Ad Orientem — Why Not?

News: Commentary
 •  •  May 13, 2021   

Looking eastward for the Lord

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Most traditional Catholics today have probably heard past calls from Cdl. Robert Sarah — when prefect for the Congregation for Divine Liturgy — that priests should celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientem, that is, "toward the east" (meaning facing the High Altar and not facing the people).

Cdl. Robert Sarah

The Vatican's customary slowness when responding to any comment of a Church dignitary was broken this time. For the first time in history, the Vatican responded within 24 hours, saying it wasn't mandatory for a priest to face liturgical east, but rather, it was just the personal opinion of Cdl. Sarah, a suggestion, nothing official. It seems they were afraid of returning to pre-Vatican II times!

Be that as it may, I suppose that many contemporary Catholics who are not used to the Mass ad orientem will find it somewhat unusual to see the priest facing the altar and not facing them.

But the reality is that for more than 1,500 years, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass had been celebrated facing the east. The idea was that the priest, the pastor of the congregation, leads the people toward the Lord, who will come from the east, as the shepherd leads the sheep toward the good pastures.

"Okay," someone can say, "But what is the connection between the Lord and the east?"

Changing Focus

Here is the context. After the Second Vatican Council, many people, following the so-called spirit of the council (a spirit that was never defined with precision), thought it fashionable to turn things around, away from the altar, from the tabernacle — to make the celebrant face the people, as Protestants do. As a consequence, the people became accustomed to spending the whole time during Mass looking at the face of the priest.

When the Mass was celebrated ad orientem, the priest and the people were fixated on the same point — the altar, where the tabernacle was located, containing the Real Presence of Jesus.

But there is nothing in the official 16 documents of Vatican II ordering priests to face the people and not the altar. So what was changed?

When the Mass was celebrated ad orientem, the priest and the people were fixated on the same point — the altar, where the tabernacle was located, containing the Real Presence of Jesus. Sometimes there was also a crucifix to remind us of the sacrifice of the Cross; or a statue of Our Lady, our Mother and Mediatrix. Elsewhere there were statues of the saints, our brethren in the Faith who are already in Heaven praying for us, endlessly contemplating the marvel of the infinite beauty of the beatific vision. And behind other altars there would be found a beautiful stained glass window, reminding us of the light of heavenly truths depicted in pictures.

The whole idea was to help us raise our minds to supernatural realities, to the worship of God almighty, in the presence of His angels and saints. And the priest, turned towards this liturgical east, addressed the Lord with his prayers; and when he had to address the people, he turned to them — naturally.

But when the Liturgy was turned around, the Mass became more priest-centered and less God-centered. The priest is now the focal point. The priest's personality has displaced "the east" — Heaven, the presence of Our Lord — as the point of convergence.

Protestantization: Celebrating Faith

It was a concrete example of the protestantization of the Catholic Liturgy. Since Protestants do not have altars and tabernacles with the Real Presence, they have their pastor facing the people all the time. In a great many places among Catholic parishes recently built, the tabernacle, which contains the Real Presence of Jesus, is put aside, tucked away somewhere in the building — as though the priest performs a show at the altar for the entertainment of the faithful. Is there any substantial difference between this mode of worshipping and the Protestant service?

The people understood the Mass as the unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross.

In previous times, when the Liturgy was celebrated ad orientem, the celebration of the Mass aimed to render to God the worship that we, His creatures, owe to Him, our Lord and Creator and Redeemer. The celebrant led the people in the worship of Our Lord, and the people understood the Mass as the unbloody renewal of the sacrifice of the Cross.

Pope Pius XII

But when we turned around and faced each other, we were told, in a great many places, that we are celebrating our faith, like at the Last Supper, a supposedly festive occasion; just like the Hebrews, when they celebrated their liberation from slavery in Egypt. But the sacrifice of the Cross was seldom (if ever) mentioned. We have taken the center stage in the event, the Mass being thus protestantized.

There is a huge difference between worshipping God our Lord and celebrating our faith!

Defying Pius XII

I am sure that most Catholics do not know that there is a specific rule laid down by Pope Pius XII against the idea of restoring the table form. In his encyclical letter Mediator Dei, § 62, the pope taught that "It is neither wise nor praiseworthy to reduce everything to antiquity by every possible device, thus one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish to the altar restored to its primitive table form."

Now, unfortunately, this is precisely what the new liturgical fashion did in the wake of the council: The primitive table form was restored, going against the specific instruction of the pope. And nowhere in the Vatican II documents is such a license granted! The progressive mentality undercut the black letter of Vatican II to protestantize the Catholic Mass!

We strayed from the straight path, according to Pope Pius XII. We moved backward in history, regressed, devolved. We are called to follow the priest toward the east, the symbol of the second coming of Jesus. To revert to the primitive table-altar was a mere exercise of archaeology, not an authentic return to Tradition. And most of us just went along with the change, without realizing that we were being protestantized.

So, when we attend a traditional Latin Mass, some of us may find it strange that the priest is facing the east, and not us. We may think he is out of touch with the new liturgy. But in reality, it is we who are out of touch with authentic Catholic Tradition.

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