From a seminarian:
I … have recently had some discussions with others in the house about implementing ad orientem style of the Mass. I think that the rubrics are very clear in assuming that the Mass is said ad orientem, regardless of whether we like or not (however, I love it!). We see this in sections of the rubrics, “versus ad populum.” I believe you recently put an article up about this. [He probably means this.]
However, the response was GIRM 299, “The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.” [That is the errant phrase!]
This is from the USCCB website. I know that the key phrase “which is desirable whenever possible” offers some ambiguity, but it clearly sets up a basis in official Church documents which can be stretched to oppose the ad orientem style. Could I get your thoughts on this? I would like to see the implementation of ad orientem worship back in the Mass, but I am not sure how to respond to the GIRM statements. Thanks for your thoughts and God bless. Know of my prayers for you and your readers.
Thank you for the prayers.
Can that phrase, found on the USCCB website (and elsewhere) be used to prevent ad orientem worship?
No. Not if you are honest.
When we quote official Church documents, we must at a certain point refer to the Latin text. This is absolutely the case with GIRM 299.
The USCCB website uses an incorrect translation. This isn’t just WDTPRS’s opinion. It is the clear statement of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, which responded to a dubium on this very matter (Prot. No 2036/00/L). The CDWDS actually went so far as to explain the Latin grammar. I find it astonishing that, to this date, the USCCB has not corrected their texts. What makes this worse is that the document Built of Living Stones – which quotes the errant translation of 299 was issued after the CDWDS response. I fear the unhappy translator fell into the schoolboy trap of merely sticking to the Latin word order. I can’t imagine that they did this … on purpose!
I have written about GIRM 299 several times.
Briefly, here is the skinny.
This is what GIRM 299 really says:
Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.
The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out.
The quod refers back to the first clause, the placement of the altar, and not to the ut clause.
Before the USCCB put out their document Built of Living Stones, with the incorrect translation you cited, the Congregation for Divine Worship responded to a question about this very paragraph and actually explained the Latin grammar.
Here is the meat of the CDWDS’s response about that which, I repeat, was made before the USCCB issued Built of Living Stones.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in n. 299 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which the position of the priest versus absidem [facing the apse] is to be excluded. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:
Negatively, and in accordance with the following explanation.
The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account. First, the word expedit does not constitute a strict obligation but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum (detached from the wall). It does not require, for example, that existing altars be pulled away from the wall. The phrase ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.
The paragraph is talking about the construction of a new altar. New construction is to ensure that, wherever it is physically possible and it is a good thing to do, the altar is separated far enough from the wall that a person can walk around it, for example, to incense it or use if for Mass versus populum. That does not mean a) that existing altars must be changed or, b) that free standing altar must be used versus populum.
I believe the response of the CDWDS was in Communicationes of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. You should be able to find it quickly in your seminary library.
One of the consequences of this, by the way, there is no obligation to set up a table in front of a main altar that is ad orientem. As a matter of fact, it would be a bad idea to do so, because of the important of having but one altar in the sanctuary.