A priest speaks about celebrating Mass “ad orientem” for 5 years

ad orientemThis is from Vultus Christi, the blog of Fr. Mark Daniel Kirby is Prior of the Diocesan  Benedictine Monastery of Our Lady of the Cenacle in Tulsa, Oklahoma established by H.E. Most Rev. Edward Slattery.

Fr. Kirby speaks about his impressions of celebration Holy Mass “ad orientem”.   This is useful for priests who are thinking about this but perhaps are still hesitant to just do it.

My emphases and comments.

Be sure to go to his place and leave an good comment in his combox!  Spike those stats!

Five Years of “Ad Orientem”

By Father Mark on December 16, 2010

Taking the Step

December 17, 2010 will mark the fifth anniversary of my standing before the altar ad orientem for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I began offering Holy Mass exclusively ad orientem at the Monastery of the Glorious Cross, where I served for a number of years as chaplain. I prepared the change in Advent 2005 with an appropriate pastoral and mystagogical catechesis.

Then Came Summorum Pontificum

After September 14, 2007, Summorum Pontificum made it much easier to celebrate the traditional rite of Holy Mass and, since undertaking my mission in Tulsa, I have offered the Extraordinary Form daily, having no desire and seeing no need, in the context of contemplative monastic life, of celebrating in the Ordinary Form. [With proper catechesis the same could be said for a parish.]

No Going Back

That being said, after five years of offering Holy Mass ad orientem, I can say that I never want to have to return to the versus populum position [Do I hear an “Amen!”?] While traveling, I am, however, sometimes obliged to celebrate versus populum, notably in Ireland, in France and Italy; it leaves me with a feeling of extreme inappropriateness. [Understandable.] I suffer from what I can only describe as a lack of sacred pudeur, or modesty in the face of the Holy Mysteries. When obliged to celebrate versus populum, I feel viscerally, as it were, that there is something very wrong — theologically, spiritually, and anthropologically — with offering the Holy Sacrifice turned toward the congregation.

Ten Advantages

What are the advantages of standing at the altar ad orientem, as I have experienced them over the past two years? I can think of ten straight off:

1. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is experienced as having a theocentric direction and focus. [Not anthropocentric.]
2. The faithful are spared the tiresome clerocentrism that has so overtaken the celebration of Holy Mass in the past forty years. [Do I hear another “Amen!”?]
3. It has once again become evident that the Canon of the Mass (Prex Eucharistica) is addressed to the Father, by the priest, in the name of all.
4. The sacrificial character of the Mass is wonderfully expressed and affirmed.
5. Almost imperceptibly one discovers the rightness of praying silently at certain moments, of reciting certain parts of the Mass softly, and of cantillating others.
6. It affords the priest celebrant the boon of a holy modesty.
7. I find myself more and more identified with Christ, Eternal High Priest and Hostia perpetua, in the liturgy of the heavenly sanctuary, beyond the veil, before the Face of the Father.
8. During the Canon of the Mass I am graced with a profound recollection.
9. The people have become more reverent in their demeanour. [Amen!]
10. The entire celebration of Holy Mass has gained in reverence, attention, and devotion.

Good work, Father.  WDTPRS KUDOS.

I wonder if people can add more reasons.

Also, perhaps for the sake of your own discussion so this issue, you could try to come up with good reasons for the versus populum celebration of Mass and test the arguments.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    Ad Orientem worship could lead to a stronger Catholic identity.
    Ad Orientem worship could help guide people toward contemplative prayer, which is the highest form of prayer .
    Ad Orientem worship could lead someone from theological heterodoxy to orthodoxy.

    I wonder if most arguments for versus populum worship are based on emotional and inadequate sociological/anthropological grounds….not sure, but I could be completely mistaken on this one.

  2. Sixupman says:

    I know exactly how Fr. Kiby feels. Some churches I enter, leave me with a sense of complete alienation. When I witness a Celebrant sitting with his back to the Tabernacle, I feel physically ill. In the North German Rhineland, there are many sterile churches [in fact some Lutheran appear to be akin to Catholicism as we know it – a la Anglo-Catholicism’], but then as you enter the door, you immediately feel the True Presence and, lo and behold, things appear quite normal. These are very strange and disturbing feelings, friends have stated they see me becoming ashen faced.

