Cardinal Robert Sarah’s promotion of the ancient liturgical posture ad orientem (facing the east) has been met by public disagreement from the Vatican spokesman and a British cardinal.

In his July 5 keynote address at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London, Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, encouraged priests and the congregation to face the same direction towards the apse or ad orientem (the liturgical “east”) at key parts of the Mass.

He stated that the practice of ad orientem in the new rite was already permitted under Church legislation, meaning there is no need for additional liturgical directives.

As well, he urged pastors to consider celebrating Mass with ad orientem postures, “in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God,” beginning on the First Sunday of Advent.

“You may have read my article of June 2015 in L’Osservatore Romano, and my recent interview in May this year, with the French journal Famille Chrétienne,” Cardinal Sarah said during his speech to a packed auditorium of around 200 people.

“On both occasions, I stated that I believe it is very important that we return as soon as possible to ad orientem worship; priests and congregation facing same direction, eastwards, or at least towards the apse, towards the Lord who comes, at those points when we address God in the liturgical rite.”

During his speech, Cardinal Sarah also said that Pope Francis had commissioned him to study the question of how the two forms of the Roman rite of the Mass — the extraordinary form, which predates the Second Vatican Council and is commonly known as the Tridentine Mass or Traditional Latin Mass, and the ordinary form (novus ordo), introduced by Blessed Paul VI in 1969 — can “mutually enrich one another.”

“In April 2015, the Holy Father asked me to study the question of the ‘reform of the reform.’”

Among those present as the cardinal spoke were Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, Bishop Dominique Rey of the French Diocese of Fréjus-Toulon and Msgr. Keith Newton, head of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in England.

Bishop Rey, who is also the convenor of the conference, announced that he would be implementing the cardinal’s suggested initiative in his own diocese beginning on the First Sunday of Advent. He will include a letter of encouragement to his priests and ad orientem Masses celebrated by him in the diocesan cathedral.  


Cardinal Nichols

By contrast, an email sent July 10 by Cardinal Vincent Nichols to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Westminster instructed them to continue offering the ordinary form of the Mass versus populum (facing the people).

“In response to a number of enquiries, in the light of Cardinal Sarah’s recent personal comments, I take this opportunity of reminding all priests of the importance of ensuring that every celebration of the liturgy is carried out with all possible dignity,” the cardinal said. “Whether the celebration of the Mass is simple or elaborate, it should always be characterized by that dignity which helps to raise our minds and hearts to God and which avoids distracting confusion or inappropriate informality.

“I also remind our priests that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, approved by the highest authority in the Church, states in Paragraph 299 that ‘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 altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.’”

Cardinal Nichols concluded, “May I emphasize that the celebration of the Church’s liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste. As the last paragraph of the GIRM states so clearly, ‘The Roman Missal, though in a diversity of languages and with some variety of customs, must in the future be safeguarded as an instrument and an outstanding sign of the integrity and unity of the Roman rite’ (399).”


Faulty Translation?

Cardinal Nichols’ statement has come under criticism for relying on what liturgical specialists argue is a faulty English translation of GIRM’s Paragraph 299.

They claim that a clearer English translation from the Latin, unlike the one given by the cardinal, would read: “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 toward the people can be carried out.”

In 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued a clarification regarding Paragraph 299, which advises: “It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit [useful] does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people].”

However, Cardinal Nichols’ statement adopts a markedly different tone, referring to GIRM 299 as an “expectation” that “remains in force.”

The Register subsequently emailed Cardinal Nichols’ office about whether another archdiocesan statement would be made public for the laity’s guidance. The cardinal was also asked if he would support priests in his archdiocese who wished to implement Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion and whether he was aware of the controversy surrounding the English translation of Paragraph 299.

The cardinal’s press secretary, Alexander DesForges, replied to the Register’s inquiry by reproducing the text of a July 11 Vatican communiqué concerning Cardinal Sarah’s July 5 remarks and said no further comment would be given.

 Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, issued that communiqué distancing the Vatican from Cardinal Sarah’s remarks. The communiqué followed a private meeting between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah on his return to the Vatican after the cardinal’s conference address.

The communiqué stated that some of Cardinal Sarah’s words have been “incorrectly interpreted, as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.”

Father Lombardi said it was “good to remember” that rules for Eucharistic celebration are contained in the GIRM, and he cited Paragraph 299, using the same English translation that has come under scrutiny.

“Therefore, new liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent, as some have incorrectly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words,” Father Lombardi’s statement concluded, along with a recommendation that the phrase “reform of the reform” not be used because “it may at times give rise to errors.”

However, discussions about the correct liturgical posture in the ordinary form of the Mass are nothing new. Throughout his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI annually celebrated the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord in the Sistine Chapel ad orientem, citing respect for “the beauty and the harmony of this architectural jewel” as his motive.

And in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, written when he was a cardinal, the future pope wrote: “A common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance.”

Daniel Blackman

writes from London.