Ad Orientum

In a previous assignment I served the good people of Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Tampa, FL. It is a beautiful church in its cathedral-like construction dating back to the early 1900s. One Sunday morning with the 10:30 am Mass just complete, I was standing out on the front sidewalk greeting people. At that point a clearly agitated man came up to me and in a rather loud and demanding voice, wanted to know why I had not celebrated the Mass in Latin. The person was not a parishioner. He was a tourist and a guest of our fair city. I explained it was not something that had been asked for by the parish and then offered the two places nearby in which a Latin Mass would be celebrated. At that point the man offered that I was probably “too stupid to learn Latin.” I should have said, “Potesne Latine loqui?” (Pretty sure the question would have been received with a blank stare) Instead, I quietly replied that I was old enough to have served as an altar boy in the Latin Mass and was familiar. In no uncertain terms he questioned my honesty, at which point the ushers removed him from the sidewalk and requested he move along. I guess I should thank my maternal genetics – mom never looked her age either.

In more recent times, there is the motu proprio of Pope Francis limiting the celebration of the Tridentine (Latin) Mass to places that were not erected as parish churches. There was lots of conversation about the decision. Here in this diocese, there were 27 parishes that had held Latin Masses, attendance at the Masses was less than 1% of Catholics in the diocese. It seems to me that it is a lot more popular with the clergy than the faithful. And that is fine. What can be problematic is when the celebration of the Latin Mass occupies a premier place on the weekend Mass schedule and is held up as “more authentic” and the way in which “real Catholics” celebrate. Those quoted phrases were taken from a pamphlet that was mailed to me (…and all the clergy of the diocese?)

Inserted into the pamphlet was an argument for the celebration of all Masses (English or Latin) ad orientum, that is facing to the East during the celebration of the Mass. Again, the sense of the argument was that it is “more authentic” and historical. The author cited one writing of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – failing to mention that he was not Pope, but rather Cardinal Ratzinger at the time – and, when Pope, did not implement the policy when he might have. The pamphlet also mentions His Eminence Robert Cardinal Sarah who was an unabashed advocate for the Latin Mass and ad orientum. As the pamphlet notes Cardinal Sarah was Pope Francis’ head of the Congregation of Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments. The comments quoted were not made as head of the Congregation, but in press conferences associated with unofficial gatherings. In things “Vatican” that means it was his personal opinion. Cardinal Sarah insisted that this was the intent of the “conciliar Constitution” clearly a minority view of the interpreted understanding of Vatican II Council. For the record, the pamphlet also fails to mention that within a few years of his appointment, largely because of Sarah’s growing intransigence and advocacy for the Latin Mass and ad orientum as “preferred,” Pope Francis transferred much of Sarah’s authority to other offices and national bishop’s conferences. Make of that what you will.

Recently, here in the diocese there is an ad hoc movement to recover the “historic tradition” of ad orientum, that is facing to the East during the celebration of the Mass. This would be the liturgical practice at English, Spanish and other language masses. In effect it calls for the priest to have his back towards the people during the celebration of the Eucharist. To be fair, the pamphlet seems to only call for the possibility and allowance of the practice by the priest, but from the language it is clear that this is really the preferred and only “true” way to celebrate.

So, there is a lot swirling around us as regards the Latin Mass and the “historic tradition” of ad orientum. What are we to make of all this?

The roots of the Latin Mass as a celebrated Mass reaches back only to the 14th century and it doesn’t become standard until after and in response to the Protestant Reformation. It was in the 16th century with the publishing of the typical edition of the Missal for the Latin Rite in 1570 that it became the norm for the Latin Rite. Perhaps you notice I did not say “the Catholic Church” or the “Roman Catholic Church.”