    A church in Gosforth, Northumberland, endowed as to furnishings by an Italian benefactor, re-ordered to something akin to a Masonic Temple, with baldachino torn down. A desecration, Tabernackle to the side altar, in front of which are stacked chairs – no opportunity to kneel in prayer there. And so it goes on an on.

    It is all parcel of the same mindset as ad populum.

  3. a humble convert says:

    It seems natural for the faithful to receive Holy Communion whilst kneeling and to receive on the tongue when the celebration is ad Orientem. The Mass is the Mass of course, but masses celebrated versus populum too easily degenerate into ‘gatherings’ with little or no sense of the supernatural or numinous. Have you noticed how often at such masses priests add extra bits? Sentences begin with ‘AND’ (as in-‘AND may the Lord be With you’)or we are wished a happy Sunday or words are expressed with a ‘meaningful’ tone. None of this seems to happen when the celebration is ad orientem. And sadly I fear some priests like the chatty engagement with the faithful.

  4. southern orders says:

    I favor the ad orientem position for the ten very good reasons specified. But as one who is old enough to remember the very first Sunday in my parish where I grew up when the priest celebrated Mass facing the people, I can remember how exciting it was. When I was a small child I would ask why the priest didn’t face the people and what he was doing up there. I was really mystified. My father, a very traditional Catholic, thought that maybe mirrors could be placed up there so we could see. He never thought, though, that the altar could actually be pulled away from the wall so the priest could face the people.
    The first Masses facing the people was the Tridentine Mass, so one saw all of the actions of the priest that previously were obscure, but then when the 1970 missal came, all of those actions were eliminated which was odd since many thought the whole point of facing the people was for the laity to see what the priest was doing especially during the Canon and the “fraction” rite.
    The first few years of Masses facing the people were with priests who for all of their priesthood had celebrated the Tridentine Mass and their manner of celebrating even the revised 1970 missal was in the same style as the Tridentine Mass and very reverent. It wasn’t until liturgists starting chastising priests for celebrating the “new” Mass as though it was the “old” Mass that the more personality driven expressions of the new Mass began to occur as well as paraphrasing of the new English texts and making things up as you go. Creativity then began to reign supreme as well as sloppiness and a lack of attention to detail. But in fact the 1970 rubrics left out much of the detail anyway. Since I celebrate both forms of the Mass now, I often wonder, why don’t I celebrate the EF Mass once in a while facing the congregation so they can see all the extra “rituals” that were stripped from the OF Mass. I don’t think there is any liturgical law preventing that, nor a liturgical law preventing the OF Mass from being celebrated ad orientem.

  5. Joseph-Mary says:

    Ad orientem helps the Mass not be a ‘spectator sport’. It leaves the priest free to concentrate on the holy mysteries and not need to be aware of the many eyes upon him.

    I try not to watch the Mass but to pray it and it is ever so much easier to do this with the priest as orientem.

  6. Beautiful reflection and thanks for sharing it.

    Fr. Mark says: 2. The faithful are spared the tiresome clerocentrism that has so overtaken the celebration of Holy Mass in the past forty years.

    Helping the people to understand this is a matter of explaining that it is not the face of the priest they should be seeking in the Mass, but the Face of Almighty God.

    Versus populumintroduces stimulii which hinder us from the more contemplative dimension of the Mass. These are subtle. For example, when a priest makes eye contact with us in the pews it is a stimulus which can pull a soul out of a deeper, prayerful quiet into which one has entered with God. This may seem to fly in the face of the “communal” aspect of worship, but it is quite to the contrary.

    The contemplative dimension of the Mass is not only deeply communal, but it is communal with those here on earth AND with those whose spirits have gone to purgatory or heaven, as well as, with the holy angels.

    In a nutshell, the ad orientem posture is conducive to the contemplative dimension of the Mass.

