A priest’s thoughts about celebrating “ad orientem” for the first time

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the funniest joke in the word?  It was so funny that it would kill you.  Even just seeing a couple words of the joke on paper would put you in the hospital.

If you have been reading this blog for a while you have seen my opine that  when priests learn the older form of Holy Mass in the Roman Rite, they are never the same thereafter.   Even when they get a taste of the Novus Ordo celebrated in continuity with the older form of Mass, they are affected.

A friend alerted me to this from the blog of Rev. Know-it-all, the alter ego of Fr. Richard Simon, Pastor of St. Lambert Parish, Skokie, IL.

My emphases and comments.

A reflection on Liturgy celebrated “ad orientem”

Instead of the usual “Rev. Know it all” this week, I would like to share some reflections on a recent experience. At the end of a conference on the Church Fathers, I said the ordinary form of the Mass, the so called Novus Ordo,  in the English language. [Nota bene.] It was no different from any other Novus Ordo Mass, with one exception.

For the Offertory, Canon and Our Father I faced the altar, not the congregation. I said the opening prayers form the presider’s chair, where I remained for the readings. I wore a microphone as usual. I then read the Creed and the prayers of the faithful, went down to receive the offerings of bread and wine, and then went to the altar directly, not going around behind it. The deacon and I turned to the congregation at the prayer “Pray brethren..” I next turned to the congregation at the sign of peace and then again at the “Lord, I am not worthy…” After the distribution of Holy Communion I returned to the presider’s chair and finished the Mass as usual. The music was very simple, very little organ, mostly plain chant in English, some Latin used in the ordinary parts of the Mass, all prayers and readings in English. I had warned the congregation that I would do this one time only as part of the conference that we were having at the parish. I faced away from the congregation for about 14 of 55 minutes, all told.

I did it as an experiment. I suspect that the Council Fathers of Vatican II never envisioned Mass facing the people. I wanted to know what the Mass of Vatican II would really be like, some English, some Latin, Gregorian chant, unaccompanied singing and a balance of facing toward people when addressing them and facing the altar with them when addressing the Father. I think this is what is called in the rubrics of the Missal when it indicates that the priest should face the people six times during the Mass: [Which leads to the question: “Why, therefore, not do it all the time…?”]

1)When giving the opening greeting (GIRM 124).
2)When giving the invitation to pray at the end of the offertory, “Pray brethren” (GIRM 146).
3)When giving the greeting of peace (GIRM 154).
4) When displaying the Host and Chalice before Communion and saying: “Behold the Lamb of God” (GIRM 157).
5) When inviting the people to pray before the post communion prayer (GIRM 165).
6)When giving the final blessing (Ordo Missae 141).

The fact that these rubrics exist, seems to assume that the priest is facing away from the people at some time during the liturgy.

After Mass, comments were varied. Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated. In particular I got angry fingers in the face, from someone who said that “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” How do you prove something that never happened? Rome has never said anything about having to face the people during Mass. One must do so only six times. It is one of the great mysteries of our times why, overnight, most of the altars in Catholic Churches were turned around[The late great liturgical scholar Fr. Klaus Gamber said that the turning of the altars was the change that did the most damage after Vatican II.]


[Read carefully…]

I, however, wish I had not said Mass facing away from the congregation, and not because of the anger directed at me. I am a Catholic priest. I am used to people being angry with me. I wish I had not said Mass in what I believe to be the posture assumed by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, because it was one of the most beautiful experiences of my priestly life. You cannot imagine what it was like to say words like “we” and “our Father” and “us” while standing at the head of a congregation that was turned together in a physical expression of unity. No matter how one might argue to the contrary, it is impossible to say “we” while looking at 500 people and not be speaking to them.

