IHT on the Pope with his “back to the people”

UPDATE: At the blog Finding Pasture there is a very funny reaction to the howler in the statement in the AP article (which I treat below) about the Pope’s celebration ad orientem as being a "break with tradition"

The breathless "it’s a break with tradition!" thing is just too funny. It’s got some of us laughing our apses off.


Let me say from the onset to say that a priest has his "back to the people" when he celebrates ad orientem, is a cliche gleened from usually innocent ignorance, in the case of most people, and thick laziness on the part of journalists. 

They should do some homework.

That said, our good friend Zadock alerts us to a piece in the International Herald Tribune about Pope Benedict celebrating Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel today.

This is an AP piece with my emphases and comments:

VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI baptized 13 babies in the Sistine Chapel during a Sunday Mass celebrated at the altar at the foot of Michelangelo’s "Last Judgment" wall fresco. [In other words the main altar, but you get the idea of where it is.]

In a departure from tradition, [ROFL!  This is rich.  Celebration on table style altars (usually more like picnic tables or ironing boards than altars) is the "tradition" in the mind of this writer.] Benedict did not celebrate the Mass at a small altar [Ooops… he used a big altar.] set up to face the congregation. Instead, he celebrated it with his back to the congregation, which included the children’s parents, godparents, grandparents and siblings. [Here is what I object to in this bit: It seems like the writer is suggesting that Pope Benedict didn’t care that anyone was present.   Also, very often people think that some Mass which concerns a sacrament conferred on children, such as baptism or confirmation, etc., is really all about the worship of the little darlings present and not so much about the worship of Almighty God.]

Decades ago, priests routinely celebrated Mass at altars with their backs to parishioners, [Absolutely no depth or discernment at all in this piece.] but after the modernizing [A key word.  Watch what happens next.] changes of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, it became common practice for the celebrant to face the congregation.

The 80-year-old [OLD] pontiff said it was a special joy for him to baptize the babies, the children of Vatican employees. He asked to families to raise the children with "faith, hope and charity."

As he was leaving the chapel at the end of the ceremony, the pope suddenly looked at his hand, glanced toward the floor and turned to an aide, apparently to say that his papal ring had slipped off. An aide found the ring near the altar and handed it back to the pontiff.  [Does it strike you that the writer wants to leave the impression that the OLD Pope, who doesn’t care about the people present and doesn’t do modern things is also getting a little dotty?]



About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Berolinensis says:

    Yes, Father, this is bad. Can you believe that in the German version of the AP piece it gets even worse? How do you like this: “Das Zweite Vatikanische Konzil hatte verlangt, dass die Messe in der jeweiligen Landessprache gelesen wird und der Priester mit dem Gesicht zum Kirchenvolk steht.” (http://www.pr-inside.com/de/papst-laesst-neuen-deutschlandbesuch-offen-r383884.htm) Where to begin?

    But that is why our gloriously reigning Holy Father is, as you like to say, proceeding “brick by brick”. Someone should tell these guys again “wake up and smell the incense”.

  2. jack burton says:

    Nasty. The point of the article? Clearly to suggest that Pope Benedict is a nostalgic old fogey with zero pastoral skills – the arch enemy of everything “Vatican II” no doubt. I love the ironic bit about the Holy Father departing from tradition. LOL! I guess that means that for them Catholicism began some time in the 1960’s so versus populum would be considered an apostolic tradition. hehe
    I suppose folks such as Diekmann, Hurley and McManus are their holy apostles. They’re probably just early fathers; the apostles must be Lercaro, Bugnini, Vagaggini, Hucke, Schmidt et al. I would suggest Jungmann or Bouyer but they had the sense to resist the versus populum fad to some extent.

  3. Hettie B. says:

    What nerve that article-writer has to be so disrespectful to our Holy Father, and to all of our older folk! It’s a disgrace.

    I am baffled by the attitude that some people have about priests celebrating ad orientem. Particularly why they describe it as the priest turning his back on the people, as if rejecting them. To me, it represents the priest leading the people forth and actually being in greater solidarity with them. I love the idea!

    I hope that the Pope’s very public celebration ad orientem will encourage other priests to do the same. I think I will ask my priest about it. Our parish is already pretty traditional (altar rails, kneeling to receive Communion, Gregorian chant, some prayers in Latin and Greek, incense). We celebrate the Ordinary Form, and it’s absolutely beautiful and holy! Having the priest ad orientem could make it even better.

