CNA reporting the Holy Father’s Mass “ad orientem”

CNA, Catholic News Agency, has reported about the Holy Father’s celebrating Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel, and gets it right.

However, notice that the picture they posted with the story is of a Mass in St. Peter’s, decades ago.  You can even see the tiara on the altar.  Oh well.  Nice picture.

Pope faces “ad orientem” in Sistine Chapel liturgy [None of this "turned his back on the people" rubbish.]

Vatican City, Jan 15, 2008 / 04:22 am (CNA).- Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass on Sunday in the Sistine Chapel, using the church’s original altar beneath Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgment instead of the removable altar used by Pope John Paul II.

The Vatican’s office for liturgical celebrations issued a statement saying the decision to use the old altar was used to respect "the beauty and the harmony of this architectural jewel."

Using the old altar meant that Pope Benedict occasionally celebrated the liturgy with his back to the people, a posture called “ad orientem” or “towards the east” in the traditional phrasing.  It was the first time Mass had been celebrated in the Chapel in such a way since the Second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965.

The choice echoes part of the Pope’s reintroduction of traditional liturgical practices, [This wasn’t a "break with tradition" as one article called it.] some of which were phased out by the Second Vatican Council.  The Pope has also encouraged the revival of Gregorian chant, a centuries-old style of liturgical music.

During the Mass at the Sistine Chapel, the Pope baptized 13 babies.  

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  1. Pope Evaristus, Martyr says:

    Dear Father Z,

    Perhaps you can answer a question for me that no one has been able to answer. I have asked many priests about this, especially older priests. They cannot answer.

    The question is this: “When was the first time Pope Paul VI said Mass facing the people?”

    My understanding was that this is simply something Paul VI did a few years after the Council, and it caught on (especially since there was a provision that said the altars should be detached from the wall, so that the priest can “circle” while he incenses).

    Therefore, I believe this is INACCURATE:

    “It was the first time Mass had been celebrated in the Chapel in such a way since the Second Vatican Council, which took place between 1962 and 1965.”

    I know that rebels were “facing the people” (i.e. saying Mass with their back to our Savior in the Tabernacle) long before the Second Vatican Council. A young priest named Roncalli (later John XXIII) condemns this in an extant letter.

    But when was it OFFICIALLY allowed for the first time?

  2. TNCath says:

    A refreshingly positive article from Catholic News Service! However, they are still using the term “back to the people.” Wouldn’t it be a hoot if the Holy Father, on his visit to the U.S., would celebrate Masses ad orientem at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York using the hardly ever used main altars “to respect ‘the beauty and the harmony of (these) architectural jewel(s)'”? What a message this would send!

  3. Fr Gregoire Fluet says:

    I think, again, think, that Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass ad orientem on the day after his election Pope in the Sistine Chapel. I seem to remember video clips of that Mass, and especially that he used a magnificent mitre. I could be wrong. I also believe that Pope Paul VI celebrated Mass “facing the people” for his coronation.

  4. Francis Regis says:

    I remember quite recently seeing a clip of Paul VI saying a Mass at the close of the Council in 1965. It was outside, in St. Peter’s square, and it was said facing the people but with the crucifix in the center of the altar and three candlesticks on either side (the same way the present pope has begun to say Mass). I don’t know if this was the first time a public papal liturgy was done this way, but it must have been fairly early. Of course it’s somewhat a gray area considering the placement of the altar in St. Peter’s itself.

  5. Fr. Paul says:

    Has it been forgotten so soon? Only a couple of years ago, the first Mass after his election as Pope but before the installation ceremony,he offered the Novus Ordo Missae in Latin, ad orientem. Somehow we have lost sight of something so important.What a monumental day that was!

  6. Pater, OSB says:

    The caption under the photo (on the CNA site) reads:
    ‘Pope Benedict celebrating the Mass “ad orientum”‘

    Since the tiara is present, when was this photo taken and who is celebrating the Mass?

  7. Henry Edwards says:

    Fr. Paul,

    My recollection is that Pope Benedict’s first public (and televised) Mass after his election was in the Sistine Chapel with the convened cardinals concelebrating, and that it was a Latin Novus Ordo Mass.

    However, this Mass was celebrated at a temporary altar, not at the permanent altar on the western wall of the Sistine Chapel. It was celebrated versus populum, unlike Sunday’s Mass, with the cardinals seated (as for conclave) to the front and on either side of the altar.

    Of course, because of the topographical placement of the Sistine Chapel, this Mass was celebrated with the pope facing geographic east, true enough, but not liturgical east in the sense of both congregation and celebrant together facing versus Deum.

