Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On "ad Orientem" again

One of the things that most impressed me with Diedre, the architect we employ is that when she first saw our sanctuary, she asked if we had considered returning to its ad orientem arrangement, this was simply because of the cramped nature of the sanctuary, rather than any theological considerations. Of course I had thought of this, but I know that that would never get past our diocesan authorities, and my successor would immediately change it. Twenty years time of course I suspect there will be less difficulty.
In Italy it is now not unusual to see to see churches stripped of their forward facing altars and returned to their ancient pre-1970 arrangement. In the US there are few Churches that have done the same, Fr Dwight is the assistant pastor at one of them. These are some observations of his.

What is it, from a priest's point of view that I love about celebrating the Mass ad orientem? A number of things:

1. I no longer have to worry about being in 'performance mode'. When I am facing the people, no matter how much I try, I am looking more at them and focussing more on them as 'audience' than I am on what I am doing at the altar. I am concerned therefore about what I look like. Is my face conveying what it should? Do I look 'holy' enough? Am I making it 'meaningful' enough? Why is that person dozing? What must I do to regain their attention. I don't want to think all this while I am celebrating, but too often I do.

2. I can pray without worrying what others think of me or what I look like. If I want to concentrate and furrow my brow I can without being self conscious. If I want to weep I may without being worried about 'losing my composure'. If I want to pause and enter into silence or speak in the language of angels silently I may. No one can see me.

3. In St Mary's Church the great East window is a glorious portrayal of the crucifixion, at last I can behold this great mystery as I celebrate the Pascal mystery. I can behold the mystery in stained glass while celebrating rather than looking at the people. Here we have the window of the Apocalypse, the great Triumph of the Lamb who was slain.

4. This doesn't mean I disregard the people. By praying in the same position as them I actually feel closer to them than I did the other way around. Now I am praying with them and for them and offering the holy sacrifice with them and for them. We are now more 'one' than I ever felt before. This aspect of the celebration ad orientem is felt more profoundly than any of the others. For me this is the most asppect of ad orientem worship, for the priest it is worshipping with my people, not against them.

5. I feel more a part of the great tradition. This is the way the sacrifice of the Mass was offered for millennia. Now I feel more part of that great stream of the faith 'that comes to us from the Apostles'

6. The faithful seem to appreciate it too. Certainly the comments we get are appreciative, and very few seem disgruntled. Same here.

I don't mind saying mass versus populum, and I feel there are other good things that can be said for that position. I don't take a doctrinaire view or an intolerant view.

However, I have my preference.


George said...

Fr Ray, you have laid out all the 'ad orientem' salient points very clearly. Surely this is exactly as our early Catholic Fathers saw how Mass should be offered and defined the 'blue print' for Church construction. It is YOU the Priest who leads his flock in prayer and adoration at the foot of the Cross and offers the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to our Creator God. Facing the Lord and not the people is just so obviously the way it should be.

Thank you for this post Fr and I hope your Architect will find a solution to returning the altar to its original and correct arrangement.

Anonymous said...

Father, from a lay person's point of view, I much prefer to attend Mass where the priest faces East - though I hardly ever get the chance. I find it somehow very moving - the priest seems closer to us - one of us. If only we could have this in our parish -and if only I could kneel down to receive Holy Communion! [I know I could try, but I would certainly fall over!]

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you Father Ray, "ad Orientum" is the way to go. In the Eastern Catholic world, we never changed it after Vatican II, the priest always faces God. What are we in church for anyway, to glorify the faithful or to glorify God? WE ARE THERE FOR GOD! TO PRAY TO HIM, NOT TO US!! I guess Vatican II was trying to be 'politically correct' back then in the early 1960's, way before 'politically correct' was even a defined idea. After a while 'politically correct' becomes ridiculous and a solid ideal, such as "ad Orientum", makes sense again.

Father Ray, great move for the restoration of your church and more importantly for the celebration of the Eucharist! Get back to the basics!! We are in church to pray to God, not to satisfy our egos! We should not feel inadequate, because the priest's rear faces us during the liturgy. We should feel unified with the celebrant, because we are all facing God together, giving Him the glory, not ourselves! The concept of "ad Orientum" reinforces this for us, the faithful.

I pray for the success of your restoration plans!

Physiocrat said...

Go for it. Get the altar back exactly where it was in 1960. It might not be safe to do anything else. It is very heavy and could go through the floor if, as it appears to be, is it made of timber. Best to do it for Health and Safety, Building Regulations, &c. Same with altar rails, they need to be put back in position, the step is a trip hazard, if there is no protective rail it should have yellow and black tape on the nosing. Just claim Health and Safety reasons to do what you want.

Anonymous said...

"pre-1970 arrangement"?

In many continental and US churches versus populum was the fashion in the 1950s with the real avant-garde proponents doing it in the 1930s.

Is it a vulgar fashion and nothing to do with either the Paul VI missal or earlier editions.

PeterHWright said...

This is a most eloquent and moving post. The benefits for the priest of celebrating ad orientem, as listed by Fr. Ray, are incontrovertible. Standing before the altar, the priest should be able to raise his eyes to the Cross, the reredos, the east window.

But a great many of us in the congregation feel the benefit, too. It is no longer a question of "priest versus people". This posture puts me off. It always seems somewhat confrontational. It makes it far more difficult to follow the prayers of the Mass. Ad orientem celebration positively invites the congregation to follow the priest. One is drawn irresistibly into the sacred action.

A commenter on an earlier post made the very useful point that with the present arrangement of the sanctuary, the reredos is saying one thing, the forward altar is saying another. I think this is very true. In St. Mary Magdalen's, Brighton, the altar is visually divorced from the reredos. It is a most unsatisfactory arrangement. Visual unity must be restored.

Of course, this can be done with a free standing altar, correctly positioned. Quite simply, the present altar is in the wrong place.

Fr Ray Blake said...

They are Fr Dwight's observation with which I agree.

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I must say I also prefer Ad Orientem Worship. I say go for moving the altar back to its original position. It doesn't matter whether the successor will undo it or not :) There's a Church by my house with a very small Sanctuary, making VP Masses impossible. I think more and more new priests are going for Ad Orientem once they learn about it.

Anonymous said...


Howabout you make get the "People's Altar" to be moveable, and, ermmmm... "leave it" up next to the High Altar?

Rubricarius said...

I have made a few comments with examples on my blog (http://ordorecitandi.blogspot.com) about the practice too.

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