When social researchers recently asked Catholics to explain their views on the Eucharist, most said they do not believe in the Real Presence. This appalling state of affairs is often blamed on weak or non-existent religious formation. But what if our liturgical practices also bear some responsibility?
Such questions risk reviving the liturgical battles that once roiled parish communities and demoralized the faithful, in the decades following the Second Vatican Council. Yet fear of controversy should not dissuade bishops and pastors from a sober review of proposed reforms that could strengthen the faithful’s experience of the Mass, in all its power and mystery.
Enter Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, the prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. In a May 23 interview with the French magazine Famille Chretienne, Cardinal Sarah said he was eager to inspire the faithful to place the Eucharist “at the center” of their existence, and he reiterated the need to return to the ad orientem (facing the East) posture for priests celebrating the Novus Ordo Mass, which, he proposed, would foster closeness to God and reverence for the Real Presence.
Echoing the thoughts he laid out in his June 2015 letter published in L’Osservatore Romano, Cardinal Sarah suggested it was past time to reconsider a key liturgical practice that lost favor after the Second Vatican Council, namely the ad orientem posture. He further stated that priests don’t need special permission to assume that posture. But his 2015 letter began with a clarification of the teachings on the liturgy, as set forth in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s constitution on the sacred liturgy.
This document was often cited to justify changes to the liturgy following the Council, but it never provided superficial “recipes” for liturgical reform. Rather, the Council Fathers called for a return to origins, a deepening awareness of the very meaning and purpose of sacred worship.
“The liturgy in action is thus none other than the work of Christ in action. The liturgy is, in its essence, actio Christi: the work of Christ the Lord in redeeming mankind and giving perfect glory to God (5),” explained Cardinal Sarah, who quoted from the document in his 2015 letter. “He is the High Priest, the true subject, the true protagonist of the liturgy (7).”
When liturgists adopt practices that reorient the focus of worship to human action and community, God is not placed at the center of liturgy, and our personal relationship with the Lord suffers.
“The liturgy is the door to our union with God. If the Eucharistic celebrations are transformed into human self-celebrations, the peril is immense, because God disappears,” warned Cardinal Sarah. “If, on the contrary, God is at the heart of the liturgy, then the Church recovers its vigor and sap!”
Indeed, without this concerted reorientation to God, we will admire Christ but struggle mightily to follow him as true disciples, dying to self in order to serve others in his name.
The liturgy grounds our earthly pilgrimage. Thus, even as our human needs and wants threaten to restrict our horizons, the “liturgy permits us to go out past the walls of this world,” explained Cardinal Sarah, returning to the theme of his May 23 interview. And so the faithful learn to seek silence, in order to hear “the deepening of his word in the depths of our heart.” Likewise, our bodies must also be appropriately oriented to God. “I am profoundly convinced that our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is certainly to celebrate — priests and faithful — turned together in the same direction: toward the Lord who comes,” said Cardinal Sarah. He rejected the suggestion that in adopting this posture, the priest was turning his back on the faithful. “It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the Risen Lord is enthroned.”
Asked whether a return to the ad orientem posture was permitted, the cardinal stated firmly: “It is legitimate and conforms to the letter and spirit of the Council.”
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then in his role as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, underscored this point in previous remarks on this subject.
“There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in post-conciliar instructions,” explained the future Pope Benedict XVI, in his foreword to the second edition of U.M. Lang’s volume Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer.
Cardinal Ratzinger further noted that passages in two Vatican directives issued in 1969 and 2002 were often cited to imply an obligation to celebrate the Mass facing the people. However, a clarification issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship on Sept. 25, 2000, confirmed that no such obligation was intended. He made a final point. The priest’s posture cannot change the “internal direction” of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: “towards the Lord — towards the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”
He called on all liturgists to begin a fresh evaluation of practices that offered “the best realization of the memorial of Christ.”
Is it finally possible for bishops and pastors to adopt his wise guidance?
Surely, Cardinal Sarah is eager to lead the Church forward. He offers a compelling case for restoring the ad orientem posture for all Masses, after the Liturgy of the Word. And he disarms his readers with a stirring remembrance of his own experience celebrating the Mass facing the altar: “In celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of the elevation.”
The liturgy is the “door” to God, who calls us to be instruments of his divine action. The priest, the celebrant, draws us into the beating heart of the Holy Trinity as we join him, facing the East.