“It should be borne in mind that there is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.”
—Congregation for Divine Worship (10 April 2000)
Because of these injunctions, some claim that the post-Conciliar rubrics assume the priest and people will be facing the same direction at certain times, but you can decide for yourself after reading the articles below. By the way, I’ve already written about Mass ad orientem here and here, and here is a recent piece by Msgr. Charles Pope.
BELIEVE IT OR NOT, this is actually a difficult subject to talk about. There are so many “rabbit holes” to avoid, and considerable false information floating around. Please patiently bear with me as I present various documents — you won’t regret it, I promise!
Let’s begin with a 2006 article by Fr. John Zuhlsdorf:
Here’s what the 1969 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says:
262. Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit.
If you insist on “seeing with your own eyes,” here’s a scanned copy of the original 1969 Latin GIRM. Notice that Fr. Zuhlsdorf calls that paragraph “299” while some people (like Cardinal Ratzinger, below) call it “262.” That’s because the original GIRM numbering sometimes changes with subsequent editions. Here’s a literal English translation of GIRM 299  as it appeared in 1969:
262. 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.
This sentence was taken directly from a 1964 document called Inter Œcumenici, but in 2002 a change was made. (The changes were first made public in 2000 “for study purposes”). Some have claimed that this change was made in 1975, but they’re wrong: I checked. The Latin and English are identical to the 1969 for this paragraph. As of 2002, the GIRM says:
Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.
As we saw in Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s article, the correct English translation of this sentence is:
Correct Translation: The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.
Unfortunately, the official English translation is faulty, and contradicts the official ruling of the CDW (see below), dated 25 September 2000:
Erroneous Translation: The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.
Here are four (4) more articles affirming that this English translation is erroneous. Note, in particular, the careful letter of Rev. J. W. Hunwicke:
Hunwicke makes a lot of good points. I think he’s the only one to stress the important difference between “whenever” and “wherever” in this context. I will give his translation once more, since not everyone will take the time to read his article (alas!). I’ve placed his “extra” comments in purple:
The High Altar [not, be it observed, every altar] should be constructed away from the wall, so that the option is open [possit] of walking easily around it and using it for Mass facing the people. This [i.e., having the altar free-standing so that the options are open] is desirable wherever possible.
IF I MAY BE PERMITTED a slight digression, I always thought the original reason for having “free-standing altars” had to do with incensation. Several times, the ancient Latin prayers seem to indicate “encircling” the Altar. It appears I was wrong: from square one, the purpose seems to have been versus populum celebration. I also feel that I have (perhaps) been misreading GIRM 299 . I previously believed the extra 2002 sentence was added to help protect churches from being “wreckovated” (if any were still intact by 2002).
Let us consider a few more articles. Here’s one by Fr. Johnson which is worth reading, in spite of numerous typos. They published an errata section (c.f. penultimate PDF page), but even that didn’t correct all the typos (e.g. “versus a populum” should be “versus ad populum”). Don’t dismiss the article because of the typos. Little errors can happen to anyone. For example, I just spent close to $50.00 purchasing Dr. Lauren Pristas’ book and it’s riddled with typos.
Let us now consider a 1993 article about ad orientem celebration published in Notitiæ. When you read it, don’t forget to scroll to the last two pages. There you will find a 1993 article by Msgr. Richard J. Schuler reviewing The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background (Msgr. Klaus Gamber). Msgr. Schuler also talks about his understanding of conversus ad populum and versus populum.
Speaking of Msgr. Schuler, here are some thoughts he had about Ad Populum Conversus way back in 1984:
Let us now consider an article by Fr. Fessio (2001). Of special note is this paragraph:
In 1999, Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Alabama, sent a letter to his priests: “A well-intentioned but flawed and seriously misdirected movement has begun in the United States. Priests are encouraged, on their own initiative, without the permission of their local bishops, to take liberties with the Mass by celebrating in a manner called ad orientem, that is, with their backs to the people. As bishop of this diocese, I have, as the successor of the apostles in union with the Holy Father, the absolute duty to protect it from innovation or sacrilege.”
Earlier, we linked to a letter by the Anglican, Rev. J. W. Hunwicke. [A reader emailed me that Hunwicke is now a Catholic, by the way.] Here’s the HPR article which prompted him to write that letter:
Let us now consider Dr. William Mahrt’s contribution to the subject of Ad Orientem worship:
Finally, here’s a message from Dr. Kurt Poterack (concerning Ad Orientem) followed by an English translation of the 25 September CDW ruling mentioned above:
NOW, IT IS TIME to wrap this up. I wish I could link to a book by Fr. Uwe Michael Lang (Turning Toward the Lord), but it’s currently under copyright by Ignatius Press. However, Ignatius does allow for this online preview, as well as another article by Fr. Lang (who quotes many of the same sources as this 1985 article by Fr. Deryck Hanshell). Finally, I’d like to remind everyone to read the 2003 Foreword by Cardinal Ratzinger.
I can think of no better way to conclude than to quote from this Foreword, written by the man who later became Pope Benedict XVI:
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.
[ … ]
Recently, the atmosphere has become more relaxed so that it is possible to raise the kind of questions asked by Jungmann, Bouyer, and Gamber without at once being suspected of anti-conciliar sentiments. Historical research has made the controversy less partisan, and among the faithful there is an increasing sense of the problems inherent in an arrangement that hardly shows the liturgy to be open to the things that are above and to the world to come.
ADDENDUM: Some might assert that the technical “rules” don’t matter as much as what’s actually done. I suppose there’s some truth in that. I’m reminded of the words of Bishop Peter J. Elliott, who wrote that Eucharistic Prayer No. 2 should “not normally” be used on Sundays or solemnities. He continues:
Using this prayer on Sundays to “save time” probably indicates that the homily was too long — hence an unbalanced liturgy.
How right he is! The current GIRM says (#365):
Eucharistic Prayer II, on account of its particular features, is more appropriately used on weekdays or in special circumstances.
This has not changed since 1968, and here’s proof, but very few priests follow the GIRM in this instance.