QUAERITUR: A priest must defend “ad orientem” for the Novus Ordo

From a priest starting ad orientem worship in his parish. Heavily edited:

… [The dean] supports my decision for ad orientem in the Novus Ordo this weekend.  It will be in English.  He warned me that the bishop will give me heck.

My question is: Where does Rome/any documents back up this practice if I get a phone call?

My response right now is that my confrere in the neighboring parish has
“one-sin” penance services, Easter Vigils at 4 p.m., and other liturgical abuses and not one word is said.

I just want to have my ducks in a row.

I wonder how effective it will be pointing to the bishop’s failure in governance as a defense of your own good practice.  Just wondering about that.

First, I suppose one could ask for a document which requires that Mass be celebrated versus populum.  There isn’t one, of course.

Also, one could point out that the rubrics of the Missale Romanum assume that Mass is celebrated ad orientem, since there are moments when the priest instructed to turn to the people and then turn to the altar.

I want to ask readers to chime in with references to documents or with good and useful arguments.  You can keep the “I like X better!” to yourselves.

That said, here is a piece of documentation which could be useful.


Prot. No 2086/00/L

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in no. 299 of the Instituto Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which, during the Eucharistic liturgy, the position of the priest versus absidem [facing towards 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:

Negative, and in accordance with the following explanation.

The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account.

It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [towards the people]. The clause ubi possibile sit [where it is possible] refers to different elements, as, 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. It reaffirms that the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (Cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29 [1993] 245-249), without excluding, however, the other possibility.

However, whatever may be the position of the celebrating priest, it is clear that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God, and that the principal, eternal, and high priest is Jesus Christ, who acts through the ministry of the priest who visibly presides as his instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the Eucharistic Synaxis. The physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principle orientation of the sacrificial action is [toward] the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is a legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to, be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [towards God through Jesus Christ], as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which participates, is entirely turned versus Deum [towards God] as its first spiritual movement.

It appears that the ancient tradition, though not without exception, was that the celebrant and the praying community were turned versus orientem [towards the East], the direction from which the Light which is Christ comes. It is not unusual for ancient churches to be “oriented” so that the priest and the people were turned versus orientem during public prayer.

It may be that when there were problems of space, or of some other kind, the apse represented the East symbolically. Today the expression versus orientem often means versus apsidem, and in speaking of versus populum it is not the west but rather the community present that is meant.

In the ancient architecture of churches, the place of the Bishop or the celebrating priest was in the center of the apse where, seated and turned towards the community, the proclamation of the readings was listened to, Now this presidential place was not ascribed to the human person of the bishop or the priest, nor to his intellectual gifts and not even to his personal holiness, but to his role as an instrument of the invisible Pontiff, who is the Lord Jesus.

When it is a question of ancient churches, or of great artistic value, it is appropriate, moreover, to keep in mind civil legislation regarding changes or renovations. Adding another altar may not always be a worthy solution.

There is no need to give excessive importance to elements which have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words which express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.

Vatican City, 25 September 2000.

Cardinal Prefect

Francesco Pio Tamburrino
Archbishop Secretary

That is in reference to the GIRM 299, which is mistranslated in the official English translation.  That is why the CDW clarified the grammar of the Latin, above.

Remember, no document requires versus populum worship.  The rubrics of the Latin Missale Romanum presupposed ad orientem worship.  The Latin edition is the norm above all and it is always valid for use everywhere.  There are good motives for changing to ad orientem worship, including the catechetical advantage it brings in teaching about the interior orientation we all need at Mass.

At the same time, keep in mind what Joseph Ratzinger wrote about the transition to ad orientem worship.  It should be done with care.  I made some PODCAzTs about this.  Try one here.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    It’s very interesting. Recently I have discovered among the authenticated writings of three figures revered by dissenters claiming them to one of their own which show thoughtful consideration of various arguments, open to the times and the Holy Spirit, and with the apparent trend of an age to throw everything up for grabs and to doubt, who re-examined, and, having considered arguments quite fully, go on, in the very time period, to then favor, the Latin as opposed to lame or stripped down English translation, and, ad orientem posture of the priest celebrant. Two being laity and female. I was stunned to discover these and really so long after they wrote I agree with the conclusions they reached back then.

  2. Frank H says:

    benedetta, could you direct us to those authors and the writings you have in mind?