Did you know that technically there is no such thing as the Roman Catholic Church – it is a moniker popularly used for the Latin Rite of Catholic Church, an ecclesia sui iuris. It is one of the 24 ecclesia sui iuris in the Catholic Church, in union with the Pope as head of the Catholic Church – the largest to be sure, but then Marionite Rite has 4 million members, the Syro-Malabar Rite has 5 million members, the Ukrainian Greek Rite has 6 million members – all together there are approximately 25 million members of the Catholic Church who do not and have never celebrated Mass in Latin. And that is today. In the first 1,000 years of the Church, Latin was not the most widely used ecclesial or liturgical language – and the patrimony of valid celebrations of the Mass were most strongly linked to custom and language of the celebrating community. In the earliest days, with the majority of the Christians in Asia Minor, the Middle East and as far east as Persia, with mission territories north of the Black Sea and as far afield as India, Latin was not the lingua franca of the Church; Rome was less prominent that Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. To claim a “traditionalist” position because of the late adoption of the standardization of the Mass in the Latin Rite (and admitted standardization of some kind was necessary) it is to ignore the older richness, history, and traditions of a ekklesia katholica – a universal church. Simply put there are older traditions within and outside the Latin Rite whose origins can be traced to the earliest time of the Church – ad orientum being one of them.

The term ad orientem, meaning “to the east” in Ecclesiastical Latin, is a phrase used to describe the eastward orientation of Christian prayer and Christian worship, comprising the preposition ad (toward) and oriens (rising, sunrise, east; derived from the participle of orior – to rise). The practice has its own history and is well more than a millennium older than the “modern innovation” of the 1570 Latin Mass.

Since the time of the early Church, the eastward-facing direction of Christian prayer has carried a strong significance, attested by the writings of the Church Fathers. In the 2nd century, Syrian Christians hung a Christian cross on the eastern wall of their house, symbolizing their souls facing God, talking with Him, and sharing their spirituality with the Lord. Two centuries later, Saint Basil the Great declared that facing the east to pray was among the oldest unwritten traditions of the Church. Nearly all Christian apologetic tracts published in the 7th century A.D. in the Syriac and Arabic languages explicated the reason that Christians prayed facing the east is because the Garden of Eden was planted in the east (Genesis 2:8) and that at the end of time, at the second coming, the Messiah would approach Jerusalem from the east. By the 9th century Saint John of Damascus taught that believers pray facing east because it reminds Christians of their need to long for and strive for the paradise that God intended for them and because Christians affirm their faith in Christ as the Light of the world by praying in the direction of sunrise.

In this communal prayer (not the celebration of Mass), one might rightfully ask what they faced while facing east? For the first millennium it wasn’t a tabernacle, but an image of the crucified — which is why in some places while celebrating the Mass facing the assembly, there is a crucifix placed center on  the altar. In many churches the image was not of the crucified but of the Pantocrator — Christ in majesty — like the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. This understanding of ad orientum was independent of the compass headings. It was facing the One who was the recipient of the offering who was already risen and awaiting the salvation of all. (Note: But this has to be tempered with the understanding of basic liturgical practice and posture. The oldest form of Jewish and Christian liturgy was facing the assembly — because to turn one’s back and offer to an image or figure was akin to offering of sacrifice to non-Christian and non-Judaic deities.)

The posture of ad orientum has a long tradition indeed. But today’s question concerns the assertion that this is proper posture no matter what Mass is being celebrated – Latin or the language of the people. The question becomes, when did  ad orientum begin to be liturgically used for the celebration of Mass? And, as it turns out, did the meaning remain constant as in to face “to the east?”

Surveys of historical churches in Ireland, England, Italy, Frankish lands and elsewhere in Western Europe as well as surviving churches in conquered lands of the Middle East, show there was no consistent practice of building churches on an East-West access. Nor is there today.  St. Peters in Vatican City is not built along an east-west axis. By the 12th century, in the West, there was a growing tradition, not of ad orientum, but of other-than-versus populum (towards the people). This seems to have been contemporaneous with the use of tabernacles to reserve the consecrated hosts. It was at this point, the free standing altars gave way to a mixed practice of building the altar against the apse wall of the church – regardless of the directional orientation of the church itself.  But the implications are that we are 1200 years into church history and the architectural norm seems to have been a free-standing altar with the celebrant facing versus populum.

