5 Things to Remember in the “Ad Orientem” Discussion

An Advocate of ‘Ad Orientem’ Reflects on the Responses of the Holy See Press Office and the U.S. Bishops

(photo: Photo Credit: Joachim Specht, via Wikimedia Commons)

The reaction of the Holy See Press Office and the American Bishops to the news of Cardinal Sarah’s proposal that priests face “east” (ad orientem) for the Eucharistic Prayer is not surprising. They were quick to insist that no change in liturgical law is forthcoming in this matter. It is doubtful that any priests were confused about this. Cardinal Sarah was making a gesture of encouragement, not of law.

However, the “first Sunday in Advent” had the ring to some in the media of an official change since, in the past, liturgical changes that are binding have become effective on that Sunday. Most recently the new English translation of the Roman Missal became effective and mandatory as of the First Sunday of Advent.

It is more likely that the good Cardinal saw Advent as a good time to reacquaint the faithful with the eastward orientation since it is in Advent when we are look together for the coming of the Lord. A well-known Advent hymn says, “People look east, the time is near…” Looking for Christ to come again is a central insight of the ad orientem stance, for the Liturgy does not only look to the Cross and Resurrection (We proclaim your death O Lord and profess your resurrection), it looks eschatologically to the glorious Day when Christ will come again (until you come again).  In looking together toward the Cross and to the liturgical east there echoes in the mind the prophecy of Revelation: Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him--even those who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will lament Him. So shall it be! Amen. (Rev 1:7). Yes, people look east!

But the statement from the Vatican Press Office is also read by many as a cautionary note, rather than a mere clarification. One might wonder why the Vatican Press Office is issuing such a statement regarding a liturgical matter at all (but I digress). To most observers, the press office reply is a kind of non placet (a statement of displeasure) regarding the ad orientem stance. Frankly, it is not a helpful reply since it wrongly construes ad orientem as an element of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. The Vatican Press office (quoting Pope Francis out of context) says the extraordinary form must not take the place of the “ordinary” one. In the first place, Pope Francis was not referring to the ad orientem stance. Secondly, facing East for the Eucharistic Prayer is not per se an element of the extraordinary form; it is a legitimate option of the ordinary form!

The Statement from Bishop Serratelli of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was more careful and gracious. His communique makes clear that Cardinal Sarah has encouraged bishops and priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem when feasible. And while he also makes clear that the celebrant facing the people will most likely continue to be the norm at most parishes, as it has been for decades now, he also indicates:

However, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has clarified on earlier occasions that this does not prohibit the celebration of the Eucharist in the Ordinary Form ad orientem. In fact, there are rubrics in the Order of Mass which reflect the real possibility that the celebrant might be facing away from the assembly…

Quite simply, the inclusion of this remark shows progress and respect for the ad orientem stance. It repeats the truth that such a stance in not prohibited and that this has been clarified in earlier documents from the Congregation for Divine Worship. It is a clear reality that Mass celebrated “facing the people” is the norm in the vast majority of parishes and Masses in this country. But priests are not forbidden to teach on, exemplify and explore the eastward option with their parishioners.

Bishop Serratelli does caution:

Although permitted, the decision whether or not to preside ad orientem should take into consideration the physical configuration of the altar and sanctuary space, and, most especially, the pastoral welfare of the faith community being served. Such an important decision should always be made with the supervision and guidance of the local bishop.

With this, I would heartily agree and have written on this in previous columns here. Great care should be taken by a priest and pastors to teach and prepare people for such celebrations. Even after explaining, there are going to be those who find such changes difficult. It is a significant change and thus it would seem that a pastor should slowly introduce such celebrations and provide true options for the faithful in his parish. And while I do not think a pastor needs to consult with the bishops for occasional celebrations ad orientem, I know I would not make permanent and widespread use of the option in my parish without the supervision and guidance of my bishop. Charity demands in a change of this significance even in areas where freedom exists, so that we do not allow the liturgy to sever unity and charity. That would be a countersign.

With all this in mind, I propose the following thoughts as a kind of way forward. I want to be clear that I write this as an advocate of the wider celebration of the Eucharistic Prayer ad orientem, and thus some of the points below ask that those who think differently find a place in their hearts for us (see 2 Cor 7:2).

(1) Mutual respect. Both options, eastward and toward the people, are permitted. The Holy See has, on several occasions, indicated as well that proponents of either view should avoid language suggesting that one practice is better or more correct than the other. One may have a preference and have good reasons why they hold that preference. But when both options are permitted we should not seek to denigrate something that is less optimal to us. Cardinal Estevez Prefect of the CDW wrote in 2000 regarding liturgy in general:

There is no need to give excessive importance to elements that have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.

