In July, the priests at Holy Family Church in New York City, where I serve as pastor, returned to the practice of celebrating the Holy Mass facing the liturgical East, ad orientem. I decided we would do this after reading an interview given by Cardinal Robert Sarah in May to the French Catholic magazine Famille Chretienne. He subsequently spoke about this in London in July and once again suggested that priests revive the ad orientem celebration of Mass.
In the May interview, he addressed the question of the canonical legality of this practice: “It is legitimate and conforms to the letter and the spirit of the Council. In my capacity as the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, I continue to remind all that the celebration toward the East (versus orientem) is authorized by the rubrics of the missal, which specify the moments when the celebrant must turn toward the people. A particular authorization is, therefore, not needed to celebrate Mass facing the Lord.”
Cardinal Sarah’s words struck a chord in me. He relates the liturgical turning to the East to the deeper movement in our souls of turning to God. Our worship should be an experience that draws us out of ourselves and towards Christ: “To convert is to turn towards God. I am profoundly convinced that our bodies must participate in this conversion. The best way is certainly to celebrate – priest and faithful – turned together in the same direction: toward the Lord who comes. It isn’t, as one hears sometimes, to celebrate with the back turned toward the faithful or facing them. That isn’t the problem. It’s to turn together toward the apse, which symbolizes the East, where the cross of the risen Lord is enthroned.”
The congregation at Mass is not an audience that needs to be won over or entertained by an interesting performance by the priest celebrant, who has to keep himself front and center and not let parishioners out of his sight. No, the nature of divine worship demands that we not let anything interfere with the union between God and his people. In turning towards the Lord with the congregation, the priest celebrant embodies the role of a guide on the pilgrim journey towards the Lord, towards Heaven. He ceases to be tempted to act as the center of a performance for a captive audience.
The time for facing and addressing the congregation at Mass is primarily during the Liturgy of the Word. The Word of God is proclaimed and the preacher uses his God-given talents and the fruit of his study in an exhortation drawn from the Gospel and other readings, rooted in Church teaching. But once the offertory begins, the celebrant speaks first to God and the faithful join him in his prayer as their priest and advocate for sinners.
Cardinal Sarah continued: “By this manner of celebrating, we experience, even in our bodies, the primacy of God and of adoration. We understand that the liturgy is first our participation at the perfect sacrifice of the cross. I have personally had this experience: In celebrating thus, with the priest at its head, the assembly is almost physically drawn up by the mystery of the cross at the moment of the elevation.”
I share this experience. Now, when I lift up the consecrated Host, and then the chalice containing the Blood of Christ, I know that my parishioners are looking at Christ’s Sacrament, and not at me. The absence of eye contact between priest and people at this central moment of worship is one of the ways the mystery of God’s presence in the Holy Eucharist is best communicated.
When we come to Mass, priest or parishioners, we are all looking together for God’s presence. In the ad orientem celebration, when Christ comes down upon the altar at the consecration, we are all focused on Him. His presence commands our attention. The priest, as it were, disappears from view and then continues the prayers of the Mass in preparation for then turning to the congregation to offer first the Lord’s peace, and then to show the Eucharistic Lord to his people in preparation for the Lord to feed his flock with the gift of Himself through the hands of his priest.
Most parishioners at Holy Family have serenely adjusted to this change. There have been complaints, but more expressions of thanks and encouragement. Some have not yet grasped that having the priest turn from the congregation towards the Lord is not a deprivation for the worshippers, but is rather meant to re-focus the congregation on Christ.
The benefits for the priest celebrant include being reminded that, in the canon of the Mass, he is speaking to God on behalf of everyone, especially those he is leading in worship at that moment. The priest celebrant is their spiritual father and he is pleading to God on their behalf as he renews the perfect sacrifice of Calvary.
Another benefit for the priest is that he can be more focused on what he is doing and much less distracted by the inevitable movements in the church – people coming and going, children and even adults moving around, doors opening and closing, etc.
I am grateful to Cardinal Sarah for his encouragement to revive the Church’s longstanding liturgical practice. He reminds us of something we all know, but can easily forget when our act of worship becomes too self-referential and not sufficiently Christ-centered: “For us, the light is Jesus Christ. All the Church is oriented, facing East, toward Christ: ad Dominum. A Church closed in on herself in a circle will have lost her reason for being. For to be herself, the Church must live facing God. Our point of reference is the Lord! We know that he has been with us and that he returned to the Father from the Mount of Olives, situated to the East of Jerusalem, and that he will return in the same way. To stay turned toward the Lord, it is to wait for him every day. One must not allow God reason to complain constantly against us: They turn their backs toward me, instead of turning their faces!’ (Jeremiah 2:27).”