Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Turning Toward the Lord: Ad Orientem Worship

I was interested to read an article from the National Catholic Register the other day, entitled “The Priest Was Facing the Other Way” by Matthew Warner.

Mr. Warner tells us that he has never experienced the extraordinary form of the Mass, but would like to. In other words, he’s open to the experience. It seems to me that many people who’ve never been to an EF Mass are interested in learning more. And many have profound insights once they do experience it.

In his article, though, Mr. Warner doesn’t describe an EF Mass; he describes his experience at a novus ordo Mass which was celebrated ad orientem. Ad orientem means “to the east”; there are historical and theological reasons for the development of a “sacred direction”. Churches used to be “oriented” – they were built with the sanctuary at the east end of the building; that way, the people and the priest all faced east as together they worshipped God. Even if a church is not physically oriented toward the east, there is still a “liturgical east”, represented by the sanctuary and the altar.

Mr. Warner writes:

Not too long ago, however, I attended an Ordinary Form of the Mass where the priest was facing away from the congregation during the consecration. Of course, that was the normal practice prior to Vatican II. But I had never experienced it. In the Ordinary Form of the Mass today, the priest faces the congregation the whole time.

A correction: as Mr. Warner is now no doubt aware, in the NO Mass, the priest is not required to face the congregation the whole time. In fact, the wording of the GIRM and the rubrics of the Mass suggest that the all-to-common post-Vatican II interpretation that the priest should face the people is incorrect (more on that another time). Consider this quote from Turning Towards the Lord, by U.M. Lang:

…When we speak to someone, we obviously face the person. Accordingly, the whole liturgical assembly, priest and people, should face the same way, turning towards God to whom prayers and offerings are addressed in this common act of trinitarian worship…The catchphrase often heard nowadays that the priest is “turning his back on the people” is a classic example of confounding theology and topography, for the crucial point is that the Mass is a common act of worship where priest and people together, representing the pilgrim Church, reach out for the transcendent God.

Back to Matthew Warner’s article: Mr. Warner experienced precisely the sense of all present “turning to the Lord”. Here’s his description:

…All I want to say is that when the priest held up the bread and wine and offered them up to the Father as the Body and Blood of His Son, I experienced Mass in a different way than ever before.

At every other Mass I had ever been to, I had seen the priest holding up the Body and Blood toward me. Holding them up for an audience to see - or at least, that is what I naturally perceived from the way it was done. If you are just observing the Ordinary Form of the Mass, this is the part where you’d say, “Oh, this is where the priest holds up the bread and wine to the congregation.”

But when the priest was facing away from me this time, I got a very different impression. It really hit home to me more than ever that in that moment I was participating in something, not just observing. That I wasn’t just being shown something, but that we were the ones offering the something together — through the priest. All because the priest was facing the other way. The position of his body just seemed to resonate more with what we were doing. That’s all.

It just reminded me that the motions of the liturgy are always communicating something important…

Yes. The motions, the words, the language, the music, the “smells and bells” – each is a part of the Mass that “communicates something important” about our worship of God.

I know of only one priest in the Diocese of Baker who regularly celebrates the Novus Ordo ad orientem. In many of the parishes I’ve visited, ad orientem worship would be next to impossible because of the position of the altar.

That’s a sad fact.

As Fr. Z noted in his commentary on Mr. Warner’s article:

Imagine, not ever having experienced this, even though it is really the norm according to the rubrics.

This brings me back to my incessant cry that, in order to have a revitalization of our Catholic identity, we have to have a revitalization of our liturgical worship.

For example:

What's the focus of the prayer here?!

Okay, to be fair, here's a more liturgically correct novus ordo Mass, with the priest facing the people, as most of us in the Diocese of Baker are used to seeing (although one might wish we did in fact often see altar boys with cassock and surplice instead of the usual seven-dwarf costumes that pass for albs. But I digress...)...

Still, doesn't this ad orientem celebration (below) give a completely different "feel"?

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