Fr. Lang on Holy Mass “ad orientem”

One of the great liturgists of the 20th century, vastly under appreciated in his day, was Klaus Gamber.  When writing about the post-Conciliar reforms he held that perhaps the most damaging change made was the shift from celebration of Mass ad orientem to Mass with the priest "facing the people".

Slowly but surely people are rethinking the position of the priest in relation to the people and the altar. 

One of writers who is making a solid contribution to the discussion is Fr. Uew Michael Lang, of the London Oratory, now in Rome with the Pont. Council for Culture.  

He was interviewed by Zenit.

My emphases and comments.

Reorienting the Mass

Father Lang Comments on

LONDON, SEPT. 21, 2007 ( The statement asserting that the priest celebrating the older form of the Mass has "his back to the people" misses the point, says Father Uwe Michael Lang.

The posture "ad orientem," or "facing east," is about having a common direction of liturgical prayer, he adds.

Father Lang of the London Oratory, and recently appointed to work for the Pontifical Commission for the Cultural Heritage of the Church, is the author of "Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer." The book was first published in German by Johannes Verlag and then in English by Ignatius Press. The book has also appeared in Italian, French, Hungarian and Spanish.

In this interview with ZENIT, Father Lang speaks about the "ad orientem" posture and the possibilities for a rediscovery of the ancient liturgical practice.

Q: How did the practice of celebrating the liturgy "ad orientem," or "facing east," develop in the early Church? What is its theological significance?

Father Lang: In most major religions, the position taken in prayer and the layout of holy places is determined by a "sacred direction." The sacred direction in Judaism is toward Jerusalem or, more precisely, toward the presence of the transcendent God — "shekinah" — in the Holy of Holies of the Temple, as seen in Daniel 6:10.

Even after the destruction of the Temple, the custom of turning toward Jerusalem was kept in the liturgy of the synagogue. This is how the Jews have expressed their eschatological hope for the coming of the Messiah, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the gathering of God’s people from the diaspora.

The early Christians no longer turned toward the earthly Jerusalem, but toward the new, heavenly Jerusalem. It was their firm belief that when the Risen Christ would come again in glory, he would gather his faithful to make up this heavenly city.

They saw in the rising sun a symbol of the Resurrection and of the Second Coming, and it was a matter of course for them to pray facing this direction. There is strong evidence of eastward prayer in most parts of the Christian world from the second century onward.

In the New Testament, the special significance of the eastward direction for worship is not explicit.

Even so, tradition has found many biblical references for this symbolism, for instance: the "sun of righteousness" in Malachi 4:2; the "day dawning from on high" in Luke 1:78; the angel ascending from the rising of the sun with the seal of the living God in Revelation 7:2; and the imagery of light in St John’s Gospel.

In Matthew 24:27-30, the sign of the coming of the Son of Man with power and great glory, which appears as the lightning from the east and shines as far as the west, is the cross.

There is a close connection between eastward prayer and the cross; this is evident by the fourth century, if not earlier. In synagogues of this period, the corner with the receptacle for the Torah scrolls indicated the direction of prayer — "qibla" — toward Jerusalem.  [This is very much in keeping with J. Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy.  You can hear part of his argument in a PODCAzT.]

Among Christians, it became a general custom to mark the direction of prayer with a cross on the east wall in the apses of basilicas as well as in private rooms, for example, of monks and solitaries.

Toward the end of the first millennium, we find theologians of different traditions noting that prayer facing east is one of the practices distinguishing Christianity from the other religions of the Near East: Jews pray toward Jerusalem, Muslims pray toward Mecca, but Christians pray toward the east.

Q: Do any of the other rites of the Catholic Church employ the "ad orientem" liturgical posture?

Father Lang: "Facing east" in liturgical prayer is part of the Byzantine, Syriac, Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian traditions. It is still the custom in most of the Eastern rites, at least during the Eucharistic prayer.

A few Eastern Catholic Churches — for example, the Maronite and the Syro-Malabar — have lately adopted "Mass facing the people," but this is owing to modern Western influence and not in keeping with their authentic traditions.

For this reason, the Vatican Congregation for Eastern Churches declared in 1996 that the ancient tradition of praying toward the east has a profound liturgical and spiritual value and must be preserved in the Eastern rites.

Q: We often hear that "facing east" means the priest is celebrating "with his back to the people." What is really going on when the priest celebrates Mass "ad orientem"?

Father Lang: That catchphrase often heard nowadays, that the priest "is turning his back on the people," misses the crucial point that the Mass is a common act of worship in which priest and people together — representing the pilgrim Church — reach out for the transcendent God.

