The Modern Liturgical Battle Brewing Among Catholics

by Controversial Subjects, History of the Church, Mass

Context of the Catholic Controversy

In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, there is a liturgical battle brewing between two allowed postures of the priest: ad orientem and versus populum.

The Catholic Church, in both the East and the West, for the vast majority of time and place, have celebrated the Sacred and Divine Liturgy ad orientem. In Latin, this literally means “towards the East.” Historically, churches were built so that the priest celebrating the liturgy would be facing the East. The reason for this is to face the direction of the rising sun which foreshadows the Second Coming of the Christ who will rise like the sun.

The alternative posture of celebrating Mass is versus populum which literally means in Latin “against the people.” The priest is not fighting the people or squaring off against them. He simply is facing the people when he offers the Holy Mass.

There are those on both sides of this liturgical divide, and both camps have very strong feelings regarding which posture is most fitting. Before weighing in, however, I want to make one thing very clear. In the Ordinary Form of the Latin Rite, the priest always has the right to celebrate either ad orientem or versus populum if the altar is not affixed to the wall. If there is only a high altar, of course he will only celebrate ad orientem.

Not a Treatise or a Research Paper

This is not the time for a theological treatise or an academic paper. I’ve written those and will probably write more. In this article, I would simply like to share my thoughts on the ad orientem posture, why I prefer it, and how I think it is a step in the right direction.

The Ad Orientem / Ad Deum Posture

In the Roman Missal, there are certain times where the priest is directed to face the people. These are the prayers and instructions which begin: “Pray, brethren…”, “The Peace of the Lord be with you always…”, “Behold, the Lamb of God…”, and also the concluding rites. During these times, when the priest is speaking to the people, he faces the people. For the majority of the Mass, when the priest is speaking to God, he faces the tabernacle, apse, or crucifix; he faces God.

Ad Orientem literally means “to the East.” Historically, the apse of the church was pointed towards the East. This symbolized the movement of the People of God towards the rising sun, foreshadowing the coming again of Christ. Over time, churches were not necessarily built in this orientation. However, the liturgical meaning of the East is not lost in the liturgy.

In our time, another term has come to be used as well: Ad Deum, which means “to God.” This captures the essence of my earlier explanation of the posture. When the priest is speaking to the people, he faces the people. When he is speaking to God, he faces God. He is leading the charge. He is leading the members of the Body of Christ in prayer, acting in the Person of Christ, the Head of His Body.

Why I Prefer Attending a Mass that is Ad Orientem

I tremendously prefer when the priest celebrates the Mass in the ad orientem/ad deum posture. So often what can happen when the priest faces the people is a breakdown of the essential meaning of the Mass. The Mass is not a performance. It is the presentation, once again, of the one Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary, in an unbloody manner. The entire Paschal Mystery, Christ’s life, suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension are made present to us.

The Mass is fundamental not about me or you. It is the eternal offering of the Son to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, in which we enter in. We take part in the inner life of the Trinity. The priest stands in the breach, in the Person of Christ the Head of His Body. By the power of Christ and in the virtue of the priest’s ordination and consecrated hands, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered.

When the Mass is celebrated versus populum, of course this is the exact same reality. However, I find it much easier to enter into this sacred reality when the person of the priest is covered. This is, in part, why the priest wears a chasuble after all. He is hiding himself so that Christ can be seen.

When the priest faces the people, the personality of the priest becomes much more present to our senses. This is simply not what our focus at Mass should be. Even if the priest tries to minimize this outcome, his quirks, facial expressions, and personality obscure the main transcendent reality that is right in front of us.

We are present at the Last Supper when we hear the words of Christ spoken through the priest’s ordained ministry. We are kneeling at the foot of the Cross, present as the sacrifice of the altar is offered. The angels and saints are worshipping God in eternity and this heavenly mystery meets Earth in the sanctuary.

In short, I prefer attending a Mass that is ad orientem because the nature of the Mass shines out most visibly.

Why it is a Step in the Right Direction

May the Most Holy Sacrifice of Mass, by any priest, always be celebrated faithfully, joyfully, and solemnly whether ad orientem or versus populum. I am not interested in saying that versus populum is illegitimate or should be stopped. But, I do maintain that the prudential inclusion of the ad orientem posture is a step in the right direction.

Our Church is in a crisis of Faith. So many of our young people are leaving the Church before the age of 24. The belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist is at a tremendous low point. Will ad orientem solve the problem? No.

I do, however, think it is a way to show that the Eucharist is different. The Mass is special and otherworldly. It is not a play or a human action. The priest offers the one, eternal, and perpetual sacrifice of Christ on the altar and makes those graces present to us in a very real way.

By the ministry of the Church, founded by Christ, through the ordained priesthood, our one High Priest, Jesus Christ, eternally offers Himself to the Father in the Holy Spirit. We then fully, consciously, and actively take part in this reality as Head (priest) and members (laity). Whether your priest celebrates Mass ad orientem or versus populum, this is what is taking place. The liturgy is meant to communicate this reality to our senses.

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