  3. The real problem here is that I don’t think a suitcase full of documents is going to help a parish priest who is celebrating versus episcopus. The bishop is simply going to say, “I order you to stop this, and I don’t have to give a reason, because I am competent to regulate the liturgy in my diocese.” If I were in such a position, perhaps a useful document would be a petition from a group of parishioners requesting such a change. I would also consider a polite note to the bishop along these lines:

    Your Excellency:

    After prayerful consideration and research, I have determined that I would like to offer Mass ad orientem. This venerable tradition has much to recommend it, and I believe that if I implement this correctly, there will be few complaints and the people of my parish will see more clearly what the Mass is and will benefit spiritually. As a courtesy to you, I am asking for your support before I proceed. I know that bishops take lots of heat when people don’t understand changes that a pastor makes, and I don’t want you to be blindsided. I think if we work together on this, we will all benefit. If you or the chancery staff have any suggestions to make such a process go more smoothly, I am anxious to hear them.

    Yours In Christ,
    Fr. X.

    Granted, this could simply be met with a resounding “No way!” but it has more potential for success than just doing it and risking the bishop’s wrath. It gets tempting to be the Lone Ranger, but it isn’t always effective– better to try to gather support among the people and among one’s superiors first. One might also try to enlist the support of the diocesan director of liturgy, the director of priest personnel, and other chancery figures before dropping the bomb. After all, we are a communal Church, not a bunch of free-lancers. While the purists in us hate to play this sort of politics, the reality is that we can’t all be General Sherman.

  4. Regarding the famous controversy concerning EWTN telecasts of ad orientem Masses … Extracts from pages 287-298 of Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica:

    Bishop Foley promulgated a particular law in the diocese of Birmingham, outlawing the ad orientem option on October 18, 1999. ….. To protect Birmingham’s faithful from the “illicit innovation or sacrilege” of the priest turning his back to them, Foley decreed that all Masses would henceforth be celebrated at a freestanding altar, and, consistent with local tradition, the priest would face the people. The law would become effective three days before the consecration of Mother’s chapel. [The Shrine at her Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Hanceville.] ….. [On October 24] Mother dispatched Bill Steltemeier and Michael Warsaw to Rome to hand-deliver letters requesting the intervention of the Vatican congregations responsible for the Mass and for Church doctrine. Mother knew he had an ally in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ….. Angelica’s letters and her powerful advocate triggered an almost immediate response. A fax from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments to Bishop Foley on November 8 condemned his decree, ruling that:

    1. No custom presumed or otherwise could intervene against the liberty of the celebrant to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy in accord with the rubrics of the Missale Romanum.

    2. . . . After having heard the opinion of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has expressed to this Congregation its own serious concerns, this Dicastery has concluded that individual Diocesan Bishops may not prohibit celebration of the Sacred Liturgy facing the apse (ad orientem), and therefore, it must respectfully ask that Your Excellency withdraw this Decree because it is contrary to the ius commune with regard to liturgical matters.

    . . . on February 2, Bishop Foley unveiled his “Norms for Televising the Mass in the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama.” With the release of the norms, Foley withdrew his decree of October 18, 1999, “in its entirety, including the severe penalties. ….. Unable to outlaw the ad orientem Mass, Bishop Foley simply forbade its broadcast. “All televised Masses will be celebrated in such a way than when the priest is standing at the altar he is facing the faithful.” . . . As of this writing, Mass continues to be celebrated each morning ad orientem at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery, sans the cameras.

  5. Fr Martin Fox says:

    Well, I imagine the priest who wrote the letter thought of all this…but maybe not; in any case, it might help others reading…

    If I were going to introduce Mass celebrating ad orientem, I would do the following:

    1. Lay an appropriate foundation of catechesis.
    2. Try it at Masses away from the weekend, even perhaps away from the regular schedule. I.e., if you have a special Mass not on the regular calendar, that’s a good time to try it out.
    (This is the stage I’m at, by the way.)
    3. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Be patient. [Yes.]
    4. If you do it at daily Mass, do it only at certain ones, warn people, so those who have issues at least aren’t surprised and have options. I did this with Mass in the O.F., in Latin. Once a month on Wednesday morning. No complaints except from two people who never attend daily Mass.
    5. When you do it, right before, explain what you’re doing and that it’s allowed. Invite comments after Mass, regardless of pro or con.
    6. After Mass, ask people’s reactions. [Not sure about that one.]
    7. If you have folks you know would like this, make sure they come to these Masses. [Good.] Ask them to speak up; tell them that if they know others who feel as they do, to be sure and request this from you. Why? Because if you can tell folks you are acting on requests, that carries weight. If you can point to people who are drawn to this, that helps.
    8. Expect to hear how doing this will ruin everything or is a diversion from something else more important and be ready for that. [For sure.]

