File this in the “something to think about” category.
When Pope Francis recently announced his picks for the red hat, he did so during a Mass in the Sistine Chapel in which he faced the East: ad orientem. The headline of a popular putatively Catholic blog read, “For the record: Francis Turns Toward God — 2”. The reason for the number “2” is that it was the second time the Pope had celebrated ad orientem, and the blog had similarly reported that first celebration as “Francis turns toward God.” On another blog, a priest-commenter reported that ad orientem actually meant “toward Christ”! In both cases, the whole context was that this was a significant theological development on the part of the Pope, a pope who apparently was signalling his doctrinal or liturgical orthodoxy by choosing to celebrate ad orientem. Who could possibly object to such reverence? Obviously, to be a good Catholic, we must celebrate this way, right? Who wouldn’t want to “turn toward God” or to “face Christ”? Real Catholics are the ones who face the East (ad orientem) because that’s where God is, right?
Unfortunately for folks who might be taken in by that line of reasoning, this is NOT what the Catholic Church actually teaches.
Catholic teaching and practice, from the very beginning, reflected great diversity and practice on all of this. In some ancient churches, there was an East-West orientation, and the priest and people would together face the East, where the sun would rise, analogous to God spreading light upon a darkened world. However, there is also significant architectural evidence that this was not a universal practice, with the architecture of other churches facilitating a versus populum (toward the people) orientation. Eventually, the ad orientem orientation became prevalent, but the option to celebrate versus populum remained a permissible option. The point here is that traditional Catholic theology never made the claim that God was only accessible via one orientation or another. Traditional understanding was that priest and people were together in praying to God during the Eucharist. This was true whether facing East or facing the people. The concerns of some Catholic conservatives today seem to rest on the idea that facing the people somehow makes the Mass a kind of “performance” by the priest, and that versus populum is one small step from a Broadway production focused on people and not on God.
1) Traditional Catholic theology emphasizes that God is everywhere.
2) The Church prefers, in accordance with the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, that the Mass be celebrated versus populum whenever possible, but ad orientem is certainly permitted, especially if the architecture of the sanctuary makes that preferable. Vatican II also teaches that “the full, conscious and active participation” of all the faithful at Mass is to be the number one priority when considering liturgical reform (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Council’s Constitution on the Liturgy).
3) This same document, which as a Constitution of a general council of the Church is among the highest magisterial teaching documents of the Church, also addresses how Christ is present in the Mass:
To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical
celebrations. He is present in the sacrifice of the Mass, not only in the person of His minister, “the
same now offering, through the ministry of priests, who formerly offered himself on the cross”,
but especially under the eucharistic species. By His power He is present in the sacraments, so that
when a man baptizes it is really Christ Himself who baptizes. He is present in His word, since it
is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church. He is present, lastly,
when the Church prays and sings, for He promised: “Where two or three are gathered together in
my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20) .
Back to these blog headlines and comments. First, the language of the headline permits the inference by those who wish to make it, that the Pope — until now — has been oriented AWAY from God, but has now seen the error of his ways; I’m sure the writer would vehemently deny such a claim, but the language permits such an inference, whatever the original intent of the writer. Second, the language suggests that God exists in a certain direction and not in another (specifically, versus populum). The state of the Pope’s personal spirituality is beyond the scope of this blog, certainly! However, the second suggestion flies directly in the face of actual Catholic teaching. It is a shame that people might be misled — whether deliberately or not — to think that this represents Catholic teaching.
To recap: the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church permits, and always has, Masses celebrated both ad orientem and versus populum, although contemporary liturgical law favors versus populum. The entire Catholic Church believes, as expressed by the world’s bishops and confirmed and promulgated by Pope Paul VI at the Second Vatican Council, that Christ is present at Mass in the people assembled, in the proclamation of the Word of God, in the person of the ordained ministers, especially the priest, and in a special way under the forms of bread and wine.
We owe it to each other to try to be as accurate about these things as we can. Our Catholic Tradition is simply too rich and pastoral practice too diverse to try to box it into categories that reduce the very Catholicity we seek!
UPDATE: A reader e-mailed me with a question about the tabernacle, suggesting that this might be why the priest would face ad orientem: because that was the direction of the tabernacle containing the reserved Sacred Species consecrated during previous Masses. However, this is not the reason for ad orientem. Examining the ancient churches of Christianity, one finds that tabernacles were located in a rather wide array of places: sometimes on the altar itself, sometimes in separate locations altogether: the priest never adjusted his orientation because of the location of the tabernacle. They didn’t then; they shouldn’t now. That’s never been part of the liturgical theology of the Church.