Similar to those who unknowingly endure Satan’s torments even as they deny his existence, it seems that most Catholics are largely unaware of just how much they are suffocating under the weight of a post-conciliar liturgical innovation that the Council Fathers neither envisioned nor encouraged; namely, the now common practice of priests offering Holy Mass versus populum, or “facing the people.”
In his outstanding book, "Spirit of the Liturgy," Cardinal Ratzinger wrote of the ancient and venerable practice of offering the Holy Sacrifice ad orientem, in which both priest and people face east:
“It has been the practice in the entire Church, East and West from time immemorial. Contrary to a prevailing misconception, there is no evidence for celebration of Mass versus populum in the first nineteen centuries of the Church's history, with rare exceptions.”
“Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.”
Did you get that? Ad orientem worship is a sacred sign that serves as “a fundamental expression” of the liturgy’s true essence! Though many Catholic Mass-goers might still argue that obliterating the traditional orientation in favor of the versus populum innovation is harmless, the “facts on the ground” tell a very different story.
There is scarcely one among the laity who in honesty can deny that the way in which Holy Mass in the Ordinary Form (celebrated versus populum) is experienced is heavily influenced by the personal characteristics of the man who serves as the priest-celebrant.
For example, when Mass is offered by a priest who effectively conveys true love for the Lord and His people — not simply through the homily, but throughout the entirety of the rite whether by the expressiveness of his intonations, the eloquence of his gestures or by some other means — it is not uncommon for the faithful to experience in the liturgy a sense of joy that is due in no small measure to the pious feelings that the priest himself aroused within them.
Before continuing, a word about what it means to “experience” Holy Mass is in order.
The Council Fathers tell us that the liturgy on earth is no less than “a foretaste of the liturgy of heaven itself” (cf SC 7), but it is one thing to know that Holy Mass is heaven on earth and quite another to experience it as such.
Pope Benedict said that the sacred liturgy is where “God and man meet each other in an embrace of salvation,” and it is important to consider that in Holy Mass the Lord desires to embrace (and indeed redeem) the whole of man — body, mind, intellect, will and senses — that we might taste the intoxicating fruits of Divine union in the very depths of our being and thus be strengthened for the Christian journey amidst all of the earthly sufferings that are rightly ours.
This is the experience of Holy Mass of which I speak, and as noted the personal characteristics of the priest-celebrant often contribute to it in no small way.
The converse, however, is also true as one’s experience of Holy Mass is often negatively impacted by a priest who lacks the charisma, and dare I say the “stage presence,” of the aforementioned other. To be very clear, I do not judge this to be a reflection of the priest’s personal piety at all. Most reasonable people fully recognize that even “liturgically uninspiring” priests are often steeped in personal holiness.
The common thread in these examples is the “performance driven” atmosphere that has been thrust upon the rite thanks to the versus populum orientation of the priest, and its regrettable effects are felt not just by the laity, but by the clergy as well.
The priest-as-centerpiece arrangement, endemic to the versus populum posture, places tremendous pressure on the sacred minister to “perform” his duties at Holy Mass as engagingly as possible. Aware of the power that his liturgical persona wields over the assembly’s experience, the priest in charity cannot help but feel compelled to summon his personal resources in order to touch the hearts of the people that he serves; this, precisely at a moment when his sacerdotal identity urges him on a personal level (using the imagery given to us by St. John the Baptist) to decrease, so that the Lord Jesus Christ, the one true High Priest, might increase.
While we know that a certain “paradox of identity” is operative in the ordained whenever he acts in persona Christi, keep in mind, however, that the one of which I speak here is due neither to the essence of the liturgy nor to the nature of the priesthood; rather, it is a synthetic one that has been manufactured almost entirely by the versus populum innovation, and the harm that it does is substantial.
Those relatively few among us - both lay and ordained - who have had the rare pleasure of participating in the Ordinary Form of Holy Mass celebrated ad orientem have discovered firsthand just how remarkably powerful this venerable sacred sign can be at elevating the hearts and minds of the faithful toward God.
With regard to the experience of the priest, for example, Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby, Prior of the Diocesan Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle in Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote on his blog that offering the Holy Sacrifice ad orientem “affords the priest celebrant the boon of a holy modesty,” and that by approaching the altar of the Lord in this way he finds himself “more and more identified with Christ, Eternal High Priest and Hostia perpetua, in the liturgy of the heavenly sanctuary, beyond the veil, before the Face of the Father.”
Oh, that all of our priests could daily have their sacerdotal identity so profoundly confirmed!
Those fortunate few, both lay and clerical, who have experienced Holy Mass celebrated ad orientem have also marveled at how assuming this common direction of liturgical prayer greatly enhances an awareness of the unity that exists in the Body of Christ as all present stand before the Father to offer sacrifice through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This all-too-small fraction of the faithful are often shaken to the core in the ad orientem celebration as the sacrificial nature of Holy Mass, lain hidden for so long behind the manmade veil of a rite turned in on itself, becomes unmistakably tangible in their very midst. Their souls thus delight in the Divine presence in a previously unknown way as they move beyond mere knowing to experiencing Holy Mass on earth as participation in the eternal Banquet of heaven!
This, my friends, is the price we have been paying (most of us, unknowingly) over the last four-plus decades for the “privilege” of having a Mass that resembles in form countless other mere worldly events through a rite celebrated versus populum.
In recent years the Holy Father has sought to restore a Christocentric orientation to the celebration of Papal Masses by what some have dubbed the “Benedictine arrangement” in which a Crucifix is placed at the center of the altar.
In the aforementioned work, "Spirit of the Liturgy," Cardinal Ratzinger proposed this altar arrangement as a possible “solution” that allows the priest and the people to gaze upon Christ (as represented by the Crucifix) even as they still face one another.
To be very candid, I find this corrective half-step extremely disappointing and potentially harmful, not to mention surprisingly timid — coming as it does from a Pontiff who clearly recognizes the ad orientem posture as a “fundamental expression” of the liturgy’s essence.
I can only assume that the pope has a very good reason for avoiding a full return to ad orientem worship in his public Masses (although it is reported that he often celebrates the Ordinary Form ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel), but even so I fear that His Holiness is only further emboldening those who place undue importance upon good liturgical “sight lines” and the face-to-face dynamic that already has done immeasurable harm.
After the example of our father in faith, Abraham, who dared to implore the Lord to spare Sodom, given the opportunity I would like to urge the Holy Father to lead the way out of this desert of our own creation by henceforth offering Papal Masses ad orientem wherever possible, and by encouraging the priests and bishops that he serves throughout the world to do the same.
I would also like to humbly suggest to the Holy Father that his leadership alone is uniquely able to strengthen those clerics who sincerely desire to die to self to make room for the Eternal High Priest at Holy Mass by turning to face the Lord along with their people (even if only by facing a “liturgical east”) but who as yet are resigned to inaction for fear of the reprisals that doing so may invite.
In the meantime, I will continue to pray that a complete return to the ad orientem posture at Holy Mass will come soon. In truth, I think this is all but inevitable and the only questions that remain are when and how it will take place.
In any event, a restoration of ad orientem worship in the sacred liturgy will be a tremendous blessing for the Body of Christ on earth; going a long way toward helping us “grow in our awareness of the mystery being celebrated at Holy Mass, and its relationship to daily life” (Pope Benedict XVI - "Sacramentum Caritatis," 52).
Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio was a columnist for Catholic News Agency from April 2009 to 2013. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com