By John Vennari
The September 2009 issue of Eastern Oklahoma Catholic featured a brief article by Bishop Edward J. Slattery, Ordinary of the Diocese of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Bishop explains why he has ceased the practice of Mass facing the people, and now celebrates Mass facing the altar (ad orientem).
Bishop Slattery opens by explaining the Mass as "Christ's sacrifice under the sacramental signs of bread and wine", and goes on to explain that the people share in this offering, which is done through the priest.
"From ancient times, the position of the priest and the people reflected this understanding of the Mass," writes Bishop Slattery, "since the people prayed, standing or kneeling, in the place that visibly corresponded to Our Lord's Body, while the priest at the altar stood at the head as the Head, We formed the whole Christ – Head and members – both sacramentally by Baptism and visibly by our position and posture. Just as importantly, everyone – celebrant and congregation – faced the same direction, since they were united with Christ in offering to the Father Christ's unique, unrepeatable and acceptable sacrifice."
He points out that when we study the most ancient liturgical practices of the Church, "we find that the priest and the people faced in the same direction, toward the east, in the expectation that when Christ returns, He will return `from the East'. At Mass, the Church keeps vigil, waiting for that return. This single position is called ad orientem, which simply means `toward the East'."
He then speaks of the multiple advantages of Mass ad orientem:
The Bishop says, "Having the priest and people celebrate Mass ad orientem was the liturgical norm for nearly 18 centuries. There must have been solid reasons for the Church to have held on to this posture for so long. And there were! First of all, the Catholic liturgy has always maintained a marvelous adherence to the Apostolic Tradition. We see the Mass, indeed the whole liturgical expression of the Church's life, as something which we have received from the Apostles and which we, in turn, are expected to hand on intact. (1 Corinthians 11:23)."
Secondly, the Bishop continues, "the Church held on to this single eastward position because of the sublime way it reveals the nature of the Mass. Even someone unfamiliar with the Mass who reflected upon the celebrant and the faithful being oriented in the same direction would recognize that the priest stands at the head of the people, sharing in one and the same action, which was – he would note with a moment's longer reflection – an act of worship."
He then makes the point: "In the last 40 years, however, this shared orientation was lost; now the priest and the people have become accustomed to facing in opposite directions. The priest faces the people while the people face the priest, even though the Eucharistic Prayer is directed to the Father and not to the people."
Bishop Slattery never refers to Mass facing the people as some sort of recovery of an ancient tradition, but clearly speaks of it as an "innovation" that took place after Vatican II – an innovation with negative consequences.
The introduction of this novelty, he says, was "partly to help the people understand the liturgical action of the Mass by allowing them to see what was going on, and partly as an accommodation to contemporary culture where people who exercise authority are expected to face directly the people they serve, like a teacher sitting behind her desk."
He then sums up in three quick points the negative consequences of this innovation: "First of all, it was a serious rupture with the Church's ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage."
The Bishop goes on to note that Pope Benedict, even as Cardinal Ratzinger, urged a recovery of more authentic Catholic worship based on the ancient liturgical practice, "For that reason," says Bishop Slattery, "I have restored the venerable ad orientem position when I celebrate Mass at the Cathedral. This change ought not to be misconstrued as the Bishop `turning his back on the faithful,' as if I am being inconsiderate or hostile. Such an interpretation misses the point that, by facing in the same direction, the posture of the celebrant and the congregation make explicit the fact that we journey together to God."
We may hope the Bishop's words and example help to lead not simply to a "reform of the reform" of the Novus Ordo, but ultimately to greater numbers of priests abandoning the New Rite, and celebrating exclusively the Latin Tridentine Mass. May more priests and prelates come to realize what Cardinal Ottaviani recognized, and what he wrote to Pope Paul VI on September 25, 1969: "The Novus Ordo Missae … represents, both as a whole and in its details, a striking departure from the Catholic theology of the Mass as it was formulated in Session 22 of the Council of Trent."
Godwin Xuereb, President, Pro Tridentina (Malta)'s comment: A very interesting article, although I am not totally in favour of what the author stated in the last paragraph. It is interesting to note that in Malta too, some priests are celebrating Mass ad orientem.