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.