Catholic Herald: Alcuin Reid on what the Pope is doing with ad orientem worship

The Catholic Herald has been busy.  In addition to their piece on a new generation of solid and clear Catholics and liturgical reform and another item on Summorum Pontificum there is also an op-ed by Alcuin Reid, a very sensible fellow, about ad orientem worship.

Let’s have a look with my emphases and comments.

Benedict XVI leads the faithful in ‘looking together at the Lord’

by Dr. Alcuin Reid

"What matters is looking together at the Lord." These words, written eight years ago by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, explain a subtle but decisive liturgical reform being enacted through the personal example of Pope Benedict XVI.  [The premise here is that Benedict is actually carrying out a reform, which is no doubt correct.  Also, the very idea and the word "decisive" means he has a plan.  As I have written elsewhere, the most important dimension of Pope Benedict’s vision, his "Marshall Plan" for reinvigorating the Church from within and ad extra is liturgy.  Liturgy is the tip of the spear.]

The latest and perhaps most striking step in this reform took place on the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord when, as has become customary, the Pope celebrated Mass in the Sistine Chapel and baptised newborn infants. As papal ceremonial goes, this is not usually a grand liturgical occasion: the Mass is in the vernacular and is largely said, not sung.

Yet it was precisely there – in perhaps as close to a parish setting as papal ceremonies often get [Ah, well done Alcuin.  I missed that point and it is very good.  The intimacy of the Sistine, and the occasion (baptizing babies of Vatican employees) was almost like a "parish" event.  Just as the Holy Father uses the Basilica to teach bishops how it is to be done, he used the chapel to teach parish priests?  An intriguing idea.  Well done.]– that the Holy Father chose to make a significant liturgical adjustment. Instead of celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist at a temporary altar-table set up for the occasion that would have had him "facing the people" (as has often been done in recent years), at the preparation of the gifts Pope Benedict went up to the original altar of the Sistine chapel (which stands against the wall on which Michelangelo painted his Last Judgement) and celebrated "facing East" or "towards the Lord" as it were. The Pope faced in the same direction as all those present – towards the liturgical "East", towards the cross – in continuity with popes (including Pope John Paul II) and generations of the faithful before him.  [You all might have read the CNS article about ad orientem worship in which long time assistant MC Msgr. Vigano opined that the point was not that the Pope was at the main altar, and therefore everyone was facing the same direction, but that everyone was facing the Cross together.  So, one concludes after listening to Vigano, it would be better to for priest and people to be facing the Cross together, but with the Cross between them.  Ratzinger allowed for this option as clearly better than simple versus populum worship, but only as a stop gap, or transition to something better, true ad orientem worship toward the liturgical East where the Cross is.]

Let us be clear, this has nothing at all to do with the Pope’s decision that the more ancient rite of the Mass (in Latin) be available to those who wish it. No, this Mass was according to the modern Missal of Paul VI, in Italian. [I not sure this has "nothing" to do with the older Mass being derestricted.  I think they are all of a piece.  But I will stipulate.]  And that is why this occasion was so important. For in this silent gesture Pope Benedict stated once and for all that there is nothing at all wrong with using the older altars in our churches. For as he wrote in his preface to Fr Michael Lang’s book Turning Towards the Lord: "there is nothing in the [Second Vatican] Council text about turning altars towards the people."

The Holy Father’s example is not an isolated one. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy Cardinal Ratzinger wrote "facing toward the East…was linked with the "sign of the Son of Man", with the Cross, which announces Our Lord’s Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the East was linked with the sign of the cross." And, recognising that in many places, altars "facing the people" have been set up (sometimes as the result of costly and unnecessary reordering) that make a return to celebrating the liturgy of the Eucharist facing East difficult. "Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, [IS NOT POSSIBLE…  This is my point, above.  Reid has quoted exactly the correct text.] the cross can serve as the interior ‘East’ of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community."

This is what Pope Benedict has done: the cross is now at the centre of the papal altar in St Peter’s Basilica (which faces East in any case), as well as at the freestanding modern altar behind it that replaced the old altar of the Chair. [Where the Pope has also been showing Bishops what to do.] He has even adopted this rule when celebrating outside the Vatican – as seen in his Advent Mass in the thoroughly modern chapel at the Knights of Malta hospital in Rome .

