest has his back to the people,” while technically true, “largely misses” this main point, which is “much grander and more beautiful.”
“Celebrating Mass ad orientem, then, is meant to remind us … that the Mass is not first and foremost about us, but rather about God and His glory—about worshipping Him as He desires and not as we think best. It is His work after all, not ours, and we are simply entering into it by His gracious will,” Bishop Wall reflected.
He also pointed out that a “common objection or at least misunderstanding is that this particular way of celebrating Mass was disallowed at or after the Second Vatican Council. This is not accurate, as none of the conciliar documents even mention this.”
In fact, “a close reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal will still show today that ad orientem is assumed to be the normal posture at Mass: they often describe the priest 'turning to face the people,' which implies he is facing the altar before and after doing so.”
Bishop Wall also addressed the idea of “preference,” and the principle that “when it comes to taste, there is no room for dispute.”
“To a point, that is true,” he said. “Nobody can fault anybody for liking chocolate chip ice cream more than mint, or Chevrolet more than Ford. When it comes to the ways in which we worship God, however, nothing is simply a matter of taste.”
He quoted from a 2016 writing by Monsignor Charles Pope, a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, who said that “Preferences should be rooted in solid liturgical principles. […] People matter, and they should be nourished and intelligently engaged in the Sacred Liturgy—but not in a way that forgets that the ultimate work of the Liturgy is not merely to please or enrich us but to be focused on and worship the Lord”.
The decision to provide one ad orientem Mass at the cathedral each Sunday “provides the faithful with the opportunity to attend the Mass in this way … which is still approved and generously allowed by the Church,” he said.
Bishop Wall added that he would like to encourage the practice throughout the diocese as an option for priests.
In his letter, Bishop Wall referenced Fr. Uwe Michael Lang's Turning Towards the Lord, as well the works of Benedict XVI on the liturgy.
Bishop Wall's decision echoes an appeal made several years ago by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.
In July 2016, the prefect had said during an address that “I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction – Eastwards or at least towards the apse – to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God.”
Cardinal Sarah's encouragement to priests to say Mass ad orientem was part of an address on how the Second Vatican Council's document on the liturgy can be more faithfully implemented.