Mass Confusion

Mass Confusion

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By Father Gerald D. Coleman P.S.S.
Adjunct professor, Graduate Department of Pastoral Ministries,
Santa Clara University


There is a growing interest among some priests and laity to celebrate Mass ad orientem (toward the East). This designation should not be labeled as the priest facing the wall or the tabernacle with his back to the people, but rather a posture of praying to God. The earliest Church documents that describe the Eucharist show differences in the way it was celebrated from region to region, Rome, Jerusalem, Milan. These centers of the Church had different ways of celebrating the Eucharist from the earliest days. However, there was never a question that it was the same Eucharist In the 16th century, the Council of Trent endorsed some of this diversity, but called for a greater centrality in promoting uniformity.

In 1984 Saint John Paul II grave permission under certain conditions to restore the use of the Missal promulgated by Saint John XXIII. In 1988 he established a Commission for the pastoral oversight of those Catholics who remain attached to the Mass as it was celebrated in the Roman Missal of 1962. In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI gave permission to celebrate the whole liturgy according to the norms of 1962. He stated that the Missal of 1962 (the extraordinary form) and the Missal of 2008 (the ordinary form) are both legitimate forms of the one Roman Rite.

Benedict exhorted the whole Church to “generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.” The Pope’s Apostolic Letter aimed at legitimizing the extraordinary form of the liturgy “as a precious treasure to be preserved” and “promoting reconciliation at the heart of the Church.”

This brief history serves as background for the confusion over the proper direction the priest should face during Mass. After the Second Vatican Council one of the most evident liturgical changes was the celebration of Mass versus populum (toward the people). This stance was adopted throughout the Latin Church and has become the prevailing practice for the celebration of Mass.

The Church teaches that it is legitimate for the priest to celebrate Mass facing the people, but has not forbidden or excluded the possibility of celebrating Mass ad orientem. The crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together listen to the Word of God and celebrate the Eucharist The whole congregation, priest and people, are praying together to God through Jesus.

Some believe that this common act of worship is best celebrated when both priest and people are turned toward the Lord facing the same way, manifesting a common act of worship and symbolizing our common pilgrimage toward the Lord. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Ratzinger expressed his belief that this common posture best evokes the mystery of the transcendent God.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council (with a vote by the Bishops of 2,147 to 4, and promulgated by Saint Paul VI) importantly sets forth foundational principles about the celebration of the Mass. It aims to shift the Mass from a clerical sacred drama to an act of the entire community. The key passage is: “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such a participation by the Christian people … is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the full restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit; and therefore pastors of souls must zealously strive to achieve it…” (no. 14)

Those who favor celebrating Mass ad orientem insist that this way best fosters humility in the priest and prevents his ego from taking over “as it does in versus populum.” Mass facing the East also forces us to recognize, without any doubt or confusion, just who it is we are worshiping. Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that “the turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle … locked into itself.” The priest “becomes the real point of reference for the whole Liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to be involved in what he is doing.”

This argument strains credulity as it assumes that a priest celebrating Mass facing the people is centered on himself and his ego. Neither humility or egoism aligns with either practice.

We must be careful not to chip away at the Spirit-guided reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Mass celebrated toward the people seems the best way of fulfilling the norm set forth in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Both forms (ad orientem and versus populum) may provide spiritual enrichment and can promote the communion of the whole Church as an expression of unity in diversity.

It’s not a question of which form is right and which is wrong. The main point is which form best honors the teaching of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. I believe that the correct answer is the celebration of Mass facing the people as it fosters a “greater centrality in promoting unity.”