Battle Over ‘Ad Orientem’ Mass Heats Up at Vatican

With the Vatican’s apparent support, Cardinal Vincent Nichols discourages the liturgical practice promoted by Cardinal Robert Sarah.

Cardinal Robert Sarah
Cardinal Robert Sarah (photo: CNA/Paul Badde)

Cardinal Robert Sarah’s promotion earlier this month of the ancient liturgical posture ad orientem (facing the east) was met by public disagreement from the Vatican spokesman and a British cardinal.

In his July 5 address at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London, Cardinal Sarah, the prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, encouraged priests and the congregation to face the same direction towards the apse or ad orientem at key parts of the Mass, and stated that the practice of ad orientem in the new rite was already permitted under Church legislation, meaning there is no need for additional liturgical directives. He also revealed that Pope Francis had asked him to make a study of how the ordinary and extraordinary rites of Mass could enrich one another — a key part of the “reform of the reform” movement. As well, he urged pastors to consider celebrating Mass with ad orientem postures, “in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God,” beginning on the First Sunday of Advent.

An email sent afterward by Cardinal Vincent Nichols to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Westminster instructs them to continue offering the ordinary form of Mass versus populum (facing the people), in what appears to be a rebuttal of Cardinal Sarah’s comments

Cardinal Nichols’ email, which was sent on the morning of July 10 to all the clergy of the archdiocese, was swiftly leaked to the public on Twitter and Facebook and was disseminated by news outlets and blogs.

It was prefaced with a short note by the cardinal’s private secretary, Father Alexander Master, saying: “His Eminence sends his thanks to you for all that you do, not least in the celebration of Mass and the sacraments, and an assurance of his prayers.”

“In response to a number of enquiries, in the light of Cardinal Sarah’s recent personal comments, I take this opportunity of reminding all priests of the importance of ensuring that every celebration of the liturgy is carried out with all possible dignity,” the cardinal said. “Whether the celebration of the Mass is simple or elaborate, it should always be characterized by that dignity which helps to raise our minds and hearts to God and which avoids distracting confusion or inappropriate informality.

“I also remind our priests that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, approved by the highest authority in the Church, states in Paragraph 299 that ‘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.’”

Cardinal Nichols concluded, “May I emphasize that the celebration of the Church’s liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste. As the last paragraph of the GIRM states so clearly, ‘The Roman Missal, though in a diversity of languages and with some variety of customs, must in the future be safeguarded as an instrument and an outstanding sign of the integrity and unity of the Roman rite’ (399).”

The Vatican issued a July 11 communiqué in response to the developments, also distancing the Vatican from Cardinal Sarah’s remarks.

The Register emailed Cardinal Nichols and Father Master about whether another archdiocesan statement would be made public for the laity’s guidance. The cardinal was also asked if he would support priests in his archdiocese who wished to implement Cardinal Sarah’s suggestion and whether he was aware of controversy surrounding the English translation of Paragraph 299 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), among other things.

No answer was directly given by the cardinal or Father Master. Instead, Alexander DesForges, the cardinal’s press secretary, replied by reproducing the text of Father Lombardi’s communiqué concerning Cardinal Sarah’s July 5 remarks.

When asked for more specific answers to the questions submitted, DesForges replied that Father Lombardi’s statement was clear in addressing any misconceptions that might have arisen from reports of Cardinal Sarah’s address and that there was nothing further to add.


Faulty Translation?

Cardinal Nichols’ statement has already come under some criticism for relying on what liturgical experts argue is a faulty English translation of GIRM 299.

They claim that a clearer English translation from the Latin, unlike the one given by Cardinal Nichols and Father Lombardi, would read: “The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.”

They argue that it is the separation of altar and wall that is referenced as “useful” rather than “desirable,” and not the priest facing the congregation.

The Congregation for Divine Worship’s clarification of 2000, cited by Cardinal Nichols, says: “It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit [useful] does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people].”

However, Cardinal Nichols’ statement adopts a markedly different tone, referring to GIRM 299 as an “expectation” that “remains in force.”

The issue of liturgical posture in the ordinary form of the Mass is nothing new. Throughout his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI annually celebrated the Mass of the Baptism of the Lord in the Sistine Chapel ad orientem, citing respect for “the beauty and the harmony of this architectural jewel” as his motive.

In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, written when he was a cardinal, Benedict wrote: “A common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance.”


English Ad Orientem Supporters

Speaking via email with the Register, Msgr. Keith Newton, the ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in the U.K., supports Cardinal Sarah and his preference for ad orientem liturgy.

Asked what he thought about Cardinal Sarah’s address, he said: “It is clear that the General Instruction to the Roman Rite does not exclude celebrating Mass ad orientem. However, the way the priest faces will depend on the context of the celebration, especially the architecture of the Church as well as pastoral sensitivity toward those who take part in the liturgy.”

“The rubrics of divine worship — the missal, the rite of Mass provided by the Holy See for the ordinariates — assumes that the priest is celebrating Mass ad orientem, and I would encourage our priests to follow the rubrics if it is appropriate to do so,” Msgr. Newton said.

One of the ordinariate’s chief parishes, Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, is in the Archdiocese of Westminster, where liturgies are regularly celebrated facing east.

The matter has also been addressed by Sacra Liturgia co-organizer Father Michael Uwe Lang, who is parish priest of the London Oratory, located in Cardinal Nichols’ archdiocese. In his 2004 book Turning Towards the Lord, which carries a preface by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Father Lang writes that the rubrics of the Roman Missal presuppose that the priest is already facing the same direction as the people for the core of the Eucharistic liturgy. At other points in the Mass, the rubrics instruct the priest to turn towards the people.

The London Oratory does not have a free-standing altar, meaning all Masses are celebrated ad orientem for both the ordinary and extraordinary forms of the Roman rite of the Mass.

Father Lang was a staff member of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. From 2008 to 2013, he served as a consultor to the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff.

At least one other parish in the archdiocese, Corpus Christi in central London, has seen a restoration of the high altar. The free-standing altar has been removed from the sanctuary and used to embellish a renovated side chapel to Our Lady. All forms of the Mass are now offered exclusively ad orientem.


Pope Francis Weighs In

In what appeared to be a clear rebuff to Cardinal Sarah, Vatican spokesman Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi issued a July 11 communiqué stating that some of Cardinal Sarah’s words have been “incorrectly interpreted, as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.”

The communiqué followed a private meeting between Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah on his return to the Vatican after the cardinal’s address at the Sacra Liturgia conference.

Father Lombardi said it was “good to remember” that rules for Eucharistic celebration are contained in the GIRM, and he also cited Section 299, using the same English translation that has come under scrutiny.

“Therefore, new liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent, as some have incorrectly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words,” Father Lombardi’s statement concluded, along with a recommendation that the phrase “reform of the reform” (which Cardinal Sarah employed in his July 5 speech) not be used because “it may at times give rise to errors.”

Daniel Blackman writes from London.