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The Church Needs To Turn Around Starting With The Priest

Msgr. Charles Pope has a fascinating article at the blog of the Archdiocese of Washington in which he examines the effects of versus populum liturgical orientation.

At the end, he advocates what I have advocated for some time, that the liturgy of the Eucharist should be Ad Orientem.

Agree or disagree, it is a fascinating read that deserves your attention.

Indeed, we have the strange modern concept of the “closed circle” in so many modern conceptions of the Mass. Too often we are tediously self-referential and anthropocentric. So much of modern liturgy includes long lists of congratulatory references, both done by, but also expected of the celebrant.

Instead of the Liturgy being upwardly focused to God and outwardly toward the mission of the Church (to make disciples of all the nations), we tend today to “gather” and hunker down in rather closed circles looking at each other, and speaking at great length about ourselves.

We have even enshrined this architecturally in our modern circular and fan shaped churches that facilitate us looking at each other, and focusing inwardly, not up or put. The author Thomas Day once described Modern Catholic Liturgy as, “the aware, gathered community celebrating itself.” [1]

In the ancient orientation or “stance” of the Mass that was ubiquitous until 1965, the focus was outward and upward. Though disparaged by many in recent decades as the priest “having his back to the people” even this description shows the self obsession of the modern age. And to those speak this way about the liturgical orientation of almost 2,000 years, the answer must come, “The priest does not have his back to you. Actually it is not about you at all. The liturgy is about God. And the priest, and all the faithful are turned outward and upward to God.”
The direction of the Liturgy should be an “onward and upward” trajectory. But too often today it is inward, and it is difficult to perceive a motion upward to God or outward to evangelization.

I realize that a post like this will generate considerable controversy. But remember that this is only a discussion. I do not argue for sudden or radical shifts in our liturgical stance, only that we should continue to discuss it and explore various options. I am only a priest, not a bishop and I do not argue that priests act independent of their bishop in significant matters such as this. Further, some settings are better for a change of stance than others. Great pastoral discretion is required in matters like these.

Neither do I argue for a return to Mass wholly facing the altar as was done in the past and still often is in the Extraordinary form. The Liturgy of the Word is authentically directed to the people of God for their edification, instruction and attention. It ought to be proclaimed to and toward them, as is fitting to its purpose and end. But the Eucharistic Prayer is directed to God, and not the celebrant is leading the faithful on procession to God. St. Augustine often ended the his sermon and the Liturgy of the Word by saying, “Let us turn to the Lord” and he then went up to the altar, facing it and leading the people to God.
The article is about more than liturgical orientation, but on its links to the crisis of leadership we face in the Church.

Read it.

*subhead*Turn around bright eyes.*subhead*

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Chris-2-4 said...

Well... I'm not going to DISAGREE per se with anything in the post, but I think we could do without the criticizing of "modern circular and fan shaped churches".

The simple fact is, people should be able to SEE the altar and the ambo and the best way you make this possible for very large groups of people is to put the altar and ambo at the CENTER and not at the far end of a long cathedral style church.

Giovanni A. Cattaneo said...

The people should be able to see the altar? Why? Is the sacrifice on the cross by our Lord made any less meaningful? Is the Eucharist it self any less valid? Or this a pastoral suggestion?

If it is, I would say that western Christianity did rather well in the years of rood screens and those awful priest that want to hide the sacraments by giving their back to the people. However, it could be that I am just being "nostalgic" though I was born in 1978 long after the "council." Still the present does indeed exist where all these wonderful circle like churches are here and boy they sure are doing the job.

Yes, by all means more poison.

Christi H said...

I dont know, maybe its because Im younger, but the idea that the priest was showing his back to the people seems ridiculous. I remember being a kid and going to a latin mass for the first time. I watched the concecration and for the first time, it hit me. Id always wondered why my mother asked me to bow my head when the priest raised the blessed sacrament. Yes, we needed to show respect, but how was it respectful to look away when the priest was showing us christ's body? But at that mass, with us behind the priest i realized that he wasnt showing *us* at all. We stood together to face God, and offered the sacrafice to him together. He dosent have our back to us anymore than we have our backs to the people in pews behind. He is facing God. I think its ironic that people like the newer form and archetechure because of how it brings the celebrant and the congregation closer. If it wasnt for the "old" form, i probably still wouldnt understand that the priest wasnt merely some guy who prays while we watch, but our representitive before God.

Anneg said...

I've been in several modern church buildings lately where I couldn't even find the altar. That isn't a problem in huge cathedrals, usually.
I would love to see the priest lead the "faithful" rather than entertain. I also went recently to a Greek Orthodox liturgy. The "new" thing there was that the priest celebrated at the altar in the sanctuary, and he used a microphone so the faithful could hear the consecration.
I would love if we would return to worship ad orientem.

Chris-2-4 said...

"The people should be able to see the altar? Why? Is the sacrifice on the cross by our Lord made any less meaningful? Is the Eucharist it self any less valid?"

Really? Seriously?! The statement "people should be able to see the altar" is controversial to you?

sparrow said...

I don't care for these liturgical battles myself. Certainly there are irreverent Novo Ordo extremes that should be suppressed. However battles over the finer details of the ideal mass can easily drift into extremes of their own. There's room for more than one form of mass and as long as Christ is respected (and I recognize that's a subjective standard) it's all good. We have plenty of real world problems without fighting over the visibility of the altar. What's crucial is the willingness to obediently accept a well intentioned reverent mass, even when it's not to your personal taste.

Rick said...

How about a compromise and that would be sideways.
So, half facing God and half the people?

Giovanni A. Cattaneo said...

Damn right it is Chris-2-4 the last 50 years do not exist in a vacuum, they exist because people have the "what harm could it do?" attitude to everything.

So what I have learned is, never give an inch not one and if they decide they want to take it anyway, make them pay for it, dearly.

To Father "Rick" I think you might be jocking but if you are not, you just described a circle.

Chris-2-4 said...

You know... couldn't the people who have a problem with versus populum AND circular churches just sit in the section that is at the priests back and shut up?

Robert said...

Chris-2-4: Every "circular" church that I've ever seen is actually a half-circle. So there is nowhere for us who desire ad orientum worship to sit. (And the choir is often stationed behind the priest in the those churches.)

Perhaps "shut up" isn't the most pastorally effective response to those of us who simply want to worship in a manner consistent with what nearly every Catholic experienced for nearly 2000 years.

(For what it's worth, I'm a Gen-X convert, not someone who grew up with the TLM and ad orientum.)

Fr. Rick Heilman said...

Fr. Rick (above) actually hits the nail on the head (although I am not sure that is what he intended). I am another Fr. Rick, and I have been celebrating ad orientem for several months now. I'm not sure what percentage I am facing God or the people, but it is roughly half and half. There is no question that this orientation adds a great deal of reverence and a sense of Transcendence to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

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