Here in England those few priests with the courage to take Cardinal Ratzinger’s words seriously and return to the use of what we call "the high altar" in their churches have been misunderstood or even ridiculed by clergy and laity. Some have been upbraided for doing so by their superiors.  [I have personal experience of this.  I had the temerity once to use the altar in the correct direction at a place I was, and the price was costly.  The church had been built at the time of the liturgical reforms, so it was still liturgically correct insofar as the altar was concerned.  It was a free standing table altar, but the altar stone was embedded on the congregation’s side, not the side below the massive and beautiful Crucifix (above the tabernacle in the center) which dominated the Sanctuary.  Clearly one could physically use that altar from either side, but it was intended to be used ad orientem, toward the Crufifix and the tabernacle.  Most people loved it, many barely cared, and a few aging hippies freaked out and cause me enduring pain as a result.  But I digress…]

This is undoubtedly due to the erroneous impression that "facing the people" is a mandatory part of the modern liturgy. [But that is fading, I believe.] Well, now the Holy Father – in his customarily humble way – has definitively shown us that it is not. Indeed, he has shown us that facing East where that is all that is possible, or indeed facing the cross – which is possible everywhere, [Well said.] can and ought to be very much a part of the modern liturgy, for "a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of accidentals, but of essentials. Looking at the priest has no importance. [Amen.] What matters is looking together at the Lord."

Well done, Alcuin.  I hope to see you somewhere in the UK in February.

And here is a plug for your book.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Henry Edwards says:

    Father Z: Most people loved it, many barely cared, and a few aging hippies freaked out …

    I’ve mentioned occasional observation of an ordinary-parish Latin Novus Ordo celebrated ad orientem, with the Latin seeming to deflect criticism of the ad orientem. (“Hey, if it’s Latin, whaddya expect?”) Make any sense?

  2. RichR says:

    Dr. Reid (a deacon, if I’m not mistaken) is a brilliant man when it comes to liturgy. For the life of me, I don’t know why he is not more well-known internationally. He seems like the type to keep a low profile.

  3. Diane K says:

    Fr. Z says: Just as the Holy Father uses the Basilica to teach bishops how it is to be done, he used the chapel to teach parish priests?

    This was precisely my point when some were not happy with the “architecture” explanation for the posture. There are many priests in churches which are not, “in the round”, so to speak. This makes that particular architecture conducive to an ad orientem celebrated Mass. That explanation by the Vatican provided yet one more reason for parish priests to celebrate their N.O. Masses, ad orientem when the architecture is especially conducive to it (be it at a table altar or a wall altar).

  4. Michael says:

    The Pope could go as far as saying that versus populum is destructive and that only ad orientem should be allowed, but there will be no change until there is legislative action. In my own diocese, our bishop has published collumns on music at Mass, reverence, even Latin, and the liturgies have not changed at all because these words merely reflect the bishop’s/pope’s opinion with which any priest is free to disagree. Until there are consequences for behaving differently, the average priest won’t turn his altar around.

  5. Joe says:

    Michael, I do agree with you, nothing will happen (well at least here in the former city of La Reina De Los Angeles).

  6. A.Williams says:

    The only thing I pray for is that Pope Benedict will break all records for Papal longetivity, keep drinking his stout mugs of Bavarian beer, and live to be 108+ years old! He’s doing such a great job that I’m nervous for anything to disrupt his great progress.

    I guess I must feel the same as those Judeans who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity, when all of their enemies were carefully spying on them and trying their best to disrupt their work and bring about their ultimate ruin!

    What drama we have with this great Papacy!

    But, in the end, it’s “Our Father who art in Heaven” who is our surety and safety. We can only keep praying to Him: Oh Lord, Thy Kingdom Come!

  7. PMcGrath says:

    Might I venture a further wrinkle here: This event took place on the Feast of the Lord’s Baptism, which of course commemorates the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry. So Pope Benedict chooses this day to begin publicly his campaign to restore ad orientum. Just a thought.

  8. Maureen says:

    From Shakespeare’s lost play, Rome-eo and Juliet:

    The Cross is the east, and Jesus Christ is our sun!

  9. Ethan says:

    Father – This is a wonderful post. Thank you for it. By I think it is marred by the needless comment on “aging hippies.” This sort of name-calling is really beneath this blog, I think. Reducing the opponents of motu proprio to mere caricatures not only underestimates them, it also goes against your repeated and good counsul to be gracious with those who have not been with us in our battle to restore sanctity to the mass. This is such a wonderful forum, Father, and I hope that it can continue and perhaps ATTRACT those who have not always been with us. Calling out “aging hippies” doesn’t help. In fact, it merely validates the belief among some that this blog has a nasty streak.

