Benedict XVI for Baptism of the Lord: Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel

Big news.

Step by step we have seen the Holy Father and his new MC, Msgr. Guido Marini, reintroducing elements of a more traditional  liturgical style. 

For the Sunday of the Baptism of the Lord, 13 January, the Holy Father will as usual celebrate Holy Mass in the Sistine Chapel.  However, instead of setting up an ironing board in front of the main altar (beneath the Last Judgement of Michaelangelo), the Holy Father will actual use the main altar.

Here is an APCOM story in my translation, emphases and comments.


For reasons of architecture, baptisms with the pre-Conciliar use  [and post Conciliar.  Nothing in the documents requires that Mass be said facing the people.]

Vatican City, 12 Jan (Apcom) A thing unusual and original [See how ridiculous things have become?  When something like this is perceived as being "outlandish"?]: tomorrow the Pope will celebrate Mass during which he will baptize 13 children in the Sistine Chapel "with his back to the faithful and his gaze toward the Cross".  A note from the liturgical office mentions, in fact, that "this year a wooden platform will not be erected bearing a special altar for the occasion, but the true [
altar of the Sistine Chapel will be used.

"It was decided to celebrate at the old altar so as not to alter the beauty and harmony of this archtectural jewel", the Vatican note explained,[This was the point of an editorial years ago in Notitiae, which is my translation is available widely on the internet: "do not destroy the harmony of the place, by putting up a table in front of a main altar.  It is better to use the main altar in those cases and not have two altars in the same space."] "preserving its structure from the point of view of the celebration and using a possibility foreseen in the liturgical norms. [This is just Vaticanese.  In fact, far from being just a "possibility":, the rubrics actually presuppose that Mass is celebrated ad orientem.]  This means that in some moments the Pope will be seen with his back turned to the faithful [BUT NOBODY PANIC!!] and his gaze at the Cross, thus reorienting the attitude and the disposition of the whole assembly.  [And this, dear friends, is the real reason why it is going to happen.   Listen to my PODCAzTs on what Benedict thinks about ad orientem worship.]

The liturgical office nevertheless clarified that, "the celebration will have the usual order and the ordinary Missal will be used, namely, that of Paul VI.  [It is so ridiculous that some people think that just because Mass is said ad orientem, therefore it must be the "old way".  So, they have to say things like this in press statements.] "Benedict XVI will wear some vestments belonging to John Paul II and during the rite of baptism" the notice from the liturgical office continues, "he will draw the water from an artistic font in bronze, made some years ago by the scuplture Lello Scorzelli, the same artist who made the crozier used during the whole pontificate of Papa Wojtyla.

The Pontiff, as usual, will pour the water on the heads of the children using a glided shell.  The gesture has a rich meaning.  Indeed, from the liturgical point of view, the shell harks to the pilgrimage, symbolizing the new journey that the baptized begin once they have entered to take part in the community of believers."

I contend that more damage was done by turning around the orientation of Mass than perhaps any single other change. 

This is am important move upon which, I hope, much else will turn.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Jason in San Antonio says:

    Dominate, Holy Father, dominate.

  2. Mike says:

    Hello Father,
    Hail Mary!

    I’m sorry but… WOO HOO!!! Saedia Gestatoria or Papal Tiara for the next step?

  3. TNCath says:

    This is the best news I’ve heard all day, all week, all year. While I have absolutely no problems with the Extraordinary Form, I have long awaited the public celebration of the Novus Ordo ad orientem by the Holy Father. The Holy Father is indeed setting a precedent so that now churches all over the world can follow suit, “so as to not alter the beauty and harmony” of their respective architectures.

  4. SMJ says:

    “he will draw the water from an artistic font in bronze, made some years ago by the scuplture Lello Scorzelli, the same artist who made the crozier used during the whole pontificate of Papa Wojtyla.”

    Please tell me that it’s not THAT font:

  5. Michael says:

    I think it is. That font is frightening, just like the pastoral cross. Surely the Vatican has nicer fonts and hopefully something to baptize with besides a scallop shell.

  6. Henry Edwards says:

    I contend that more damage was done by turning around the orientation of Mass than perhaps any single other change.

    Surely true. I’ll bet anyone would agree who has experienced the Novus Ordo with all 4 possibilities: (vernacular or Latin) and (ad orientem or versus populum). Though Latin has its own pride of place, ad orientem celebration makes a much bigger difference than whether the language is Latin or vernacular. With ad orientem you know it’s not just words the priest is saying, rather a significant action that he’s carrying out (in the person of Christ). Ad orientem leaves no doubt something is actually happening at the altar.

