HIS PAST WEEK, I saw many discussions on the internet about Cardinal Sarah’s address at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London. Today I saw some people celebrating and rejoicing over the clarification by the Vatican. Jeff has already shared his reflection on the Vatican statement and I totally agree with him. The Cardinal Prefect of the CDW never forces anyone to celebrate the Mass “ad orientem”—he was simply making a suggestion and encouragement as a scholar, just like when Cardinal Ratzinger encouraged us in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy. The clarification was made because of the “hardness of hearts” of some people and others who are misinterpreting the cardinal’s speech.
In Cardinal Sarah’s lecture, he stressed the importance of liturgical catechesis before implementing “ad orientem” worship. In my discussions with others, I realized that a lot of people dislike the idea of “ad orientem” because of three misconceptions or false ideas. These misconceptions can be solved through correct catechesis.
(I) “I have to see everything” – A lot of people don’t like Masses celebrated “ad orientem” because they can’t see what is going on on the altar. I would ask them, “what are you hoping to see?” Mass is not a show! If the priests follow the rubrics, every Mass should be the same. What really happens at a Mass is internal and cannot be seen. The bread and wine turn into the Body and Blood of our Lord substantially while their external appearances remain the same. The Mass should be an act of faith, not an act of sight.
(II) “The priest celebrates the entire Mass “ad orientem” – Many Catholics have heard a lot about the “facing east” idea; both good things and bad things. But how many have actually experienced an Ordinary Form Mass celebrated “ad orientem?” In the Novus Ordo, the priest begins the Introductory Rite at the presider’s chair, which faces the people in most cases. The Liturgy of the Word takes place at the ambo facing the people. The part celebrated “ad orientem” is the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the sacrifice. It is the unbloody sacrifice of Christ to God the Father, and that is why the priest, being the alter Christus, turns his face towards God when he offers the sacrifice. After the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the priest returns to the presider’s chair for the Concluding Rite.
(III) “Turning his back to people is a sign of rejection” – As I explained above, the priest celebrates Mass “ad orientem” so that he can face towards God. The “ad orientem” celebration is about facing God, not turning the back to the faithful. Turning the back to people is not always a sign of rejection, it is also a sign of leadership. I am pretty sure that Moses led God’s people out of Egypt facing the “Promised Land.” If Moses was facing the Israelites the entire time, they would have never gotten out of Egypt. I am sure that King David’s back was to his soldiers when he led them into battles. In the case of a Mass, the priest is our leader and he leads us to God. And besides, the priest is instructed by the rubrics to turn towards the people when he addresses them in the Liturgy of the Eucharist (at Oratre fratres; Pax Domini sit semper; and Ecce Agnus Dei).
HILE THE CURRENT EDITION OF THE ROMAN MISSAL assumes that Masses are to be celebrated “ad orientem,” it is also permitted to celebrate “facing the people”. So, both ways are allowed. To my brothers and sisters who still think that worshiping “ad orientem” is wrong and can’t accept this way of celebration of the Mass, please take a moment to think about how many saints have celebrated or attended Masses “facing east.” They have proven that this orientation cannot be wrong and I pray through their intercessions that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass can continue to unify the people of God.