The original reasons for facing east in prayer seems to have been unanchored from its roots and upon its movement into the liturgical milieu of the late-medieval Mass, ad orientum no longer meant towards the east, but away from the people. While arguable, it is at this point that the principle orientation of people gathered around and facing towards the common table – reminiscent of the Last Supper – gave way to a different focus and intention of the celebration.

To place this in the context of ecclesial history, this is contemporaneous with the rise of the Papal State, the re-emergence of the Holy Roman Empire, and the clear movement of the Church into the realm of secular power. It is at this age that the hierarchy of power began to even more strongly divide the “Princes of the Church” and the people of God. Again, arguable, but it is across this juncture of history that the norm in the West was for the priest to face away from the people and thus shield the liturgical actions of the Mass from the people. At this point, the long tradition of the altar as the table of the Lord’s Supper gave way to other emphases.  It is in this period of history that there was the gradual eclipsing of the assembly’s role in liturgy and the growth in the idea that liturgy is something the clergy do for the sake of the people — and is one so only as an offering of appeasement to a God who is constantly offended by humanity. The understanding of the Eucharist as a mystical banquet (which has merit) conducted by mystical clergy (which does not possess a right understanding of priesthood) became rigid and unbending in a 60 years-too-late response to the Reformation.

One of the key liturgical reforms of the liturgy at Vatican II was understanding the orientation of the Church to the world. One need only read Gadium et Spes to understand that the Bishops of the world recognized that figuratively, literally, and liturgically we had turned our back to the very world we were called to evangelize. The liturgical reforms returned to the oldest, deepest traditions of the Church: the retrieval of a meal shared by the community to remember who God is, how God calls, and that we are from the table, sent into the world.

The Memory and Hope of the Eucharist are what the novus ordo – the modern Mass – reclaims as the original foundations upon which liturgy is built.

And like all human endeavors, in moments of change, the past tugs even as the future calls. The reforms have their own inconsistencies.

The present Roman Missal of the Catholic Church (revised in 1969 following the Second Vatican Council) does not forbid the ad orientem (now essentially meaning “facing away from the people”) position of the priest saying Mass.  The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) only requires that in new or renovated churches the facing-the-people orientation be made possible: “The altar should be built separate 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.”

While the GIRM assumes presiding while facing and leading the assembly, there are rubrics (one or two) where it says of the presider “and turning to the assembly.” These two items were likely compromises made to recognize elements of the previous rite. It is similar to the reason the Greek Kyrie remains. These compromises enabled adequate votes to pass the revision.

Sadly this was just inconsistent given the assumption that the presider was already facing the people, and so the two points make no sense since the presider is never told to turn away from the assembly. In truth, the only place where ad orientum (not east, but away from the people) might make sense is during the Eucharistic Prayer — which would communicate the fact that everyone is praying it and not just the presider. But the practice of people joining in the Eucharistic Prayer is not allowed. To allow it would only serve to promote the role of the laity and this is inconsistent with a return to the “mystical priesthood.”

And in a bid of irony, the Tridentine Roman Missal continues to recognize the possibility of celebrating Mass “versus populum” (facing the people).

While some want to retrieve “ad orientum” posture, meaning to face away from the people, it is at this point one has to simply stop and ask what are we as a collective body of the faithful doing during the Mass? In the celebration of the Eucharist we hear, “On the night before he died, he took…broke…gave.” What are we being asked to remember?  We are being asked to remember that last meal shared with the community gathered and then to enact it in memory of Him. If you imagine yourself in that scene as the Eucharistic prayer invites you to imagine – you are gathered around the table.

That is the memory and hope that Vatican II wanted to recover in the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest, acting in persona Christi, gathers the people at the table, and is rightly adversus populum facing the people.

Image credit: Lynda Marsh, Sacred Heart, CC BY

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