    Just two cents from a long-time reader and first-time commentor. I enjoy, admire, and appreciate your work, Fr. Z! God be with you.

  4. Syriacus says:

    This evening, in prime time, on the Italian State TV, a very famous Italian female comic, shamefully attacked the Catholic Church (mainly in the person of the Vicar of Rome, Card. Ruini, her strawman..) shouting an appalling: “Instead of saying mass with ‘backs to the people’, you should invite people to use condoms…” And so on. Nothing to add.
    As we say from generations: “Povera Italia!”

    (However, Father, stay tuned ‘on the Italian frequencies’, so to say, for that His Holiness will pay to the public university La Sapienza of Rome, on Jan 17th… Just hope the situation won’t degenerate -too much.)

  5. Syriacus says:

    [Corrige: (However, Father, stay tuned ‘on the Italian frequencies’, so to say, for the visit that His Holiness will pay to the public university La Sapienza of Rome, on Jan 17th… Just hope the situation won’t degenerate -too much.)]

  6. Aelric says:

    What can one say to this save for Mt.5:11-12?

    I am a bit concerned about the rationale for use of ad orientem being connected to the “harmony of the space.” Unfortunately, this same argument will be made to justify versus populum in more recently built churches: “Well, the space was designed for versus populum so ad orientem isn’t really appropriate – the Vatican said so.”

    Of course, said structures should probably be gutted and reconfigured, but I fear that this sort of “structural compatibility” argument can cut both ways.

    I would much prefer to see, ultimately, a binding decision from Rome that ad orientem within the Novus Ordo is to be mandated in the Latin Rite and that (within some time frame) altars and churches are to be made compatible with said orientation. I’m not holding my breath.


  7. Diane K says:

    “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

    I believe there is such a thing as liturgical justice. That is, enabling Catholics (priests and laypeople) to have liturgical postures and forms which were never abrogated, but inappropriately or ignorantly suppressed.

    Pope Benedict XVI is leading by example through his many gestures, such as the ad orientem posture seen today. No longer will anyone be able to say it cannot be done in the context of a Novus Ordo.

    This article is a form of persecution, and once again the Holy Father leads by example. Don’t refrain from doing something because you are afraid of what others might say. In this case, there is a deep spirituality associated with this posture. By providing witness to it, people should seek to understand it better, not condemn it.

  8. Matt Q says:

    Father Z, I very much want to say something about the writer of the article but it would get you mad again–LOL–so I’m not going to. Suffice to say my opinion wouldn’t be positive.

  9. Diane K says:

    Aelric says: I’m a bit concerned about the rationale for use of ad orientem being connected to the “harmony of the space.”

    On the other hand, it gives those of us in older parishes, where we have very beautiful wall altars as part of the original, historical architecture, one more reason to use those altars.

  10. Aelric says:

    Diane says: “On the other hand, it gives those of us in older parishes, where we have very beautiful wall altars as part of the original, historical architecture, one more reason to use those altars.”

    I’m happy for you Diane. For those very many Catholics who are not so lucky, I believe my concern is valid. Isn’t one of the criticisms of the versus populum orientation that it lends itself to a “me, me” attitude?


  11. Deborah says:

    I have no doubt this will only be the beginning of the persecution of the Holy Father and ad orientem.

    We should be prepared to have an answer of defense for our co-workers, fellow students, families, friends, the media, and even fellow Catholics,- at least for this next week since it will most likely make secular news as well. However, I fear most of the battle will be from within.

    A priest, the vice rector, who teaches at our diocesan seminary recently distributed handouts to the seminarians and lay students which belittled and attempted to write off ad orientem as a tradition of the sacred liturgy. He will not be happy with the Holy Father’s witness today but..oh, well. The seminarians I’m sure will be talking about today’s event and the contrast between what they are actually being taught.

    Thanks to the Holy Father the weeds among the wheat will reveal themselves ever more clearly.

  12. Tom L says:

    Instead of the phrase “with his back to the congregation,” they should say “facing God to lead the congregation to enter into the sacrifice of the mass.” How’s that?

    Tom L

  13. Deborah says:

    “Isn’t one of the criticisms of the versus populum orientation that it lends itself to a “me, me” attitude?”

