Cardinal Sarah’s advice to priests to celebrate Mass facing east, rather than towards the congregation, has caused uproar in Rome. Yet a simple compromise is available

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It’s not often that academic conferences make headlines, but when the Vatican’s liturgy chief, Cardinal Robert Sarah, invited priests last week at the Sacra Liturgia conference in London to return to a centuries-old tradition and begin celebrating Mass facing east (ad orientem) from Advent this year, his words were instantly reported worldwide.

Those listening to the cardinal gave him long and rapturous applause – which is not surprising given the traditional leanings of his audience. Sarah’s intervention was less well received in other circles. One blog wondered “how much confusion this will cause, before it’s clarified that this is only the private opinion of the cardinal”.

Even some of those favourable to the cardinal’s viewpoint are wondering how much real impact his exhortation will have on the ground. It is not the first time authoritative figures have spoken in favour of a return to the traditional practice. An encouragement, however, is not the same as an obligation. On Monday, a statement from the Vatican press office made it clear that no new liturgical norm has been promulgated.

Contrary to what many believe, Mass facing the people was not mandated by Vatican II, nor was it unknown before the post-conciliar reform. The practice was encouraged by liturgical reformers and rapidly became almost universal. If at first priests and people were reticent towards the change, they were rapidly persuaded that it was a return to the practice of the early Church and desired by Rome.

Both of these assertions require careful qualification. The Council’s decree on the liturgy nowhere mentions a change in the position of the celebrant. It was subsequently stipulated that altars in new churches should be free-standing, and that some parts of the Mass, notably the introductory and concluding rites, should take place at the ambo or the celebrant’s chair, but nothing requires that the Liturgy of the Eucharist be celebrated versus populum.

In the 1960s liturgists widely assumed that celebrants in the early Church usually faced the liturgical assembly. The supposition was based largely on the fact that the altars in the ancient basilicas of Rome were orientated this way. More recent scholarship has demonstrated this to be a misleading generalisation.

Ancient churches were almost always built facing east, so that celebrant and congregation together faced the rising sun, seen as a symbol of Christ. The Roman basilicas were an exception, because the overriding concern there was to locate the altar over the relics. Celebrant and people may indeed have faced each other over the altar, but this does not mean that this was the reason for the layout. The fact that the vast majority of early churches were not laid out in this way suggests that it was not.

Apparently objective language can mask an agenda. To say that the priest “has his back to the people” is, in one way, an accurate description of a physical reality; but it is equally exact to say that “priest and people are facing the same way”. Both ways of saying the same thing arouse different emotions in the hearers according to their different sensibilities.

There is plenty of emotion in the differing reactions to Cardinal Sarah’s speech. We need to be careful that our emotional reactions are not masking suppositions which are more ideological than theological.

Perhaps what is most at stake here is a difference in views concerning the nature of the Eucharist celebrations as a whole, and the role of the priest within it.

An elderly priest once said to me: “When I invite you to a meal, I don’t turn my back on you.” In this view, the Eucharist is primarily a meal, its focus is first and foremost the assembly. God is immanent (that is, present among his people) and the role of the celebrant is to represent Christ as host to the disciples.

When priest and people are together facing east (or the apse as the symbolic east, since unfortunately many modern churches are not orientated) then the Mass appears as primarily a sacrifice, the focus is the transcendent God, and the priest is seen as leading the people in prayer, like Christ the Good Shepherd.

Which vision is correct? Both, of course. The Mass is both a meal and a sacrifice. If we forget that it is a meal, we misunderstand what kind of sacrifice it is. If we forget that it is a sacrifice, we fail to see that it is a sacrificial banquet.

The biblical God is both immanent and transcendent. If we belittle his majesty we diminish ourselves. If we forget that he stoops down from the heights to save us, we effectively make the Incarnation irrelevant.

Catholics believe that the priest at Mass acts in the person of Christ. But in this capacity, he doesn’t only give us his Word and his Body, he also appears before the Father to plead on our behalf as eternal High Priest.

I believe that the best way to clearly show these complementary truths, other things being equal, is for the celebrant to face the people for the Liturgy of the Word, for the Communion and dismissal, and for priest and people to face outwards together for the Eucharistic Prayer.

Does this mean that I shall be rushing to put this into practice at my parish? Cardinal Sarah in his appeal spoke of prudence and pastoral judgment, and I am not sure that the time is right for a change. Many like-minded priests tell me that they share my reservations. It is the bishop who is responsible for the liturgy in his own diocese. Many priests would not like to carry out such a significant pastoral change without the approval of their chief shepherd, not necessarily out of concern for their future careers, but because they were ordained to be his co-operators.

Cardinal Nichols has sent his priests a note which seems effectively to countermand the Vatican prefect’s counsel. The cardinal, like the Vatican clarification, quotes the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which implies a preference for celebration facing the people, though its exact wording is ambiguous.

The reason why Cardinal Nichols and many other bishops are concerned seems to be the potential for division resulting from unilateral decisions from priests. In many parts of the world, including our own, laity expect to be consulted and the priests’ writ does not run. Perhaps paradoxically, it is the generation that lived through the change which is most resistant to reversing it. Many clergy who are fundamentally in agreement with Cardinal Sarah will be wary of igniting a potentially bitter dispute around the Sacrament of Unity.

So what is the way forward? As the Council and the subsequent reforms recede into the past, a more balanced and nuanced appraisal of their results will become possible. Meanwhile, it is essential that nothing should be imposed upon anyone.

Since both manners of celebration can express complementary aspects of the Eucharistic mystery, it is important that as many Catholics as possible experience both. Many dioceses already have churches where Mass is celebrated ad orientem; those who wish to widen their experience might seek to attend once in a while and reflect on what they find. Larger parishes with several Sunday Masses might consider adopting the traditional disposition for one of them, or smaller celebrations during the week might be scheduled at side altars.

It is clear that Pope Francis does not favour the prefect’s initiative. But since the Holy Father has occasionally celebrated ad orientem, I think he might be well disposed to the compromise I am suggesting here.

It is difficult to ignore the fact that reverence, awe, a sense of mystery and transcendence have become all too rare in many of our celebrations. “Facing east” is not the only way to restore these vital elements in our liturgy. But those who are reticent about this return to tradition might seek to find other ways of redressing the balance.

Fr Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese.

This article first appeared in the July 15 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

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