BIRMINGHAM, Ala.—The Vatican likely has been asked to resolve a liturgical dispute involving the way Mass is celebrated on Mother Angelica's EWTN and the local bishop, observers said.

Birmingham Bishop David Foley issued a decree Oct. 18 prohibiting priests in his diocese from celebrating Mass while facing in the same direction as the congregation.

It was immediately interpreted by observers as being directed at Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, which is based at a monastery located in the diocese. EWTN televises Mass four times daily to a potential audience of 44 million U.S. households.

Neither Bishop Foley nor the typically outspoken Mother Angelica has said anything publicly about the directive and neither has returned repeated phone calls from the Register.

Philip Grey, a canon lawyer who has followed the Birmingham case closely, said that the lack of discussion of the matter by Bishop Foley or Mother Angelica is telling.

“Surprisingly, it has been very quiet,” Grey said. “That leads me to believe it [an appeal] is happening.

“There are enough organizations and bishops that would be concerned that this would become a normal course of action that they would appeal it. This is a very serious issue. I can't stress that enough.”

A noted canonist contacted by the Register would not comment on the case.

Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press and a leading figure in Catholic media circles, said:

“Anybody who would be able to say [that there was an appeal] would not be able to speak about it.

“This is a very delicate thing. [The decree] is a public statement and the Vatican would not want to embarrass anyone” by saying anything publicly about it.

About the silence, Helen Hull Hitchcock of Adoremus, an organization which promotes renewal of the liturgy along traditional lines, said, “Maybe no news is good news.”

Hitchcock said the letter in which Bishop Foley issued the prohibition “raises questions that are sore spots with a fair number of people,” but added that it may provide “a good opportunity to clarify” those concerns.

One of those concerns, Hitchcock said, was “where the universal norms [for how to celebrate Mass] begin and how far a bishop can go” in changing them.

Grey questioned the legitimacy of the bishop's move. He said that the liturgical books of 1970, which dictate universal norms, presume that priests will say Mass ad orientem. The practice of facing the congregation, Grey said, is only an “option.”

Some have argued that priests have celebrated Mass facing the congregation so widely for so long that it now has the force of custom, but Grey disagreed. He said that ad orientem posture is “the most ancient posture” and that it was treated “as law” in the liturgical documents flowing from Vatican II. That law, Grey added, has not yet been abrogated.

“Bishops have no authority to abrogate a universal law” of the Church, he noted.

Grey said that priests began exercising the option of celebrating Mass facing the congregation for pastoral reasons. “It allows for the congregation to see what is happening on the altar.”

Bishop Foley's decree was issued “to all priests and juridical persons” of the Birmingham Diocese. It sought to address what he referred to as “a well-intentioned but flawed and seriously misdirected movement [in which] priests are encouraged on their own initiative [and] without the permission of their local bishops, to take liberties with the Mass by celebrating in a manner called ad orientem,” which, the bishop added, “amounts to making a political statement, and is dividing the people.”

One Birmingham priest contacted by the Register, Father Pat O'Donoghue of Holy Infant of Prague Church, said that except for an “unusual situation” at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, where Mass is regularly celebrated by the priest “with his back to the people,” he wasn't aware of any other priests in the diocese who did so. The diocese has 71,958 Catholics, or 2.7% of the local population, according to The Official Catholic Directory, 1999.

The second paragraph of the general decree attached to Bishop Foley's letter said:

“At any Mass that is or will be televised for broadcast or videotaped for public dissemination, the priest is to use a free-standing altar and face the people. These norms apply to all priests who celebrate the public Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman rite within the diocese of Birmingham, including visiting priests.”

“A priest who violates either of these laws is liable to suspension or removal of faculties,” the decree added.

A new, much larger, chapel has been built for Mother Angelica and the other nuns in her community. Bishop Foley dedicated the new chapel earlier this year and a Mass of consecration was scheduled for late October. The Mass was postponed after some of the appointments of the Church's interior were late in arriving from Spain. The Mass has been rescheduled for Dec. 15.

Bishop Foley, who was installed as bishop of Birmingham in 1994, has his own show, Pillars of Fire, on EWTN. He is also on its board of directors.

Father Fessio said, “I respect and support the duty of a bishop to ensure the integrity of the liturgy in his diocese. [But] I think this one is ill-advised because he implies that the ad orientem posture is an innovation and a sacrilege. ... How can you call it a sacrilege when it's been the norm for 1,700-1,800 years? I would hope that this is an opportunity for the Vatican to clarify the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.”

Code of Canon Law

Canon 838.1: The supervision of the sacred liturgy depends solely on the authority of the Church which resides in the Apostolic See and, in accord with the law, the diocesan bishop.

Canon 839.2: Local ordinaries are to see to it that the prayers and other pious and sacred exercises of the Christian people are fully in harmony with the norms of the Church.