Facing the light: How we got here and a big exception

The last in a three-part series about eastward worship.

People, Look East:
A series on ad orientem worship

Part I
The sun comes forth like a bridegroom leaving its chamber: Mass facing the east

Part II
Conversi ad Dominum! More thoughts on facing east and a practical solution

Part III
Facing the light: How we got here and a big exception

In the last two posts of this series, we looked at the history and theology behind the now-rare but still preferable custom of facing the east during the Mass. As we have discussed, the practice represents the people of God, led by His priests, processing to meet Jesus Christ. It is not “the priest turning his back on the people,” nor is it an antiquated tradition for my personal favorite epithet, “people who want to take the Church back to the 1950s.”

A chasuble from the 1950s

Perhaps you are wondering why, with all of this history, theology, and tradition, the Mass is not celebrated ad orientem more often today. It is worth looking briefly at how we got here.

There seems to be some disagreement about how altars were situated in the early days of Christianity. As I understand it, the very earliest Christians celebrated Mass upon tables in their homes or in catacombs. Things got a bit more formal over the years but the practice of a free-standing, square altar remained until roughly 500 AD. Around this time the practice became to fix the altar to the apse wall, when possible. This remained the norm in the west for about 1,100 years until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Art and Liturgy - Second Vatican Council
Vatican II proceedings – Photo by Lothar WollehOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19747442

During Vatican II, a document was released called Inter Oecumenici which included the following paragraph:

It is better for the main altar to be constructed away from the wall so that one can easily walk around the altar and celebrate facing the people.

The key thing to note here is that Mass facing the people, versus populum, is permitted, not required. In fact, the Roman Missal (the big book with all the words and instructions a priest must follow for Mass) was also revised during Vatican II, and its rubrics are written assuming that priests will continue to celebrate ad orientem. Even today, the book instructs the priest to face the people at certain points, presupposing that during the other times he is facing the altar.

Art and Liturgy - Illustrated 1911 Roman Missal
By JoJanOwn work – photo made at an art auction, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8692406

The point is this: the versus populum liturgy was never officially introduced, promoted, or mandated by Vatican II, and scholars mostly agree that the Council Fathers could never have intended or imagined it to become the norm around the world.

Nevertheless, it took off like wildfire with a certain set of people who advanced the notion that the Mass is a community get-together (all that “solemn sacrifice” business is for weirdo rad-trad Pharisees, after all) and that we should all gather around the table like at the Last Supper. (Historians agree that Jesus and the Apostles would have sat on the same side of the table and faced the same way, but we can’t let facts get in the way of nice feelings.)

It also gained popularity with the set who believed that the laity was too stupid to “get anything out of” the Mass unless Father Bruce was looking right at them and they could see all the action. The Venn diagram of these groups is just a single overlapping circle.


Art and Liturgy - James Tissot Last Supper Painting
recumbens cum fratribus” — The Last Supper by James Tissot (c. 1890)

Could your parish priest offer the Mass ad orientem today if he wanted to? Technically, yes. But the laity is generally not well-educated on this topic. There are many people out there who just like things the way they’ve always been, who are adverse to change, who think “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” even if it is, in fact, broke. A sudden change could cause a commotion that priests, understandably, may not want to deal with. What’s more, priests ought to follow their bishop’s lead on matters like these, and some bishops may be less receptive than others. Msgr. Pope reflects on this issue here.

Priests have a really tough job. Let’s always remember to pray for them, especially the ones who have to look out at my ugly mug at Mass.

There are a few notable exceptions to all of this, and I couldn’t find a good way to weave them into the post so I am just sticking this addendum here.

The Church never obliges people to do what is impossible. In her wisdom, the Church understands that sometimes things like geography get in the way.

In medieval cities, for example, the orientation of a new church was pretty much determined by the direction of the roads. Sometimes you just have to do what you can.

Perhaps the most famous example is St. Peter’s Basilica (yes, the one in Rome) where the priest does in fact face the people. What gives?

As we know, the altar of St. Peter’s is atop the gravesite of Saint Peter himself. But the Vatican is situated atop a big hill, and it would have been impossible to build the church into the hill in such a way that priest and people could face east together. Thus, the priest does face east, but the congregation looks west toward the altar.

Check out the map.

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.18.26 AM

By the way, who are these 1,923 people who took time out of their day to write a review of St. Peter’s on Google? “Must see!”

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 11.23.48 AM

Although this is kind of a funny quirk, it is not an obstacle to our understanding of this topic. As mentioned by Pope Benedict in our last post, the beautiful altar with its majestic baldacchino and crucifix form a “liturgical east” for everybody inside.

I would be grateful for your feedback, input, and corrections in the comments below.