Facing East Print
By Brad Miner   
Thursday, 05 March 2009

In a recent column in this space (“Latin Rising”), David Bonagura, Jr. wrote that the Latin language has a “sacral character and an immutability” that is making it once again relevant for Catholics. I agree, although after nearly half a century of vernacular, we have a long way to go to restore broad comprehension of the Tridentine Mass and the many Latin prayers and terms that once helped define Catholic life.

Consider the phrase ad orientem.

It’s the root of “orientation,” commonly meaning the act of getting one's bearings, as in kids starting college. But the word’s most fundamental and original definition is actually ecclesial: “the building of a church or temple on an east-west axis with the chancel and main altar to the east.” Ad orientem.

Looking into the Latin origin of words and learning (or relearning) Latin phrases is a kind of spiritual archaeology. Out of time and dust come revelations. “Orientation,” for instance, is at the heart of the ongoing question of the position of the priest as he says Mass. In most churches, if the priest celebrates Mass facing the people, versus populum, he isn’t oriented. He too should be facing the altar, which is to say looking towards the holy city of Jerusalem.

As one is often reminded in daily readings of the Divine Office – which frequently recall Zion, Judah, Judea, Salem, Ariel, Jerusalem – our faith began in Israel. It explains the Holy Father’s longstanding instruction that we remember the Holy City.

Five years before he became Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger wrote that, notwithstanding various liturgical innovations, “one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying towards the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning.” As he wrote in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

The common turning toward the east was not a “celebration toward the wall;” it did not mean that the priest “had his back to the people.” . . . For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together “toward the Lord.” . . . They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.

I suspect this still hasn’t sunk in with many priests and parishioners in churches throughout the Catholic world – even after Benedict’s 2007 motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, in which the pope not only makes it clear that the Tridentine rite may be celebrated anytime and anywhere, but also that Vatican II never actually mandated the vernacular. To be sure, that particular edict does not address orientation as such, but the two issues – facing the east and speaking in Latin – are hand-in-glove. When we worship and pray it ought to be in our universal language and towards Jerusalem, where Christ will return in glory.

I began thinking about all this, because in my ongoing pilgrimage through cyberspace, I recently came across the website of Most Holy Family Monastery in Fillmore, New York. The “traditionalists” there take the insolitus position that Benedict XVI is a heretic, in part because he knelt and prayed eastward – or, as they assert, towards Mecca—during the papal visit to Turkey at the end of 2006. And they have the photos to prove it!

More temperate observers will recognize that the Pope was simply “oriented.” The view of the Holy Family website suggests, as Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked, that whereas tradition is “the living faith of the dead,” traditionalism is often “the dead faith of the living.”

I should mention – before readers berate my imprecision – that not all Catholic churches are oriented. Indeed, there are famous exceptions to the rule, most notably St. Peter’s, the main altar of which does not face east. No one is certain why not, although conjecture has it that in the fourth century there was a vogue for celebrating the mass versus populum; others speculate that the jumbled “orientation” of many Roman churches has to do with the fact that they are, in origin, former pagan basilicas (Roman law courts, for instance) over the foundations of which Christian edifices arose. But no matter how many exceptions there are, orientation was always the rule – so much so that some ancient Romans assumed the earliest Christians were a cult of the rising sun.

I took my compass into a local church the other day. I stood in the nave, faced the altar, and was pleased to see it is oriented. A priest saw me and frowned. I walked over, introduced myself, and explained what I was up to. He sighed with great relief. “Good heavens,” he said, “I thought there was a new highway coming through.” Nope, just the old Way.


Brad Miner is the author of five books, including The Compleat Gentleman, a new edition of which will be published on April 22 by Richard Vigilante Books.

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