June 21, 2016

Why did Cardinal Sarah encourage priests to face east while celebrating the liturgy?

By Deacon Keith Fournier *
Why did Cardinal Sarah encourage priests to face east while celebrating the liturgy?

One of my heroes among the clergy of the Catholic Church is Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. His wonderful life story is offered through an autobiographical interview with Nicholas Diat in a beautiful book entitled, “God or Nothing.” I highly recommend this powerful book to my readers.

The Cardinal recently gave an interview in which he discussed the beauty of the Catholic Liturgy. Along with offering many other great insights on liturgical worship, he recommended that priests “reorient themselves to the East” while celebrating the Divine Liturgy or Holy Mass.

In other words, he is encouraging his brother priests and bishops to celebrate the Liturgy ad orientum, facing east. Contrary to a popular misconception, this has nothing to do with the priest somehow “turning his back” on the people. Rather, it is about the priest leading the faithful in facing the Lord.

This posture is the more ancient practice of liturgical celebration. Further, it was never discouraged by the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium).

The recommendation from the good Cardinal has received a lot of coverage, mostly in Catholic circles. One of the best summaries of the larger issue it raises sets the matter in its historical context in a very readable manner. It was written by Father Jay Scott Newman and can be read in its entirety here.

I have been ordained as a Catholic deacon for twenty years. I am not a priest. However, as a deacon, I have the privilege of serving the Liturgy regularly in a designated role. I have served Liturgies in both the Latin and Eastern Catholic Church, receiving training to serve the Byzantine Catholic Liturgy. I have served liturgies where the celebrant offered the Mass in Latin and in English.

I love serving all Liturgies, when they are properly celebrated in fidelity with the rubrics. But, I must admit, I recall with special fondness several years during which I served the Liturgy and the priest faced the East, with the People, toward the Lord. This took place before Pope Emeritus Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, which opened the celebration of the liturgy in what is now called the “Extraordinary Form” to all priests. Back then, I served the Novus Ordo Missae, which was offered in Latin.

I have not served the Extraordinary Form in the Latin Rite as a deacon. I would need instruction on doing so and such instruction is only offered by groups of Catholics who do not look favorably on those of us who are called “permanent deacons” and are married men. That attitude has been a source of sorrow for me, since a deacon is a deacon.

However, in my experience, whether the canon is prayed in Latin or vernacular, the practice of facing East set the Liturgy in a transcendent framework which draws me even more deeply into the beauty and the mystery at the heart of the encounter. As the Council fathers noted with such spiritual eloquence in their document on the liturgy:

In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God, a minister of the holies and of the true tabernacle; we sing a hymn to the Lord's glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army; venerating the memory of the saints, we hope for some part and fellowship with them; we eagerly await the Savior, Our Lord Jesus Christ, until He, our life, shall appear and we too will appear with Him in glory.

It is an encounter with that foretaste of the heavenly Liturgy which is being discussed by this good Cardinal in this interview, the mystery at the very heart of the Divine Liturgy or, as Latin Rite Catholics call it, the Holy Mass. It is a beauty ever ancient and ever new.

Ancient Liturgical Practice

The practice of orienting both the liturgy - and the church building - toward the East, from where the Lord will return (Matt. 24:27), has ancient roots and should never be seen as somehow outdated. It is the norm in Orthodox Christianity and Eastern Catholic churches.

In one of his reflections on worship, John of Damascus, also called John Damascene, wrote these words in the seventh century, back when the Christian Church was still undivided:

It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the Mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

“Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed, the divine David also says, ‘Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rides upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East.’ Moreover, the Scripture also says, ‘And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command, He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise,’ which clearly is the West.

“So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover, the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover, Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him.

“And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shines even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.”

This insight into the symbols of liturgical worship, as well as their continuity with the old while pointing us toward the life to come, needs to be recovered. With Cardinals like Robert Sarah, it will be. Too often, we settle for less than what we are offered by the liturgical patrimony of the Church. Of course, every Holy Mass, every Divine Liturgy, is beautiful. But, beauty can be experienced by us like an ant in a puddle or an elephant in an ocean. We need good liturgists to help lead us toward the ocean.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is one of the great liturgists of our age. His seminal book, The Spirit of the Liturgy,  written when he was still Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, is required reading in most seminaries and should be read by every Catholic. In the last year of his service, before this humble, holy man voluntarily stepped aside and dedicated the rest of his days to a monastic vocation, he gave a beautiful series of instructions on the Liturgy. 