    Aelric, Diane was not disagreeing with you rather she was simply pointing out that there are many older churches, like her parish, with a fixed altar and unfortunately pastors will often try to say that it is not permitted to use those altars any longer. Perhaps maybe even state their wish to destroy them.

    I think it would also be good for the Holy Father to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientem at a modern altar at some point….obviously he can only do one thing at a time.

  14. adamsaj says:


    I suspect “harmony of space” translates into “dont put up a second altar.” if that is the case there is no problem with Ad Orientem on the one and only freestanding altars in contemporary churches. although you are probibly justified in your fears that this argument will be twisted into excluding Ad Orientem.

  15. Andrew says:

    The Pope is tilling the fields and as the soil is turned over all kinds of things show up hitherto hidden beneath the surface (… revelantur ex multis cordibus cogitationes).

  16. Matt Q: On your own blog say what you want. On this blog, exercise prudence.

  17. Patrick Jude says:

    Its amusing to note that people links the Pope realising his Ring is missing in a case of him being dotty, but what lot of people failed to realised was that, as he was walking down the steps from the Altar, he nearly slipped and the MC and his assistant has to assist the Pope and most likely the assistant MC was grabbing the Pope’s hand and most likely caused the Ring to slip from the fingers and fell on the floor….not a case of being dotty or “old” but accidents do happen

  18. Fr. W says:

    Knowing the Holy Father’s actions today, my heart swelled with delight when the Intercessions were read at Mass this morning. I’m not sure what the Pastor had in mind, but it read: ‘that the Pastors of God’s Church would follow the Holy Spirit, in times when the Church is changing Direction!!!’

    I’m not sure what HE had in mind, but I know what I had in mind!

  19. Lauren says:

    The last part is irritating. Patrick, I don’t remember if Papa almost slipped. I do remember one of the assistants pulling on his vestments (a bit roughly) as he was going down the stairs. Then Papa motioned to his MC, I assume about the ring.

    It’s not as if the ring hasn’t slipped off before at GAs. It’s not tight on his finger. It has nothing to do with his age.

    I watched it on EWTN and the commentator said THE SAME THING as this article does. That Pope Benedict XVI would today be breaking from tradition, celebrating facing the cross with his back to the people.

  20. Joshua says:

    I suspect a lot weighs on how versus Dominum is presented. I have an evangelical uncle to whom I merely stated it this way, “when the priest prays to God, he and the people face together towards the Lord, facing Him”…His response was that it sounded “cool”. When you present it as what it is anyone can see the rationale who isn’t prejudiced

  21. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Father Zuhlsdorf:

    I hope you’ll forgive me for hijacking the thread, but perhaps we could come up with a top 20 responses to “back to the congregation”?

    1. When a driver drives, should he face the direction of travel or the passengers behind him? Which should the passengers want him to do?

    2. Don’t you guys LIKE “breaks from tradition”?

    3. ideas?

  22. Peter says:

    Just my two cents worth,

    For Lauren: The commentator in EWTN is from Vatican Radio by the way…
    Patrick Jude said:
    “..but what lot of people failed to realised was that, as he was walking down the steps from the Altar, he nearly slipped and the MC and his assistant has to assist the Pope and most likely the assistant MC was grabbing the Pope’s hand and most likely caused the Ring to slip from the fingers and fell on the floor..”
    and Lauren said:
    “I do remember one of the assistants pulling on his vestments (a bit roughly) as he was going down the stairs.”

    -just my thoughts…
    To avoid those “slips”, perhaps the
    gothic vestments are too long for the Pope and should
    suggest to the MC to get him those nice Roman vestments back :)

  23. Londiniensis says:

    It is all well and good criticising the media reports, but it is clear from the comments above that the Vatican commentator said the same things. A modest proposal:

    When the Holy Father is to officiate at a major liturgical “event” and, either in his choice of “ad orientem”, or choice of vestments, or whatever, wishes to proceed “brick by brick”, then the Holy See Press Office might issue a press release, explaining these “breaks with tradition”. Busy agency reporters have read neither the Pope’s own writings nor the blogosphere on this subject, and really cannot be blamed – but if they had a crib sheet, most of it would probably end up verbatim in the news report. And there is no need to be modest about this – tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you’ve told them.

    And first of all, haul the Vatican TV commentator into the boss’s office to be reminded not too gently that (a) there is minimum knowledge requirement for the job and (b) just who is paying his salary.

