Fr. Imbelli at Boston College: ad orientem with students

UPDATE: Fr. Imbelli responds! (See the comments.)

Our friend Amy alerted me to an article in Commonweal which could be of interest to WDTPRSers.

My emphases and comments.

A Posture for Prayer

Posted by [Fr.] Robert P. Imbelli [prof at Boston College] on April 19, 2008, 12:53 pm

Those, who watched on television the Mass at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, saw, from time to time, the large cross placed on the altar, between the Pope and the assembly. It is Benedict’s effort to introduce a spiritual “ad orientem” posture to the eucharistic liturgy. [He gets it.  Thank you, Father.]

Yesterday, at the request of a group of Boston College students, I celebrated Mass with them in the lower church of the parish where I reside. For the first time since I was ordained, I prayed the eucharistic prayer of the ordinary form of the Roman rite facing in the same direction as the congregation, with a standing cross in front of the altar.  [Excellent!  At the same time, it really isn’t so much of a novelty as it sounds.  It might have been for these young people.  It might have been for this priest.  I don’t know how old he is.  I have a sense that he is not young.  But for the praying Church it is really the norm, when put in the balance of the centuries!]

When I asked the students afterwards what they had experienced by this new (both for them and for me) posture, they concurred with one student’s description. They were helped to experience being offered together with Christ to the Father.  [Marvelous.  And the gravitational pullllll continues.  There are young priests who learn about the older ways, the older Mass or ad orientem worship, and older priests who "rediscover" it.  Through them great things begin to happen.  They learn things about themselves as preists and people gain boundless things through them.]

Twice this past year I have attended the extraordinary form of the Roman rite; and, although I was moved by it, I felt the lack of an audible praying of the eucharistic prayer to be a limitation.  [I understand that.  It takes a long time to adjust to the relative quiet.]

I will need to ponder last evening’s experience further, and would welcome thoughts of others who have experienced a similar liturgical celebration.

WDTPRS gives highest marks to Fr. Imbelli.   I am grateful for his good report of this interesting experience and also his honest impressions.

I look forward to hearing more from him and invite him to chime in.

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  1. vox borealis says:

    Fr. Imbelli’s words seem fair, balanced, and open-minded. Maybe he will never “take” to the EF, but he *does* seem generally attracted to certain of its liturgical aesthetics. If in the end one more priest recognizes the value of ad orientem posture, if one more priest responds open-mindedly to the requests of the faithful, this is only a good thing.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    I hope more and more priests entertain this possibility, and that the laity will be open to experiencing it. I think this really simple action would add so much to the sometimes “crazy” Masses that are out there. Oremus…

  3. Bryan Jackson says:

    Honestly, the first time I went to the 1962 Liturgy I honestly could not stand it. It seemed incredibly boring, there was no music (admittedly it was a low Mass), and it was silent the entire time. For me, and for many I know it takes months of keeping at it to really become in love with the 1962. I kept going because I believed intellectually it was better, but would have much rather gone back to the NO emotionally.

    Once I adapted to the silence and to the internal prayer and true active participation it has done nothing but reap benefits for my spiritual life. This was all at the age of 14 for me, having only gone to the NO for 5 years of my life. I can only imagine the difficulty for priests who have been saying the NO for 30+ years now.

  4. RosieC says:

    The first time I saw a priest other than my pastor say Mass ad orientem, I kept coming back to the fact that from the back all priests look the same. From there I took the step of thinking that since they all look the same it underscores that at that moment, they are all Jesus. It really improved my understanding of what happens at Mass.

  5. Geoffrey says:

    I’ve been to very few Extraordinary-Form Masses, but the most beautiful AND disconcerting thing to me is the silent Canon. I hate not being able to hear the beautiful words, but the silence forces you to really focus and really pay attention. I am thankful for both the Extraordinary Form and the Ordinary Form (when done properly). Whatever one needs in their life of faith at the moment, one can have.

  6. In the parish I am pastor of I have turned the weekday OF Masses ad orientem with a cross upon the altar. The weekly EF Mass is, of course, ad orientem. I have not yet done so on a Sunday OF Mass. What I found most interesting was the reaction of the children at the school Masses–I celebrate ad orientem in the Church for school Masses, and have also turned the classroom Masses in the classrooms of the school ad orientem. The children are better behaved, yes really. One of the teachers commented putting the altar against the wall in the classroom gave more room for the children’s bidding prayers. Oh well, at least we are going the right way!

  7. Tom says:

    “…I felt the lack of an audible praying of the eucharistic prayer to be a limitation.”

    Actually…the audible Eucharistic Prayer in the Novus Ordo is a severe limitation in that the novel Eucharistic Prayers (EP I aside) are terribly watered down in their abilities to transmit the Catholic Faith to the people.

    The Holy Father could improve the Novus Ordo dramatically by simply suppressing the Eucharistic Prayers in favor of the Roman Canon…or at least EP I.

    Eucharistic Prayer I is not the traditional Roman Canon, but, compared to the additional novel Eucharistic Prayers, is far superior in its ability to transmit the Catholic Faith.