    [I look forward to hearing how it works for you! o{];¬) ]

  6. TravelerWithChrist says:

    We have a priest who tried that in our diocese. He explained what he planned to do, that he would be doing so from that point forward, and why. I believe 2 weeks later he went back to facing the people. He never mentioned it again. The bishop told him to stop, and that the priest must be obedient to him.
    This priest stopped because he had already experienced the powers of the bishop – he had been previously removed from his parish in the city, and sent to the farthest outskirts. He was lucky he had friends, he was almost removed from a parish altogether…

    We must pray for our good priests…and conversion of our bishops.

  7. ipadre says:

    I have no document to quote, however, Blessed John Paul II celebrated his daily Mass Ad Orientem, with a multitude of bishops, priests and laity present throughout his Pontificate. Although Benedict does not open his daily Mass to visitors, it is the same chapel as used by Blessed JP II and still Ad Orientem. If it is good enough for the Holy Father, it is good enough for all of us.

  8. Fr. Basil says:

    If the Pope can celebrate ad orientam in the Sistine Chapel, why cannot a priest do so in his own parish?

  9. skull kid says:

    I think at the core of this problem is pride and a supreme lack of humility. If the priest were to turn to face God, the people (most of them?) would be thoroughly enraged that ”Father has turned his back on US!!!” A man-centred religion could not tolerate the focus being on anything but man, and that is why this subject, perhaps more than any other (liturgical?) issue, promotes such a frenzy of anger and resistance.

  10. RichR says:

    I suggest that laymen who SUPPORT their local Priest’s decision to offer Mass ad orientem send the Priest and the Bishop a letter of thanks….and maybe make a note that you are upping your weekly donation to the parish as long as this continues……..and that you will encourage other members to do the same (write a letter and reward the actions of the priest with more donations).

    Yes, the purist would say, “I don’t like these politics,” but if enough people create a monetary incentive to continue the practice, the one or two naysayers will have less sway in the matter.

    That is the power of the pewsitter: the pocketbook. Sad, but true. And that is one way we can show our approval of bold actions of a priest. Imagine a conversation with the Bishop when he calls after receiving one or two nasty letters (something unavoidable in any change). “Father, maybe you should reconsider this.” “Your Excellency, I’ve received many compliments, and the collections are up 40% – and they are telling me it’s because they LIKE Mass this way!” “Maybe you should bring this up at the next presbyteral council meeting…”

    Okay, I can dream.

  11. benedetta says:

    Frank H, For various reasons I would rather not post the references. Two are accessible by internet. I may try and put together what I noticed and send on to Fr. Z who could see whether anything could be made of it and bring historical context which I lack being sort of new to the serious inquiry. I of course was raised with all of the terrible and uncharitable stereotypes and was made to feel with gut instinct that anything pre Vatican II was along the lines of the inquistion, medieval and evil and to even think of it was a mortal sin…which just had to be buried of course because no one went to confession…With surprise after surprise after unexpected surprise again in the course of my life I have been led unpredictably and even with resistance and fear, denial and embarrassment to finally recognize that it was never as authoritatively taught in the first place, that good people have been defamed, that there is no evil, and further that so much of what was condemned is really far from evil actually quite good, healthy, beautiful and helpful in the life of the faith. One could chalk it up to a great misunderstanding, and for so many it is only that having never had opportunity to experience much else, but for the ones who taught that and went after other things instead one can only take from it that it was chosen and deliberate. I am sure they felt themselves righteous and entitled, back in the day.

    Suffice to say that what I have discovered is that faithful lay people, some quite famous and revered even in the dissident world, in total innocence and with the supposed invitation of the spirit of an age, fully looked into it, and with better minds than most, attenuated to the work of grace, to the beauty of the effects of grace in relationships, to the violence and degradation which easily results in so ugly terms when grace is refused entry, and came to these conclusions on their own, feeling free, encouraged even, to evaluate alternatives. I think those vehemently opposed to anything but lockstep 70s style liturgy wish for us to believe in a somewhat vicious caricature of the face of an advocate for reverent and beautiful liturgy however these voices are very far from that, they are the very picture of mercy, kindness, beauty and social justice. What can I say. Sometimes you reach a point in life and you wonder whether you have been had. But then you realize the immense gift of love that you have received and no amount of guilt and shaming and embarrassment from another even one important or successful or whatever the going criteria could not convince to go back. As the Rolling Stones, wild horses couldn’t drag me away…

  12. benedetta says:

    I will say also that as far as the “medieval” label which we are supposed to cower from in fear and whip ourselves over in the shame, one of life’s little surprises came when as a sophomore in entirely secular college I was required to read Boethius and discuss in classroom atmosphere which was respectful and not remotely religious. Is St. Francis “medieval”? And I’ve read quite a lot of atheist and agnostic and stuff of other religions and cultures as well, some required and some celebrated as the latest trend in pop culture, I have entertained and considered it all, fully. But to just throw out a particular time in history and condemn, well, it is not really scholarly, it is not open-minded, it is not charitable, it is not respectful of the communion of saints, it shows no appreciation for the arts and culture, no acknowledgment that the human spirit seeks these in all times and cultures and often attains great heights despite challenges. I think that the Church needs to get over the obsession with the 70s and now move on, that was then.

