Praying “Ad orientem versus”

This was an editorial article in Notitiae of May 1993, which I translated from the Italian original. The translation was published in the Winter 1993 issue quarterly journal Sacred Music.  I wrote a commentary on it as well.

The editorial was "pirated" some years ago and put on line in various places without the permission of Sacred Music, or so the former editor Msgr. Richard Schuler told me. So, I feel entirely free to pirate it right back since I wrote it. I have cleaned it up a little, changing some of the "orthography" away from Sacred Music‘s 1990’s stylesheet. The online version was a mess and a half. If you don’t read Sacred Music, you ought to.


(Published as an editorial in Notitiae 332, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1993,
pp. 245-249, this article was translated from Italian by Fr. John T.

1) The Eucharistic celebration is, by definition, connected to the
eschatological dimension of the Christian faith. This is true in its most
profound identity. Is this not perhaps the sense of the wondrous change
(mirabilis conversio) of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of
the Lord of glory, who lives always with the Father, perpetuating His
paschal mystery?

2) The sober description of the Acts of the Apostles in the first summary
concerning the life of the community speaks of the "joy" (agalliasis)
with which those joined in the assembly (epi to auto), broke bread in the
homes. This term (agalliasis) is the same that Luke used to indicate
eschatological joy.

3) There is a logic of Ascension in the Eucharist: "This Jesus that you
have seen ascend into heaven, will return. . ." In the Eucharist the Lord
returns; He anticipates sacramentally His glorious return, transforming the
profound reality of the elements, and He leaves them in the condition of
signs of His presence and mediation of communion with His own person. It is
for this that the various liturgical families underscored a common point in
different ways: with the Eucharistic prayer the Church penetrates the
celestial sphere. This is the meaning of the conclusion of the Roman
prefaces, of the chant of the Sanctus and of the eastern Cherubicon.

4) In analyzing the origins of the Eucharistic prayer one is struck by the
typically Christian variant introduced in the initial dialogue. The
greeting, Dominus vobiscum, and the invitation, Gratias agamus, are
common to the Jewish berakha. Only the Christian one, beginning with the
first complete redaction that we possess-the Apostolic Tradition-inserts
the Sursum corda. Habemus ad Dominum. For the Church, in fact,
celebrating the Eucharist is never to put into action something earthly,
but rather something heavenly, because it has the awareness that the
principal celebrant of the same action is the Lord of glory. The Church
necessarily celebrates the Eucharist oriented toward the Lord, in communion
with Him and, through His mediation, toward the Father in unity with the
Holy Spirit. The priest, ordained in the Catholic and apostolic communion,
is the witness of the authenticity of the celebration and at the same time
the sign of the glorious Lord who presides at it. Just as the bread and
wine are the elements that Christ assumes in order to "give Himself," the
priest is the person that Christ consecrated and invited to "give."

5) The placement of the priest and the faithful in relation to the
"mystical table" found different forms in history, some of which can be
considered typical to certain places and periods. As is logical when
treating liturgical questions, symbolism took on a noteworthy role in these
different forms, but it would be difficult to prove that the architectural
interpretation of such symbolism could, in any of the forms chosen, have
been considered as an integral and basic part of the Christian faith or of
the profound attitudes of the celebrating Church.