    As long as the Novus Ordo practice is to pray the Eucharist Prayer in a loud voice, then Eucharist Prayer I (even better, the traditional Roman Canon) should be the only such prayer featured at Mass.

    Again…the Novus Ordo changes dramatically and for the better when EP I is prayed during Mass.

    The Holy Father would not need to “prepare” the Faithful in slooooooow “brick-by-brick” fashion should he move to suppress each Eucharistic Prayer other than EP I.

    We are not talking about a change that would send the Faithful into shock.

    But we are talking about a change that would have a wonderful impact upon the Mass…as the Faithful at each Mass would encounter a Eucharistic Prayer that conveys the Catholic Faith in far superior fashion than the additional Eucharistic Prayers.

    As long as the EP is to be prayed in loud fashion, then at least offer a prayer (the Roman Canon or at least Eucharistic Prayer I) that conveys the Faith in superior fashion.


  8. Bro. AJK says:

    Dear Tom,

    I would encourage you to read EP IV, with its preface. It is an excellent prayer as it reminds us of salvation’s history.

    For what it’s worth, here is a brief history of the other EPs

  9. Former Altar Boy says:

    I think today’s culture has something to do with people having trouble adapting to the tradtional Mass. People just can’t stand being alone or being silent: constant cell phones, contant radio & TV, constant ipod, etc., etc. When forced to be quiet and be ALONE with their God, is more than some people can handle.

  10. joe says:

    I don’t know why, but — and this is unheard-of-rare — my eyes misted over while reading this.



  11. Gashwin says:

    I’ve been to an ad-orientem Novus Ordo Mass once. (It was a small private Mass in Rome earlier this year). Theoretically, I got all the reasons why this was important.

    Having experienced it, even if in a small setting, the impact was stupendous. I remember saying to my companions, “Wow! I get it now! We’re all praying to God!”

    As to the EP being said silently … last year I had the privilege of worshiping regularly at a Melkite parish. The anaphora is always recited quietly by the priests (except for a few major bits, including the consecration) … and the congregation has its own chanted part during this time. If I’m recalling things correctly. There’s so much to learn from the East too …

  12. Joseph Fromm says:

    Dear Fr. Z.

    The movement of the Holy Spirit is always at work.

    Joseph Fromm

  13. Tom says:

    Bro. AJK wrote: “Tom, I would encourage you to read EP IV, with its preface. It is an excellent prayer as it reminds us of salvation’s history. For what it’s worth, here is a brief history of the other EPs.”

    Thank you. I have read Monsignor Bugnini’s account of the history of the additional EPs.

    I support the argument that the novel addition of multiple Eucharistic Prayers has deformed the Roman Liturgy.

    I clicked on the link that you provided. The Web site that you had linked stated the following regarding EP II: ” It is included in his description of the traditional liturgy of Rome in 215.”

    A number of liturgical scholars have disputed the claim that EP II, ascribed to St. Hippolytus of Rome, represented a prayer used in the Church of Rome’s traditional liturgy.


  14. Fr. Imbelli responded to me by e-mail:

    Thanks to all for their comments. Father Z’s intuition that I am not “young” is quite sound. I was ordained in Rome in 1965, celebrating my first Mass at the catacombs of Priscilla and my second Mass at Santa Sabina. [My first was in the Clementine Chapel in the Crypt of San Pietro, second, at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, third, Ss. Trinita dei Pelegrini]

     My present hesitancy about the Extraordinary Form is not the silence per se. I appreciate the importance of silence, and, in the parish where I reside, silence is kept after the readings, the homily, and communion.

    What I find problematic is that the Eucharistic Prayer not be heard by the assembly of God’s people. Should not the “we” hear the prayer which the priest is praying in their name? “Supplices te rogamus ac petimus.”  [I know this is hard for some people.  One way to look at this is is how in all Rites something of the human senses is denied.  For Easterners, it is sight… they cannot see, but they hear all being sung behind the iconostasis.  For Westerners, it is hearing.  We see, but somethings we cannot hear.  I believe that this helps us to a necessary goal of liturgical prayer: encounter with mystery… “awe at transcendence”.]

     Indeed, in the nearby parish where the EF is celebrated, the Sanctus is sung by the choir and congregation, while the priest is praying the Eucharistic Prayer. [Fairly standard.] Then, after the elevation, the Benedictus is sung, while the priest continues the Eucharistic Prayer. [That was especially the case with orchestral Masses.] There is, for me, something less than satisfactory about this. I believe that “participatio actuosa” is better served by the entire Eucharistic Prayer being audible.  [I think there are moments in the Mass when it is okay for actuosa participatio to be more challenging.]

    So I ask those better versed in history than I: when did the relatively silent recitation of the Canon begin. Would Ambrose or Augustine or Gregory the Great have prayed it so that their congregation would not have heard it? Can we know the answer? [I believe Jungmann can help us, but I am tired.  I know a zealous WDTPRSer will jump in.]

    Thanks, Fr. Imbelli, for chiming in.  I don’t know where you might stand on somethings, but I know that your engaging this head on and getting involved makes you a stand up guy, by WDTPRS terms.

    Fraternal kudos!