  7. John F. says:


    The scallop shell has a centuries old symbolism in baptism (for those that don’t understand terms relating to lengths of time- that means a long long long long time well before Vatican II.)

    Why must people be on a constant lookout for something negative. Learn to appreciate the gains we have patiently made during this pontificate.

  8. Mark says:

    I am very encouraged by this news. A question for someone: Is this altar in the Sistine literally ad orientem?

  9. Henry Edwards says:

    Mark: Is this altar in the Sistine literally ad orientem?

    I believe the altar is on the western wall of the Sistine chapel, so the celebrant facing it is actually facing west. So perhaps ad occidentem (west) is in this case liturgical east (orientem), with the priest and people together facing God and Cross.

  10. Michael says:

    Come on, John F. Nowhere in my post did I deny that, “The scallop shell has a centuries old symbolism in baptism.” My point was that there are more dignified receptacles than a gilded seashell for use in such a solemn ritual. I also don’t care for the tree branches that have come to replace the aspergillum in so many places.

  11. techno_aesthete says:

    Vivat Benedictus XVI!!

  12. Jack says:

    Doesn’t the Holy Father already do this in private?

  13. Thank God for Our Holy Father’s courage in teaching through example. We must pray that Our Lord gives B-16 the strength to continue for many more years. Celebrating Ad Orientem and a good translation of the Holy Mass at the local level would be a good start at re-catechizing our people. I pray Our Holy Father will continue with the work begun and reinforce with some major Liturgical documents putting it all into law.

  14. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    A superb dog bites man story! At least, that’s what we hope it will become. Cheers!

  15. Mary Ann says:

    Fr. Jay Finelli, my thoughts exactly. Couldn’t have put it better. I pray especially for more binding directives on music, and that people will LISTEN and obey.

  16. schoolman says:

    The only downside to the Benedicting reform is the toll it takes on my walle…having to constantly re-stock the cellar.

  17. Central Valley Catholic says:

    Great news. I hope the bishop of Fresno California and the rest of the American bishops will be watching and follow the Holy Fathers lead. I am sure there will be many aging hippy priests and bishops playing their old records and eight tracks of Bob Dylan singing “The times they are a changin” or maybe Willie Nelson singing “Turn out the lights, the parties over…” God bless our Holy Father with many more years.

  18. I couldn’t agree more with Fr. Z’s opinion.
    The introduction in the 1960s of Mass “facing the people” has undoubtedly been the biggest disaster in the liturgical revolution which hijacked first the liturgical movement and then Vatican II.

  19. Geoffrey says:

    I can’t believe it! This is huge! I will be staying up to watch this live (1am PST) tonight! (Okay, I had planned to anyway, but still…)

  20. Adam Schwend says:

    I certainly agree that changing the orientation of the priest during Mass was the most destructive modification in the liturgy.

    However, let’s review WHY this is: The cult of self that is running loose across the western world. The idea of doing whatever it takes to be happy; to look out for “number one” is brought to it’s logical conclusion in the Mass, which is completely directed toward GOD is celebrated toward OURSELVES. From there we see the focus of the Mass being, “what can I get out of Mass” or “what do I like at Mass”, instead of “what can I do to help give the best to our merciful God, despite my unworthiness?” No longer do we see ourselves unworthy. Not only do we see ourselves as worthy, but actually expect that we get something from it. While a Mass well celebrated gives us, as a bi-product, a desire to love and serve God and the Church better in the context of our personal lives, it certainly isn’t about what we can get out of it.

    It is entirely clear that the change in orientation, the removal or replacement of the crucifix from the center of the sanctuary, and the continuous focus on the congregation, instead of God, has simply served to continue, instead of reversing, the sad trend in our culture of “looking out for number one”, and having an incredibly distorted view of who “number one” should be.

  21. Timothy James says:

    All of these wonderful changes have come in just over 2 and a half years of this Pontificate. Benedict could easily live another 10 years. Imagine the changes by then!

  22. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    Of course, the Holy Father has been offering Holy Mass ad orientem in, for instance, St Peter’s Basilica, all along, but people haven’t noticed that so much until, perhaps, the more recent move to place the crucifix on the altar once again. That crucifix cancels the “window through the candles” effect that was there before. It is now the Sacrifice that is of concern.