6) The arrangement of the altar in such a manner that the celebrant and the
faithful were looking toward the east-which is a great tradition even if it
is not unanimous-is a splendid application of the "parousial" character of
the Eucharist. One celebrates the mystery of Christ until He comes again
from the heavens (donec veniat de caelis). The sun which illuminates the
altar during the Eucharist is a pale reference to the "sun that comes from
on high" (exsultans ut gigas ad currendam viam) (Ps. 18:6) in order to
celebrate the paschal victory with His Church. The influence of the symbol
of light, and concretely the sun, is frequently found in Christian liturgy.
The baptismal ritual of the East still preserves this symbolism. Perhaps
the Christian West has not adequately appreciated this, given the
consequence of having come to be known as a "gloomy place." But also in the
West, at the popular level, we know that there remains a certain
fascination for the rising sun. Did not Saint Leo the Great, in the fifth
century, remind the faithful in one of his Christmas homilies that "when
the sun rises in the first dawning of the day some people are so foolish as
to worship it in high places?" He adds: "There are also Christians that
still retain that it is part of religious practice to continue this
convention and that before entering the Basilica of the Apostle Peter,
dedicated to the only and true God, after having climbed the stairs that
bear one up to the upper level, turn themselves around toward the rising
sun, bow their heads and kneel in order to honor the shining disk" (Homily
27, 4). In fact, the faithful entering the basilica for the Eucharist, in
order to be intent on the altar, had to turn their backs to the sun. In
order to pray while "turned toward the east," as it was said, they would
have had to turn their backs to the altar, which does not seem probable.

7) The fact that the application of this symbolism in the West, beginning
from very early on, progressively diminished, demonstrates that it did not
constitute an inviolable element. Therefore, it cannot be considered a
traditional fundamental principle in Christian liturgy. From this it also
arises that, subsequently, other types of symbolism influenced the
construction of altars and their arrangement in churches.

8) In the encyclical Mediator Dei, Pius XII regarded as "archeologists"
those who presumed to speak of the altar as a simple table. Would it not be
equally an archeologizing tendency to consider that the arrangement of the
altar toward the East is the decisive key to a correct Eucharistic
celebration? In effect, the validity of the liturgical reform is not based
only and exclusively on the return to original forms. There can also be
completely new elements in it, and in fact there are some, that have been
perfectly integrated.

9) The liturgical reform of the II Vatican Council did not invent the
arrangement of the altar turned toward the people. One thinks concerning
this of the witness of the Roman basilicas, at least as a pre-existing
fact. But it was not an historical fact that directed the clear option for
an arrangement of the altar that permits a celebration turned toward the
people. The authorized interpretors of the reform-Cardinal Lercaro as the
president of the Consilium-repeated from the very beginning (see the
letters from 1965) that one was not dealing with a question of a liturgy
that is continuing or passing away (quaestio stantis vel cadentis
). The fact that the suggestions of Cardinal Lercaro in this
matter were, in that moment of euphoria, little taken into consideration,
is unfortunately not an isolated case. Changing the orientation of the
altar and utilizing the vernacular turned out to be much easier ways for
entering into the theological and spiritual meaning of the liturgy, for
absorbing its spirit, for studying the history and the meaning of the rites
and analyzing the reasons behind the changes that were brought about and
their pastoral consequences.

10) The option for celebrations <versus populum> is coherent with the
foundational theological idea discovered and proven by the liturgical
movement: "Liturgical actions are celebrations of the Church. . .which is
the holy people of God gathered and ordered under the bishops" (SC 26). The
theology of the common priesthood and the ministerial priesthood, "distinct
in essence, and not in degree" (essentia, non gradu) and nevertheless
ordered to each other (LG 10) is certainly better expressed with the
arrangement of the altar versus populum. Did not monks, from ancient
times, pray turned toward each other in order to search for the presence of
the Lord in their midst? Moreover, a figurative motive is worth
underscoring. The symbolic form of the Eucharist is that of a meal, a
repetition of the supper of the Lord. One does not doubt that this meal is
sacrificial, a memorial of the death and resurrection of Christ, but from
the figurative point of view its reference point is the supper.

11) Furthermore, how does one forget that one of the strongest arguments
that sustain the continuance of the uninterrupted tradition of the
exclusive ordination of men, lies in the fact that the priest, president in
virtue of ordination, stands at the altar as a member of the assembly, but
also by his sacramental character, before the assembly as Christ is the
head of the Church and that for this reason stands there in front of
(gegenuber) the Church.