    I am aware of many more subtle stimulii after having been in a parish where Mass is celebrated ad orientem. The posture was probably the greatest contributor to my sudden change in undertanding of worship itself, but it was not the only thing. I spoke of them in, “Unconditional Worship in the God-centered Mass” (Homiletic and Pastoral Review, April 2006), but have found much better ways to explain them now (and have found more) . I will try to begin posting on the subject again, perhaps over the Christmas break, starting with the release of that article on the web.

  7. Glen M says:

    Ad populum is one of the changes (i.e. vernacular, Communion in hand) people like Luther and Calvin came up with to differentiate their “worship services” from the Mass.

  8. flyfree432 says:

    I wonder if I will still have a job if I happen to slip this article to a few priests I know…

  9. Rob Cartusciello says:

    It is remarkable the number of non-practicing/former Catholics I have encountered who wish the Church would restore the EF to common practice.

  10. Jason Keener says:

    Ad Orientem Worship helps Catholics to understand that there is a larger continuity at work in the Church’s liturgical and doctrinal life. Catholics do not just wake up one day and completely re-orient the Church’s Liturgy or Doctrine, which is the impression many Catholics now hold after the Council. Ad Orientem Worship is a visible sign that the Church always remains in a posture of continued humility where we together remain focused on the Lord.

  11. TJerome says:

    Beautifully stated. What a wonderful priest. I’d like to kidnap him for my parish where Father “Entertainer” reigns supreme.

  12. Thank you, Father, for taking note of my post.

  13. Fr. Kirby: It was a good one! Thanks for contributing to the ongoing catechesis the Catholic people need.

  14. Fr. Basil says:

    \\Ad populum is one of the changes (i.e. vernacular, Communion in hand) people like Luther and Calvin came up with to differentiate their “worship services” from the Mass.\\

    Actually, Luther himself continued to use the term “mass”. Even the Augustana used the term, and not perjoratively.

    Every Lutheran church I’ve seen is set up for the minister to face east.

  15. Golatin5048 says:

    Very good reasons Fr. Kirby!

    I want to ad one more.

    My church is an old church, Built in 1848. When the new mass and everything was going on, they tore out the Baptismal fount out of the Baptistery in the back of church and made it into a bathroom.(sad yes, I know) My associate pastor was talking to me one day and said: “I hate to see people leave to go to the bathroom, they can not even wait an hour”.

    The priest get’s SO distracted by people getting up and walking away, or someone coming in late, that he can not concentrate on the mass. It is not like he does not want to concentrate on the mass, it just happens.

    God Bless you Fr.Kirby!

  16. Fr Matthew says:

    While I can understand the lay people wanting to be able to see what is going on, as a priest I personally prefer the “ad orientem,” for many of the reasons cited by Fr Mark.

    Just two days ago I was explaining the E.F. to a young couple I know. I talked a little about the way it is offered “ad orientem” and partly in a low tone of voice, and they caught on right away to the value of this. The husband said, “Oh, so it’s a more intimate experience of the Mass in the presence of the Holy Spirit!” Pretty good insight for someone who has never been to the Mass in the Extraordinary Form… I think I might see him there soon.

    I am going to offer Sunday Mass in the E.F. two hours from now (after having offered two Novus Ordo masses already this morning). I’m still nervous because of my inexperience (this will only be my third public Mass in the E.F.) but I’m looking forward to it. I get a lot out of the Novus Ordo, but there’s something very nourishing about the recollection, the solemnity, and the sense of continuity that I find in the E.F…. I will be doing it monthly now at our parish, alternating with the priest who has been offering it here weekly for a while now.

  17. An excellent find Father….

    All of the reasons Fr Kirby mentioned are excellent.

    I’ve noticed this especially in the older Churches, that the priest is out of place whenever he’s celebrating VP. (I feel that way anytime, but in particular for the older Churches). Whenever I’m on the altar serving, It’s always easier for me to focus upon the mysteries when the Mass is offered Ad Orientem, my inner OCD comes out about people staring at me nit-picking at what I’m doing…It’s gotten to the point where I close my eyes, whenever I’m serving VP Masses, staring at the people (outside when you’re supposed to) is something that bothers me greatly. God willing I’ll never have to say a Mass facing the people when i’m ordained. I can only imagine how much more distracted the priest is than I am.

