Oceanside, CA: turning a parish to face the East

From a reader:

Dear Fr. Z,
At St. Margaret’s Church in Oceanside, CA, our pastor, Fr. Cavanna Wallace has been using the "Benedictine arrangement" of candles and crucifix since August (when it was introduced with a catechetical homily). 

This morning, we walked into church to find the arrangement at the far side of the altar, facing us.  Father’s homily spoke of Advent as "looking towards the east" to the new day of Christ’s birth, explaining that this was expressed in the direction of our prayer.  He then prayed the Roman Canon ad orientem (well, "liturgical" east, anyway, since our apse is actually to the west!). 

To wit (excerpt):

This watching and waiting, anticipating the Lord’s return, has historically been articulated throughout the Christian centuries in the language of sacred architecture. Since the fourth century which initiated Christian building projects all across the Roman Empire, churches were built so that, when Christians assembled in prayer, both priest and people prayed together facing the common direction of east. The priest and people did not look towards each other (except during a sermon or homily), but when they prayed, they did so with the priest, like a shepherd, leading his flock in the direction of the rising sun, turning around to assure his flock that they were on the right path and the Lord was with them.

The connection between the light of the rising sun and the glory of the returning Lord are themes which run through the whole season of Advent as well as instinctively during our early morning prayers throughout the whole year.

(Scriptural mediations of the importance of “looking East” can be found in Wisdom 16:28, Zechariah 14:4, Malachi 3:2, Matthew 24:27 and 30, Luke 1:78, and Revelation 7:2). St Justin Martyr reflected about the manner of Christian worship in beginning of the second century and wrote, “For the word of His truth and wisdom is more ardent and more light-giving than the rays of the sun, and sinks down into the depths of heart and mind. Hence also the Scripture said, ‘His name shall rise up above the sun.’ And again, Zechariah says, ‘His name is the East.’” St. Clement of Alexandria contrasts pagan temples which faced west with the attitude of Christian prayer which looked towards the east, writing, “And since the dawn is an image of the day of birth, and from that point the light which has shone forth at first from the darkness increases, there has also dawned on those involved in darkness a day of the knowledge of truth. In correspondence with the manner of the sun’s rising, prayers are made looking towards the sunrise in the east. Whence also the most ancient temples looked towards the west, that people might be taught to turn to the east when facing the images.” Stromata Book iv)

And even though our local geography does not allow us literally to face east together in prayer, we use the Cross as our compass, restoring this ancient practice of the priest, like a shepherd, leading his people in the direction of the glory of heaven – which is, of course our common goal, our prayers directed to God.

Of course, this must be translated into our lives every day in order that we might be compatible with Christ so that we can see him, when he returns, face to face. When will that day come? We do not know. Will it come? Yes – for Christ has said he will return. “We watch in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ”.

CCC 1040 El Juicio final sucederá cuando vuelva Cristo glorioso. Sólo el Padre conoce el día y la hora en que tendrá lugar; sólo El decidirá su advenimiento. Entonces, El pronunciará por medio de su Hijo Jesucristo, su palabra definitiva sobre toda la historia. Nosotros conoceremos el sentido último de toda la obra de la creación y de toda la economía de la salvación, y comprenderemos los caminos admirables por los que Su Providencia habrá conducido todas las cosas a su fin último. El juicio final revelará que la justicia de Dios triunfa de todas las injusticias cometidas por sus criaturas y que su amor es más fuerte que la muerte (cf. Ct 8, 6).

When we entered through the doors of this church, the narthex pointed us through the darkness, in the direction of where we first encountered Christ, in baptism. Before this Altar we will turn to face the Lord together, and through Holy Communion we will literally “put on Christ”. At the end of Mass, with the dismissal, we will journey onward from here and pass under the “gallery”, depicting above us on the way out, the Lord’s Second Coming and the Final Judgment. And this we should not be afraid of. Our Advent journey does not take us into the night, but towards the morning. As St. Paul has reminded us in the Epistle, “The night is far gone; the day is drawing near. Let us cast aside deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light”. Ven Senor Jesus!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Central Valley Catholic says:

    Thanks be to GOD!! I hope this trend will make its way north to the diocese of Fresno, Ca.

