How to Popularize ‘Ad Orientem’ Without Disorienting People

Here’s how to better acquaint God’s people with the beauty and naturalness of the ad orientem posture at Mass

José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), “Hearing Mass, Rocafort”
José Benlliure y Gil (1855–1937), “Hearing Mass, Rocafort” (photo: Public Domain)

I have written many times on the orientation of the priest for the Eucharistic Prayer. I strongly prefer an eastward (ad orientem) posture, in which the priest and God’s people all face in the same direction toward the Lord as the Eucharistic Prayer is prayed. Rather than restate all the reasons for my preference here, I direct you to what I have previously written (here , here , and here).

While I would like to see the eastward orientation restored, I am aware that many, even among doctrinally strong Catholics, are uneasy about the move. Further, many bishops remain unconvinced of its merits and see the push from individual priests as hostile to liturgical unity in their diocese. That a priest is permitted by the norms to say Mass ad orientem is beyond dispute, but bishops must often field complaints and do have an interest in ensuring that liturgical practice in their diocese not become divided by numerous idiosyncrasies.

Traditionalists have legitimate concerns about a rather selective enforcement of liturgical norms. It seems that every possible abuse is permitted to flourish, but let a priest say Mass facing to the east and suddenly there is great scrutiny and pressure to conform to “norms.” I do understand their concern, even if it only about customs.

All that said, one can’t ask reality to be something other than what it is. The fact is, most people see the eastward orientation as a very big change. As such, it is bound to be controversial; simply presenting scholarly arguments isn’t going to be enough to warm many people up to the idea. Those of us who see value in this orientation are going to have to do a lot more to accustom people to the idea.

A further obstacle is that not all priests, even those open to the ad orientem posture, are willing to withstand the ire of their bishop in such a matter—and perhaps that is a good thing. Bishops do moderate the liturgy in their dioceses and priests should instinctively want to maintain unity with their bishop. There may be times when it is best for a priest to accept his bishop’s preference rather than insist upon his rights. This is less a question of law than one of prudence and respect. Upon ordination, every priest promises respect and obedience to his ordinary. Thus, if a bishop indicates that he does not want Mass to be celebrated ad orientem as a general practice, a priest should think long and hard before insisting upon his right to make that consistent change in his parish.

With all this in mind, I wonder if those of us who support the eastward orientation for the Eucharistic Prayer might consider some more subtle ways of acclimating the faithful to it. There are a number of points in the liturgy and in liturgical practice when the celebrant is addressing a prayer to God and can make this more obvious by “facing” God. In some of the examples that follow, I presume a traditional setup in the sanctuary, such that the crucifix is prominently displayed near the center and the celebrant’s chair is off to one side at an angle somewhat facing the people. With such a setup, some of the following suggestions can help us to “edge east” and accustom people to the fundamental norm that we ought to face toward God as we address Him.

  • In the Eucharistic liturgy, the opening rites are most often conducted at the chair, which is often off to the side of the altar and angled toward the people in some fashion. Although the priest rightly faces the people to greet them liturgically and to summon them to the penitential rite, there is nothing to prevent him from turning toward the crucifix and/or tabernacle for the Confiteor and/or Kyrie, when he and the people are together beseeching God’s mercy.
  • For the Gloria, too, the priest can face the crucifix.
  • For the Opening Prayer, the priest can face the people and say, “Let us pray.” Then, after the silent pause directed by the rubric, he can shift noticeably to face the crucifix and/or tabernacle to offer the prayer.
  • At the recitation of the Creed, there is nothing to prevent the priest from doing something similar.
  • At the Prayer of the Faithful, the priest can face toward the people to introduce the prayer and then turn to face the crucifix and/or tabernacle while he reads the prayers (or the prayers are read by others).
  • The Prayer after Communion can be conducted in a similar fashion.

The point in all of these examples is to reacquaint God’s people (in small ways) with the suitability of facing God together when we pray to Him. This can pave the way to a better understanding of the appropriateness of doing so in the Eucharistic prayers. The Eucharistic Prayer is not a re-enactment of the Last Supper; the words of the prayer are wholly directed to God the Father. This is true even of the words of consecration, which are directed to the Father, not announced to the people as if the priest were reenacting what Jesus did at the Last Supper.

There are also many opportunities to adopt this posture outside of Mass:

  • When a priest enters a classroom of children, he usually leads them in a prayer. When doing so, he can face the crucifix and invite the children to join him in doing so as well.
  • The same can be done at most parish meetings. Hopefully most parish rooms have a crucifix prominently displayed. Rather than merely bowing his head toward the people, the priest can face the crucifix.
  • Teachers and leaders can and should be encouraged to do this at meetings and gatherings as well.
  • Eucharistic Benediction can and should always be conducted with the priest and the people facing the monstrance together. The priest can give the benediction from the people’s side of the altar rather than moving behind the altar to do give the blessing.
  • Litanies, rosaries, and other prayers can always be done facing the crucifix, the altar, or an image of the Lord or the saints.

In some cases, the priest may need rearrange the sanctuary a bit to ensure that it is clear when he is facing toward the Lord. Is a crucifix prominent and central in the sanctuary? Ideally the crucifix and tabernacle are located near each other. Is the celebrant’s chair at an angle that permits him to face in different directions? If a microphone is needed, perhaps a clip-on can be worn to permit greater flexibility of movement.

In meeting rooms and classrooms, is a crucifix (or other image of God or the saints) prominently displayed so as to provide a clear focus for a prayer? Ideally all such rooms should have a crucifix displayed front and center.

In ways such as this we can “edge to the east” and introduce a fairly simple insight: that we should face the Lord or an image of Him as we pray to Him. For many, the idea of turning the altar is disconcerting, but perhaps after some steady training in these other, smaller ways the concept will seem less jarring and more of a natural thing to do.

Edge East! It may take time, but patient teaching and diligent example may win the day, whereas introducing abrupt, striking change may incite fear and opposition.



This post originally appeared Jan. 2, 2018, at the Register.