It has been three weeks since Cardinal Sarah made his appeal for ad orientem worship. In that time three bishops (that I know of) in the English speaking world have sent letters to the priests of their dioceses stating that it is their expectation that they celebrate the Ordinary Form of Mass versus populum, facing the people. The letters are from Bishop Amos of the Diocese of Davenport, Bishop Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, and Archbishop Vincent Card. Nichols of the Archdiocese of Westminster. The letters can be read respectively here, here, and here. In each instance GIRM 299 was used as the justification for the bishops’ insistence to their clergy.
The use of GIRM 299 is extremely problematic, but there is no reason to go into detail here concerning why that is. It has been explained by others much more qualified than myself on many occasions that the current English translation of n. 299 is faulty. The first that I know of is Fr. John Hunwicke back in 2001 prior to his entering into the fullness of the Church. His concise explanation can be read HERE. Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has also written about it many times: most recently HERE. Both of them and others I have read have provided a translation that better reflects the Latin. While I have come across two who challenge their translation of n. 299 and while the Italian agrees with the current English, Fr. Hunwicke’s and Fr. Zuhlsdorf’s translation are consistent with the French, German, Polish, and Portuguese translations of the GIRM. Long story short, however, no matter how you translate it, the CDW has clarified on multiple occasions that n. 299 does not exclude ad orientem worship and that no bishop may suppress ad orientem celebration of the Ordinary Form. Both ad orientem and versus populum are proper to the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite, and priests do not need permission from their Ordinary for the use of either orientation. In this post, however, I would like to focus on a very serious problem that has been manifesting itself among some in the presbyterate and episcopacy: intolerance and the imposition of, in Card. Nichols’s words, their “personal preference or taste” on the laity (a horrible action of clericalism, I might add).
In his letter to priests, Cardinal Nichols said, “I emphasize that the celebration of the Church’s Liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste.” It is sad the His Eminence has reduced Card. Sarah’s appeal to mere preference and taste. It is firmly rooted in the perennial tradition of the Church. It is founded in a rich and deep theology and spirituality. I have heard from multiple priests that celebrating Mass ad orientem strengthened their vocation and spiritual life. These are men who had been and also still do celebrate Mass versus populum. I have read testimonies from priests about how celebrating Mass ad orientem was an essential part of the renewal of the parish. I have heard people relate how a parish was strengthened when its pastor began celebrating some or all Masses ad orientem. None of that is a matter of mere preference or taste, especially when such good spiritual fruits have come forth from it. Rather, that is heart speaking to heart. It is an event in which they encountered the Lord in a way they hadn’t before.
Speaking for myself, I prefer (and, yes, it is quite appropriate to say that) ad orientem. But that preference is not merely subjective and individualistic, and it is most certainly not first and foremost academic. It comes from an experience. I had learned of ad orientem worship and the theology connected to it years before I experienced it, and during that time, while there was occasionally a curiosity, I had never felt compelled to seek it out and I was perfectly content going to Mass celebrated versus populum. In fact, I then preferred Mass facing the people and defended it. But I will never forget the first time I attended Liturgy celebrated ad orientem. I had never before felt so connected to the other people in the congregation, I had never felt so unified in action, and I had never experienced dialogue between priest and people so acutely. While the celebration being ad orientem was not the only factor that brought this sense of unity and connectedness about, it was a crucial factor. It is a rarity that Mass is celebrated ad orientem, but when I am able to attend Mass celebrated this way I find that my attention is much more focused on the action at the altar. I look at the altar. This is exactly the desire expressed in GIRM 299 when it states, “The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.” Unconsciously, my attention was turned toward the altar during the celebration of Mass ad orientem. However, almost every Mass I go to is celebrated versus populum, and I have noticed that, at first unconsciously and now quite consciously, my attention is almost always averted from the altar. The reason is very simple: the priest’s face distracts me. If I look at the altar I almost always end up focusing on the priest rather than the Eucharistic sacrifice. Consequently I spend the vast majority of Mass either head bowed with my eyes closed or looking above the priest to the crucifix. Either way, Mass celebrated versus populum has become a very private affair for me, while Mass celebrated ad orientem is a very communal affair for me. None of that happened consciously. How we use our bodies affects our spiritual, devotional, and liturgical lives; this is just the natural consequence of the different orientations of our bodies at Mass, and only after the fact did I become aware of it. As an aside, I think it is worth mentioning and pondering that often when I ask people why they prefer versus populum they respond that seeing the priest’s face makes them feel more connected to him. Funny. We should be focused on and connected with our Eucharistic Lord and to God the Father to whom the sacrifice is offered, yet the primary concern expressed so many times is that of feeling connected to the priest.
Perhaps some are not comfortable speaking of preference and taste. Instead we can properly speak of sensibility. My experience given above is expressive of my sensibility and there are many others (even if proportionally small) who share my sensibility. In this manner we may speak not just of the sensibility of individuals, but of communities or groups within communities. This relates directly to GIRM 299 and it is on this point that I find the actions of these bishops especially egregious. The relevant part of n. 299 reads in the current English translation:
The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible [(or “where it is possible”) emphasis mine].
Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit [emphasis mine].
Concerning this instruction and the question of celebrating the Ordinary Form ad orientem, the CDW issued a clarification on September 25, 2000. In particular I would like to draw attention to what the clarification says concerning ubicumque possibile sit [where it is possible]. Cardinal Estevez, then Prefect of the CDW, said:
The clause ubi possibile sit [where it is possible] refers to different elements, as, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc [emphasis mine].
It has been explicitly stated by the CDW that “wherever possible” does not only refer to physical conditions such as space and topography, but also to “the sensibility of the people.” Thanks to Cardinal Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy there are a good many people who have been introduced to and are open to ad orientem. I am one of those people. I was born in 1979. In fact, most of the people today who would like to see ad orientem celebration of the Ordinary Form are people born after Vatican II, people who grew up with the Missal of Paul VI and versus populum worship. Most priests who would like to celebrate ad orientem are younger and it holds far more interest for seminarians today than it did for seminarians in decades past. There is a movement in the Church, a movement energized by the laity, for a more solemn and reverent celebration of Holy Mass and this includes celebration ad orientem. Proportionally it is a small group, but they are not at all difficult to find. There are enough people with this sensibility to constitute a movement in the Church. I hope that bishops and priests will give due attention with a pastor’s solicitude to these people in their dioceses and parishes. Unfortunately, some have simply opted to steamroll them.