  10. Pretty nasty, that.

    When Jesus spoke of one of the aging hippies of His day, namely, Herod, well, our Lord used some rather choice language:

    RSV Luke 13:31-32 31 At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, `Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.

    The purpose of such language, generally speaking, all things being equal, and presuming good will (by the way), is to present to people the reality of the situation in a way that they can understand, and this in view of their conversion to that which is more, how to say, real. This is an act of charity, is it not?

  11. Herod says:

    Yet another over-the-top and needlessly aggressive response from Lorenzo di Lorenzo. To what end?

  12. Alan Amendsen says:

    Sigh. If I could add one more line to Fr. Z’s Prayer Before Connecting to the Internet, it is that rational people – especially priests – would only use their real names when commenting on Catholic blogs. The use of anonymity and pseudonyms serves only to encourage uncivil behavior unthinkable if real names and traceable identities were involved. I have no knowledge of this Fr. Lorenzo di Lorenzo, but I think it safe to say that he would not be posting such vociferous attacks on this blog’s commentators if he had to do so under his real name. Why he insists on cloaking himself is his business, but from my perspective, the only priestly comments worth my time are those made by priests who have the courage to place their true names behind them.

  13. Herod, back in the day, chose not to get the point.

    Alan, I am sensitive to your sharing. Really. If you would like to know just how much, please, place a bookmark over at and follow the story as it unfolds. Welcome! Start with the very first posts, especially the introduction and disclaimer, or is that what you are really on about here?

    The purpose of Fr Z’s original post is to encourage a proper celebration of the Sacred Litury. Such encouragement is useless if it is made in a vacuum. Encouragement, in the context of reality, takes the whole picture into consideration, and that picture includes aging hippies, with a just emphasis on the ecclesiastical category of that bunch.

    This is a great service that Fr Z provides, setting himself up as a lightning rod. I am reminded of John the Baptist. Oh, I forgot, someone (what was his name?) beheaded John. Laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the absolute in charity. Deo gratias! And, don’t forget, please, pray for us priests. We depend on your prayers.

  14. Fr Z,

    As it is, I like the way you write so much that I’d like to steal some of your phrases for use over at , for instance, “WDTPRS” “Say the Black, Do the Red” “Save the Liturgy, save the world” (with references, of course). In particular, there is one character, who won’t be introduced for many more chapters, whom I’d like to describe as one of those now famous “aging hippies”! Instruction in context is so important, and that is precisely the reason why I’m writing an ecclesiastical thriller, with all sorts of characters and situations.

    God bless you, Fr Z !

  15. BTW, Alan Amendsen,

    I only fear (as with the beginning of wisdom) that God would not know me at the final judgment. If someone else does not know me, like you, well, that is part of God’s provident or permissive will, and I am content with His will.

  16. Henricus says:

    Fr. Renzo: In particular, there is one character, who won’t be introduced for many more chapters, whom I’d like to describe as one of those now famous “aging hippies”!

    Surely only a single aging hippie character will hardly do justice to the prominence of the greying over-the-hill gang in progressive Church circles. May I suggest at least one hilarious vignette along the way of one of their wacky liturgical conferences — wall-to-wall blue rinse set, ex nuns, EMHC types and priest wannabes.

  17. Henri says:

    To tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth: I long suspected that Renzo was actually Father Z’s literary alter ego. Sort of ‘Father Z Gone Wild — the Fr Hyde to his Fr. Jeckyl, what happens when the liberals come here and it really gets to be too much. Anyway, sorry for my evil thoughts, Fr Z! I’ll definitely be bringing them to confession this week.

  18. Well, Edward Hyde never would have the chance to analogously come up with a wonderfully good and positive ending that will be seen in the Trilogy, would he?

    Understanding at the risk of being misunderstood is, instead, the single most reality-checked and reality-consonant optimism possible on this earth, for it is believing in the Resurrection in the midst of what hell thinks is its victory.

    If I’ve learned anything (beginning with less than a tabula rasa), I’d like to bring that kind of optimism to the world.

    Anyway, how can I say it? I’m not Fr Z! That’s a great compliment for me, but not necessarily the other way around! He must be mortified with the suggestion that I’m a way for him to anonymously say something that is incisive. He does very well. I’m learning from him, though I don’t claim to be a good student. Anyway, I’m sure Fr Z will wow the world with the thesis that he is writing, and lead us as only he can, with all of his other writings and musings, on the way to our heavenly homeland. And I’m looking forward to both the way and the getting there! Thanks, Fr Z.

  19. Henri: I long suspected that Renzo was actually Father Z’s literary alter ego.

    That’s just plain silly!


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