The Mass is a prayer addressed to the Father, and despite our best intentions, we clergy address it to the congregation at whom we are looking. You cannot help it. The human face is a powerful thing. Last Saturday night I realized for the first time that I was part of a family of faith directed toward the same heavenly Father. I felt as if I was part of a church at prayer. It was not my job. It was my church. I never realized how very lonely it is to say Mass facing the people. I am up there looking at you. I am not part of you. For 13 or 14 minutes. You weren’t looking at me. We were looking at God.

I love the Tridentine Mass, or as we are supposed to be calling it now, the “extraordinary form.” I think that the Holy Father has been very wise in allowing its revival for those to whom it is meaningful. Its sense of solemnity is very beautiful and enshrines an essential dimension of the mystery of worship. I taught Latin for about 25 years, I understand the complex rituals of the old Mass. They mean a lot to me. Still, I don’t think that we should return to the exclusive use of Latin. I think the Council Fathers were right to simplify the mass.


Read the rest there.

WDTPRS KUDOS to this Fr. Know-It-All.

Keep celebrating ad orientem, friend.

We need an altar revolution.  We have to take back our proper orientation.

Pray for the Holy Father, who is helping us back to continuity in our worship and our identity.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in ASK FATHER Question Box, Brick by Brick, Fr. Z KUDOS, Mail from priests and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Supertradmum says:

    This is such a beautiful commentary, I read it aloud at home. God bless this priest. Maybe others will do likewise. We have such a great Pope to encourage what is most exalted-the ad orientem and the EF.

  2. The Egyptian says:

    Oh to have the Mass done that way around here, While I like the Latin Mass, just to have a novus ordo celebrated in this fashion would suit me fine, such a blessing, Father is right, the Priest is praying to the congregation even if he doesn’t realize it, and it seems to me if we were not so intent on watching Father Flamboyant we may spend more time praying, worshiping if you will

  3. Louis says:

    Fr Simon can be heard on Relevant Radio on most Mondays, Wednesday and Fridays at Noon. For the last two month he has done a history lesson on the reformation to aftermath of Vatican II. And how wrong the documents were put into practice, liturgical abuse. I believe he has said he a kneeler for people who want to receive the Eucharist kneeling.

  4. KristenB says:

    I plan on printing this, and the referenced blog post, out and sending it to my parish priest

  5. Andy Milam says:

    I wish all priests had the courage to do what Fr. Simon did. A real revolution would then take place.

    As it is, most priests are simply afraid to do what the Church actually teaches for fear of being admonished. Fr. Simon opines that the human face is a powerful thing. I would opine that the fear of harsh words are more powerful.

    Attention all priests: You have my unconditional and unabated support if and (hopefully) when you decide to celebrate the Mass (OF) ad orientem. FULL SUPPORT!!!!

  6. Anthony OPL says:

    Father, have mercy on me, but when I first read this I saw “Fr Richard Simmons”.

    Forgive me!

  7. jdcarriere says:

    Do you suppose it is sinful to rearrange an altar without, for example, the permission of the parish priest? Say, for instance, you are alone in a church and the altar is set up to celebrate Mass facing the people. In order to encourage a priest to do things differently, would it be sinful to turn things around properly? Assuming, of course, due reverence in the sanctuary and around the altar.

    And if it is sinful; how sinful is it?

  8. Ben Yanke says:

    Oh rah! GO FATHER!!!

  9. ipadre says:

    That was beautiful to see. More and more of us are doing it, thanks to Pope Benedict XVI. I tried it on Friday’s last Lent as an experiment, now I do it every Friday and Saturday morning. A good number of the people loved it, but most said nothing, thank God, I got no nasty comments. It is so much easier to focus where we all should focus during the Holy Mass! Brick by brick!

  10. amicus1962 says:

    I commend the priest for his courage in trying to do the right thing. We should pray for him, that he will not run for fear of the wolves.

    One major barrier to celebratring ad orientem is the fact that in many parishes the “presider’s chair” is right in the middle of the apse behind the altar. It would look strange for the priest to be facing the people until the offertory, when he would come down from his chair, receive the gifts, and then proceed to the altar facing his own chair. The transition would be smoother if the sedilla were not in the apse but off to the right side of the sanctuary.