    Ad orientem tends to draw people into the Sacrifice on the Altar. Conversely, non ad orientem tends to do the opposite.

    I remember seeing a non ad orientem children’s Mass (though teenagers were present) that brought things to their conclusion: after Communion they were told not only to face each other, gaping at each other, but, in order to do this, they were told to turn away from the altar.

    It just comes to mind that we would do well to remember the “little people” behind the scenes who help the Holy Father in the way that he wants. Whenever there are “changes” such as are being wrought by the Supreme Pontiff, those who are faithful to him suffer horrendously from those who hate the “changes”. I’m thinking not only of the Vatican, but also all those parishes following the lead of Benedict. The politics can be deadly. Hail Mary…

  23. Geoffrey says:

    I am watching the Mass live on EWTN & CTV now. It is very nice. All in Italian, so far. I was hoping for Latin. Oh well… it is very solemn, nonetheless. 13 babies to be baptised. What an experience for them and their parents!

    The same baptismal font is being used, which doesn’t bother me personally. John Paul the Great started this custom of baptising infants on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and the font was designed for this purpose. Pope Benedict XVI wanted to continue it, so in a way it could be considered “traditional”… ;-)

    The Holy Father apparently mispronounced the name of the first child to be baptised and the parents corrected him… the Holy Father then said “excuse me” in Italian. I don’t think I’d have the guts to correct the Pontiff! I think I would have let it slide!

    The Holy Father is using another ornate and elevated throne, one that I am guessing has not been seen in a while. I could be wrong…

  24. Geoffrey says:

    The Liturgy of the Eucharist has begun… all in Italian, Eucharistic Prayer II according to the Vatican Radio commentator. Seven candles on the altar, the seventh being behind and above the crucifix. I cannot describe seeing the Holy Father and his concelebrants saying Mass facing “east”. Too beautiful for words!

    I pray Marini II influences liturgies throughout the world the way Marini I did! Oremus!

  25. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    THE important words being, in whatever language: “Hoc est enim Corpus meum” with “Hic est enim calix Sanguinis mei”.

  26. Father Bartoloma says:

    What a panicky and insecure article.

  27. Diane K says:

    Fr. Z says: This was the point of an editorial years ago in Notitiae, which is my translation is available widely on the internet: “do not destroy the harmony of the place, by putting up a table in front of a main altar. It is better to use the main altar in those cases and not have two altars in the same space.”

    There are parishes like mine where the main wall altar has been preserved, even though a fixed table altar was erected (due to erroneous notion that ad orientem posture was abolished). Some, including Fr. Edward McNamara in his latest Q&A on the liturgy, call the table altar the “main altar”. I respectfully disagree with him.

    The basis of his answer, in which he says it is “more correct” to use the table altar than the wall altar in such parishes, is based on that “main altar” argument and because it can be “censed all the way around”. Who or what determines which is considered “main”? We – the people and priests of our parish, feel that the main altar is the one which was ignored through a lack of understanding of what was, and is, permitted – namely ad orientem posture.

    I’m not familiar with the altar used by Pope Benedict to celebrate ad orientem. Was he able to “cense all the way around?”

    Ideally, we would have only one altar, and the altar we desire is the wall altar which is mainly in use. In fact, if anyone is interested in a very beautiful and quality marble table altar, email me at I’ll take and send detailed pictures!

    Zenit source

  28. Diane K says:

    BTW – (continuation of my last post) many felt that the anonymous list of questions from the Detroit area posed to Fr. McNamara were about Assumption Grotto. However, it is pretty clear that, as a set of questions, not all of them apply to Grotto, such as the St. Michael’s prayer, which is not even prayed after our Masses. There were a couple of other things which did not match Grotto, as well, and we are not the only parish celebrating ad orientem in the area.

    Either way, I think there is room for interpretation in what is considered the “main altar” in parishes where there are two. Ideally, there should be only one (in time, God-willing, in time…there will only be one at our parish).