  2. Deo Gratias, may more parishes follow.

  3. Daniel says:

    Central Valley: You have my sincere and fervent prayers! (You’ve had them for a while, ever since the Fr. Farrow “incident”) Pray as well for Orange! Rumor has it that our parish will be celebrating the extraordinary form monthly in the near future! Deo Gratias! Good and faithful priests are always a blessing!

  4. Brian says:

    so is a priest who says mass facing the people wrong? or just “less right” than one who celebrates ad orientem?
    I’ve been to a few Ruthenian services and although the priestly liturgical action was performed behind a screen, it didn’t seem terribly ad orientem. Should they change their rite accordingly?
    If not, why? Because it’s “their tradition”?
    If the answer about it being their tradition is “yes”, then it seems the best argument for the Latin Church celebrating ad orientem is purely traditional, and not theological.
    If the argument for ad orientem action is more theologically sound than that of any other kind of altar arrangement, then we should not hesitate to tell out brother and sisters in the Eastern Churches that they’re doing it wrong. It would be an act of charity to point out the truth, no?

  5. Rachel says:

    Brian, instead of all the questions I wish you’d make a straightforward positive statement of your own position.

    My friends and I went down to Fr. Cavanna’s parish in Oceanside last Sep 14 and loved it. He was offering a TLM as he does every Sunday evening. In his homily he mentioned his recent trip across the country to visit an order of nuns and try to persuade them to come help with catechism. He generally seems like a pastor with ambitious plans for his parish, and I’m impressed by all he’s doing since I believe he’s the only priest there.

  6. Brian says:

    Thanks for sharing that story! Yes, the love of Jesus makes all ‘this way or that way’ controversies shrink in comparison. By your story, Fr. Cavanna sounds like a holy priest. The Eucharist is the most public of sacraments and if one way makes us aware to the love of God among us more than another, then I’m all for the more effective way.
    My earlier post was aimed at those who think that there’s a formula for friendship with Jesus, and those who would reify or “thingify” the most Blessed Sacrament, which I feel is unfortunately very common today. Advent gives us a great message. A child was born and his name is Emmanuel! God is with us!

  7. shadrach says:

    Three cheers for Fr. Cavanna. He is to be praised. I hope many emulate him. Brian, may I recommend U. M. Lang’s ‘Turning towards the Lord’, Adrian Fortescue’s ‘The Mass’ and His Holiness’s ‘Spirit of the Liturgy’, each of which places the liturgical riches of the Roman rite in a number of conceptual contexts, including the theological. I think you’ll enjoy them.

  8. Michael says:

    Your account of the Ruthenian Liturgy: “it didn’t seem terribly ad orientem.” – Could you explain details “behind the screen” ? Are you suggesting that the principal celebrant was facing the Royal Door or what?

    I myself have seen the Ukrainian millennium Liturgy celebrated by their hierarchy in the diaspora – all around the altar during the Consecration, but I doubt that it was in their tradition. I would be pleased to be mistaken, but I guess they were all influenced by the Latin liturgical guru-s. Anyone knows better?

    And what is that “reify or ‘thingify’ the most Blessed Sacrament” all about ? To the list by SHADRACH I would add the works by Msgr. Gamber (I have his The Modern Rite) who was, like Fr. Lang – now in the Congregation for Worship, very esteemed by Cardinal Ratzinger.

  9. In the Eastern liturgies, the practice is to recite the prayers to God toward the “East,” but during the readings for example, the priest goes to the “apse” and faces the reader and people to give the blessings. If he is a bishop he sits in the central chair of the apse. So both positions are used depending on what the liturgical function is.

  10. “I myself have seen the Ukrainian millennium Liturgy celebrated by their hierarchy in the diaspora – all around the altar during the Consecration, but I doubt that it was in their tradition. I would be pleased to be mistaken, but I guess they were all influenced by the Latin liturgical guru-s. Anyone knows better?”

