In Defense of Facing the People

The Mass of the Holy Spirit at the Catholic University of America
The Mass of the Holy Spirit at the Catholic University of America

By Katie Morroni

I’m not a liturgical scholar, and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t have the advanced background or degrees in theology, church history, and ministry that many of my fellow contributors here at CatholicHow have. I still can’t believe I was invited to write alongside this crew of smart, holy people! Don’t tell my editor, but as such, I sometimes feel much of the great work written here at CatholicHow is a bit inside baseball. I’m just trying to love God, live out my vocation, and do the best I can. At the end of the day, maybe that’s all any of us are doing. Fr. Matt asked me to write on this site and, as a friend, did so in full knowledge of my personal flaws and lack of an advanced degree. So I see myself in this crew of bloggers as someone to speak for regular people. And it’s with this in mind that I speak up today.

My fellow CatholicHow contributor Patrick’s post about the direction the priest faces at Mass — and his case for the priest to face away from the people — took me aback, pun intended.

In many ways, it’s an inside baseball post, fit for a scholar. No doubt, it’s not the first time a smart person in recent history has reconsidered this shift in the American Church, and it certainly won’t be the last. Nor should it be! We need smart people to talk about these things, to weigh the merits of doing something one way or another. It gives life to our Church and keeps the beautiful Body of Christ alive and thriving. The historical, scholarly elements of Patrick’s post were new to me, and I found this window into our liturgy’s history quite beautiful. I love symbolism and I think it makes our Church stronger. But I also think it’s worth looking at this issue, and how we talk about it, from another perspective.

Before you read the rest of my post, you should go read Patrick’s post in full, as this is intended as a reply and I use some vocabulary here that he introduced.

Without further adieu, I’ll come right out and say: I don’t quite follow how the direction the priest faces can change their ability to lead their congregation, or our ability to follow. Patrick writes:

The priest, as the one mediating the sacrifice of Christ, as the conduit between the layman and the eternal Godhead, leads the people of God in their marshalling before the Lord. This symbolism is lost on a congregation gathered before a priest celebrating versus populum.

Perhaps this is the case for some, but the symbolism of a priest leading a congregation to God is absolutely not lost on me. I attend Mass at the parish I do because of the priests there, because they are some of the most incredible shepherds I have ever known. I am closer to God because of their good work.

Later, Patrick also asserts:

No longer are the people together, led by the priest, turning toward the Lord. Versus populum necessarily imposes the interpretation that what happens at the Mass is a humanly generated event, dependent on human action, when in fact the real work of salvation, in the Mass as in history, is dependent wholly and unequivocally on the Lord.

No longer are the people together, led by the priest, turning toward the Lord? When the priest faces the people, he “necessarily imposes” that the Mass is not dependent on the Lord? Those thoughts have never crossed my mind. I think too of the good, humble priests who have devoted their lives to turning themselves and the people in their care toward the Lord, and how they might respond to this suggestion.

Indeed, the Mass is something much greater than the mundane act of breaking bread and recalling fondly the days when the Lord walked among us.

Indeed, it is! My guess, however, is that few who go out of their way to attend Mass consider it a “mundane act” of any kind. I think we’d be hard-pressed to find an adult who goes to Mass for the storytime and snack, if I may be so crass. I see Patrick’s (and Pope Benedict’s) point about problem of reducing Mass to a meal, but I do not see how the orientation of the priest’s body is responsible for this.

Perhaps we do have a problem of people going through the motions of Mass, of seeing it as less than the holy mystery that it is, of rushing through to get to brunch or the big game. I’ll concede that. But then let’s have a conversation about worshiping authentically, and let’s start that conversation at a more basic level.

As I’m writing this post, what’s emerging to me and I hope to you is that I do not object outright to the Mass led ad orientem. I value it for its historical place in our Church, and in a particular sense as the way my own father grew up attending and serving Mass. My objection is simply to the implication that those who like the priest to face the congregation must somehow miss the real purpose of Mass.

Again, I’m no scholar, but I wondered if other background information was worth including in this discussion, especially something accessible to us lay folk (in the academic sense, and religious for that matter). The first post I found, via Patheos, had some good insights. Here’s Deacon Bill Ditewig:

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.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

He later continues:

Let’s review.

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).

In short: God is everywhere and Christ is always present in His Church, especially in the Holy Eucharist. Period.

I think myself quite a traditionalist when it comes to Mass. I love the bells and smells. I grew up in a parish church that could be mistaken for a cathedral. One of my favorite college courses was called Christian Liturgy, Prayer, and Sacraments; the oh-so-radical (kidding!) syllabus is available here.

But let’s not suggest that God exists in one direction but not another. Let’s not pretend to know what’s in the hearts of people just trying to do the best they can. Less and less people are calling themselves Catholic, and still less make it to the pew every Sunday. Let’s put our energy into doing something about that.

The vast majority of people in America who attend Mass are led by a priest who faces the congregation. In a world where belief in God and Mass attendance is counter-cultural to begin with, let’s not further isolate the Body of Christ by suggesting they and their leaders have it all wrong. Rather, let’s leave the 99 be, and seek out instead one lost sheep who wants to come home.

Let’s work on love. In all directions.

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One thought on “In Defense of Facing the People”

  1. If Roman Catholics are ever going to heal the East/West schism (Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholicism), Catholics are going to have to return to celebrating the Divine Liturgy Ad Orientem. The Orthodox priest (OCA) in my hometown is a former Roman Catholic who graduated from Steubenville. He told me that he found the writings of the Church Fathers to be in conflict with the so called liturgical reforms of the post Vatican II era. This was one of the main reasons why he left the Catholic Church. He told me that even the Divine Liturgy should be apostalic. I for one am troubled by how closely our modern day Masses resemble mainline Protestant services (Lutheran, Episcopalian, etc.). We even sing hymns by heretics (Luther)! What in the world happened to the Catholic Church in America during the 1970s? There is an interesting line that is repeated over and over again in the Old Testament, “Do not remove the ancient landmarks that were laid down by your fathers.” Have we been faithful to this command?

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