    Unless, of course, there a some Vatican departments pulling a different way from the Holy Father …

  24. Joe says:

    Something that I’ve often said, the Holy Father is rescuing our Liturgy Piece by Piece. I believe it’s all apart of a plan: 1st. Change the the MC. 2. Change the Vestements. 3. Bring back the 7th Candle. 4. Papal Throne Moved. 5. Mass Ad Orientum. 6. Altar Rails for Communion. :)

  25. Tom S says:

    Ok this is going to drive me nuts. I wish I came up with this question, but my hats off to Zadok the roman for uncovering this one. http://zadokromanus.blogspot.com/2008/01/question.html
    Paragraph 41 in SPE SALVI “In the arrangement of Christian sacred buildings, which were intended to make visible the historic and cosmic breadth of faith in Christ, it became customary to depict the Lord returning as a king—the symbol of hope—at the east end; while the *******west wall******* normally portrayed the Last Judgement as a symbol of our responsibility for our lives—a scene which followed and accompanied the faithful as they went out to resume their daily routine. As the iconography of the Last Judgement developed, however, more and more prominence was given to its ominous and frightening aspects, which obviously held more fascination for artists than the splendour of hope, often all too well concealed beneath the horrors.”

    I google-earth the Sistine chapel and it appears to run 80/260 degrees. I’m assuming that the Last Judgement is on the west wall – correct? So would ad altare posture be more correct then
    ad orientem

  26. Fr Renzo di Lorenzo says:

    Tom S,

    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.

  27. Patrick Jude says:

    Hmmm….an interesting point about the ring slipping off during GA….makes you wonder..with all the resources the Vatican has..couldn’t they make a ring that fits properly on the Holy Father’s Finger…

  28. EDG says:


    Yes, that was the west wall he was facing. One discussion I saw on this put it nicely, though: the Pope was facing “ad Deum.”

  29. Wayne says:

    Dear Fr Z who are the Priests assiting the Pope on the picture from EWTN, the Priest on the Popes right looks like Fr Patrick Burke…???

  30. RosieC says:

    Hey Chris,

    The one I pull out for my family whenever they complain about ad orientem at my parish is this one: “Would you rather he have his back to GOD?!?”

    It doesn’t change the attitude, but it does quiet them down because in their hearts they do want Father to face Our Lord.

    My other one is this: “From the back, they all look like Jesus. (when you can see their faces, they are themselves)”

  31. roydosan says:

    Now you won’t hear this very often… In Today’s (Monday) Guardian Newspaper (UK) there is a splendid double page colour photograph of Pope Benedict celebrating Mass ad orientem in the Sistine Chapel.

  32. RBrown says:


    I don’t think journalists can be blamed for saying that VatII said that mass must be in the vernacular and facing the people–90% of the laity and priests think the same thing.

    That idea has been pushed by most of the hierarchy for 35 years.

  33. Well, the Pope has now publicly celebrated the (novus ordo) in traditional style, (how can this possibly be called a break with tradition ?) so that everyone can see how it should be done.

    I feel much more easily drawn into the sacred action when I see the priest standing before the altar, waiting on God, as it were. There is a real sense of awe, of mystery,
    but there is also a great sense of intimacy, of involvement, even in a big church, of being drawn into the sacred action, so that the priest really is leading the people in prayer.

    Mass celebrated ad orientem, versus Deum, facing liturgical east, turning towards the Lord, are all excellent descriptions, but a comment on another blog (here in England,) seemed to me to sum all this up rather neatly : Mass as it should be celebrated.

    The whole experience feels spritually richer. It is easier to follow the priest. It is (I hope) easier for the priest to be absorbed in the sacred actions.

    In comparison, Mass facing the people seems spritually impoverished, an artificial construct, staged, almost an “event”, which repels rather than attracts, in which the priest is seen almost performing at the people. It seems to offer no opportunity for interior participation.

    One does not feel drawn into it, one feels more like a spectator.

    Is this what the liturgical modernisers really wanted ?

    If the International Herald Trand other commentators want to put a negative or pejorative slant on this, then so be it. But they are wrong.

    We’ve just been shown by the Pope the right way to do things.

    Let’s hope and pray others will quickly follow his example.