What is at issue here is not the celebration "toward the people" or "away from the people," but rather the common direction of liturgical prayer. This is maintained whether or not the altar is literally facing east; in the West, many churches built since the 16th century are no longer "oriented" in the strict sense.

By facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar, the priest leads the people of God on their journey of faith. This movement toward the Lord has found sublime expression in the sanctuaries of many churches of the first millennium, where representations of the cross or of the glorified Christ illustrate the goal of the assembly’s earthly pilgrimage.

Looking out for the Lord keeps the eschatological character of the Eucharist alive and reminds us that the celebration of the sacrament is a participation in the heavenly liturgy and a pledge of future glory in the presence of the living God.

This gives the Eucharist its greatness, saving the individual community from closing in upon itself and opening it toward the assembly of the angels and saints in the heavenly city.

Q: In what ways does "facing east" during the liturgy foster a dialogue with the Lord?

Father Lang: The paramount principle of Christian worship is the dialogue between the people of God as a whole, including the celebrant, and God, to whom their prayer is addressed.

This is why the French liturgist Marcel Metzger argues that the phrases "facing the people" and "back to the people" exclude the one to whom all prayer is directed, namely God.

The priest does not celebrate the Eucharist "facing the people," whatever direction he faces; rather, the whole congregation celebrates facing God, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.

Q: In the foreword to your book, then Cardinal Ratzinger notes that none of the documents of the Second Vatican Council asked for the altar to be turned toward the people. How did this change come about? What was the basis for such a major reorientation of the liturgy?

Father Lang: Two main arguments in favor of the celebrant’s position facing the people are usually presented.

First, it is often said that this was the practice of the early Church, which should be the norm for our age; however, a close study of the sources shows that this claim does not hold.  [Some of the mania which fueled the altar "revolution" stemmed from work by the great liturgists Joseph Jungmann and Louis Bouyer.  What is not so well-known is that both of them later stated that they were wrong about the position of the altar in the ancient Church.  Of course, that correction of their error didn’t get the publicity it deserved.]

Second, it is maintained that the "active participation" of the faithful, a principle that was introduced by Pope Pius X and is central to "Sacrosanctum Concilium," demanded celebration toward the people.

Recent critical reflection on the concept of "active participation" has revealed the need for a theological reappraisal of this important principle.  [A better, deeper understanding of what "active participation" really is all about is critical in the next few years.  We need strong liturgical catechesis.]

In his book "The Spirit of the Liturgy," then Cardinal Ratzinger draws a useful distinction between participation in the Liturgy of the Word, which includes external actions, and participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where external actions are quite secondary, since the interior participation of prayer is the heart of the matter.

The Holy Father’s recent postsynodal apostolic exhortation "Sacramentum Caritatis" has an important discussion of this topic in Paragraph 52.

Q: Is a priest forbidden from "facing east" in the new order of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970? Is there any juridical obstacle prohibiting wider use of this ancient practice?

Father Lang: A combination of priest and people facing each other during the Liturgy of the Word and turning jointly toward the altar during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, especially for the Canon, is a legitimate option in the Missal of Pope Paul VI.  [This is true.  But in practice, younger priests will sometimes get tremendous pressure from the progressivists and aging hippie crowd never to exercise their legitimate options.]

The revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which was first published for study purposes in 2000, addresses the altar question in Paragraph 299; it seems to declare the position of the celebrant "ad orientem" undesirable or even prohibited.  [It seems to declare that only in the truly lousy English translation.  I have commented on this more than once on the blog.  Here is one piece.  It is odd that the bad translations persist even after the Congregation for Divine Worship issues a response to a dubium about the meaning of GIRM 299.  The Congregation even explained the grammar of 299, if you can believe it.]

However, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments rejected this interpretation in a response to a question submitted by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, archbishop of Vienna. Obviously, the relevant paragraph of the General Instruction must be read in light of this response, which was dated Sept. 25, 2000. [Yes.  This is our hope.]

Q: Will Pope Benedict’s recent apostolic letter liberalizing the use of the Missal of John XXIII, "Summorum Pontificum," foster a deeper appreciation for "turning toward the Lord" during the Mass?

Father Lang: I think many reservations or even fears about Mass "ad orientem" come from lack of familiarity with it, and the spread of the "extraordinary use" of the Roman rite will help many people to discover and appreciate this form of celebration.   [A "gravitational pull" will take place.  I am convinced of it.]

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Legisperitus says:

    Perhaps someone will eventually republish Fr. Bouyer’s “Liturgy and Architecture,” which is long out of print.

  2. “Is a priest forbidden from facing east in the new order of the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970 ? Is there any juridical obstacle prohibiting wider use of this ancient practice ?”