  18. ipadre says:

    I have been celebrating Mass Ad Orientem on Friday & Saturday since Lent 2009. I find it a great blessing. Although it is a great benefit to the faithful, it is also a great blessing to the Priest. Just one of the benefits is, not seeing the facial expressions of the people in the pews. Our focus rightly becomes on Christ and the Father, as it should be when we face the people, but it is so much easier to focus on Our Lord, when we face the same direction as the people in the pews.

  19. benedetta says:

    I thought about it and the best that I could come up with for the versus populum would be some sort of appearance with the priest and commonly EMHC (and possibly choir and servers) facing the congregation from their position on that side of the altar I suppose it takes on some appearance of having the Eucharist or the Lord at the center. I guess that is innocuous enough but in these times we are looking together towards our Saviour and Redeemer, the ultimate leader of the Church, the source and summit of our faith. We kid ourselves if we think that somehow if we encircle the altar we are ‘concelebrating’ for it is still the annointed priest who steps ahead of us as servant to offer the sacrifice of the Mass on behalf of all. But with an ad orientem posture the priest becomes that much more ‘one of us’ and less about status and more about servant in our Lord’s footsteps.

    I know that it is painfully obvious to most here but for those of us who are on the way it is good to also point out that the proclamation of the word and homily and distribution of communion are all “facing the people”. So there are appropriate times it seems for both postures already incorporated into the Mass.

  20. TJerome says:

    ipadre, what you’re doing is laudable but do you intend to celebrate Mass ad orientem on a Sunday?

  21. ipadre says:

    @ TJerome – brick by brick, step by step. When the ground is ready for the seed!

  22. Ben Yanke says:

    Benedetta makes a very good point. Even when the Mass is celebrated ad orientem, the priest isn’t facing away from the people that much. It’s really only for the incensation(s) of the altar (very minor though), part of the offertory, the canon, and the purifications after communion. Overall, it isn’t that much time spent “away from the people”. Anyways, during the canon (80% of the “back time”) the focus should especially put on the Lord.

  23. Geremia says:

    Everyday the Ottaviani Intervention keeps seeming truer and truer to me; it mentions ad orientem versus ad populum.

  24. Henry Edwards says:

    More generally, I’d conjecture that with a universal return to ad orientem celebration, the liturgical abuses that so plague the ordinary form would gradually die out.

    Not that versus populum celebration necessarily is the direct cause of every possible liturgical abuse, but rather that most of them are pretty obviously inconsistent with the attitudes that ad orientem worship inculcates.

    One might suggest that, if sabotaging the development of the Novus Ordo as a reverent and stable form had been the goal, what better way than to require that it be universally offered versus populum.

  25. irishgirl says:

    Beautiful article, Fr. Mark-all your ‘ten reasons’ are superb and right on the money!
    Thanks, Fr. Z, for posting this!

  26. maynardus says:

    “Good reasons” to celebrate versus populum? OK, I’ll give it a shot:

    1.) Devious wreckovators situated free-standing altar in such a way that one must be at least 6′ 10″ tall in order to celebrate ad orientem;

    2.) Gaggle of (former) E.M.H.C.’s unable to sneak into sanctuary and (attempt to) self-Communicate with celebrant;

    3.) In the same vein, celebrant can better monitor attempts by amateur liturgists in the pews to lead peculiar (Mahonyesque?) methods of “active participation”;

    4.) Priest is able to face Tabernacle which is conveniently situated in former broom closet “Blessed Sacrament Chapel” at rear of church;

    5.) No necessity to purchase new (old) vestments with artwork and symbols on the back instead of the front;

    6.) …. No! Stop! I can’t take it! Please don’t make me think of any more! I’m starting to think like… THEM! My brain hurts! ;-)

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