    During concelebration it is traditional for priests celebrating the Byzantine Divine Liturgy to stand on the North and South side of the Holy Table, with the main celebrant alone facing East. I have never seen or heard of a Byzantine liturgy celebrated or concelebrated by a priest or priests facing the West.

    Also, the traditional practice of reading the Gospel is on an extended solea (the place before the Holy Doors where the deacon now typically proclaims the Gospel) which goes to the center of the nave underneath the dome and on a raised platform known as a “Bema”. This platform faces the East and it is/was from here that the Epistle and Gospel were proclaimed. Historically, Bemas were quite elaborate (especially in Syria), and included seating for the clergy and a canopy or baldacchinno.

    At Nicholai-do (the Orthodox Cathedral of the Resurrection in Tokyo), I have seen one of the deacons proclaim the Gospel facing the East in the center of the congregation right before the place where the Metropolitan Archbishop stands.

    Hope that helps!

  11. I also forgot…

    Kudos and prayers for Fr. Cavanna Wallace! God grant him and his congregation many happy and blessed years…facing East!

  12. Ashley Paver says:

    Congratulations indeed to Fr. Wallace. I had the privilege last year of helping him to introduce the traditional Office to his parish. The Brothers of the Oratory in San Diego sang First Vespers of St. Margaret with Fr. Wallace for the parish’s first patronal feast in its newly-consecrated church, which was a wonderful occasion. It’s very good to hear of the continuing development of the parish’s liturgical life, under Fr. Wallace’s leadership.

  13. Pam says:

    And 20 minutes away from St Margaret’s we will be dedicating our new Church this coming spring. Last week we were informed that we would be having a “nave” in the round with the altar in the middle, “so that we could all be looking at each other throughout the mass”….sigh….
    Three years ago, this nun tried to sell us on the idea, that the interior of the church should be a basketball court arrangement/altar at center court. There was a vote to defeat that plan so that during the fundraising the church layout was represented as having the altar in the east with the pews in a semicircle on one side of it.

    It is all so sixties.

  14. Michael says:

    It does help, and it suggests that the occasion I witnessed in the Ukrainian Cathedral was an example of latinization in the bad Novus Ordo sense.

    In the Russian Cathedral in London it is as you say, and those who sing the Gospel and Epistle face the east.

  15. Jason Keener says:

    The First Sunday of Advent is a GREAT day to begin using the ad orientem posture. In Advent, we are all looking towards the East for Christ’s birth and Christ’s coming in glory on the Last Day. This could all be explained to Catholics before the priest first uses the ad orientem posture.

  16. Rushad Thomas says:

    Hey Fr. Z!

    You’re the best, I love your blog, but I just wanted to comment and say that almost the exact same thing happened to me on the First Sunday of Advent (well, the Vigil of the First Sunday of Advent!). I’m a student at Florida A&M University, and I was at home on vacation for Thanksgiving and I went Holy Mass on Saturday afternoon at my home parish, Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Ocala, FL, and about ten minutes before Mass began the sacristan brought out a standing crucifix and put it on the west side of the altar (My church really does face east). I got extra-excited at that point! Then, my pastor (Fr. Patrick O’Doherty) came out to do some announcements before Mass, and so he’s going along with the announcements, and then, all matter-of-factly, Father busts out with “oh yes, I will be saying the Canon of the Mass facing east today.” I can’t tell you how much I wanted to jump up and cheer like I was at a football game! It was wonderful! Father had never celebrated Mass ad orientam before, but he’s an excellent, orthodox priest, and he’s always eager to do things in the most traditional manner! It was great!

  17. California Girl says:


    Yes, Fr. Wallace is the only priest here. And the parish keeps growing! Two nuns from the Parish Visitors of Mary Immaculate visited our parish a couple of weeks ago, as they discern whether God is calling them to begin a house here. Please keep us in your prayers, everyone, that we may soon be blessed with their presence!

    Happy feast of St. Edmund Campion to you all!

  18. Taximom says:

    Yes, Fr. Cavana (one ‘n’ :)) Wallace has been a true blessing for our parish.
    May more priests follow his example…and may the nuns come back to stay.

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