    The short answer to these questions is “No” and “No”.

  3. This is a topic very near and dear to my heart!

    I have another argument for “facing east” liturgically:

    Adam and Eve were also banished from paradise by passing through the East entrance of Eden, and a Cherub with a flaming sword was placed there to prevent access to the Tree of Life. The whole of salvation history concerns our desire to return to Paradise lost – to return through the East Gate!

    When Christ, the New Adam, enters Jerusalem triumphantly on Palm Sunday, which entrance does He choose?

    The East Gate!

    …with its two arches:

    North: The Gate of Mercy
    South: The Gate of Repentance

    He passes through this entrance in order to restore us to Paradise (the Heavenly Jerusalem), ascend the altar of the Tree of Life (the Holy Cross) and to share with us the fruit of the Tree (the Holy Eucharist). But in order to properly prepare for this great and holy gift, WE MUST PASS through this East Gate through repentance (confession) and mercy (grace) to receive the “fruit” of His High Priesthood. (One of the prayers of the Byzantine Great Fast captures this perfectly: “Open unto us the gates of repentance…”)

    In the liturgy, we stand like the crowds in a Heavenly Jerusalem shouting “Hosanna!” (“Save us, O Lord!”) and receive from the Tree of Life!

    But we must face the East! How marvellous that there is a movement to restore this great, unified tradition!

    God bless,


    PS: I recently spoke on Relevant Radio and the “Light of the East” program on the topic of Palm Sunday and the significance of the East Gate and “facing east”, using the patristic quadriga or four-fold method of interpretation. I think this method is the best way to explain not only the liturgy and our Christian liturgical practices, but the mystery of the Gospel as well. – Broadcast #155

  4. elizabeth mckernan says:

    Having referred back to your piece on the English mis-translation, it seems so sad that this alone seems to have lead to the destruction of so many beautiful altars. However, as the ‘secondary’ altar is also commonplace in French churches and cathedrals I am curious to know whether there was also the same mis-translation in the French. Happily the french translation of the Mass is a good deal more dignified (and correct?) than the british version and they are able to say ‘JE crois en Dieu’. How and why did ‘credo’ get translated as ‘WE’ in english?

  5. Bernard from Iowa says:

    Dear Father Zuhlsdorf,

    Thanks for posting this truly great article. I think the standard response to
    the old chestnut “his back to the people” should be that it’s odd for the
    priest to celebrate Mass with his back to God. I don’t see this used often

    God bless,
    Bernard from Iowa

  6. elizabeth: … it seems so sad that this alone…

    No, it wasn’t this alone. That paragraph 299 is in the GIRM of the year 2000, which is published in the 2002 edition of the Roman Missal. The damage was done long before 2000. However, there are no documents which required that altars be torn out and sanctuaries rearranged. This was done in the name of a nearly iconoclastic desire for novelty after the Council. The problem is that the bad translations of par. 299 perpetuate the false post-Conciliar view. The Latin original is not so skewed.

  7. Robert says:

    One thing that seems to be on the tips of some tongues, but which never quite gets said, is that when the Priest and the people face the same direction, there would seem to be a greater emphasis on the common priesthood of the faithful, [a very Vatican II thing, which I would think some people would like to emphasize, if they thought about it.]

    In my opinion, when the priest faces the people, there is a sense that he is celebrating AT the congregation, kind of doing it to them, whereas, when the priest and the people face the same direction, he and the congregation are together offering the sacrifice, in their different roles and degrees of priesthood. Of course, this suggests active participation also, which is a good thing, and a very Vatican II thing.

    IF, Pastors were to catechize their people on the real meaning of the priesthood of the faithful, and on the real meaning of active participation, and the real reason why the priest and people are facing the same direction, it would make sense to them, and would really enhance their worship. IF…

  8. elizabeth mckernan says:

    Thank you for your correction – it’s almost a relief to know that this particular mis-translation was not the culprit. Like so many of your readers, I am grateful to be able to become better informed in this way and although English, I have been interested to learn of the different comments on the implementation of the Motu Proprio in the USA.

  9. John says:

    There isn’t a gravitational pull to the Usus Antiquor. My parish atarted saying a daily Tridentine Low Mass last week. On the first day, there were 100 people. Now there are about 40.