On October 3, 2012, he reminded the pilgrims in St. Peter’s square: "It is not the individual - priest or layman - or the group that celebrates the liturgy, but it is primarily God's action through the Church, which has its own history, its rich tradition and creativity. This universality and fundamental openness, which is characteristic of the entire liturgy is one of the reasons why it cannot be created or amended by the individual community or by experts, but must be faithful to the forms of the universal Church.

“Dear friends, the Church is made visible in many ways: in its charitable work, in mission projects, in the personal apostolate that every Christian must realize in his or her own environment. But the place where it is fully experienced as a Church is in the liturgy: it is the act in which we believe that God enters into our reality and we can meet Him, we can touch Him. It is the act in which we come into contact with God, He comes to us, and we are enlightened by Him. 

“So when in the reflections on the liturgy we concentrate all our attention on how to make it attractive, interesting and beautiful, we risk forgetting the essential: the liturgy is celebrated for God and not for ourselves, it is His work, He is the subject, and we must open ourselves to Him and be guided by Him and His Body which is the Church.”

The older I get the more I appreciate the profound gift and mystery that is at the core, the heart of the Eucharistic Liturgy, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I understand the immense amount of time and catechesis spent in preparing the faithful for the implementation of the last Revisions to the Roman Missal.  

It has borne such good fruit. As one who has spent many years studying Catholic theology, I welcomed the revisions and I saw them as a kind but motherly act by the Church to set the ship on a straight course and raise the water level of all Catholic worship. The faithful deserve it. 

It was deeply distressing to me that some priests actually took it upon themselves to change the canon and the liturgical prayers of the Holy Mass. The Holy Mass does not belong to the celebrating priest; it belongs to Christ the High Priest in whom he stands. 

I am not opposed to spontaneity in its proper form and proper place. Just not in the canon of the Sacred Liturgy, the Holy Mass. The faithful have a Right to receive the Liturgy as Holy Mother Church has preserved it under the continual inspiration of the Holy Spirit.   

On April 15, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Bishops of Brazil in Rome. He told them that the Eucharist constitutes “the center and permanent source of the Petrine ministry, the heart of the Christian life, source and summit of the Church's mission of evangelization. You can thus understand the concern of the Successor of Peter for all that can obfuscate this most essential point of the Catholic faith: that today, Jesus Christ continues alive and truly present in the consecrated host and the chalice."

He warned the Bishops that “Paying less attention at times to the rite of the Most Holy Sacrament constitutes a sign and a cause of the darkening of the Christian sense of mystery, such as when Jesus is not the center of the Mass, but rather a community preoccupied with other things instead of being taken up and drawn to the only one necessary: their Lord." 

Pope Benedict continued, “If the figure of Christ does not emerge from the liturgy, it is not a Christian liturgy. As Blessed John Paul II wrote, "the mystery of the Eucharist is 'too great a gift' to admit of ambiguities or reductions, above all when, 'stripped of its sacrificial meaning, it is celebrated as if it were simply a fraternal banquet.’”

Toward the end of those beautiful remarks now Pope Emeritus Benedict summarized the heart of Liturgy in these words, “Worship cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation. True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. The Church lives in His presence - and its reason for being and existing is to expand His presence in the world."

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi

I am a revert to the Catholic Church. I never officially left, but my practice of the Catholic faith grew cold when my family stopped practicing the faith when I was a child. In my youthful search for the meaning of life I was drawn back to living faith in Jesus Christ and home to the Catholic Church in which I had been raised.   

It was a circuitous journey which involved a teenage encounter with the Risen Lord, a serious hunger for prayer and bible study and finding the early Church fathers. I questioned my way all the way back home to the faith of my childhood. 

However, it was rediscovering truly heartfelt worship in the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Mass - and the mystery which it makes present - which became the light for so much of my journey home into the heart of the Church. That light continues to illuminate my path as a Catholic Christian because Beauty is so very attractive for a reason. God is the source of all beauty. 
After all these years, the Divine Liturgy, the Holy Mass, is still the rich and fertile ground of my life of faith and my multi-faceted apostolate. As I mentioned before, I have served as a deacon for twenty years. Serving at the altar, where heaven touches earth and earth touches heaven, roots me in the heart of the Church and calls me into the world as a missionary.

There is a Latin maxim that addresses the centrality of worship in the life, identity and mission of the Church; Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The phrase in Latin literally means the law of prayer (the way we worship), and the law of belief (what we believe). It is sometimes written as, Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi, further deepening the implications of this truth. How we worship reflects what we believe and determines how we will live.  Worship is the beating heart of the Christian vocation. The highest form of Worship is the Divine Liturgy or, as we say in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, the Holy Mass.

