Father Lombardi: Cardinal Sarah's Ad Orientem Suggestion 'Misinterpreted'

Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi. (photo: Edward Pentin/NCRegister.com)

The Vatican has dismissed what many understood to be an unequivocal invitation by Cardinal Robert Sarah to all priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem (facing east, away from the congregation), saying the cardinal’s words were “misinterpreted”.

In a communiqué released this evening, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said Cardinal Sarah, who is prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, has “always been rightly concerned about the dignity of the celebration of the Mass”.

But he added that some of his expressions were “misinterpreted as if he were announcing new instructions different from the liturgical norms given until now, and the words of the Pope on the celebration of Mass towards the people in the Ordinary rite of the Mass.”     

At the Sacra Liturgia conference in London July 5, Cardinal Sarah made what many thought was an "historic" announcement when he said it was “very important” that all priests begin celebrating Mass facing east. (The east has significance as the place where the sun rises, symbolizing the resurrection of Christ and his second coming, and Masses used to usually only be celebrated this way before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council). By doing so, he said, it would ensure that “in our celebrations, the Lord is truly at the center.”

“Your own pastoral judgment will determine how and when this is possible, but perhaps beginning this on the first Sunday of Advent this year… may be a very good time to do this,” he suggested. 

Cardinal Sarah also made a clear appeal to bishops to adopt the practice, asking them to “lead your priests and people towards the Lord in this way”, and to “form your seminarians that we are not called to the priesthood to be at the centre of liturgical worship ourselves, but to lead Christ’s faithful to him as fellow worshippers.”

The full text of Cardinal Sarah's talk can be read here.

But in his communiqué, Father Lombardi said it was “good to remember” that rules for Eucharistic celebration are contained in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), specifically number 299, which states: “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.”

Although Cardinal Sarah made no distinction between the Ordinary and Extraordinary forms of the Mass, Father Lombardi said that Pope Francis, when he recently visited the Congregation for Divine Worship, “specifically mentioned” that the form Ordinary form of the Mass is that provided by the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while the Extroardinary form (based on the pre-1962 Missal and which always has the ad orientem practice) “must not take the place of the Ordinary.” In other words, Father Lombardi wanted to make clear that Masses celebrated facing east do not have to apply to the Ordinary form of the Mass.

Father Lombardi added: “There are therefore no new liturgical directives foreseen from next Advent, as some have wrongly inferred from some of the words of Cardinal Sarah, and it is best to avoid using the expression ‘reform of the reform’ when referring to the liturgy, as it's sometimes been a source of misunderstandings.”

In his talk last week, Cardinal Sarah had also said that an official reform of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council cannot be dismissed, and that in April 2015, Francis had asked him "to study the question of the ‘reform of the reform,’ looking at how the two forms can enrich one another.” 

Father Lombardi concluded by saying that all of what he had said in his communique "was unanimously expressed during a recent audience granted by the Pope to the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.”

Cardinal Sarah met the Pope in private audience on Saturday, soon after his return from London.  

Father Lombardi’s comments follow a concerted attempt by some to reject Cardinal Sarah’s invitation to all priests to celebrate Mass ad orientem.

Papal advisor Father Antonio Spadaro SJ published several tweets last week quoting from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal that emphasised Mass "facing the people", while Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster went so far as to send a letter to all the priests of his diocese discouraging them from celebrating the Mass facing east.