    People don’t like it, and it’s because they’ve been bombarded with polemics against the Tridentine Mass since they were kids. They’ve been taught to hate it. Unless the Church stops talking about the Novus Odo as if it were somehow superior to what came before it, the EF will never have a chance to grow. Right now, people take a consumerist approach to liturgy. Try talking about liturgical posture with someone from your parish and it will probably end with “well, versus populum is just what I prefer.” For 40 years, pastoral associates and youth ministers have been indoctrinating people, telling them why the Mass they never knew was bad. Those arguments stay with them. If we want the EF to grow, we have to stop encouraging people to choose what they prefer as if both options were somehow equal, and start explaining why the EF is objectively more efficacious than the OF. They need to know what the Mass really is, and why the NO obscures that. Proving that one option is better than another also mean proving why the other option is worse. Only then will parishoners have the courage to make that difficult transition from your average parish Mass to the Usus Antiquor. Bringing them back means not only teaching them why it should be tolerated, but also why it should be preferred.

  10. Elaine says:

    The hardcore opponents to ad orientem might be a bit (just a bit) softened by being told that ad orientem is

    1)Standard in Orthodoxy
    2) Standard in Eastern Catholic Churches
    3) Very, very common in Anglican/Episcopal churches, even those professing a more liberal theology
    4) Not unseen in Lutheran churches.

    In other words, it’s not the fruit of a idiocycratic, cranky, pre-Vatican II clericalist mindset. It just makes sense to all pray in the same direction, and lots of folks have no trouble seeing that and are not threatened by it.

  11. Angelo says:

    John: We can start by telling them that they
    are in the “good company” of Martin Luther
    who hated the Mass and to call to their
    attention what he said, “Tolle missam;
    tolle ecclesiam.”

  12. Bruce T. says:

    Could anyone cite here the books or articles where Bouyer and Jungmann admit they were wrong about the orientation of worship in the early Church?

  13. RobK says:

    So how does this work for a Church where the people are facing south or north or west? Does that mean the Church is not suited to the Extraordinary form? I am not quite 40, and the last Extraordinary form mass I attended was when I was 2.

    Second question – more of a comment. I have found that I hesitate to request the Extraordinary form at my parish. First, in So Cal, that is not a request that those in charge look on with kindness (that is my perception). I am already identified as “one of those” for speaking up about liturgical abuses and having an orthodox perspective on Church teaching. Second, because I am not someone who has been clambering for the old form, my interest may seem unimportant (not stable and all). I do not want to attend the extraordinary form exclusively, but I would like to go and make it a part of my spiritual life. Any recommendations?

  14. Henry Edwards says:

    John: My parish atarted saying a daily Tridentine Low Mass last week. On the first day, there were 100 people. Now there are about 40.

    This is perfectly normal. At your first TLM or two in an ordinary parish the attendance is inflated by a “curiosity factor”. Then attendance declines rapidly to a “stable” (pardon use of loaded word that has now acquired a polemical connotation) base from which you will build slowly.

    In the previous indult era it typically (in my observation) took about 2 years for the attendance to double. Though I expect the “gravitational pull” to me much stronger and rapid in its effect in the dawing new Summorum Pontificum era.

  15. Rob K,

    You wrote:

    “So how does this work for a Church where the people are facing south or north or west? Does that mean the Church is not suited to the Extraordinary form?”

    My guess is that, while the significance of facing the geographic East is greatly diminished, since churches cannot completely turn around the sanctuary (for the most part) the “liturgical East” will have to suffice.

    Others who know more than I do may have a different POV…

    God bless,


  16. In synagogues of this period, the corner with the receptacle for the Torah scrolls indicated the direction of prayer—”qibla“—toward Jerusalem.

    Ick. The word qibla is the Arabic Muslim word denoting the direction toward Mecca. It is not used to denote the direction toward Jerusalem in Hebrew at all. Perhaps that’s why it is in quotation marks.


  17. L_D says:

    “This is perfectly normal. At your first TLM or two in an ordinary parish the attendance is inflated by a “curiosity factor”. Then attendance declines rapidly to a “stable” (pardon use of loaded word that has now acquired a polemical connotation) base from which you will build slowly.”

    Good point. I have read that this was the case with the Pian reforms of the Easter Vigil (discussed in Alcuin Reid’s book) and I believe that this phenomenon touches upon an aspect of the regime of novelty that set in during the 1960’s.

  18. Pat Klass says:

    Bruce T,
    I don’t have a quote from Jungmann saying he was wrong but just ran across this in Gamber’s “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy”:
    Quoting Jungmann from “Missarum Sollemnie” “The claim that the altar of the early Church was always designed to celebrate facing the people, a claim made often and repeatedly, turns out to be nothing but a fairy tale.”
    Hope this helps.

  19. T. Chan says:

    I don’t think Fr. Bouyer makes the claim (or a retraction) in Liturgy and Architecture, but I’ll have to double-check.

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