Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Liturgical Thoughts: Praying to the East

If there are two things that stand out most concerning the changes to the Mass after Vatican II, they would have to be the use of the vernacular in place of Latin, and that the priest now faces the people at the consecration. In this post I would like to examine the latter of these…

I grew up post-Vatican II. The only Mass I have ever known is the Novus Ordo, said in English, with the priest facing the people (versus populum). I have never attended a Mass where the priest offered the Holy Sacrifice ad orientem, that is “to the east” – meaning the “liturgical east” or towards the risen Christ who is represented by the rising sun. Traditionally (that is before the Second Vatican Council) Catholic worship had always been conducted with the priest and the people facing Christ together, in the same direction, so that the prayers spoken by the priest are directed to God – not to the people. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book Spirit of the Liturgy, explains briefly this traditional form of worship:

“In the early Church, prayer toward the east was regarded as an apostolic tradition. …[I]t is certain that it goes back to the earliest times and was always regarded as an essential characteristic of Christian liturgy (and indeed private prayer). This “orientation” of Christian prayer has several different meanings. Orientation is, first and foremost, a simple expression of looking to Christ as the meeting place between God and man. It expresses the basic Christological form of our prayer.

“The fact that we find Christ in the symbol of the rising sun is the indication of a Christology defined eschatologically. Praying toward the east means going to meet the coming Christ. The liturgy, turned toward the east, effects entry, so to speak, into the procession of history toward the future, the New Heaven and the New Earth, which we encounter in Christ. It is a prayer of hope, the prayer of the pilgrim as he walks in the direction shown us by the life, Passion, and Resurrection of Christ. Thus very early on, in parts of Christendom, the eastward direction for prayer was given added emphasis by a reference to the Cross. …[T]he symbolism of the Cross merges with that of the east. Both are an expression of one and the same faith, in which the remembrance of the Pasch of Jesus makes it present and gives dynamism to the hope that goes out to meet the One who is to come. But, finally, this turning toward the east also signifies that cosmos and saving history belong together. The cosmos is praying with us. It, too, is waiting for redemption. It is precisely this cosmic dimension that is essential to Christian liturgy. It is never performed solely in the self-made world of man. It is always a cosmic liturgy. The theme of creation is embedded in Christian prayer. It loses its grandeur when it forgets this connection That is why, whenever possible, we should definitely take up again the apostolic tradition of facing the east, both in the building of churches and in the celebration of the liturgy.” [pages 68-70]

Not surprisingly, as Pope Benedict XVI, Ratzinger has been known to occasionally celebrate Mass ad orientem. It seems that the Holy Father strongly encourages (in his writing as well as in his own actions) the celebration of the Mass with the priest facing away from (or more correctly with) the people. It is, as he points out, a part of apostolic tradition and brings a rich symbolism into our worship.

Also it is important to note that Vatican II did not forbid Mass to be celebrated ad orientem. In fact, in this very helpful article on the Liturgy after Vatican II by Fr. Joseph Fessio, publisher of Ignatius Press, we read the following:

“The Council did not say that Mass should be celebrated facing the people. That is not in Vatican II; it is not mentioned. It is not even raised in the documents that record the formation of the Constitution on the Liturgy; it didn’t come up. Mass facing the people is not a requirement of Vatican II; it is not in the spirit of Vatican II; it is definitely not in the letter of Vatican II. It is something introduced in 1969.”

(I encourage everyone to read the entire article for more details about this and other liturgical distortions that came about after the Council.)
Now, none of this means that the typical Mass of today, with the priest facing the people, is illegitimate or not allowed. But it appears that the complete abandonment of ad orientem worship, in favor of versus populum was not the intention of the Fathers gathered at Vatican II. It seems that our current practice constitutes an abrupt break with the traditional form and it removes much of the symbolic richness of the liturgy as celebrated facing with the people.

As far as I can tell, there is nothing standing in the way of any parish priest, on any given Sunday, turning to face away from the people during the parts of the Mass (specifically the consecration) which are addressed to God. If the congregation is properly informed beforehand, it may prove to be an uplifting and spiritually enriching event for him and for the congregation. I read recently of a priest who tried just that. He immediately realized that in facing away from the people he no longer felt like a “performer” with an “audience.” The Mass felt more like prayer to the Almighty, rather than a staged drama in front of spectators. He could more freely pray to God instead of engage a gathered assembly. In other words, the Mass became what it was designed to be…an act of worship.

Put yourself in the place of the priest. It is inevitable when all eyes watch your every move that a priest feels a certain burden to “perform” when celebrating versus populum. But much of that feeling melts away when the priest faces with the people, in solidarity with them, toward the symbolic east…toward the risen Christ. Then Jesus becomes the focal point rather than the priest.

Unfortunately many people react negatively the first time they witness an ad orientem This could certainly be remedied through proper catechesis and by selecting the right Sunday Mass to introduce this practice. Many parishes (such as the one I attend) have more than one service on Sundays, with at least one service featuring a more traditional liturgy. The ad orientem celebration could be limited to this Mass. celebration of the Mass.

Catholic parishes that have re-instituted this ancient practice often report a renewed sense of sacredness among parishioners. When the celebrant turns his back and approaches the altar (facing away from the congregation) there is a palpable sense that something solemn and out-of-the-ordinary is about to occur. The readings and the homily are still proclaimed facing the people, but the moment of consecration is distinctly set apart by the priest’s orientation. He is united with them (all facing one direction) in reverence before God, rather than “putting on a show” as a performer on a stage.

I do not mean to suggest that every Catholic parish ought to revert back to ad orientem worship. A less radical compromise, in congregations where such a switch would not be pastorally prudent, might be to place an altar crucifix on the altar in front of the priest, so that an image of Christ is between him and the people. In this way, all will be facing Christ rather than each other. The image of Christ becomes the “east” to which we look in worship. The important point here being that our worship is directed to God, not to the priest or to the people gathered there. In re-thinking our orientation during Mass, I believe we can all benefit if we realize that God is the focus, and not our fellow parishioners or the priest.

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