    Or are you referring to an earlier first private Mass celebrated as Pope?

  8. Henry Edwards says:

    Since the tiara is present, when was this photo taken and who is celebrating the Mass?

    Looks like the oft-seen photo of Pope John XXIII celebrating versus populum and ad orientem in St. Peter’s Basilica.

  9. Different says:

    Haven’t the Popes always said Mass versus populem in St. Peter’s Basilica? So, Paul VI would have nearly always said Mass that way, right?

    Which is more desirable facing liturgical east or geographically east?

  10. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:


    Some comments I’ve made recently on “what’s better”, liturgical or geographical east:

    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.


    Some people get all excited about chemical reactions out in outerspace, like the sun, and “where it rises”. The geographical symbol, from earth’s point of view, is just a symbol. Once the symbol becomes more important than the reality is symbolizes, weird things begin to happen, like people turning toward each other, because, it is said, we are an Easter people.

    The best interpretation of ad orientem is for everyone to face, together, the Son who rises like the sun, He being the One who brings us to that resurrection. The geographical symbolism should be retained where possible, but sometimes this is impossible.

    I’ve said this before and been stomped on by those much more read up on this than I am, but I’ve never had any reasons given to me for why my take is incorrect other than that the Great (insert name) said so, or because there are a few historical incidents and a few architectural anomalies. I want reasons.

    Ad orientem is a great boost to the faith, but the reality behind the symbol must be emphasized at all times by the priest and faithful headed in the same (liturgical) direction together, facing the Son (for whom the sun is merely a symbol, a helpful symbol, but merely a symbol).

    We have enough tree huggers and sun worshippers in the world today. No need to encourage them with an ad orientem attitude so exaggerated that the reality behind the symbol is in danger of being forgotten.


    People attack what I’ve said from both sides. Yet, no one has here, yet. I’m waiting!

  11. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    BTW, you can’t be ad orientem and versus populum at the same time. It’s a spiritual law of non-contradition.

    The priest brings the people through, with and in Christ to the Father, not through, with and in the people. If one faces the the few people in atendance, its a distraction from all the people, from beginning to end, regardless of time and place, who are being lifted up to the Father.

    Ad orientem is an aid to recognize the universal nature of the Church.

    Lex orandi est lex credendi

  12. Henry Edwards says:

    BTW, you can’t be ad orientem and versus populum at the same time.

    Agreed (spiritually), Fr. Renzo. I meant only that, physically, the pope was both facing eastward (orientum) and facing the people (populum).

  13. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    Henry Edwards,

    Yep. I know. I’ve been drinking too much coffee. I always appreciate your entries, which show the wisdom of age (in the spiritual sense, at least)!

    God bless you and yours.

  14. Emilio says:

    FWIW, this appears normal on Firefox/OpenBSD and IE6/Windows2000, but on IE7/WindowsXP I only get a single line which appears to be Russian:

    ??????????, ?? ???? ???????, ????? ?? ????????? ?? ?????? ????????!

    Is anybody else seeing this, or do I have a haunted laptop? :-) (All other articles display properly.)

  15. Emilio says:

    True to Murphy’s Law, as soon as I posted the above the problem disappeared. Sorry about that!

  16. peretti says:

    Can anyone tell me if there is any significant difference between CNA and CNS? I think CNS is part of the USCCB (or USCAB for short). I was just wondering if CNA if affiliated with USCAB also.

  17. Different says:

    Fr. Renzo,

    I get why ad orientem is important.

    I just want to know if Mass in St. Peter’s has ever faced the Apse, or did it always face the nave? If it did ever change, when? Should the Pope begin saying Mass in St. Peter’s facing geo west/lit east???

    Which ought to be faced, liturgical east or geographical east (provided of course the church is on an east/west axis)? For instance, in grand churches that are oriented the same as St. Peter’s should Mass be facing the geographical east (nave) as it is in St. Peter’s or should it be said facing the geo west/liturgical east (apse)?


  18. Habemus Papam says:

    Pope Evaristus, Martyr: Questions like this interest me too. I’ve read that Paul VI first said Mass versus populem in the Sistine Chapel, as a model for the Church. But no date. He said Low Mass at Fatima 1967 “facing the people”. Also of course he introduced concelebration. So the actual dates of changes are vague, somewhere between 1964 and 1968.

  19. Fabrizio says:

    That picture was always known as one from the opening Mass of the Second Vatican Council, October 11th, 1962. Note the Papal tiaras in display on the Altar.(btw, aren’t those two deacons bowing at the foot of the altar Byzantine deacons?).