  29. James says:

    I thought the phrase that Fr McNamara wasn’t using (and should) was ‘the altar of greater dignity’. We have two altars in our school chapel, the older one being essential to the support of the ceiling above the sanctuary(!) with gradines, Blessed Sacrament Throne etc – and then a portable wooden construction. You don’t need me to tell you which one is in regular use, because it’s not the altar of greater dignity IMHO. But maybe after today…

  30. CBM says:

    I’m pleased to see the Holy Father celebrating ad orientam in a public and televised setting. I have always been a proponent of ad orientam (based on the scholarship of Ratzinger, Gamber and Lang)and used ad orientam throughout the weekdays of Advent in my parish church. I recently renovated the church and the improvemnts lend themselves well to this. I catechized the people from the time of the motu propio and celebrated twice according to the missal of John XXIII since July. The daily Mass people really appreciated and I believe understood the reasons for ad orientam. During that time a few olderf priests who assist me also accepted the custom of the parish and celebrated for the first time since the early 70’s ad orientam. they were very pleased and appreciative. also a bishop who alwways celebrated such in his own chapel was hestitant to do the same in a regualr parish but when he submitted himself to this pastor’s directive he was glad of it and will encourage this in his own diocese with the priests and parishes “who get it”.
    thanks, Holy Father.

  31. Habemus Papam says:

    In Italian with JPII vestments. The Pope is signaling that the Novus Ordo in vernacular can and should be done “facing the altar”. He knows what he is about.

  32. Matthew Mattingly says:

    What I liked most was the explaination from the Maestro of Pontifical Ceremonies office that the portable altar and platform will not be set up in order not to detract from the Sistine Chapel (described as a jewel)…which is true. It is a jewel of architecture and art. Putting up the ironing board altar (terrbily ugly) always looked ridiculously out of place. Not to mention extremely Protestant looking.

    This notice from the Ceremonies office is a huge smack down to the practice of setting up little Vatican II tables in front of majestic and magnificent high altars in great European cathedrals, monasteries , etc. Perhaps now these little “Protestant-style” Vatican II altars will disappear and the original altars will be used again. I hope so. I always thought that photos of beautiful cathedrals with hughe altars that were truely works of art were really monuments to the Catholic Faith and glory to God….then to look at the Vatican II table altar squat in front of it ruined the whole illusion.

  33. Habemus Papam says:

    Apparentely, the Sistine Chapel was where Paul VI first said Mass versus populem, as a model for the Church. Now Pope Benedict has overturned this model.

  34. Hank_F_M says:


    I fell asleep listing to EWTN radio and woke to in the middle of the night to hear this mass. It used to be that there were two announcers who gave a blow by blow commentary interspaced with chatter ( go super bowl). I don’t know when they made the change but there was one person who gave just enough commentary to visualize what was happening and a little bit of catechesis. It was great to hear her say the pope was saying mass with his “back to the people” but it was the only place where their wasn’t a little catechesis to explain something unusual or not obvious to the listiner.. Well 10 steps forward, one back.

  35. Tomas Lopez says:


    Further to your preference of the aspergillum to the branch for aspersions: apparently the traditional Benedictines of Le Barroux do not share your preference. See:

  36. Michael says:

    Thank you, Tomas. I’m fully aware that Le Barroux uses cut boxwood for their asperges. But just because a community has a reputation for being traditional does not mean that they don’t embrace the occasional novelty. The Le Barroux liturgies, and those as Fontgombault are in many ways very modern, the texts and rubrics being traditional.

  37. Martin Ford says:

    This is going to be a help, though a small help, to reconciliation with the Orthodox. The Orthodox, especially the Russians, always look at our Byzantine Catholic priests who start saying Mass facing the people, using altar girls etc. and go “Why would we want to be contaminated by Rome??” The fact that Benedict is doing this publicly — I’m sure some Orthodox priests are watching television with their wives going “Hey — maybe these Catholics aren’t so stupid after all …”

  38. Michael says:

    Even if we restored our liturgy tomorrow, the Orthodox would still wonder why we ever touched it in the first place. The past 40 years have done more damage to Catholic/Orthodox relations than we’ll ever know.

  39. Pam says:

    Was it just me, or did anyone else notice that the Holy Father looked and acted younger than his years? To me he seemed more youthful and vibrant than I have ever seen him.

  40. kat says:

    Maybe the parents were afraid the baptism “wouldn’t take” if the baby’s name wasn’t pronounced correctly. I would have been too nervous to do more than stand up and not drop the poor child.

  41. MM says:

    The centre of the UK national newspaper The Guardian is usually given over to a striking photograph that fills both middle pages. Today (Monday January 14th 2008) this spot is occupied by a magnificent picture with this caption: “Born again: Baptisms take place in the Sistine Chapel in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI, beneath the celebrated ceiling by Michelangelo. (Photograph Franco Origlia/Getty Images)” The photograph is taken from the back of the chapel and captures the heavenward orientation of the liturgy perfectly.

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