Sunday, February 1, 2009

Just which way should the priest face? With his back to the people, or back to Jesus?

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Fr. Dufner of Holy Family parish in St. Louis Park also recently made comments about ad orientem worship for his parish in the bulletin. Emphasis and Comments by Father John Zuhlsdorf who also commented on Holy Family's altar boys.

Just recently, a 6-yr-old said: “Daddy, why in the English Mass does the priest have his back to Jesus the whole time?” [Ex ore infantium… – Fr. Z]

  • Which Way Should the Altar Face?

  • Much could be said too regarding the direction the altar faces. Msgr. Schuler of happy memory, the former pastor of St. Agnes, told me of saying Mass facing the people way back in the early 1950’s in a downstairs Church in St. Paul. [That would be Nativity of our Lord Church, where Msgr. Schuler was a weekend helper while he taught at the College of St. Thomas. There was a versus populum altar there long before it became popular.] He thought at the time, “This will never last.” There was no law forbidding the altars from being turned around before Vatican II, and no law requiring them to be turned around after! [Exactly! And how many altars were destroyed? How many?] As Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) quipped in the early 1990’s, the fact that the Church never ordered the altars to be turned around is perhaps the reason it happened so quickly!

  • When the altars were turned around many other things changed as well. [The great liturgist Klaus Gamber noted that the revolution of the altar was perhaps the single most damaging liturgical change. Moreover, the great liturgists who were cited in defense of this revolution later repudiated the inaccurate scholarship that served as a justification.] On the upside was more personal connection with the priest, [Is that an upside?] and seeing the words spoken [Is that an upside?] as well as hearing them at Mass. One of the downsides was that the priest tended to become the center of Mass instead of Christ. It opened up to a lot of clowning around and dumbing down of the sacred liturgy. It broadly facilitated a what became a refocusing of the Mass from being Theocentric (God Centered) to being Anthropocentric (Man Centered). Church design tended to become theater shaped and often the choir was placed up front. This in no way invalidates the Mass, but takes away many of the transcendent qualities. [And the transcendent quality is precise the point of liturgy. If liturgy does not bring us to the very object of religion – awe at transcendence – it has not only failed, it has done harm.]

  • Now with forty years or more of experience many people are craving something more. Those who attend modern casual churches in the suburbs, which all tend to be anthropocentric, look forward to visits to the Basilica. They crave the beauty and dignity of that grand church. But I think they also crave order, with a sanctuary set apart and the focus on the altar. Rectangular churches, much like the Meeting Tent of Moses, the Jewish Temple, and Christian churches, allow everyone to choose how close to come, to be in front or back, on the side or the aisle, to be seen or unseen, all of which is impossible in a church in the round, and in many modern churches. [Good point!]

  • Which way should the altar face? The traditional direction is called “Ad orientem.” “Oriens” meaning “the rising sun”—thus “the East” or “the dawn” – and with the preposition “ad” meaning “to” or “towards.” AD ORIENTEM means facing east. Churches were literally built so that the priest AND congregation both faced EAST during public worship. The reason was that the sun rose each day in the east. The Son of God rose from the dead on Easter morning, when the sun rose in the East. [I think the more important dimension here is that our ancient forebears expected the Lord to return in glory from the East. Turning to the East takes on an eschatological dimension. It also echoes the orientation of the Jewish temple and synagogue to the niche where the Sacred Scriptures were. You might check out PODCAzT I did on ad orientem worship.] Hence, Christians were keen to respect that by facing east when they worshiped their Lord and Savior. Churches were built from Ancient to Mediaeval times facing east. The priest was not seen as ‘turning his back’ on the congregation, rather, BOTH priest and congregation were facing east TOGETHER. Does the bus driver or airplane pilot have his/her back toward the passengers OR rather is he/she facing the same direction of the destination everyone hopes to arrive at? [Usually you get someone who will say that the "host at meal" doesn’t turn away from his "guests". The bus driver and pilot analogy often serve well to explain in a simple way the role of the priest, as mediator and intercessor, fulfilling the roles of priest – prophet – king – in guiding a pilgrim Church toward the Lord who is to return in glory. It also emphasizes the sacrificial nature of the Mass.] [Facing East is not only facing the "Rising Sun", but it is also raising the "Rising Son!"]

  • So “ad orientem” is not the priest being bad mannered with his back to the people, but it is the whole people of God looking with awe and joy at the resurrected Lord Jesus and in expectation and hope looking for his coming in glory.

  • Therefore, saying Mass facing “ad orientem” is completely lawful as things stand today in the Catholic Church. [And more in keeping with the Church’s tradition, more in keeping with the rubrics, more in keeping with keeping the focus on God and not the priest, and more in keeping with a sound liturgical theology.]

  • Fr. Thomas Dufner
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