Facing East

It has been one year since our parish changed over to the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass facing the liturgical East. My decision to switch to ad orientem was prompted by Cardinal Sarah’s encouragement of the return to this ancient practice of the Church.

The reception of this change by parishioners has been largely positive. Visitors attending Mass naturally remark upon it, expressing in general surprise but only occasional dissatisfaction. Some remark that they are happy to participate in the Mass as they remember it from their childhood. The priests of the parish (and most visiting priests) have found this change to be a great improvement that promotes a prayerful and recollected celebration of Mass.

Cardinal Sarah spoke again recently about the celebration ad orientem in a conference published in the French magazine La Nef (July-August 2017). He said:

To be oriented towards God is before all else an interior action, a conversion of our soul towards the one God. The liturgy should foster in us this conversion towards the Lord who is the Way, the Truth, the Life. To do this it uses signs, simple means. The celebration [of Mass] ad orientem is part of this. It is one of the treasures of the Christian people that permit us to preserve the spirit of the liturgy. The oriented celebration should not become the expression of a partisan and polemical attitude. On the contrary, it should be the expression of the most intimate and essential movement of all liturgy: turning ourselves towards the Lord who comes.

The spiritual truth that worship is a turning to the Lord is visually communicated to the worshiping faithful in the pews when the priest does not look at them when addressing God, but rather looks towards the crucifix, towards Christ, towards God.

Mass of St. John of Matha by Juan Carreño de Miranda, 1666 [Louvre, Paris]

The Rorate Caeli website recently published a translation of a short piece Paul Claudel wrote in Le Figaro in 1955 protesting against the incipient spread in France of the celebration of the Mass facing the people. Claudel expressed a severely negative judgment on this innovation: “The Mass is the homage par excellence which we render to God by the Sacrifice which the priest offers to Him in our name on the altar of His Son. It is us led by the priest and as one with him, going to God to offer Him hostias et preces [victims and prayers]. It is not God presenting Himself to us for our convenience to make us indifferent witnesses of the mystery about to be accomplished.”

Claudel’s insight rings true, in my experience. The priest celebrant leads and brings the people with him as he raises his hands and voice to God in prayer and worship. They are not spectators but rather fellow pilgrims who look with the priest towards Christ. In reply to the objection that the people need to see the entire liturgical action at the altar, which is not possible during the ad orientem celebration, Claudel writes: “It is true that in the traditional liturgy the most touching, the most moving part of the Holy Sacrifice is hidden from the view of the faithful. But it is not hidden from their hearts and their faith. To demonstrate this, during Solemn High Masses the sub-deacon stays at the foot of the altar during the Offertory, hiding his face with his left hand. We too are invited to pray, to withdraw into ourselves, not in a spirit of curiosity but of recollection.”

That recollection helps us to see with the eyes of faith the hidden presence of Christ in the sacred host and the chalice as they are elevated by the priest following the consecration. In the ad orientem celebration, the people do not have to look at the expression on the priest celebrant’s face (for weal or for woe) when he elevates the host and the chalice. This unnecessary distraction is eliminated and his role as mediator between God and man is best expressed when he offers no competition to the Holy Eucharist for the faithful’s glance.

Claudel further observed: “The novel liturgy deprives the Christian people of their dignity and their rights. It is no longer they who say the Mass with the priest, by ‘following’ it, as the saying very rightly goes, and to whom the priest turns from time to time to assure them of his presence, participation and cooperation, in the work which he undertakes in their name. All that remains is a curious audience watching him do his job. Small wonder that the impious compare him to a magician performing his act before a politely admiring crowd.”

My happy experience at the parish is that the ad orientem celebration of Mass, combined with the practice of the priest now sitting along the side wall of the sanctuary and no longer seated directly behind the free standing altar, has resulted in a more prayerful and Christ-centered liturgical experience. The priest celebrant is not an unending center of attention – as he can easily become when he first sits overlooking the congregation during the readings – and then when he stands behind the altar looking at the congregation while offering the prayers of the Mass to God.

Cardinal Sarah observes: “Allow me to express humbly my fear: the liturgy in the Ordinary Form could lead us to run the risk of turning ourselves away from God because of the overwhelming and central presence of the priest. He is constantly in front of the microphone, and ceaselessly has his eyes and his attention turned towards the people. He is like an opaque screen between God and man.”

After one year of the ad orientem celebration, I am absolutely convinced that Cardinal Sarah is correct. Turning physically and contemplatively towards the Lord promotes a deeper experience for both priest and people of prayer and worship at Mass.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.