  20. Prof. Basto says:

    This is an often seen picture of a Solemn Papal Mass celebrated by Pope John XXIII. I once read that it depicts Pope John XXIII celebrating Mass in the Altar of the Confession of the Vatican Basilica (therefore ad orientem but also versus populum, and not versus apsidem), on the occasion of the opening of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council.

  21. CBM says:

    I have seen this photo and others like it before but have always wondered why there are two tiara and at least one miter on the altar. what is the reason for this. please explain

  22. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    That the versus populum rubbish comes before 26 July 1968 is interesting.

    Take away ad orientem and even the symbolism of the marriage banquet falls apart (between Christ and His Bride, the Church). People adulterate themselves, turning to themselves with inversion and one takes the first opportunity to bash earthly marriage.

    What did it take, one day after Humanae vitae came out, and the exodus started, and with that, the thirst for ever more and more novelty to get people back to gape at each other?


    Different: I’m waiting for someone to correct what I’ve said. I’m having a hard time believing that no one is saying anything. Every time I’ve said something like that in the past in conversation, I’ve always been corrected, though, as I say, with no cogent reasons. Nobody?

  23. Prof. Basto says:

    Fr. di Lorenzo,

    I believe there is a miscomunication here somewhere.

    There was no “versus populum rubbish” in the so called “Tridentine Era”. It just happens that, in St. Peter’s basilica, and in a few other basilicas in Rome, the “physical”, “geographical” orientation ad orientem was mantained, and, given that the apse of St. Peter’s faces the nave, the Pope, when celebrating Mass at the Altar of the Confession, would be turned towards the nave. The people in the nave, in turn, would be turned towards the Altar. So, Pope and people were “accidentally” turned towards each other, and, in that sense, celebration was versus populum, but it was also ad orientem, given that, when facing the entrance of the Basilica, the celebrant was facing East.

    Most importantly, there were huge candles and a huge crucifix on the Altar (a practice now restored by Pope Benedict XVI), and so the Pope would not directly gaze the congregation. His attention would be turned to the Cross in front of him. So, the celebration was really “versus Deum”, towards God, even though it was not “versus apsidem”, that is, towards the apse of the church building.

    Later, a practice developed worldwide whereby celebration would be “versus apsidem” irrespective of wheter the church building was built with its apse facing East or West.

    Thus, the idea of a symbolic “liturgical East”, not necessarily matching the geographical East, developed, and celebrations were said to be “ad orientem” in spite of the fact that the priest would, in several churches, be facing an Altar attached to a wall that was the western, the northern or the southern wall. This practice became widespread and lasted many centuries, until the novelties introduced by Pope Paul VI. Thus, in the vast majority of Churches, the priest and the people would face the same direction, the “liturgical East”, irrespective of wether that direction was the geographical east or not. That direction was that of the apse, where the Altar was located, with its Cross.

    However, in St. Peter’s basilica, and in a few other places, the practice of the first centuries remained. The pope would face the geographical East, and the people seated between the entrance of the basilica and the Altar of the Confession would face the Pope. Otherwise, they would have to give their backs to the Altar, and to the Cross placed on it, and that is what is absurd. But, in those Masses in St. Peter’s, that were at the same time ad orientem and versus populum, the Pope’s gaze was not on the people, but on the big Cross in front of him.

  24. jack burton says:

    The versus populum fad was a part of the pastoral liturgy movement after WWII. Parsch, Guardini and many others promoted versus populum on the false assumption that they were reviving the ancient custom. According the Reid and others the fad most probably began in association with the youth movements of the early 20th century (for Catholics). Of course versus populum as we know it really began with the Protestant reformers.

  25. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    Prof. Basto,

    I agree with you entirely. The fact of the “Confession” demands these logistics. Analogous logistics are frequently found in the churches of Rome for varying reasons.

    The point that you call absurd is precisely the point that I’ve heard vehemently defended. I agree with your take on this.

    The rubbish I was thinking of was the timing of the change over in the mid-sixties, according to the comment of Habemus Papam — 15 January 2008 @ 11:53 am.

    Thanks, Professor!

  26. Louis E. says:

    Does the preference for facing East derive from desire to face the sunrise or to face Jerusalem?
    What is the orientation of ancient churches from which Jerusalem is not Eastward?

  27. Carolina Geo says:

    I think that, assuming there is a tabernacle located “front and center,” when a priest celebrates Mass versus populum it should be referred to as celebrating “with his back to the Blessed Sacrament.”

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