HIS YEAR, the priest at my parish will be offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientem on Fridays during Lent. In parishes that are not used to having Mass offered ad orientem, introducing it at daily Mass on the Fridays of Lent is an excellent way to begin the practice. I wrote the following “explainer” to help my parishioners understand what’s going on and why.
What does “ad orientem” mean?
“Ad orientem” is Latin for “toward the East.” It refers to the direction that the priest faces during particular moments in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Historically, Catholic churches and cemeteries have always been built along an East-West axis whenever possible. This is because the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not merely a closed-circle, communal event taking place between the priest and people, but a heavenly mystery encompassing the whole cosmos: “In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God…” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 8).
It seems like the priest is facing the wrong way. What’s going on?
During those portions of the Mass that are addressed to the people, the priest faces the people. However, because the Eucharistic prayer is addressed to God the Father, the normal posture of the priest has always been to face with the people toward the Lord while the priest, acting “in persona Christi capitis” (“in the Person of Christ the Head”), re-presents Christ’s saving sacrifice to the Father in an unbloody manner through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Didn’t Vatican II get rid of this?
Actually, no. Nowhere in the documents of Vatican II (nor in any other magisterial documents before or since) has the Church ever directed the priest to face “versus populum” (Latin, “toward the people”) for the entire duration of the sacred liturgy. In fact, the current edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the priest’s “instruction book” for Mass) presumes the “ad orientem” posture because it directs the priest to turn and face the people at certain points, implying that he had not been facing them beforehand.
What does this mean for me?
While the priest’s “ad orientem” posture may seem unusual at first, with repeated exposure many people find that the “ad orientem” celebration allows them to enter more deeply into the prayer of the Mass and to focus more intently on the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence – Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity – in the Most Holy Eucharist.