So the Pope celebrated Mass “ad Deum”. In Rome it is not unusual for a priest or bishop to do so. Many churches have removed the hideous forward facing altars they installed in the 60s and 70s, I suspect more under pressure from some civil cultural officialdom than Church authorities. Though in the great basilicas the side altars have never undergone the vult face of the main altar in the sanctuary. Private Masses in St Peter’s are always celebrated “ad Deum” or facing “liturgical east”.
The Pope’s private chapel has never had a forward facing altar. Paul VI installed an oval altar, John Paul II replaced it but it still faced “east”.
The Missal says that “the altar should be freestanding, so that Mass maybe said facing the people, which is always desirable”. The desirability is the “freestandingness” of the altar, not the facing the people, according to the Congregation for Divine Worship.
The Pope’s orientation at Mass this morning will be the most significant liturgical act in the last 40 years, for most Catholics it will have more impact than any other liturgical act, just the same as the re-orientation of altars after Vatican II was the most significant act of liturgical reform in the last 2000 years. I don’t think that is an overstatement. For most people it is not what they hear that is important but what they see.
Most priests are aware that celebrating Mass either side of the altar is a legitimate choice, but most priests realise that choosing the ancient direction is considered eccentric at the least.
Apart from the liturgical problems of having two altars, the altar is supposed to signify Christ, two Christs seems a little odd; the direction in which priest faces says a great deal about the relationship of priest and people.
What has always concerned me is that priest in the new theology of the Mass is separated from the people by a huge immovable block of stone. He stands against them, he inevitably becomes the focus of the liturgy, his personality matters for good or ill. A common orientation of priest and people says that although we have different roles in the liturgy ultimately priest and people are God’s servants. Ad Orientem the priest identifies with the people who themselves stand behind one another in the Divine Presence.
When the priest faces the people, he becomes important. In the liturgy he stands in the place of Christ, not just in leading the community but in his person, this being another Christ becomes of even more significance in the Mass and most especially Eucharistic Prayer. The priest in Mass celebrated facing the people bears a burden that is often beyond him, his gestures, his words, his very face becomes the gesture, words, the very face of Christ.