    Can the Novus Ordo be said facing ad orientem most of the time? As Father Simon points out, the GIRM directs the priest to face the people six times during Mass. What about the other times when he’s not directed? Can he maintain an ad orientem position during those times? I wish he could, but the GIRM at various times directs certain actions of the priest from the chair, so the assumption is the priest is not facing ad orientem when he’s at the chair. Moreover, in the Novus Ordo, the missal is not placed on the altar until the offertory, so I cannot imagine how a priest can read his missal facing the altar from his chair in this situation. The reality is that while the GIRM explicitly directs the priest to face the people six times only during the Mass, giving the impression that he can face the altar during the other times, the structure of the Novus Ordo prevents the priest from facing the altar except during the Liturgy of the Word.

  11. adeodatus49 says:

    [Re: Versus absidem] “Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated. ”

    Another example of separating the sheep from the goats.

    “Still, I don’t think that we should return to the exclusive use of Latin. I think the Council Fathers were right to simplify the mass.”

    Nevertheless, I don’t think that the particular simplified form of the Roman Rite Mass we currently have is what we should have been given in the first place.

  12. Seek not the face of the priest in the Mass, but the face of Almighty God!

  13. TravelerWithChrist says:

    We had a diocesan priest perform ad orientum, notifying the congration in advance, stating that we should get used to it. Our priest must have also received anger and complaints, and the result was, I believe, the bishop told him that he couldn’t perform Mass ad orientum again – “OR ELSE”. For it wasn’t even mentioned again, much less performed.
    There are those who do NOT like it, obviously Satan doesn’t like it. Is it the reverence, the focus transferred from the priest to God, or something else?

  14. Magpie says:

    I experienced the Latin NO ad orientem Mass celebrated by Fr. Edgardo Arellano for an ADORE Youth Eucharistic Congress in Cork, Ireland. The difference is amazing. The good of my soul demands it! Like Fr. Klaus Gamber said, this change did most harm. A correction could work so much good in a short time.

  15. yatzer says:

    Why not just move the chair? I think the placement you mentioned makes the priest look like he trying to be a little god on his throne anyway.

  16. bigtex says:

    Let me preface this post by saying I prefer the ad orientum position, and hope someday we will return to it for the N.O. Mass. However, there is historical precedent for praying the Mass “versus populum” (facing the people) even centuries prior to Vatican II.

    Much to my surprise, I came across this video clip of Pope Paul VI praying an outdoor Mass (at what looks like the conclusion of the Vatican II Council) facing the people:

    Also, this article goes into detail about the historical precedent for praying the Mass “versus populum”:

  17. Hans says:

    I hadn’t experienced a Mass said ad orientum since I was a child, and I don’t really remember it. Mostly I remember being puzzled about why we were changing from Latin to English. Since then I have frequently been told how horrible it is when the priest “turns his back on the people”. Well, this summer went to a Wednesday evening Mass in the Cathedral in Urbino, which was quite unexpectedly ad orientum, though it wasn’t surprising as it happened because it was at a side altar against the wall. My experience was not markedly dissimilar from Fr. Simon’s: It was beautiful and powerful to have the priest praying those prayers with us instead of at us, even though he was praying in Italian and I had only a general idea of what he was saying.

    Now I have an answer for those who tell me how horrible it was then …

  18. momoften says:

    Our pastor prefers ad orientum, so out of the 2 weekend NO Masses, he does one Mass ad orientum and the other Mass facing the people.He actually began it with a few NO Masses during the week done ad orientum. He had a lot of grumbling!!!!BUT-has continued to do it and people are getting accustomed to the idea (whether they like it or not) Of course the other Mass is done EF, so that is not a problem. It is my preference, and I must say, it looks rather strange after some time when I do go to a NO with the priest facing the people. THERE is only one priest I have ever met that could do a NO facing the people, and he has since died. I have NEVER seen a NO consecration done with the most humblest sincerity it would bring most to tears during consecration. RIP Fr Val.

