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.

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  • John D. Horton

    Father is wrong on so many points:

    Vatican II, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, in no place specifically mandates or authorizes “Mass Facing the People.” During the preparatory years leading up Vatican II (1959 – 1962) catholic scholars / heretics (Karl Rahner, SJ, Michael Herbert, John Courtney Murray, SJ, etc.) were advocating the following of all Protestant practices (e.g. Mass facing the people).

    The “Liturgical Movement” (1830 – 1962) advocated the rubrics of the Mass as celebrated by Christ at the Last Supper. The custom of eating meals at the time of Christ was to “recline” (i.e. laying your body on the floor propping yourself up on your left elbow and using your right hand as a fork, “he who dips (his right hand) with me,” Mark 14:20, Matthew 26:23) which is still done in the Middle East. “Dining room tables” with seats for the dinners are an invention of the nobility during the Middle Ages. It was seen by the proponents of the Liturgical Movement as too extreme to have the priest and faithful laying on the floor to be historically accurate in repeating the Last Supper. In other words: there were no “dining room tables” so we don’t need to be gathered around the dining room table at Mass to have a communion service.

    The priest is at an “altar” offering a “sacrifice” to God who is represented as existing or coming from the direction of “liturgical east” (the direction of the rising sun representing Christ and the New Jerusalem, i.e. God’s new kingdom displacing the Old Covenant). Therefore, it has been the constant practice of the Church to have all people (priest and laity) at Mass face liturgical East so the practice of “Mass Facing the People” is an erroneous practice attributed to Vatican II but not authorized and definitely not mandated by Vatican II.

    The jackhammering and bulldozing of Tridentine altars the absolute second following Pope Paul VI signature on the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy is simply a case of psychological “Mass / mass” hysteria by priests and bishops who had always wanted to be Protestant heretics anyway.

    In other words, the offering of the “Mass Facing the People” is canonically and rubrically irregular and a symptom of the apostasy of all clergy (pope, bishops, priests) from the actual written words of the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.” This is a case of the “Spirit of Vatican II” (i.e. not authorized by law, rule or regulation) run amuck and incorporating Protestant worship behavior into the Catholic Mass.

  • Francis

    John, Fr. Erickson is not wrong on all points above. He actually is not even directly addressing the points you make in your comments. I am with you on them and feel your pain and outrage. Fr. Ericsson does says many believed that worshipping ad orientem at Mass was one of the things the reforms after VC II WAS TO CORRECT. We know in hindsight that the documents from VC II encouraged no such reform, yet many believed it did. I pray that you and I join in prayer that the holiest worship of God our Father through the New Covenant in Christ’s Blood, the Sacrifice of the Mass, become the most holy worship on earth at every Mass by using the holiest of words, the holiest actions, and the holiest Spirit. Francis