Ad Orientem and why we should go back to it
Ad Orientem is a liturgical orientation done by the priest since the Early Christian Church. It has held a historical and traditional way in which priests would celebrate Mass in the Roman Rite. This liturgical position and action are still celebrated in the Tridentine Latin Mass (Extraordinary Form), as well as in the Dominican and Norbertine Rites, as well as several others. It has however sadly lost practice and has been largely abandoned in most celebrations of the Novus Ordo (Ordinary Form)
This article will help explain the historical, and theological significance, its overall decline, and why we should go back to this form of worship. There are many misconceptions that many people have about the celebration of Ad Orientem (the priest facing the altar) that will be addressed and refuted in this article. Some of these misconceptions include the belief that the priest is merely “turning his back towards the people” and the common belief that Vatican II change this liturgical orientation of worship.
Historical use of Ad Orientem
It can arguably be said that the use of Ad Orientem was used ever since the first Mass celebrated. The Church teaches that the Last Supper was in fact the first celebrated Mass, since it is here in which Christ instituted the Eucharist by breaking bread, blessing it, and turning bread and wine into the literal body, blood, soul, and divinity of Christ. Michael Davies writes ” They (the twelve apostles and Christ) all reclined on the same side of the table, facing Jerusalem, just as for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history, the priest and the people have offered or assisted Mass on the same side of the altar”1
We should take into account that most churches since the ancient times face towards the East (Ad Orientem). I will explain why in the next section, but just take into account that for many years this has been historically true. The same Michael Davies goes on to document that “Archeological research proves that from the moment the Christians were allowed to build Churches, they always did so along an east west axis… the same procedure had been adopted in the west by the second half of the fifth century.”2
Many people who object to the celebration of Mass Ad Orientem do so in the grounds that in the Early Church the priest offered Mass facing the people. As we have however seen, ever since the celebration of the first Mass (The Last Supper) we could arguably conclude that it was in essence celebrated Ad Orientem (Facing the Altar). It should also been noted that recent scholarship has shown that the celebration of Versus Populum (Priest facing the people) was not really existent in the Early Church as many think.
Many historians and scholars thus document that while the ancient liturgies did speak of the priest turning and “facing the people” during certain parts of the Mass, the concept of celebrating the entire Mass versus populum is not true during this time. Rather it could reasonably be argued that the celebration of versus populum (Mass faced towards the people) in the Catholic Mass was an invention of the 1970s which stands in direct contradiction to the Church’s ancient tradition of Ad Orientem.
Significance of Ad Orientem
What is the significance of the priest facing the altar rather than to the people? Is it simply a matter of the priest turning his back to the people as many think? If this was the case then the celebration of Ad Orientem would definitely not make sense. There is however to the surprise of many people, great theological significance to Ad Orientem in which the priest faces liturgical East.
The first great significance of the priest facing the altar and thus liturgical East (Ad Orientem) comes about the very nature of the Mass. As I wrote in my article The Nature of the Mass and the Need for Sacrifice, the very nature of the Mass is worshipping God by offering the Eternal Sacrifice. The Mass should then naturally be theocentric and thus centered on God whom sacrifice is given. “The priest offers Mass facing the same direction as the people, because he and the people together are offering worship and sacrifice to God”3 This is why the Church professes “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” the law of prayer is the law of belief. How we worship explains how and what we belief.
Other significances of Ad Orientem worship is that it is both Christological and eschatological. The use of Ad Orientem points towards Christ and aspects of the great eschatological Mysteries of our Holy Catholic Faith.
Saint John Damscene the last Church Father and a doctor of the Church explains the significance of celebrating towards Liturgical East (facing the altar) showing that it is a sign of the Resurrection, and an anticipation of the second coming of Christ. He quotes scripture to signify the point. Saint John Damscene writes:
At His ascent into Heaven He went to the East, and so do the Apostles pray to Him; He will come again as the Apostles saw Him going, and so the Lord Himself says: “as the lightning comes forth from the East and shines even to the West, so shall the coming of the Son of Man be” Since we wait for Him, we pray toward the East. This is the unwritten tradition of the Apostles.4
Cardinal Ratzinger before he was Pope Benedict XVI stated that the use of Ad Orientem in the Mass is also symbolic of the fact that just as the sun rises from the East, this expresses the universality of God. Joseph Ratzinger writes ” The cosmic symbol of the rising sun expresses the universality of God above all particular places”5
A priest used once used a good analogy as to the celebration of the priest facing the altar, the same direction as the people, in comparison to a general leading his regiment in battle. He stated that the general leading his regiment in battle will not turn towards his soldiers, lest they all get shot, but rather the general looks and moves ahead in the same direction as his soldiers behind him.
The decline of Ad Orientem
Before I write about the overall decline and abandonment of the use of Ad Orientem in the Mass, specifically the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo), it should be pointed out that the first rejection of Ad Orientem (priest facing altar) in favor of versus populum (priest facing people) originally started during the Protestant “Reformation” when various of the Protestant “Reformers” changed the direction of the celebration of Mass. There is theological reasons as to why, which I will get into shortly. Martin Luther is a solid example of this reality.
Michael Davies writes:
“The Protestant Reformers were united in abolishing the eastward celebration of the Eucharist because they understood, quite correctly, that the eastward direction signified sacrifice, and the denial of the sacrificial nature of the Mass was an axiom upon which the entire Protestant heresy was based.”6
Remember that it is how you pray and worship which signifies how you believe (lex orandi, lex credendi). For this reason the change in liturgical orientation by Martin Luther and the rest of the Protestant Reformers was in reality signifying a change in the theological belief from worship being a sacrifice, to worship being a mere meal.
Now that we covered the first origins of the change in liturgical orientation from Ad Orientem towards Versus Populum, it should also be noted that this change in the Catholic Mass was not changed by Vatican II. Msgr. Klaus Gamber stated “One would look in vain for a statement in the Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium) that said that Holy Mass is to be celebrated facing the people”7
It should also be noted that the New Mass (Novus Ordo) which was promulgated by Blessed Pope Paul VI also presumed and envisioned in the Rubrics for the priest to face the altar. “The rubrics of the New Mass, approved specifically by Pope Paul VI, presumed that the priest will be facing the altar in the traditional manner as the norm for celebration. The Rubrics of the New Mass first instruct the priest to turn to the congregation at specific moments of the Mass and then to turn back to face the altar”8
A move back to Ad Orientem
There is a growing movement back to the use of Ad Orientem in the liturgy. The greatest example of this is Bishop Slattery of the Diocese of Tulsa. He has celebrated Ad Orientem for several years now and he states that the celebration of Mass facing the people has had unforeseen and largely negative effects. “First of all it was a serious rupture with the Church’s ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage.”9
We should encourage more priests, pastors, and bishops to celebrate Mass Ad Orientem as it is constant with the theological nature of the Mass as sacrifice directed towards God, and is similarly in hermeneutic continuity with the constant tradition of the Church.
The Mass is after all the focal point of our faith, which has the effect of orientating the rest of our day and furthermore our life towards God and doing His will. Does it not make sense then to have Mass reflected towards a God centered liturgy?
1) Michael Davies “The Catholic Sanctuary and the Second Vatican Council”; Tan Books 1997, pgs. 4-5
3)Sancta Misa: Praying the Mass Ad Orientem
4) Saint John Damascene “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith; Book IV Chapter 12
5) Joseph Ratzinger “The Spirit of the Liturgy”; Ignatius Press 2000, pg. 76
6) Michael Davies, op. cit., pgs. 6-7
7) Davies, pg. 26
9)Oklahoma bishop explains return to ‘ad orientem’ worship