  19. Gregorius says:

    Well I guess you could say- “once you turn your back, you’ll never go back”?

  20. amicus1962 says:

    Yatzer, the GIRM requires the use of a chair from where the priest would perform certain actions. This is the norm in parish churches. Having said that, however, the side altars of St. Peter’s Basilica do not have any “presider’s chair” by the altar as far as I can remember, and the priest has no choice but to place the missal on the mensa of altar from the beginning of the Mass, turning only towards the faithful on those six occassions mentioned in the GIRM. Do Masses at these side altars violate the norms of the GIRM? I suppose so, since the GIRM does not distinguish between Masses at side altars and Masses at parish churches. But if the Holy See is okay with this, why can’t it be alright in regular churches?

  21. Gaz says:

    @Yatzer. Side altars are typical places for what GIRM describes as “Mass at which only one Minister participates”. In other words, this is a typical private Mass. In these circumstances (e.g. p256) GIRM prescribes that the priest may remain at the altar. This is a good option if there is no chair.

  22. Magpie says:

    I think the objection to ad orientem comes down to spiritual immaturity and poor catechesis. There is a need for constant conversion. We need to realise it is not what I prefer or what makes me feel good, it’s about what God prefers and therefore what benefits my soul, rather than my feelings and preferences. Plus, ad orientem feels better anyway!

  23. Kerry says:

    “the Pope had sent a letter to all priests telling them that they had to face the people.” Hmm…I’d wager the sisters could get way more than 220K for this letter! Heh.

  24. Genna says:

    All the NO Masses at Brompton Oratory in London are said ad orientem. I reckon there would be an uprising if they decided to celebrate versus pop. (unlikely!).
    One pp I know was attempting to say Masses ad orientem but the last one I attended he was versus pop. which was a surprise. I wonder if somebody complained and the unsympathetic bishop ordered it to stop. I hope not.
    I always feel awkward watching the priest chew the Host so I look away. But where to look if the altar is not in the Benedictine arrangement?

  25. Joel says:

    It was great to see this post today. I hve been hearing the “Rev. Know It All” for some time on Relevant Radio and have been thinking, he and Father Z need to somehow join forces. Fr. Simon has been doing some fantastic “pontificating”, as he calls it, on the very topics near and dear to those of us who have been robbed of our Catholic Culture.

    Hmmm… a new dynamic duo maybe.

  26. FranzJosf says:

    Last summer, as I was wandering around Naples, I walked down the side street that runs along the Epistle side of the Duomo, happened upon a weekday Mass in a parish church, with the young priest facing ad orientem at the free-standing altar. Was very surprised. In Italy? But it was great.

  27. pelerin says:

    What beautiful words from this Pastor. I do hope and pray that more and more will benefit in this way from celebrating ad orientem. It seems it will take time as not all will gain immediately from this experience. A couple of years ago I attended a Mass said ad orientem by necessity as it was in a side chapel. I was pleased at this – until when it came to the Our Father the Pastor turned round to us the congregation and recited it with his back to the altar. Once again the closed circle. I was dumbstruck.

  28. TJerome says:

    If I were a priest and someone became angry at me because I celebrated a portion of the Mass ad orientem, I would invite them to the rectory for coffee and sit down with them and go over the rubrics in the OF Missal. I might show them a photo or two of the Holy Father celebrating Mass ad orientem. If they’re still angry after seeing that it’s in the Missal and seeing those photos of the Holy Father , well then they have the problem and need to get over it. This pastor sounds like a wonderful and deeply prayerful man. That parish is lucky to have him.

