A Pastor Reflects on Cardinal Sarah’s Call to Face East Together

Victor Meirelles (1832–1903), "The First Mass in Brazil"
Victor Meirelles (1832–1903), "The First Mass in Brazil" (photo: Register Files)

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Register on May 31, 2016. It is being reprinted after Cardinal Sarah, in a July 5 address, renewed his call and asked that all Catholic priests start offering Mass ‘ad orientem’ beginning on the First Sunday of Advent.]

Count me among those who are delighted to hear Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, say, “It is essential that the priest and faithful look together towards the east.” He refers here in particular to the Eucharistic Prayer, not to the Liturgy of the Word, which is rightly directed toward the people.

But the Eucharistic Prayer is directed to God the Father. The Priest, acting in persona Christi, proclaims to the Father the great and perfect worship and thanksgiving of Christ the head, who speaks and prays for all the members of his body, the Church. Even the words of consecration, “Take this all of you and eat of it…” is directed to the Father, rooting the current liturgy in the once for all perfect Sacrifice of Christ on the Altar of the Cross. Priests should not try and “reenact” the Last Supper by staring intently at the people as he says, “Take this all of you and eat of it.” No, even these words are directed to the Father.

So the stance of the Eucharistic prayer is outward and upward to the Father, to whom all glory and honor is directed, though, with and in Jesus and in the unity of the Holy Spirit.

But all this is cloaked and, I would argue, muddled when the priest faces the people. At best he can try to look upward as he prays the Eucharistic prayer. But it is odd and awkward to be facing people and at the same time appear to be speaking past them to Another.

So the whole stance of the Eucharistic prayer is currently awkward and backward. Everyone should be looking toward and yearning for the Father and the Lord who comes. But instead we have a closed circle, we are turned in our ourselves and not outward to God at the very moment when he (not we) are the focus of attention.

Some will object that Mass facing the people helps them to see and helps emphasize the meal aspect of Mass. But of course the Priest holds aloft the consecrated host and Chalice at particular moments, but otherwise, what is there to see?

And the Mass may be a meal, but it is also a sacrifice and an act of perfect worship of the Father, through the Son in union with the Holy Spirit. And even as a meal, it is no ordinary meal, it is a sacred meal, a Passover meal. The Passover meal, which likely served as the context of the first Mass, was celebrated very formally and emphasized a people on pilgrimage. The most ancient dictums said they were to celebrate the meal as a people in flight out of the Egypt of this world, with their loins girt, sandals on their feet and a staff in their hand (see Exodus 12:11). Thus, however one conceives of the meal of the Last Supper it was no ordinary meal and Jesus spent extensive time praying and talking with his Father on behalf of the disciples (See Jn 17).

There are also many flawed notions of the liturgies in the so-called “house-churches” of the pre-Constantine era. These were not liturgies informally celebrated on dining room tables. They were quite formal and celebrated facing East as many ancient documents (such as the Didascalia) and recent excavations (such as Dura Europa) make clear. Recent scholarship has largely debunked the “simple meal” quality of such liturgies that were cherished in the 1950s as the idea of Mass facing the people was conceived.

Thus, it would seem well demonstrated that the current widespread practice of celebrating the Eucharistic prayer facing the people is a 20th Century novelty almost unknown in the ancient Church. The rare exceptions were just that: rare.  Better scholars than I have dealt with this topic at length and have concluded similarly.

So count me among those who applaud Cardinal Sarah’s appeal.

However, I am sadly dubious that much will come of it until a significant number of bishops become more convinced. Cardinal Ratzinger has made the appeal for the historical superiority of the Eastward Eucharistic prayer for decades. Yet, even as Pope he seldom celebrated the Mass that way. Cardinal Sarah is the Prefect of the Congregation for Worship, and I pray we will see him celebrate Mass in this manner more frequently and publicly. But to date I have not seen that happen. Perhaps it has, so please correct me.

As a pastor I have taken steps to re-acclimate the people in my parish with this manner of celebrating the Eucharist. At daily Masses we have made more use of it in both in our chapel and by using the “Lady Altar” in Church which is a traditional one against the wall. Our main “High altar” is still intact and I have occasionally used it to teach and demonstrate Mass in this way at Sunday liturgies too. I also celebrate the Extraordinary Form several times a year for special feasts.  

Generally, people understand the teaching about the Eastward liturgy, and like seeing the Mass in this way. But most are averse to switching in a permanent or total way. People generally don’t like a lot of change no matter how substantial the intellectual arguments. This is just my congregation, which is diverse and urban.

As a priest, and a man under authority I must also say that I have concerns about making a substantial change, particularly one that is envisioned as permanent, without some consultation with my bishop. Some more impatient traditionalists call me a coward for this and insist that I have no need for permission of any sort. Juridically, they may be right, but in the order of charity it is important to look for unity and avoid dividing out God’s people over an issue that currently is not widely accepted or understood. The bishop remains the chief liturgist of his diocese and priests have some obligation to respect his wishes. I do not say this as a canon lawyer (which I am not) but as a man who put his hands inside the bishop’s and promised him (and his successors) obedience and respect.

As my own experience indicates the “just do it” mentality may please some (including me), but it will also alarm others who may not be ready for such a substantial change that is happening only in their parish, but not other places, and not at the basilica or cathedral. Pushing too fast may stir up a hornet’s nest that leads to an over-reaction and a clamping down on a freedom we currently enjoy to employ the Eastward liturgy.

My current stance is therefore to employ this option in special settings and to reintroduce it gradually in wider settings and on Sundays. But without leadership from the Bishops I think individual priests have to be content to go slow and look for organic growth in re-acclimating God’s people to our true tradition and stance.

I am aware of at least two bishops in this country who have given encouragement to the Eastward liturgy through pastoral letters and the celebration of the liturgy that way in their Cathedrals. I personally hope that more Bishops will take encouragement from Cardinal Sarah, and also signal their priests that teaching on this matter and, with pastoral prudence, gradually reintroducing the eastward Eucharistic prayer is praiseworthy and will not break unity or charity with him. 

Meanwhile, the lay faithful can also play a part by encouraging their clergy and writing their bishops. Little by little we may actually turn the tide and turn our altar more consistently where they belong, liturgically, historically and devotionally. To God be the glory.