N THE YEARS leading up to the Second Vatican Council, it was popular to claim that “Mass facing the people” (versus populum) was the “more primitive” form of Mass. However, over the last four decades, scholars have been moving further and further away from this belief. It is very difficult to know where the scholarship will end up when all is said and done. However, even if somebody could definitively prove that “versus populum” was routinely used in the early Church, that doesn’t mean we should go back to it, because the Church often had good reasons for changing things as time went on and Theology developed.
In any event, here’s an interesting article from the May 1993 issue of Notitiae:
Also in that PDF are comments by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, including these:
“Guidelines are given indicating that in churches with altars that are themselves works of art, they should not be destroyed and a portable altar should not be placed in the sanctuary. Rather, the main altar, with the priest facing toward God, is to be used. The readings, of course, are made toward the people.”
Here’s some information about Notitiae by Fr. John T. Zuhlsdorf:
Notitiae is the official publication of the congregation. It relates various speeches of the Holy Father, minutes of plenary sessions of the congregations, various continuing scholarly studies accepted in manuscript or undertaken by the congregation concerning the liturgy; provides the ordinary prayers for newly beatified or canonized saints to be used in the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours; publishes decrees of the same congregation; from time to time responds formally and publicly to questions raised about the liturgy with official clarifications or interpretations; and also provides editorials or opinions. While some of the things in Notitiae have an official character, such as a decree or clarification, an editorial has no authority other than that derived from the strength of its arguments and ability to persuade.
Finally, below is an excerpt from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger’s Foreword to Fr. Uwe Michael Lang’s book, Turning Towards the Lord. I think it’s interesting that Cardinal Ratzinger points out the same thing I did years ago, viz., getting rid of Latin and Mass facing the people cannot be found in any document of Vatican II. Perhaps Cardinal Ratzinger heard what I was saying to people and thought it would be good to use in his Foreword . . . does that seem likely?
To the ordinary churchgoer, the two most obvious effects of the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council seem to be the disappearance of Latin and the turning of the altars towards the people. Those who read the relevant texts will be astonished to learn that neither is in fact found in the decrees of the Council. The use of the vernacular is certainly permitted, especially for the Liturgy of the Word, but the preceding general rule of the Council text says, ‘Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 36.1).
There is nothing in the Council text about turning altars towards the people; that point is raised only in postconciliar instructions. The most important directive is found in paragraph 262 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the General Instruction of the new Roman Missal, issued in 1969. That says, ‘It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people (versus populum).’ The General Instruction of the Missal issued in 2002 retained this text unaltered except for the addition of the subordinate clause, ‘which is desirable wherever possible’. This was taken in many quarters as hardening the 1969 text to mean that there was now a general obligation to set up altars facing the people ‘wherever possible’.
This interpretation, however, was rejected by the Congregation for Divine Worship on 25 September 2000, when it declared that the word ‘expedit’ (‘is desirable’) did not imply an obligation but only made a suggestion. The physical orientation, the Congregation says, must be distinguished from the spiritual. Even if a priest celebrates versus populum, he should always be oriented versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ). Rites, signs, symbols, and words can never exhaust the inner reality of the mystery of salvation. For this reason the Congregation warns against one-sided and rigid positions in this debate.
This is an important clarification. It sheds light on what is relative in the external symbolic forms of the liturgy and resists the fanaticisms that, unfortunately, have not been uncommon in the controversies of the last forty years. At the same time it highlights the internal direction of liturgical action, which can never be expressed in its totality by external forms. This internal direction is the same for priest and people, towards the Lord-towards the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The Congregation’s response should thus make for a new, more relaxed discussion, in which we can search for the best ways of putting into practice the mystery of salvation. The quest is to be achieved, not by condemning one another, but by carefully listening to each other and, even more importantly, listening to the internal guidance of the liturgy itself. The labelling of positions as ‘preconciliar’, ‘reactionary’, and ‘conservative’, or as ‘progressive’ and ‘alien to the faith’ achieves nothing; what is needed is a new mutual openness in the search for the best realization of the memorial of Christ.