  29. Gail F says:

    Wow, the thing that really jumped out at me about this piece was not the priest’s reaction — although that was powerfully moving — but the fact that it is so difficult to do what the essay presents as an obvious thing to try: just follow the directions for once! It sounds so simple, but it would be almost unthinkable for many priests. Maybe this should be proposed for all priests: Pick out a date (it can be a mass with generally low attendance), announce that you are going to try a permissible variation in the liturgy, and just DO it. Don’t wonder what it would be like, try it out. So often we go on and on about what we think something would be like, without any evidence beyond our imagination.

  30. Sliwka says:

    Hmmm… a new dynamic duo maybe.
    But which one is Batman and which is Robin?

    I was particularly saddened by his description of the reaction of the people. I can understand some people being shaken, taken a-back, or uneasy—but “infuriated”. I rarely get infuriated about anything!

  31. RichR says:

    Beautiful story.

    I think catechesis plays a big part in preparing a congregation for this type of thing. As long as they understand why something is happening, the reaction tends to be more mellowed out. Most people out there aren’t liturgical scholars. They just want to know what to expect.

  32. EoinOBolguidhir says:

    For Amicus 1962: I am very fortunate to attended a parish of St. John Cantius in Chicago, where the extraordinary form and the ordinary form are both celebrated daily. When the ordinary form is celebrated on Sundays, it is , ad orientem and in Latin, always with chant and excellent music (yesterday Faure’s Miss Basse). The priest sits in the traditional location, on the epistle side of the sanctuary facing the Gospel side of the sanctuary; a similar arrangment is used at the Brompton Oratory. While he faces the altar less than in the extraordinary form, he does not face ad populorum except as directed by the GIRM, and then only briefly.

    As I sat participating in Mass, I wondered, why did Bugnini bother revising the Mass? When it is celebrated ad orientem and solemnly, it is no different to the man on the street than the extraordinary form. This is where you are so very perceptive, and where I agree with you strongly. The main violence done to the Mass in the last forty years is architectural. While the changes to the calendar and the unwieldy three year reading cycle may have been put into place to prevent anyone from returning to the extraordinary form, the architectonic changes act as an impediment to celebrating the ordinary form with the utmost reverence. I can’t believe these changes weren’t intended to work together to achieve the results we see all around us today. And if the architectural changes hadn’t happened (and they happened unnaturally quickly), then there would have been an ability to keep the Mass much as it had been, as you comment suggests.

    The answer is baldaquins.

    If you put a baldaquin over every free standing altar, and replace the tabernacle to the appropriate spot (i.e. where you describe the priest’s chair being placed), I believe that you would have a legitimately traditional arrangement that would facilitate celebration of either form of the Latin Rite with reverence and harmony. I want to start a National Apostolate of the Baldquin. We can work on the altar rails and the calendar and readings later.

  33. Brian Day says:

    Some people loved it, most didn’t like it, some were infuriated.

    I would imagine that the infuriated ones are true “Spirit of Vatican II” Catholics. I would really like hear the reasons of those who just didn’t like it. My guess that the biggest reason was in the end, people don’t like change.

  34. priests wife says:

    Actually- this is exciting- would that most priests would address/face the people these 6 times and then address the Father as the leader of the people- with his face to the Father

  35. Brother Paul Mary says:

    I have been quite surprised during my time in Cork (two months only) to find people who have hardly any idea of the controversy with regards to liturgy being quite open to things from the past.

    One of the things on my mind recently is how to tell these people nicely.

    Br. Paul

  36. Henry Edwards says:

    Of course, it would be a shock to most congregations if some Sunday morning the priest turned ad orientem without any warning or preparation. But there are reports of parishes where careful catechesis in advance has done it’s job.