  15. Dennis Martin says:

    I emphasize with my students (to whom I introduce the EF when I teach the general survey in Catholicism) that one need not hear the words of the canon or other prayers in order to know what is being said because, in the EF, unlike, sadly, most OF Masses, one can be utterly sure that the priest is indeed “Saying the Black,” verbatim. Thus one can follow along. I long ago memorized the Roman Canon in Latin. Anyone with even a smattering of Latin can do that and those without a smattering can easily learn that much. Or one can quickly memorize it in English. That permits a much deeper inward participatio actuosa because the words are engraved in one’s heart. I might remind us all that Sacrosanctum Concilium combined with Musicam Sacram insists that actuosa participatio is first and foremost inward. One truly hears the words in one’s heart. One can hear with one’s ears and hear nothing at all. Indeed, I suggest that the way the OF is commonly celebrated, with all sorts of performative distractions, conduces to even less “hearing” inwardly than was the case even among devout and regular attenders at Mass in the “old days” with its silent canon.

    Granted, for centuries, many of the faithful didn’t use hand missals or learn the prayers by heart in Latin or in English. But nominal Catholics, Catholics who only attend Mass superficially, are not doing participatio actuosa even if they do hear the words of the Canon audibly.

    And so, it comes down to whether people care or not. If they care, they hear the Canon truly, even when its silent. If they don’t care, they don’t hear, even if it’s audible.

  16. Dennis Martin says:

    I should add, since Fr. Imbelli asked a historical question (to which I do not know the answer but would have to look it up) that depending on the circumstances in ancient and medieval churches, even if the celebrant spoke or chanted the canon full-voiced, it may or may not have been inaudible to most congregants.

    We forget what things were like before amplification. Indeed, in most churches today, without amplification, how much of the priest’s words in the OF could be heard? The silent canon, regardless when the priests began to say it sotto voce, existed for most people except the servers, throughout much of history.

    Often liturgical progressives excoriate the late medieval (that’s the general sense I have of the silent canon’s introduction) development of a silent canon and the visible elevation as indicating a clericalized liturgy at which the congregants were mere onlookers.

    But that’s anachronistic. If the canon had always been inaudible at least in larger churches because of acoustics, the elevation was a way to help people participate, not to turn them into mere spectators.

    Ancient peoples didn’t have to personally hear each word, IF they know what the rite was doing. The traditional Catholic Mass (like the Orthodox Liturgy and the easter rites) are ancient forms of sacrificial worship, directed to God. What counted was that the rite was done validly, not that each congregant personally heard every word. When I go to an opera, even if it’s in one of the two or three languages I understand, including English, I rarely can make out all the words. I’d be a fool to think my participation in the event rests on my ability to decipher each word sung.

    This idea, that all congregants should hear and comprehend each word is a modern, recent phenomenon arising from the acids of individualism. Corporate societies understood the idea of representation–that we all do participate in and through the priest and he does so in and through Christ in whom all of use live and move and have our being. Granted, it’s good and healthy for congregants to learn (via hand missals etc.) exactly what is being said and devout Christians through the centuries have done so, first in Latin directly (when Latin was still a common language for the educated, who then might teach even the illiterate really devout person by ad hoc translation what was going on in the Canon) and then aided by bilingual hand missals popularized by the Liturgical Movement of the 19thc.

    The less-devout may not have known word-by-word what the priest said when he “said the black,” but they nonetheless, at arms-length, still were participating to the degree that they had some idea what was going on and cared.

    One can go to a OF Mass and “hear” all the words as they wash over one. One can truly hear them audibly. One can truly hear them even at an inaudible silent Canon.

  17. Fr. D says:

    My own anecdote:
    I’ve now chose the Missal’s presumed “ordinary” option of ad orientem a couple of times in the ordinary form and in the vernacular. I must say I was nervous about the reaction. But, I gave a short explanation after the homily and then made no other fuss about it. Afterwards, I asked nothing or said nothing about it, again as if it were no big deal. Meanwhile, I’ve heard only positive comments and thanks. One was most gratifying when a 30-something thanked me because he’d never before been to any ad orientem Mass. He was moved and after this one experience prefered the traditional way of prayer.

    Fr. Z. how about having a post for priests to write in their experiences of offering the Ordinary form ad orientem?

  18. Fr. D says:

    PS: I should have added that those 2 Masses were public (scheduled) Masses.

    Regarding Fr. Imbelli: he is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

    About the silent canon: I believe many if not most of the Eastern churches use a canon in a low voice.
    I seems significant that both East and West prayed the the canon in a low voice for such a long time – the East, at least, since the time of Emperor Justinian (mid 6th c.).
    Perhaps these days the canon in a loud voice is important since it allows the faithful to be sure that the words of consecration are prayed properly. As we know, abuses have occured and the sacramental form has been changed. Fortunately, knowledgeable layfaithful have demanded their right to a valid and licit Eucharistic celebration and thus have helped decrease abuses of sacramental forms.

  19. Fr. D: Fr. Z. how about having a post for priests to write in their experiences of offering the Ordinary form ad orientem?

    Didn”t I do that once before?

    It might be time again.

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