QUAERITUR: Can the TLM be offered ‘versus populum’?

From Facebook:

Dear Fr. Z,

The priest that celebrates de EF in Buenos Aires, has decided today to do it versus populum quoting a work of Card. Ratzinger that says that the cross must be the focal point or liturgical east. He also says that the rubrics of JXXIII’s missal doesn’t prescribe to celebrate the mass "ad orientem". Is this all right? What can we say to him?
Please, forgive my poor english and thank you very much!

No, there is nothing that requires the TLM (EF) to be celebrated ad orientem.  In Roman Basilicas it was celebrated versus populum because of the way the altar was situated in the sanctuary: on the model of San Pietro, where the celebrant stood at the main altar so as to face the East.  In the ancient Basilica of St. Peter, the people would be directed to turn around also to face the East during the action of the Mass.  So… celebration of Holy Mass to the liturgical East is important in the Roman way of seeing things.

However, nothing specifically prescribes ad orientem worship… though in my opinion it is superior. 

The other thing to consider, and this is important, the sensibilities of the people in the congregation should be considered.  If the people would be upset by an versus populum Mass with the EF, then it probably wouldn’t be a good idea.   There is no sense in doing that merely as a novelty or for shock value, or even because of the priest’s own preference.   The TLM and ad orientem are closely connected.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Volpius says:

    If you do there will be many, many unhappy people, I don’t know of anyone who loves the TLM who would be happy with this. All you would be achieving is to essentially upset everyone both the people who are against the tLM and the people who are for it.

    Might I suggest the reason it doesn’t mention ad orientem in the missal is because there was no need. It was the norm and therefore did not need to be said as everyone would be doing it by default. The priest saying the TLM ad orientem is surely protested as an immemorial custom in most places?

  2. Volpius: I am not sure that it was that there was no need. Perhaps simply people had greater common sense and less of an ideological axe to grind. You used whatever altar as it was and in the appropriate manner.

  3. Ken says:

    “Thus, to cite some instances, one would be straying from the straight path were he to wish the altar restored to its primitive tableform.”


  4. Joshua says:

    I am not so sure it was/is allowed. I recall a decision of the Sacred Congregation of Rites against it. I will try and look it up and see what it said.

  5. Commentator says:

    Volpius: It is false to say that ad orientem is not mentioned in the 1962 Missal. It is: Ritus servandus, V. De oratione. There we read: \”Si altare sit ad orientem, versus populum, celebrans versa facie ad populum, non vertit humeros ad altare, cum dicturus est Dominus vobiscum…\” That is: \”If the altar faces east, towards the people, the celebrant, facing the people, does not turn his back to the altar before saying The Lord be with you…\”

    It is important to note that for the 1962 Missal the phrase \’ad orientem\’ is equivalent to \’versus populum\’, since an altar such as the papal altar in St Peter\’s is in mind. When the Pope celebrated on that altar in the old days he never turned around at the Dominus vobiscum, since he was already facing east. The 1962 Missal therefore has a strictly geographical understanding of the phrase \’ad orientem\’. It prescribes that if an altar happens to be facing both east, and the people, then the celebrant does not turn.

    One might well argue, therefore, that if your free-standing altar faces east, and the people, you should say the TLM facing the people.

    This is a very good reason to build altars facing east, and away from the people!!! That is, after all, the NORMAL situation presumed by the other rubrics of the 1962 Missal.

  6. If the altar faces east and the people, would it not be on the west side of the building? (as so in St. Peters)…in which case the TLM should be said VP. (Or any altar set up Roman Basilica style)

    If the altar faces the east and not the people (that is Ad Deum)..(if the Tabernacle is at the center of the Church)…then the TLM should be said Ad Orientem.

    At least to my understanding.

  7. Papabile says:

    I have a copy of Liturgical Week from either 1946, or 1948, and it has pictures of Mass being celebrated versus populum in accordance with the rubrics.

    It was rare, but not unheard of.

  8. Volpius says:

    What if your altar faces North like in my Parish?