12) If from the supports we pass to the applications, we find much material
for reflection. The Congregation of Divine Worship, taking into
consideration that a series of questions has been rising up in this regard,
proposes now the following guiding points:

1. The celebration of the Eucharist versus populum requires of the priest
a greater and more sincere expression of his ministerial conscience: his
gestures, his prayer, his facial expression must reveal to the assembly in
a more direct way the principal actor, the Lord Jesus. One does not
improvise this; one acquires it with some technique. Only a profound sense
of the proper priestly identity in spiritu et veritate is able to attain

2. The orientation of the altar versus populum requires with great care a
correct use of the different areas of the sanctuary: the chair, the ambo
and altar, as well as a correct positioning of the people that preside and
serve in it. If the altar is turned into a pedestal for everything
necessary for celebrating the Eucharist, or into a substitute for the chair
in the first part of the Mass, or into a place from which the priest
directs the whole celebration (in almost a technical sense), the altar will
lose symbolically its identity as the central place of the Eucharist, the
table of mystery, the meeting place between God and men for the sacrifice
of the new and eternal covenant.

3. The placement of the altar versus populum is certainly something in
the present liturgical legislation that is desirable. It is not,
nevertheless, an absolute value over and beyond all others. It is necessary
to take into account cases in which the sanctuary does not admit of an
arrangement of the altar facing the people, or it is not possible to
preserve the preceding altar with its ornamentation in such a way that
another altar facing the people can be understood to be the principal
altar. In these cases, it is more faithful to liturgical sense to celebrate
at the existing altar with the back turned to the people rather than
maintain two altars in the same sanctuary. The principle of the unicity of
the altar is theologically more important than the practice of celebrating
facing the people.

4. It is proper to explain clearly that the expression "celebrate facing
the people" does not have a theological sense, but only a topographical-
positional sense. Every celebration of the Eucharist is praise and glory of
God, for our good and the good of all the Church (ad laudem et gloriam
nominis Dei, ad utilitatem quoque nostram, totiusque Ecclesiae suae
). Theologically, therefore, the Mass is always facing towards God
and facing the people. In the form of celebration it is necessary to take
care not to switch theology and topography around, above all when the
priest is at the altar. The priest speaks to the people only in the
dialogue from the altar. All the rest is prayer to the Father, through the
mediation of Christ in the Holy Spirit. This theology must be visible.

5. At last, a conjectural consideration that is not to be left in silence.
Thirty years have passed since the constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.
"Provisional arrangements" cannot be justified any longer. In the re-
organization of the sanctuary if a provisional character is maintained
which is either pedagogically or artistically badly resolved, then an
element of distortion results for catechesis and for the very theology of
the celebration. Some criticisms of certain celebrations that are raised
are well-founded and can only be taken with seriousness. The effort to
improve celebrations is one of the basic elements to assure, in so far as
it depends on us, an active and fruitful participation.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Fr Arsenius says:

    Thanks, Father Zuhlsdorf! That’s exactly what I was looking for.

  2. PMcGrath says:

    Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to read on my browser, as it is full of carriage returns.

  3. Jack says:

    PMcGrath–Copy the internet text to MS Word and it formats nicely.
    Father–Thank you for the reprint of the editorial.

  4. Karl says:

    You can’t get around the fact that versus popularum will
    always orient congregations to the community. The point of focus is in
    that space between the priest and congregation. In that
    way it is a very Protestant and communal orientation. Ad
    Orientum profoundly orients the individual toward the Real
    Presence of Christ, that has become so remote in the Novus
    Ordo as now practiced. Ad orientum simply intensifies the
    liturgical experience. Without wanting to sound too chauvinistic
    it is simply a more Catholic way to practice.. and has
    nothing to do with ‘cultural’ affinities.


  5. fr.franklyn mcafee says:

    Who was Prefect of CDW when this notitia article appeared?

  6. Inquiringmind says:

    Who wrote this excellent editorial, i.e., who was the editor of Notitiae at the time? That is perhaps a more important thing to know than the identity of the (superb!) translator!

Comments are closed.