    Several years ago at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville (SC)—which admittedly already enjoyed a tradition of very reverent liturgy—Fr. Jay Scott Newman devote the first five sermons of Lent to a period of parish discernment as to whether to go ad orientem:

    Turning Together Towards the LORD
    “On the five Sundays of Lent, Father Jay Scott Newman devoted his weekly bulletin column to explaining the origin, meaning, and purpose of the priest and people standing together on the same side of the altar during the offering of the Eucharistic Prayer, a custom often called praying ad orientem (towards the East) or ad Deum (towards God). Here are the texts of those five bulletin columns:” [Click link above]

    My understanding (from afar) is that—after this careful explanation and preparation—the “turn towards the Lord” went well, with no significant complaint. Perhaps some on the scene there can comment.

    I know personally of a couple of instances were a priest has turned east just one Friday or Saturday weekly without much complaint. Not being a priest myself, it’s easy to be brave about this, but I wonder whether priest’s fears of parish reaction are sometimes exaggerated. [Fears of episcopal reaction may be another matter.]

  37. Julia says:

    Strange. I graduated from Catholic high school in 1962. Not that long before we learned the “dialogue Mass” which was thought to be a huge innovation. We had lessons at the Catholic high schools so that we would know what to do during Mass and the congregation could learn from our example.

    From the time the Council started soon after until the new Mass was introduced in 1969, you never knew what you were going to see or experience at Mass. Missals were useless and they started using throw-away booklets and guitars took over the choir’s spot. It seemed like chaos with all the experimenting going on. The example was set and people got used to unexplained changes.
    I don’t recall anybody getting angry or shaking a finger in the priest’s face over the continually changing Mass.

    A visiting retired priest said Mass in my parish this past Sunday. He added lots of ad-libbing all during Mass. It’s kind of startling now, but that used to be the norm – I think it’s only the really older priests who still do it now.

  38. xgenerationcatholic says:

    I go to a really orthodox church so maybe I’ll nicely ask our pastor if he’s ever considered ad orientem. I remember one priest saying that “people used to leave at communion time” and now they don’t, and they behave better if they are being watched. I don’t know if that’s true. I’d hardly think supervising the people is a good enough reason for not having ad orientem.

    I love listening to Fr. Simon!

  39. everett says:

    I would love to have mass said ad orientem in my parish, unfortunately the altar is built such that it is right at the edge of the sanctuary so that no one can stand in front of it facing the altar. Sadly, this probably means that short of a renovation of the sanctuary, that both ad orientem and EF are probably never going to happen.

    In the good news, our priest is very faithful and can always be counted on to say the black and do the red, so I’ll take what I can get.

  40. susanna says:

    Betcha the people that left at communion shouldn’t have gone to communion anyway, so now they all do.

    Rev Know It All fan.

  41. momoften says:

    Odd, how back in the pre Vatican II days, nobody complained….well maybe because they allowed lay people some decison making authority in the music, lectors etc. used in Mass, and that was good. Really, do you think people (especially the feminists of the church) want to do anything that represents the ‘good old days’. Laypeople have been given too much of a role in the Mass, in decision making, and now we can’t stop it….The question is, just who is in charge here….obviously the Pastors aren’t, and the Bishops won’t. Brick by brick the change must come, so that people can and will accept it. I don’t think priest should just back off of good things, because people are not comfortable with it.

  42. ttucker says:

    I’ve actually started closing my eyes for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and imagine the celebrant as if he were ad orientem. Sad but true.
    I find it more uplifting than watching the priest full on.
    I wish Benedict would start celebrating this way and direct everyone in the Curia to do the same. Then I think you would start more bishops and parish priests doing so.

  43. Andy Milam says:

    @ momoften,

    I miss Fr. Val too. He was a saint among men. Tortured spiritually and given no real quarter until he came to SS. Cyril and Methodius. It was an honor to MC for him while I lived in Detroit.

    I pray for his cause to be opened.

  44. TJerome says:

    I wrote this fine priest a letter of support.

  45. The other day I posted a comment here in which I lamented the polarization of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. If we had more priests with experiences like Fr. Simon, maybe there would be hope for a middle ground. Maybe the sad part is that things move so slowly that I just won’t live long enough to see it.

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