  9. Ted Krasnicki says:

    It was regular practice in Quebec to celebrate the TLM ad populum years before the council, such as at the Sherbrooke cathedral by the late 1950’s. The Catholic progressivist forces in Quebec were already well established by then and so it was not the baby-boomers but the earlier generations that were waiting for the opportunity to come out of the closet. The council became that opportunity.
    Few objected to the ad populum orientation then and it was in fact welcomed in many quarters particularly by these earlier generations. This was surely the case elsewhere too.

  10. Volpius: In the case of the altar facing north, the idea of Liturgical East comes in. It is my understanding that Churches were designed w.r.t (with respect to) their position relative to Jerusalem. So when all else fails, find Jerusalem, and face that way :).

  11. Rellis says:

    Maybe we’re missing an opportunity here. Just as the Benedictine altar arrangement contributes toward bringing the O.F. to sanity, maybe having that same arrangement could serve as a nice E.F. transition at a tough parish.

  12. Fr. A. says:

    I think the priest would have to fear the tar and feathers in most places if he tried such a thing. :)

    Volpius, the priest and people are facing “liturgical East,” if not actual East. In my parish, the altar faces North.

  13. Berthold says:

    The wonderful History of the Christian Altar, written by the Art Historian Fr Joseph Braun SJ in the 1920s (only in German, alas), has a short paragraph about the orientation versus populum. If I remember correctly, it could be summarized as ‘it is certainly allowed to build a new altar for versus populum – but who would want to do that?’. One of his arguments is that especially in High Mass the people would actually see much less of the ceremonies than at an altar Ad Orientem – and that is certainly true. Maybe it would just be best to wait for the celebrant of this mass to realize that it works better the other way round.

  14. The arrangement of the altar in Roman basilicas is, for various historical reasons, atypical. It is partly to do with the orientation of the church building (as in St. Peter’s). The altar, and therefore the celebrant standing at the altar, faces east.

    It would not be correct to describe these altars as “facing the people” in the sense that a modern table altar faces the people. It is a matter of historical fact that the protestant reformers of the sixteenth century
    advocated this position for theological reasons, even in some cases abandoning the “liturgical east” end of the church altogether. A similar thing happened in many Catholic churches after Vatican II, but it was not done in imitation of the arrangement in Roman basilicas.

  15. Mitchell says:

    I talked with my dad briefly about this. In his parish at the time the Novos ordo was being phased in they had 3 priest who all celebrated a little differently. Since the Council they had switched to vesus populum and said the Tridintine in English. Out of the 3 priests at the parish 2 said the Mass in the Novos Ordo and one said it using the Tridintine. Needless to say my dad as a server liked the NO much more because in if both are celebrated in the same manner the Tridintine is going to seem really tedious.

  16. Francisco says:

    Where is given the TLM in Buenos Aires during the week? Or is it on Sundays? Because the priest that celebrates the TLM on Sundays is an enemy of it. So this is not a surprise at all. His declarations before being entitled as the only priest that can celebrate the TLM in Buenos Aires by the Archibishop were at least bad. Please pray for us, pray to Saint Joseph so we can have at least the benedictine altar arrangement somewhere, at least in one of the main churches in the City.

  17. Francisco says:

    Where is given the TLM in Buenos Aires during the week? Or is it on Sundays? Because the priest that celebrates the TLM on Sundays is an enemy of it. So this is not a surprise at all. His declarations before being entitled as the only priest that can celebrate the TLM in Buenos Aires by the Archibishop were at least bad. Please pray for us, pray to Saint Joseph so we can have at least the benedictine altar arrangement somewhere, at least in one of the main churches in the City….

  18. Joshua says:

    All because it was done does not mean it was permitted. There is an entry in John XXIII´s diary, when he was a bishop, of visiting a Church and seeing a horrible abuse of a canon said aloud and facing the people. (This was given in the Latin Mass Magazine).

