Walking to Heaven backwards

A brilliant post from the brilliant Msgr. Charles Pope, at the Archdiocese of Washington’s blog on the superiority of ad orientem worship (emphasis in the original):

Indeed, we have the strange modern concept of the “closed circle” in so many modern conceptions of the Mass. Too often we are tediously self-referential and anthropocentric. So much of modern liturgy includes long lists of congratulatory references, both done by, but also expected of the celebrant.

Instead of the Liturgy being upwardly focused to God and outwardly toward the mission of the Church (to make disciples of all the nations), we tend today to “gather” and hunker down in rather closed circles looking at each other, and speaking at great length about ourselves.

We have even enshrined this architecturally in our modern circular and fan shaped churches that facilitate us looking at each other, and focusing inwardly, not up or put. The author Thomas Day once described Modern Catholic Liturgy as, “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” [1]

In the ancient orientation or “stance” of the Mass that was ubiquitous until 1965, the focus was outward and upward. Though disparaged by many in recent decades as the priest “having his back to the people” even this description shows the self obsession of the modern age. And to those speak this way about the liturgical orientation of almost 2,000 years, the answer must come, “The priest does not have his back to you. Actually it is not about you at all. The liturgy is about God. And the priest, and all the faithful are turned outward and upward to God.”

“Tediously self-referential and anthropocentric” describes about as perfectly as possible the source of my own annoyance and alienation at the narcissistic horizontality of the typical modern Mass. Enough with it!

12 thoughts on “Walking to Heaven backwards

  1. A priest at a nearby parish, in addition to celebrating the Latin Mass, says the Novus Ordo always ad orientem. It is a striking change from the typical N.O. Mass, even those that are celebrated reverently (very few, sadly) but facing the people.

    I have the understanding that nothing official from Vatican II and later ever required, or even suggested, that the priest should turn around and face the people.

    • In fact the current rubrics of the Mass anticipate ad orientem celebration, as they instruct the celebrant to turn and face the people at least 5 or 6 times. The impetus for Mass facing the people seems to derive from a mistranslation of a footnote urging detachment of high altars from the wall.

  2. I recently had the pleasure of attending a Greek-Orthodox Vespers service. I noticed that when attending the altar, the priests faced the altar, not the congregation. The Vespers service is not a Mass, but I assume that in the Mass as such the Orthodox priests behave in the same way respecting the altar. I appreciated the objectivity of it.

    • Yes, typically Orthodox (and Eastern rite Catholics as well) celebrate ad orientem. Widespread celebration of the divine liturgy facing the people appears to be mostly a Western innovation beginning in approx. 1970.

  3. My brother-in-law, who is a much better Catholic than I am, recently started altar serving at a church that adheres to the old way. I say this sheepishly because I’ve never attended a Latin mass, but talking to him the other day I believe I saw another pernicious effect of the N.O. He mentioned the extended periods of silence and the importance of knowing the order of the mass if you want to have any idea of what’s going on, and it hit me. In bringing in this idea of participation and engagement by the people, they made everything external to the detriment of the internal effort. As anyone who saw the recent re-translated parts of the mass for the people (great as far as they went) gradually get assimilated, the external part of anything repetitive can quickly become a matter of thoughtless routine. But the internal focus takes effort every time, and more importantly only you and God know about it. So you can go to mass and plan out your grocery list while saying all the right words, and to a certain kind of mind the problem is not obvious. But if you’re sitting there in silence, it would take an extremely dull person not to get curious about what you’re doing there and why this is such a big deal.

  4. Many Catholic Churches architecturally resemble something of B rate a sci-fi dystopia novel. The recent spectacle of WYD was not exactly the most encouraging display either. Still I think there is some reason for hope. Many buildings are being renovated to be more traditional. In addition the traditional liturgy is slowly making a comeback-especially amongst the young. The SSPX are putting in a massive new seminary in VA.

  5. A couple of questions:

    What is the orientation of the celebrant in the Lutheran and Anglican mass?

    In the Catholic Church, who determines what is the proper orientation, the priest himself, the bishop, or the councils?

    • Can’t speculate about your first question, although I know that high Church Anglicans, what few remain, celebrate ad orientem.

      Liturgical orientation could be dictated by the Pope but to my knowledge Rome has been silent on the question for some time now. Ostensibly the choice is left up to the priest, who is likely to be subject to extraordinary pressure by the bishop and the chancery to celebrate ad orientem, which is why so few ever do.

  6. @Leo – I have worshiped at a few Anglican Catholic churches with quite a lot of priests, and have seen both; but mostly the priest faced away from the congregation and towards the altar at the key moments – clearly in practice the decision was being left to the priest.

    The good thing was that the priests always made sure that, whatever the orientation, every word was clearly audible; and of course the traditional words of the Anglican liturgy were unsurpassed in beauty, precision and power.

  7. From what I have found around the web, the Lutheran orientation was traditionally ad orientem, but after the liturgical reforms coming out of Rome ca. 1960-70 many Lutherans moved to a free-standing altar and facing the people, i.e., versus populum. Can any Lutherans here comment?


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