  34. Patrick says:

    In the Extraordinary Form, in Ritus Servandus in celebratione Missae V:3 it says:
    Si altare sit ad orientem, versus populum, celebrans versa facie ad populum….

    If the altar be such that the celebrant has his face to the people in order to face East…

    Like on the Papal Altar in St Peters and other places, it is the long-standing tradition (liturgical law) that the Priest would face the people if the altar is in the west end of the church. This said, if in a church such as the one where I am now, where the high altar has been removed, there is a free-standing altar in the west end: if celebrating according to the Extraordinary Form, would one then face the people? It seems to be the law. There is talk of “liturgical east”, but does that apply when it is directly west?

  35. Jim says:

    Dumb question: . . . What does “ROFL” mean???

  36. joandrexel says:

    i love our Pope!!!

  37. jack burton says:

    ROFL = Rolling On Floor Laughing

    At least that’s what I was told. :-)

  38. James says:

    I was appalled as well by the ignorance of the commentator from Vatican Radio! Don’t they at least CATECHIZE people before they allow them to comment ad libitum on something so important as the sacred liturgy? During the Novendiales (sp.?) Masses following the death of the previous pope, she was the commentator for the Liturgy celebrated in the Maronite Rite (part of the Syriac liturgical tradition) by the Patriarch of Antioch of the Maronites, Nasrallah-Peter Card. Sfeir. She also made VERY IGNORANT statements about the Divine Liturgy being celebrated then. I was shocked then, but am even more so now since one could excuse her ignorance of the Syriac liturgical tradition, but not of the Latin liturgical tradition!

  39. William Tighe says:

    Here’s an Anglican appreciation:


  40. Dim Bulb says:

    Let me say from the onset to say that a priest has his “back to the people” when he celebrates ad orientem, is a cliche gleened from usually innocent ignorance, in the case of most people, and thick laziness on the part of journalists.

    Or from the polemics of aging hippie liturgists.

  41. Nick says:

    Lauren’s post on 13 January 2008 @ 7:54 pm is correct. The EWTN female commentator of that Mass explicitly said it was a “break with tradition” when the Pope had his back to the people. I couldnt believe my ears.

    It appears there was so much innovation over the last 40 years that Benedict XVI was “breaking with tradition” left and right that day.

  42. Deborah says:

    As a good priest once said to me, “don’t assume because someone lives in Rome, attends the seminary, or works at the Vatican, that they are orthodox”.

    How true those words have proven to be over the years. So, the words from the commentator are surprising but not really.

  43. Tom S says:

    Thank you Fr Renzo di Lorenzo for your comment. I wasn\’t attempting to be legalistic about it. My point was that given the number of Church as solar observatories I would have thought that the Sistine being so ancient may have had the alter oriented east. I agree with your stated concerns.

  44. TwoCentsWorth says:

    All this static about the Holy Father celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass with “his back to the people” can be attributed to the ignorance of nit-picking, anti-Catholic, pseudo-liberals. Pope Benedict, in one of his books on the liturgy, stated that when the celebrant faced the altar, he, with the people, were oriented toward the East, in the direction of the rising Son. That was the original intent of the early Christians who celebrated the Roman Rite, and that is why Holy Father Benedict (may he reign a thousand years), has his “back to the people.” Pope Benedict is striving to recapture the mystical, the holy, the sacred, in the celebration of the Mass as it once was before the modern “liturgists” composed the Novus Ordo.

  45. Fr Ronan Kilgannon says:

    I have no problem with the Pope being described as offering Mass ‘facing the East’ or ‘the Crucifix’ or ‘the Tabernacle’. However it seems theologically odd to say he is ‘facing God’ if the implication is that God is not beside and behind him. In the old Catechism the answer to the question: ‘Where is God?’ is ‘everywhere’. The Pope has declared that the one Roman Rite has an ‘Ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ form. The former may be offered at a free standing altar facing the congregation. Please God we will accept both forms, and our brothers and sisters who prefer the one or the other, with equanimity and understanding. Fr Ronan Kilgannon, Kangaroo Valley, NSW Australia.

  46. TwoCentsWorth says:

    P.S. Here is why the Holy Father faced the altar rather than the people: In his beautiful work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger explains how the Christian community developed the practice of facing the east, toward Jerusalem, toward the site of the Resurrection, as a “fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history, of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.” Amen and Amen!

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