    I am still looking, but I do recall an SRC decree at least restricting such innovations

  19. Joshua says:

    Okay after much eye straining I found somethings of note

    One an address by Pius XII

    The Liturgical Movement
    An Address of Pope Pius XII to the
    International Congress on Pastoral Liturgy
    (September 22, 1956)

    The position of the tabernacle

    In the instruction of the Holy Office, “De arte sacra,” of June 30, 1952, (26) the Holy See insists, among other things, on this point: “This Supreme Sacred Congregation strictly commands that the prescriptions of Canons 1268, #2, and 1269 #1, be faithfully observed: ‘The Most Blessed Eucharist should be kept in the most distinguished and honorable place in the church, and hence as a rule at the main altar unless some other be considered more convenient and suitable for veneration and worship due to so great a Sacrament…The Most Blessed Sacrament must be kept in an immovable tabernacle set in the middle of the altar.’” (27)

    There is question, not so much of the material presence of the tabernacle on the altar, as of a tendency to which We would like to call your attention, that of a lessening of esteem for the presence and action of Christ in the tabernacle. The sacrifice of the altar is held sufficient, and the importance of Him who accomplishes it is reduced.

    The person of our Lord

    Yet the person of our Lord must hold the central place in worship, for it is His person that unifies the relations of the altar and the tabernacle and gives them their meaning.

    It is through the sacrifice of the altar, first of all, that the Lord becomes present in the Eucharist, and He is in the tabernacle only as a “memoria sacrificii et passionis suae.”

    To separate tabernacle from altar is to separate two things which by their origin and their nature should remain united.

    Specialists will offer various opinions for solving the problem of so placing the tabernacle on the altar as not to impede the celebration of Mass when the priest is facing the congregation. The essential point is to understand that it is the same Lord present on the altar and in the tabernacle.

    Then in 1957, June 1, the SCR issued a decree forbidding versus populum in Churches with only one altar, until a satisfactory solution had been found.

  20. Papist says:

    This is the kind of stuff that makes me inclined to drive the extra 35 minutes past the Diocese TLM to the SSPX TLM. Where I reside, I am constantly on guard against the priest trying something “innovative” such as female altar servers or vernacular for parts of the liturgy other than the readings. It must be stated that this priest was asked by the bishop to offer the TLM since he had celebrated it in the past and probably would not have have continued on his own initiative.

  21. pdt says:

    In fairness this is good news. All of the church altars in our diocese have been placed in such a fashion as to leave a priest only a foot or so of clearance if he is to say Mass ad orientam. I’m fearful that if any of them does offer the EF in that manner he stands a better than even chance of tumbling backwards down the steps. Somehow that strikes me as less than solemn and dignified!

    At the same time it eliminates one argument I’ve heard against the EF which is that a church would have to rebuild its sanctuary.

    Perhaps it’s not the ideal, but it is one more option.

  22. Woody Jones says:

    In his very interesting book “The Knight-Monks of Vichy France: Uriage 1940-1945”, John Hellman has a photo of Fr. Marcel-Denys Forestier, O.P., one of the spiritual leaders of the Catholic Scouts movement before the War, celebrating an outdoor Mass (which then would only have been a TLM) for “a youth group” in what appears clearly to be a versus populum position. And just to understand correctly the social stance of the French Scouts (and their leaders) at the time, we can quote Prof. Hellman as follows:

    “The Catholic Scouts were also an important part of the background of the National Revolution [the national renovation program of Marshal Petain]. During the tumultuous pre-war years, Fathers Forestier and Doncoeur had taught the scouts to be both militantly patriotic and devoutly Catholic. Straightforwardly authoritarian if not reactionary, frankly opposed to laicism, ‘materialism,’ and liberal and democratic values, scout leaders had exhorted pre-war young people to surmount the class antagonisms, secularization, and demoralization of modern urban society. Like other Catholic movements, the scouts proudly claimed to be above mere politics, but their movement’s firm anti-republican bias was clearly understood in the strained political climate of 1930s France.” (pp.16-17)

    I cite this because it seems to show a particularly right-wing priest in France employing the versus populum position, perhaps in a way presaging the arguments of some of our current moderately (compared with those earlier guys, for sure) conservative Catholic groups that the newer Mass and position is needed to make a connection with the people in order that they be more receptive to teaching of traditional faith and values. Hellman more or less says this in the book, about some of the Catholic figures during the Vichy regime (including de Lubac as well as Mounier).