The Catholic Church has long understood that part of her role as mother and teacher is to watch over worship, for the sake of the faithful and in obedience to the God whom she serves. How we worship not only reveals and guards what we believe but guides us in how we live our Christian faith and fulfill our Christian mission in the world. 

Liturgical Worship is not an add on for a Catholic Christian. It is the foundation of Catholic identity; expressing our highest purpose. Worship reveals what we truly believe and how we view ourselves in relationship to God, one another and the world into which we are sent to carry forward the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. 

How the Church worships is a prophetic witness to the truth she professes. Good worship becomes a dynamic means of drawing the entire human community into the fullness of life in Jesus Christ. It attracts - through beauty to Beauty. Worship informs and transforms both the person and the faith community which participates in it. There is a certain reciprocity between worship and life.

Finding the Treasure

I have spent decades working with Christians across the confessional spectrum. Perhaps that explains why I find it odd that right when many of our Christian friends in other confessions and communities are searching for a deeper encounter with the beauty of the Lord in formal liturgical worship, many Catholics succumbed to novelties. 

I have respect for my Christian brethren who are Protestants, in each of their various confessions and communities. I pray with them and stand in solidarity with them, rooted in our common Baptism, in so many of the efforts to which I have dedicated much of my work. However, I am not a Protestant Christian. I am a Catholic Christian by choice. I do not want a stripped down Catholicism whose worship seems more protestant then Catholic. I also do not want barren liturgy and symbol-less Catholicism. 

As our Christian brethren are experiencing the barrenness of some of their worship expressions, many in our Catholic Church are discarding the treasures that make her formal liturgical worship so beautiful, full of mystery, compelling and attractive to those seeking a deeper experience of worship and Christian life. Sadly, what may have begun as a sincere effort to simplify the Liturgy in the Catholic Church has often devolved into liturgical minimalism.

It begins when you enter what is called the “worship space” in some church buildings.  There are few icons or images reflecting heaven touching earth, drawing the worshipper into a transcendent encounter with the Lord we receive in the Eucharist and in whom we are invited to live and move and have our being. Over the last few decades, some purporting to be liturgical “experts” stripped the depth that draws so many to Catholic worship and life. They failed to grasp that, by nature and grace, human persons are symbolic. Man (and woman) is created in the image of God, and is a divine icon. 

There are still some who think that the symbols of our Catholic worship, faith, and life are a problem. When they stripped our sanctuaries and made our liturgical experiences barren, they thought they were helping us by somehow making the faith more “relevant", "meaningful" or "contemporary". They were sadly mistaken and have done the Church a disservice. 

It is the Church which makes human experience relevant, by revealing its full meaning and mystery. The Liturgy helps to bring heaven to earth and earth to heaven. Their numbers and influence are dwindling. Seminaries that are full (and their number is increasing) are filled with candidates who want the vibrant, symbolic, faithful, richly liturgical, devout fullness of Catholic faith, worship and life.

This movement toward beautiful liturgy is not about going backward but going forward and toward eternal worship.  The future of the Church is Tradition, rightly understood. The liturgical innovators are aging and their reign is fortunately coming to an end.  

There was a movement called Iconoclasm ("Image-breaking") in the eighth and ninth centuries in the Eastern Church. It became a full scale heresy. The term has come to be associated with those who rejected icons, but it speaks to a contemporary problem, liturgical minimalism and the loss of the Sacred in our Churches. 

Icons put us in touch with the transcendent mysteries of our faith. I pray with icons and have for many years. I cherish their liturgical role in the Eastern Church. In fact, one would never find an Eastern Church, Catholic or Orthodox, without icons. The contemporary iconoclasts are those who seek to de-mystify Christian faith, life, worship and practice. They are not the future of the Catholic Church, but the past. 

Jesus Christ is the Icon of the Father. Symbols touch us at a much deeper level than words or emotive or affective participation can. They touch us at the level where authentic religion and deep worship truly begins. It is there where we hunger the most for God. Why did Cardinal Sarah encourage priests to face east during the celebration of the liturgy? Perhaps to prompt the kind of discussion I have offered in this article and to help hasten the renewal of beautiful worship.

Image: Cardinal Robert Sarah. Credit: Bohumil Petrik/CNA.

Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A member of the clergy, a Roman Catholic Deacon, he is also constitutional/ human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith, values and culture and currently serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing Writer for THE STREAM

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.