So, respect really should be mutual.

(2) Accept the fact that we who advocate a wider ad orientem usage have the greater duty to be gentle and prudent. Mass facing the people is currently the norm in the vast majority of parishes. As such we have the greater burden of pastoral sensitivity and a need to carefully teach and listen since we propose a change that is significant, even when it is done only occasionally.

That said, this does not mean that those who are reticent to see this happen at all have no duties regarding charity and prudence. There are a growing number of clergy and lay faithful who find the ad orientem option both pleasing and proper. Their needs and views should also be accorded a pastoral sensitivity.

(3) Not new. The thought to face east for the Eucharistic Prayer is not merely the latest rage. It has been under consideration at least since the mid-1980s when new research indicated that facing east was in fact the near-universal norm of the ancient Church. No less that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote extensively on the topic back in the 1980s in his book The Feast of Faith. Fr. Michael Uwe Lang published a widely read book (Turning Towards the Lord) as well. Increasing use of the ad orientem option has been taking place throughout this period. Certain dioceses in this country, such as Lincoln and Tulsa, have given explicit encouragement to the practice.  Similar movements are taking place in other parts of the world and ad orientem has been the topic at many liturgical conferences throughout the world.

Thus, Cardinal Sarah’s encouragement is not some strange notion out of nowhere. He is speaking to a movement that has been growing for nearly thirty years.

(4) Gamaliel Rule. Perhaps a good notion approach for all of us is to recall here is that of the Rabbi Gamaliel that is noted in the Book of Acts:

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, stood up…. “Men of Israel, take care what you are about to do with these men. … In the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:34-39).

This does not mean that there should be no pastoral oversight of a significant change, only that outright opposition to ad orientem may well be unwise. Let’s see what God blesses. We clergy have often been surprised at what appeals to the faithful and what does not.

(5) Respect the fact that there are reasons for each preference. There are actual reasons that good people on both sides of the eastward vision have for preferring a stance—or at least there ought to be. Preferences should be rooted in solid liturgical principles. That said, some principles are in legitimate tension and are meant to balance each other. For example, the communal and transcendent dimensions of the liturgy are both important. 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.

Those who advocate greater use of the eastward Eucharistic stance have reasons for our view (or we ought to). Thus we should not be regarded as those who merely have an aesthetic preference, but may have other legitimate reasons for our view. Fundamentally the two most basic concerns focus on the problem of anthropocentrism (the focus is on us, more than God) in modern liturgy and the break with continuity that happened in the 1960s. There are other reasons that I have detailed in previous articles here at the Register. They are also more fully set forth by greater minds than I such as Cardinal Sarah, Pope Emeritus Benedict, and Michael Lang. I request that we who advocate the ad orientem stance be treated more seriously than merely dismissed as troublemakers or nostalgic Catholics.

Further, recent research in the fields of archeology and liturgical history should be taken seriously and applied to the conversation of facing east or the people. Cardinal Estevez summarized this newer research back in 2000 when he was Prefect for the Congregation of Worship:

It appears that the ancient tradition, though not without exception, was that the celebrant and the praying community were turned versus orientem [toward the East], the direction from which the Light which is Christ comes. It is not unusual for ancient churches to be "oriented" so that the priest and the people were turned versus orientem during public prayer.

So, while avoiding antiquarianism, we who advocate ad orientem ask that this research be taken into account.

That said, we who advocate greater use of the ad orientem stance should also listen to the reasons of those advocate the Eucharistic Prayer facing the people. I know many good Catholics who do not agree with my view and I cannot simply regard them as misguided or as those who advocate a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” We cannot simply brush aside the fact that the Eucharistic Prayer facing the people has been celebrated for almost sixty years in many places and is the only way many people have ever experienced Mass. There can be good and spirited conversations when we honestly listen to one another and apply liturgical principles and we can let the course of that conversation unfold and influence practice as it will, rather than seek to control and manipulate outcomes.

In other words, let the conversation continue. The Vatican Press Office cannot simply end a movement that has been proceeding apace for almost three decades. It is likely that, going forward, we are going to see more of the ad orientem stance for the Eucharistic Prayer. Many younger clergy and some younger bishops see value in recovering wider use of the ad orientem. It is also likely that such changes will come slowly—and that is important. Slow and careful reintroduction of this option makes sense, since it involves a big change. Sudden and harsh application of things usually provokes a counter-reaction.

Festina lente (make haste slowly).

Above all, Caritas (Charity)!