  23. The Mass can of course be celebrated anywhere, even outdoors, in cases of necessity.
    When I was a boy in the 1950s, my parents and I would visit an elderly relative in a Welsh village where there was no church. A priest travelled from the nearest town every Sunday to celebrate the “old” Mass at 8am. in the lounge bar of the local hotel. A temporary altar was improvised.

    In a church where the arrangement, or re-arrangement of the altar does not allow room for the celebration of Mass “ad Deum”, it would, I think, be permissible to use a temporary altar. It would be better not to celebrate the old Mass facing the people, if only for pastoral reasons, as Fr. Z has pointed out.

    Let it be remembered that the position of the high altar in Roman basilicas is atypical, and temporary altars facing “ad Deum” were often used.

  24. Bob Glassmeyer says:

    Okay – I’m more than a little confused here. I thought the idea
    of “facing East” meant not only facing the Lord, but that it was
    important in the Mass for priest and people to face the Lord
    together, in the same direction. Could you help me here, Father?
    Thank you!

  25. Edward4773 says:

    Another example of a mass facing the people prior to the Council was in the Cathedral of St. Peter in Chains in Cincinnati. It’s altar following renovations in the mid-1950s was made free standing and mass was occasionally celebrated facing the people. The first time it was celebrated facing the people it supposedly made the front page of the all the city’s newspapers.

  26. Fr. A. says:

    If memory serves, didn’t St. Pio offer the Mass facing the people in the footage we have of his last Holy Mass? That was in 1968, before the _Novus Ordo_.

  27. Bob Glassmeyer says:

    Hi, Edward,

    I’ve been to St. Peter in Chains many times. If I’m not mistaken,
    the position of the celebrant during versus populum Masses is
    geographically east. Interesting!

  28. Edward4773 says:


    Yes, the versus populum at St. Peter in Chains is facing east and that seems to have been the justification used at the time. From what I have been told, it was occasionally celebrated versus populum until after the council when it became the norm.

  29. Jeff R. says:

    This is, perhaps, more of a question for Father Z in regard to his post, but others should feel free to comment as well:

    I am a bit quizzical – if not troubled – by the last major point that you make, namely, the importance of taking into account the “sensibilities of the people.” The reason this troubles me is that I think our liturgical principles should be two-edged swords that cut both ways. If a principle applies to the more “traditional” Catholics, it should also apply to the more “progressive” Catholics and vice versa. Thus, it would seem only fair that if one is to make liturgical judgments in a way in which the sensibilities of the people are “important” then such a principle would apply equally to “traditional” and “progressive” sensibilities.

    However, this would seem very much to undermine not only the liturgical agenda of many who frequent this blog, but also the “Marshall Plan” of the Holy Father that you have talked so much about. Surely, for example, there are many people for whom – even with proper catechesis – a shift to ad orientem worship would be offending to their sensibilities. Rather, it seems to me that “sensibility” is not, in itself, a thing to be considered. This is true because sensibilities can be bad or good, poorly or well formed, and this judgment (of whether a sensibility is good or bad) will in turn appeal to more universal theologico-liturgical principles. So “good sensibilities” are to be followed only because they reflect sound liturgical and theological principles, and “bad sensibilities” should be disregarded because they fail to do the same. If this is true, then it would seem to be, in a sense, misleading to discuss the importance of “sensibilities” at all.

    Now I am certainly not a curmudgeon, and I would like to think that I am – possibly – more sensitive and forgiving than many who discuss these issues. So I am very aware of how bad it can be to offend the “sensibilities” of a great many people. However, it seems to me that the only path that is simultaneously docile to Prudence and Truth would be to evaluate the theological principles at work in a given change, judge whether they are good, and, if so, make the change with whatever amount of explanation to the people is deemed necessary. This does seem to me to be something different from what was said above.


