‘Ad Orientem’: Right Worship Leads to Right Conduct

COMMENTARY: Reflections on the Exhortation of Cardinal Robert Sarah

Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday in the chapel of Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston.
Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday in the chapel of Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. (photo: 2009 Wikipedia/John Stephen Dwyer)

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, drew sustained applause for his remarks at the annual Sacra Liturgia conference on liturgical formation in London.

While his remarks reflecting on insights from Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the sacred liturgy, were noteworthy, it was his closing words that generated the most energy and enthusiasm: He enjoined all priests present to begin celebrating holy Mass ad orientem (facing the east) by the First Sunday of Advent.

This exhortation and the specific target date were widely reported throughout the Church precisely because this clarion call comes from the prefect charged with overseeing the liturgical/sacramental life of the Church. Of course, this does not have the effect and force of law, but to focus solely on the juridic nature of his exhortation or the difficulties its implementation presents misses the importance of what the cardinal has been attempting to convey about the sacred liturgy throughout his tenure as prefect.

This is not the first time Cardinal Sarah has spoken specifically about the theological significance of returning to a common orientation of the faithful and the priest during the celebration of those parts of the Mass that are addressed to God.

In both L’Osservatore Romano and Famille Chretienne newspapers, Cardinal Sarah reminded the Church that it is appropriate and legitimately within the context of the thought and teaching of the Second Vatican Council that “everyone, priest and faithful, turn together toward the east, so as to express their intention to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ.”

The cardinal’s concern for a common posture and this specific posture results from his correct understanding of the very nature of liturgy itself. He reminds us, “[T]he liturgy is the door of our union with God”; and without this correct understanding, we are in danger of turning the liturgy into something solely human and at times devoid of the presence of God.

As such, the liturgy exists to offer the faithful an opportunity to participate in the work of Christ, who draws us into Trinitarian communion. As the Second Vatican Council taught: “… every liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the Priest and of his Body, which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7).

Every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should reflect its paramount importance in the life of the Church. The prefect’s exhortation is meant to assist priests and bishops in keeping God at the center of every liturgical celebration and, as a consequence, keeping God at the center of our lives.

Cardinal Sarah’s comments continue the liturgical vision of Pope Benedict XVI, who understood rightly that right worship leads to right conduct. It is only when we celebrate all the sacraments, especially holy Mass, according to the mind of God that we are then able to do the things of God.

It might be rightly concluded that the current cultural climate and its many excesses can only be corrected when everyone returns to a faithful, proper adoration of God. It follows how significant it is that the priest and the faithful face the Lord when addressing the Lord, as the most concrete expression of our desire to configure ourselves to the God that we worship.

It is this complete configuration to Christ that makes it possible for us to live the life of Christ, who draws us into deep, abiding union with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Without a vibrant and properly oriented liturgical life, the Church will continuously struggle to convince the faithful to lead a correct moral life.

There is an inexplicable connection between proper adoration given to God and the ability of men to lead sanctified lives. Cardinal Sarah is offering the Church an opportunity to recapture an ancient and still legitimate practice that will greatly assist the whole Church in combating the moral decline of this current age.

Some will argue that this exhortation lacking the approval of the Pope does not have the force of law and therefore will be difficult, if not impossible, to implement. Furthermore, this lack of papal approbation will create problems for those priests who attempt to do this in their parishes, possibly bringing them into conflict with their bishops.

While this is true and possible, it obscures the true significance of Cardinal Sarah’s exhortation. He has made public what has long been discussed in private and provided a legitimate and powerful voice to a necessary conversation in the Church. Cardinal Sarah has correctly pointed out that there is no conflict in the current missal with celebrating Mass ad orientem, this despite the debates that exist regarding the missal. Immediately after Cardinal Sarah’s address, Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, openly discouraged his priests from celebrating ad orientem, citing the possibility of creating disunity and a misinterpretation of the current missal (299). The confusion created by Cardinal Nichols’ unfortunate response should not deter my brother priests from courageously responding to Cardinal Sarah’s exhortation.

Those of us who would choose to celebrate Mass ad orientem and joyfully welcome this opportunity in the life of the Church have waited a long time — not for legislation, but for clear, vocal support; and with Cardinal Sarah’s clarion call, we have received such support.

It is hoped by this author that priests and bishops alike will pay attention to the thought and words of the prefect and offer to the faithful the most fitting means to praise and worship the God who saves us.

Msgr. C. Eugene Morris is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He holds graduate degrees

in theology and Church history from the Kenrick School of Theology and a licentiate

in sacred theology from the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome.