The following article (posted in 2013)
has been revised, based on events
that happened 7 years later:
OST REVEREND Peter Christensen (Bishop of Boise, Idaho) attempted—in February 2020—to ban “ad orientem” Masses in his diocese. Sadly, the letter he wrote is riddled with false statements. For example, Bishop Christensen said: “It was clearly the mind of the Council that the priest should face the people.” Yet, not a single Vatican II document mentions Mass facing the people. Today, I will limit myself to one false claim:
Bishop Christensen says Girm299 “is unambivalent, and I am instructing priests in this diocese to preside facing the people at every celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Mass.”
Girm299 first appeared on 26 September 1964, in a Vatican decree called Inter Œcumenici (cf. #91). The sentence is located in the section dealing with “building new churches or restoring and adapting old ones”—and that’s important. Girm299 found its way into the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani of 1969:
In the year 2000, something was added. I personally believe this addition was an effort by the Holy See to prevent certain bishops (e.g. Rembert Weakland) from using the faithful’s donations to destroy traditional High Altars in historic churches. 1 Here’s what was added:
The USCCB’s translation of Girm299 makes it seem like “celebration facing the people” is desirable:
299. The altar should be built separate 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.
Some scholars disagreed. In 2001, Professor John Hunwicke (an Anglican, who would later become a Catholic priest) wrote a letter:
* PDF Download • Professor Hunwicke’s 2001 Letter
—Original Title: “I must protest against an illiterate translation.”
He argued that the “quod” section of Girm299 clearly applied to the construction of the Altar, not to “celebration facing the people.” Other scholars can be found who agree with Professor Hunwicke. In April of 2006, Fr. Reginald Foster (formerly a Vatican Latin expert) said Professor Hunwicke’s interpretation was correct. This is significant because Fr. Foster is anything but a traditionalist, and has publicly declared the Extraordinary Form to be a “useless Mass” (his words). Fr. Foster has even collaborated in film projects with anti-Catholics such as Bill Maher. In other words, Fr. Foster is the last person on the face of the earth we’d expect to take a traditionalist position!
On the other hand, I recently had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Stanley Lombardo (after more than 15 years). Dr. Lombardo is a world-renowned expert in Latin and Greek; Google his name, and you’ll see that his credentials are beyond reproach. At my request, Dr. Lombardo carefully examined Girm299, and felt the need to call me on the telephone to make sure I understood his conclusions. We spoke for quite a while, and he specifically addressed various details, including the red herring of celebratio being feminine. I am not comfortable revealing our entire conversation, but he made it quite clear that while Professor Hunwicke’s translation is “certainly valid,” the USCCB version is “the more natural” translation. (For the record, Dr. Lombardo has no dog in this fight.)
It cannot be maintained that Professor Hunwicke’s version is “the only valid translation,” and I apologize for previously saying otherwise. I was wrong. At the same time, Bishop Christensen is incorrect to pretend Girm299 is “unambivalent” for the following reasons:
After telling us we must follow “documents propagated by the Holy See,” Bishop Christensen flagrantly contradicts the specific ruling (from the Vatican) on Girm299:
I would encourage you to read the full document.
The Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship—the people responsible for Girm299!—closed the “ad orientem” conversation once and for all. Specifically, Jorge A. Cardinal Medina Estévez on 10 April 2000 (Protocol No. 564/00/L) settled the question of “ad orientem” in the 2000 (2002) Missal:
THIS DICASTERY wishes to state that Holy Mass may be celebrated versus populum or versus apsidem. Both positions are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct. There is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, the legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.
—|10 April 2000 (PROTOCOL NO. 564/00/L)
Cardinal Medina wrote as Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship—the final authority on rubrics in the current Missal—and the document was signed by the CDW Secretary, Archbishop Francesco Pio Tamburrino.
The current Prefect Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, Robert Cardinal Sarah—who was chosen and appointed by Pope Francis—has made public statements on this very subject. For example, on 5 July 2016 Cardinal Sarah said:
I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—Eastwards or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes, in those parts of the liturgical rites when we are addressing God. This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate in the modern rite.
To locate Girm299, you must turn to the section of the GIRM which talks about constructing new churches as well as “adapting” inherited structures. For example, Girm291 says: “For the proper construction, restoration, and arrangement of sacred buildings, all those involved should consult the diocesan commission for the Sacred Liturgy and sacred art.” It goes against logic to tell a young priest learning to celebrate Mass: “Hey, turn to the section on building churches for information on how to celebrate Mass.” That is why the very powerful conclusion by Dr. Lombardo is hardly the final word. Context does matter.
Bishop Christensen says the Ordinary Form Missal “never asks him [the celebrant] to turn away, as the preconciliar Missal did.” His Excellency is incorrect. For example, consider a page approved by the USCCB Committee on Divine Worship on July 2011—taken with my iPhone—for the current Missal (“Ordinary Form”):
This is quite a basic error on the part of Bishop Christensen.
The current Missal frequently directs the celebrant to “turn toward the people.” For example, #127 says:
Sacerdos, ad populum conversus, extendens et iungens manus, subdit: “Pax Domini…etc.” Translated into English, that means: The Priest, having turned toward the people, extending and joining his hands, adds the following: “The peace of the Lord…etc.” Why on earth would the current Missal frequently tell the celebrant to turn around and face the people if he’s already facing them?
I would encourage Bishop Christensen to immediately issue a public retraction. Moreover, if the letter was ghostwritten (which seems probable), the ghostwriter needs to be fired; this is a “resignation issue,” as D.C.S. Foyle would say!
S your head spinning yet? Why can’t rubrics be more clear? Remember that our Church is 2,000 years old. The rubrics are written a certain way, and we’ve been doing that for a long time. Father Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)—in a private letter to a friend—had some opinions about a certain “Book of Rubrics”…and it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, although I had to read it more than once to understand:
It is said that the test of a good translation is that it should read like an original work. According to this ideal, Dale comes off very badly indeed. He has such a mania for using Italian words that a great part or his book is not really English at all and can hardly be understood till one has translated it back into Italian. Not only does he use an Italian name on every possible occasion; when the words are English he translates with ruthless exactness all the gorgeous phrases of Italian grand style. For instance, in Dale you do not bow to the celebrant, you “proceed to make the customary salutation”; you do not stand, you “retain a standing posture.” Everyone “observes” to do everything: you observe not to kneel, you observe to retain a kneeling posture. The Master of Ceremonies does not tell a man to do a thing—he “apprizes him that it should he performed.” The celebrant “terminates” the Creed; he “genuflects in conjunction with the sacred ministers”—then he observes to assume a standing posture in conjunction with them. The Master of Ceremonies goes about apprizing and comporting himself till he observes to perform the customary salutation. The subdeacon imparts the “Pax” in the same manner as it was communicated to him. Everyone exhibits a grave deportment… Imagine anyone talking like this! Imagine anyone saying that you ought to exhibit a deportment! Of course, we have to “ascend” every time; the blessing is always “benediction”; harmful becomes deleterious; and so on. Frankly, I do not think I’ve ever read a book written in so atrocious a style. The only thing in its favour is that it is extremely funny. However, since the book is meant to be serious, it is a pity that someone did not apprize Dale to proceed to observe the customary use of language, in conjunction with people who write English.
For the sake of completeness, here’s the letter by Bishop Peter Christensen:
Bishop issues clarification to priests regarding liturgical practices
Taken from the March edition of the Diocesan Paper of Boise, Idaho
Dear Brothers in Christ: It has come to my attention that matters addressed below may be causing confusion in our Diocese. I would like to provide clarification. In order to reduce the confusion among the faithful and the increasing disinformation regarding liturgical matters in the Diocese, and to promote harmony and unity that is reflected and strengthened in our Eucharistic celebrations, I am promulgating this Instruction. As bishop, I request that clergy carefully reflect upon and adhere to the following.
1. Priests must take special care in forming the faithful: In general, priests are to refrain from providing the faithful with incorrect information in order to promote a particular approach to worship. Specifically, they must never imply a particular superiority or greater holiness of approach amongst the valid forms of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. In instructing the faithful regarding questions of posture, gesture, reception of Communion, etc., clergy are to refer always to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Order of Mass, and other officially promulgated ritual books for the form of liturgy they are celebrating, or to documents propagated by the Holy See or the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and approved by the appropriate authorities. Sources such as independent websites and social media platforms that are unaffiliated with the Holy See or the USCCB are not to be considered trustworthy or appropriate for catechesis. Elements from the Missal used at the Extraordinary Form liturgy are not to be imported into Masses celebrated under the Ordinary Form. Pastors, whose responsibility is to form the faithful, should undertake this task with utmost seriousness and care. Your authority as shepherds of your flocks—trusted fathers of your faith family—resides in your integrity and humble sincerity in providing the souls in your care with accurate theological, moral, and catechetical guidance to the best of your ability, and should not be undermined by a careless or deliberately misleading approach to formation.
2. Priests in the Diocese of Boise will face the people when presiding at the Ordinary Form of the Mass: Paragraph 299 in the General Instruction to the Roman Missal makes it plain that the universal Church envisions the priest presiding at Mass facing the people. (#299: “The altar should be built separate 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 whenever possible.”) This is unambivalent, and I am instructing priests in this diocese to preside facing the people at every celebration of the Ordinary Form of the Mass. There are priests who prefer ad orientem. I am convinced that they mean well and find it a devout way to pray. But the overwhelming experience worldwide after Vatican II is that the priest faces the people for the Mass, and this has contributed to the sanctification of the people. There has been an attempt to justify the ad orientem practice because the Order of Mass indicates places when the priest should face the people. (However, it never asks him to turn away, as the preconciliar Missal did.) There are some historical churches with fixed altars where the priest does not have the option of facing the people. I conclude from this that the indications to have his back to the people remain only for those circumstances where the priest presides at historical churches where the main altar or side altars are against a wall. The GIRM presumes that the priest is celebrating Mass at a freestanding altar. It was clearly the mind of the Council that the priest should face the people. It is most affecting that, during the funeral rite, the Catholic Church maintains that the coffin of a deceased cleric is to be positioned in the way he was in life at Mass: facing the people.
3. Posture at Communion and the use of prie dieus (kneeling bench) or altar rails: I have directed that the posture for receiving Communion in this Diocese is standing, in accord with GIRM #160: “The norm is established for the Dioceses of the United States of America is that Holy Communion is to be received standing, unless an individual member of the faithful wishes to receive Communion while kneeling.” While it is the right of the faithful to kneel to receive, nor may any communicant be denied Communion based on posture, given that the norm in this country is standing. I am instructing that priests do not use furniture or items such as prie dieus or Communion rails, as these may seem to undermine this norm or to imply a preference for kneeling to receive.
4. Celebration of the Extraordinary Form: With the publication of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, it became permissible for priests to celebrate the Extraordinary Form of the eucharist without applying for permission to their local ordinary. I am requesting, however, that as a matter of courtesy, I am made aware of any such celebrations. As well, this information must be made available to the Holy See in a formal report during each ad limina visit. So, for accurate record-keeping, I request that you report this practice to me, along with frequency and attendance. Remembering always that the Ordinary Form is just that, the ordinary accepted way in which we are to regularly celebrate Mass a faithful Catholics.
5. Priests are not to add elements (words, gestures, actions, etc.) to the liturgy that are not found in the appropriate Missal: No priest should take it upon himself to adapt the liturgy to his particular preferences. Just as he should not insert words such as “God is good…all the time!” into the middle of the Eucharistic Prayer, neither should he insert actions—such as ringing the bells during his own Communion—that are not found in the rubrics of the Missal under which he is celebrating (the Missal of John XXIII for Extraordinary Form; the 3rd edition of the Missal of Paul VI for the Ordinary Form). Liturgy is not an expression of private devotion, as you are all aware.
My Brothers, it is a great trust that I and the Faithful of our Diocese place as you in order to promote the one body in Christ as reflected in our unity and harmony at worship.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 In other words, by adding these words, the Holy See was trying to remind bishops not to destroy beautiful, historic High Altars.
The following comes from an article in 2013 — it is included here for the sake of completeness:
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.