‘Ad Orientem’: Back to the Liturgical Future

COMMENTARY: Celebration of the Mass with the priest and people facing together toward the altar is the best corrective for the liturgical abuses of recent decades.

There is one step, a powerful short-cut, to the liturgical discipline that Pope Francis is demanding: ad orientem.
There is one step, a powerful short-cut, to the liturgical discipline that Pope Francis is demanding: ad orientem. (photo: PIGAMA / Shutterstock)

Is widespread ad orientemtoward the [liturgical] east — celebration of the Holy Mass the future?

Not immediately so, but there are reasons to think that it may indeed become so over the next 10 to 20 years. The alternatives to ad orientem celebration — where the priest and people together face the same direction toward the altar — have been tried and found wanting. 

Ad orientem celebration does not necessarily mean the “traditional Latin Mass,” “Tridentine Mass” or “Extraordinary Form.” While that form of Mass — as had been the constant practice from antiquity until the 1960s — was always celebrated ad orientem, the current Missal of Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II can be celebrated ad orientem and in any language. Indeed, the rubrics of the current Missal presume Mass ad orientem rather than Mass versus populum, facing the people. 

What is presumed may become more widely practiced. There are reasons to think so.


Fifteen Years After Summorum Pontificum

The 15th anniversary of the implementation of Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum was a difficult one for those attached to what he called the “extraordinary form” of the Holy Mass. Pope Francis abrogated Summorum Pontificum, which took effect on Sept. 14, 2007, with Traditionis Custodes, July 16, 2021. 

Subsequent restrictions decreed by some diocesan bishops have canceled celebrations of the extraordinary form, relegated them to school gyms and prohibited inclusion of Mass times is the parish bulletin — a rather pointed measure, but also pointless in the age of digital communication. 

While the main purpose of Traditionis Custodes was to limit the extraordinary form, Pope Francis also wrote that:

“… at the same time, I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that “in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.”

Furthermore, Pope Francis wrote to the bishops in July 2021:

“At the same time, I ask you to be vigilant in ensuring that every liturgy be celebrated with decorum and fidelity to the liturgical books promulgated after Vatican Council II, without the eccentricities that can easily degenerate into abuses.” 

One of the side effects of Traditionis Custodes is that greater attention is being given to such “distortions” and “eccentricities.” A bishop who restricts the extraordinary form but does nothing about sacrileges elsewhere quickly loses credibility as the supreme moderator of the liturgy in his diocese.


Liturgy Instructions Ignored

As one would have expected, the vast majority of bishops in the world have ignored Traditionis Custodes altogether. For most, the extraordinary form had such a miniscule presence in their dioceses that it would seem unnecessary to strictly regulate it. Even in those countries where the extraordinary form has a more significant presence — United States, United Kingdom, France — the majority of bishops have decided, perceiving no pressing problem, to leave well enough alone

That is not any reflection on Pope Francis or the substance of Traditionis Custodes. It is the normal practice when Rome issues liturgical guidelines. Rome is ignored if it proves inconvenient locally. That’s why Pope Francis could quote Benedict XVI on liturgical abuses as if nothing had changed in the interim. Rarely does any Roman decree have wide effect on liturgical practice, save for the issuance of new liturgical books.


Four Decades of Corrections

It was rather early in the post-Vatican II liturgical reform that the “unbearable distortions” that Pope Francis denounces crept in. It caused Pope St. Paul VI great distress, as did so much of the immediate post-conciliar turmoil.

Pope St. John Paul II thus began a sustained campaign to rein in abuses, while maintaining the reform itself. 

A significant and substantial effort was made in 1980, less than 18 months after his election. He wrote a lengthy letter to all the bishops of the world, Dominicae Cenae, which was a detailed exposition of Eucharistic theology and a call for strict adherence to liturgical norms. 

“[The priest] cannot consider himself a “proprietor” who can make free use of the liturgical text and of the sacred rite as if it were his own property, in such a way as to stamp it with his own arbitrary personal style. At times this latter might seem more effective, and it may better correspond to subjective piety; nevertheless, objectively it is always a betrayal of that union which should find its proper expression in the sacrament of unity” (12).

Two months later, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued Inaestimabile Donum, lamenting “varied and frequent abuses,” “confusion of roles” and “an increasing loss of the sense of the sacred.” The CDW professed itself as coming “face to face with a real falsification of the Catholic Liturgy.” The document included specific instructions to remedy the various abuses.

That full frontal assault on liturgical abuse, early in an energetic pontificate, had some effect — but not as much as it ought to have had. 

Thus, at the other end of his long pontificate, John Paul tried another time. He wrote Ecclesia de Eucharistia in 2003, another lengthy meditation on Eucharistic theology, which included, yet again, an “urgent appeal that the liturgical norms for the celebration of the Eucharist be observed with great fidelity. … Liturgy is never anyone’s private property, be it of the celebrant or of the community in which the mysteries are celebrated” (52).

And again, the Congregation for Divine Worship followed up with an even more comprehensive document on liturgical practice, Redemptionis Sacramentum. Issued in 2004, it treats all manner of liturgical practice in painstakingly detail. The language could not be more blunt:

“Anyone who acts by giving free reign to his own inclinations, even if he is a priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite. … Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ’s faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. … The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ’s faithful.” 

What was decried in 2004, 24 years after John Paul’s first efforts in 1980, would again be decried by Benedict XVI in 2007 and Pope Francis in 2021. The exhortations from Rome have been constant. Improvements have resulted to be sure, but problems persist.


The Desire of Desiderio Desideravi

After the turbulence in some parts of the Church arising from Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis issued a letter on the liturgy this past June 29, Desiderio Desideravi, which is in rather remarkable continuity with John Paul’s final encyclical on the Eucharist.

 “There is no aspect of ecclesial life that does not find its summit and its source in the Liturgy,” writes Pope Francis (37). He speaks about the need to recapture an experience of “amazement,” “astonishment” and “wonder.” And he reiterates, like his predecessors:

Let us be clear here: every aspect of the celebration must be carefully tended to (space, time, gestures, words, objects, vestments, song, music …) and every rubric must be observed. Such attention would be enough to prevent robbing from the assembly what is owed to it; namely, the paschal mystery celebrated according to the ritual that the Church sets down” (23)”


Back to the Back

How then is the desire of Pope Francis in Desiderio to be achieved? Can an authentic “liturgical formation” be achieved? After all these efforts over these many years, can abuses be curbed and lead anew to wonder and amazement? The nearly 50-year complaint about arbitrary license being taken with the liturgy has not, evidently, been corrected entirely, even if the scale of the problem has diminished. 

There is one step, a powerful short-cut, to the liturgical discipline that Pope Francis is demanding: ad orientem.

Sometimes derided as the priest “with his back to the people” — as if a drum major has his back to the marching band which he leads — it is surely true that nearly all liturgical abuses cease when the priest is not facing the people. It always remains possible to celebrate Holy Mass in a slipshod or sloppy manner, hurriedly or distractedly, but ad orientem removes most of the opportunity for taking liberties with the liturgy.

The abrogation of Summorum Pontificum means that Benedict’s strategy for “mutually enriching” forms of celebration is no longer an easily available option for liturgical reform. It also means that, practically, much of the energy that was absorbed in developing the extraordinary form will need another outlet. Ad orientem will absorb some of those energies. 

And after three popes over 40 years have attempted to correct abuses in the liturgy and restore a sense of wonder and awe, it is evident that another papal document or congregational instruction will do little good.

It’s time try something different, to go back to the liturgical future.