Whatever priest’s posture, eucharistic prayer about God

| Father John Paul Erickson | July 21, 2016 | 2 Comments
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the Vatican in this Oct. 9, 2012, file photo. Cardinal Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, has encouraged priests to begin celebrating the Eucharist facing east, the same direction the congregation faces. Cardinal Sarah made his request during a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London  July 5. CNS/Paul Haring

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the Vatican in this Oct. 9, 2012, file photo. Cardinal Sarah, the Vatican’s liturgy chief, has encouraged priests to begin celebrating the Eucharist facing east, the same direction the congregation faces. Cardinal Sarah made his request during a speech at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London July 5. CNS/Paul Haring

A few weeks ago at a liturgical conference in England, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Cardinal Robert Sarah, created quite a stir by enthusiastically and publicly advocating for the widespread use of “ad orientem” within the Catholic Mass beginning this coming Advent.

“Ad orientem,” or “toward the East,” is the term used to describe the orientation of the priest when he stands facing the same direction as the people during the eucharistic prayer.

Cardinal Sarah’s remarks have become the focus of great debate and discussion within the Catholic blogosphere and among liturgists, despite some clarifications issued by the Holy See, as well as by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ own liturgy office, indicating that the cardinal’s words are in no way to be understood as an official declaration of a new liturgical norm, and no bishop or priest should feel bound to follow the cardinal’s recommendation on this matter. Still, why did his eminence feel compelled to advocate, even unofficially, a change in the posture at the Mass?

The position of the priest “ad orientem” — oftentimes pejoratively described as celebrating Mass “with his back to the people”— was the common posture of the priest for centuries in most Catholic churches around the world prior to the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms. In light of the grave importance that the liturgical reform placed on the full and active participation of the people of God within the Mass, it was thought that turning the priest around to face the congregation during the celebration of the eucharistic prayer would provide greater access to the mysteries being celebrated.

But contrary to widespread opinion, the celebration of the eucharistic prayer “ad orientem” has never been abolished, and indeed it remains a legitimate option for celebrants praying the current form of the Roman Mass. Those who advocate for its widespread return and mourn its nearly universal loss do so out of a desire to keep all — priest and people alike — mindful of the one to whom the Mass is directed — God the Father, through Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. The posture of the priest “ad orientem,” which merely imitates the posture of the assembly, signifies in a powerful way that the priest is not the center or focus of the Mass. Rather, he, like the people of God from which he comes and whom he serves, must keep his eyes fixed on the Father to whom he addresses and to whom the people pray.

Regrettably, the posture of the priest “ad orientem” has become associated in the minds of many with all that the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical reforms sought to correct, especially a distancing of the priest and the people in the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass.

Because of this, and because of the widespread familiarity with Mass celebrated “facing the people,” a return to Mass “ad orientem” requires extensive explanation and catechesis, more than is possible in a brief newspaper column. Pastoral prudence must also be exercised. Furthermore, changes in how we pray the Mass should never be undertaken lightly, as they directly impact the life of faith of the people of God, as Pope Benedict XVI so wisely pointed out. Stability in worship is a good to be preserved and guarded, even at the cost of other great goods.

The Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, and conversations about how we pray it are important. But whether or not we worship “ad orientem” or “versus populum” (toward the people), we must keep the eyes of our heart fixed upon the Most Merciful Father, whom we worship through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. I hope we can all agree on this.

Father Erickson is the director of the Office of Worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and pastor of Blessed Sacrament in St. Paul.

Tags: , , ,

Category: Featured, The Local Church