  30. A parish in my diocese celebrated mass facing the people in 1956 (St.Michael in Annandale).And according to Alcuin Reid mass was celebrated this way at the 1956 Liturgical Conference by Cardinal Ottaviani. It was popular among segments of the liturgical movement beginning in Germany .Having now celebrated both ways I would ask why face the people? The danger of course is the congregation becomes central.I believe the priest in Argentina unconsciously beleives this as do many a bishop who when offering the NO look at the people when praying the prayers and even the Canon.Perhaps if he actually prayed the mass in the traditional manner he would realize the awesome difference.

  31. Vincent says:

    Perhaps the priests at St. Peter in Chains found themselves distracted by that hideous mosaic behind the altar. The rest of the cathedral is so beautiful.

  32. Melody says:

    I can see why versus populum would be permitted for certain circumstances which would make the ad orientem position difficult, since it is better to have mass versus populum than no mass at all.

    However, it seems to me that the symbolism of the priest’s gradual approach of the altar in the TLM is weakened when the priest is behind an altar.

    As a side note, I consider the versus populum posture more distant from people because the altar forms a barrier. When facing ad orientem, the priest is clearly with the people, leading them towards Christ. I also suspect the reason why priests kneel only once in the ordinary form is due to the perceived necessity of being seen by the people, a problem not found if the priest is facing the altar.

  33. JPG says:

    I cannot comment on the legality of any of this with the versus populorum for the TLM. I seem to recall this being done with permission during the 30’s , 40’s & 50’s with the Liturgical Movement especially with the dialogue Mass at the time in Germany. I seem to recall this from Alcuin Reid’s book. The only merit in doing this now would be to reintroduce souls like myself to the TLM especially after 39 yrs of endless innovation. It would be an then a way of teaching in a Parish new to the TLM the rubrics and the like. Likewise many freestanding altars are constructed in such a way that the priest would risk life and limb celebrating Ad Deum. Watching a priest fall would not be helpful.

  34. In basilica style arrangements, the people also faced east during the Eucharistic Prayer, not with their backs to the altar but in an arc formation behind and at the side of the altar, facing the same direction as the priest/bishop/pope, i.e. towards the open doors of the basilica through which the rising sun could be seen. See Lang “Turning towards the Lord” pp. 73-82. The theory is contested and Lang discusses the various conflicting theories.

  35. Fr. Thomas says:

    I am pastor of a parish that has had a church in the same place since 1767. In 1817 a small, clapboard chapel was replaced by a brick church. This church had the front door at the western end of the church. The priest offered Mass at the eastern end of the church and faced east with his back to the people. In 1911, the brick church was torn down and a new church was erected. This church was turned 180 degrees. The new church has the front doors on the eastern end and the altar on the western end of the church. Because of this, when I offer Mass in the OF I am facing east. But, when I offer Mass in the EF I am facing west. What did they do in this church before 1964? I haven’t yet asked anyone old enough to remember. But, I assume the priest faced west. After all, the altar stone is still on the eastern side of the altar which meant the priest had his back to the people. I intend to keep offering the EF in this direction. I think we should not be geographical fundamentalist. The more important symbol is the priest and the people facing God the Father offering their proper sacrifices.

  36. Papabile says:

    I have c copy of the proceedings of 1947’s National Liturgical Week (Christ’s Sacrifice and Ours) sitting in front of me. The interior of the first page is a picture of “Solemn Mass on Wednesday with Archbishop [Edward D] Howard Presiding.”

    Mass was offered this way for three days of the conference. It was offered in the Neighbors of Woodcraft building, 1410 S. W. Morrison St., Portland, OR.

  37. Papabile says:

    And evidently that building is still there:


    It also seemingly has been an historic building since 1996. Here’s a link to it’s history.


  38. mpm says:

    Jeff R,

    A small thought. I agree that “sensibilities” ought to bow to “principles”. I
    think (and I sense you have a good philosophical background) that the principle
    or cause which the Pope sees as being the most efficacious in the current circum-
    stance is the final or exemplary cause, since bonum est diffusivum sui,
    as they say. I view that as a very deep act of faith in the presence and action
    of the Holy Spirit in the Church on the Pope’s part, and I pray that the Lord grant him
    all the desires of his heart.

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