    I like Fr. Martin Fox’s outline. When totally expecting to see, all sorts of stereotypical things, I see in this way of praying with the community to God only humility, openness, strength, all so needed right now in these times.

  13. Captain Peabody says:

    Henry Edwards–

    How interesting. This recent Ascension Thursday, I attended an EF High Mass in the Birmingham, AL Cathedral. The celebrant was none other than Bishop Emeritus David Foley, the same man who issued this decree banning the ad orientem posture ten years ago; and the Mass was, of course, celebrated ad orientem, in quite a lovely and reverent fashion. Perhaps he’s changed his mind since then?

  14. Father K says:

    Fr Martin Fox in suggestion number 6 says that after Mass he would ask people’s reactions and Fr Z cautiously comments ‘not sure about that one.’ As barristers say, never ask a witness a question unless you know what the response will be. However, I can be as certain as I can be that the people would make their reactions known, often in no uncertain terms, without the celebrant having to ask them!

  15. Cesare says:

    Not having been born until 1979, what I find hard to understand is how Mass facing the people became so widespread, so universal, so quickly after the Council. The section in Sacrosanctum Concilium or the GIRM that briefly speaks about the placement of the altar seems to me so lacking in definitiveness or force, that I’m left wondering how Mass towards the people became the norm everywhere so fast. Did local bishops at the time issue their own instructions on the position of the celebrant and the altar that led parishes everywhere to build new altars? Does anyone who was around at the time know?

  16. Max Hernandez says:

    It is true that in our time 99% of Masses in the Roman Rite seem to be celebrated Versus Populum, and most people would presume that that is how it is supposed to be. Thus, you will find yourself arguing against the status quo. However, when it comes down to it, all the evidence of the Magisterium, of history, of theological significance, and, I would add, pastoral prudence stands behind you. There are almost no reliable studies left that support the bogus claims used to turn our altars around versus populum.

    In high school, I wrote a thesis : “Conversi ad Dominum: The Case for Orientation in the Roman Eucharistic Liturgy.” I found that it is a most wonderful argument to make because you find almost zero serious arguments against ad orientem.

    Also, in the University this year, my plan is to have an evening Mass followed by dinner with catechesis. These Masses will be celebrated in Latin and Ad Orientem, both in the NO and EF. I think that this is the best way to introduce it. Make it an addition, rather than barging in to an already scheduled Mass and changing things. The loss of orientation was the most significant change of the past years, and this must be made clear.

  17. Captain Peabody, I would guess that, rather than changing his mind, he was subject at the time of the controversy described to immense pressure from outside the diocese. As may continue to this day.

  18. Glen M says:

    The problem is most pewsitters don’t know what the purpose of the liturgy really is supposed to be. I was one of them. Most think the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (commonly misnamed as the Sunday Liturgy, Eucharist Celebration, etc) is a happy community gathering where the Last Supper is re-enacted. When one realizes Mass is a Sacrifice, ad populus is thus eventually concluded to be the priest turning his back to God. Based on leading indictators (Mass attendance, Confession lines (or lack thereof) use of contraception, etc) it is clear the people have turned their backs too.

  19. Elizabeth D says:

    One “figure revered by dissidents” who strongly believed in correct liturgy was Dorothy Day. In the book “The Re-Formed Jesuits volume II” (p 82) the author Fr Joseph M Becker, S.J. recounts firsthand an incident he witnessed in which Fr Daniel Berrigan was to celebrate Mass while visiting Day’s farm (“both certified liberals who had spent time in jail for breaking federal laws”): “There was no chapel, we all gathered around a large table, wearingthe roughest sort of clothes. Father Berrigan put a stole around his neck and was prepared to celebrate Mass wearing only that abbreviated vestment. But Dorothy Day insisted that all the prescribed vestments be worn. ‘It is only a law,’ argued Father Berrigan, ‘and a foolish one at that.’ Responded Dorothy: ‘On this farm we obey the laws of the Church.’ And so we did.” A footnote adds: “Dorothy Day enjoyed the full confidence of Cardinal Strich, who would for example allow priests in trouble to say Mass while they were her guests on the farm–priests who were not allowed to celebrate Mass anywhere else.”

  20. Bill Foley says:

    from Bill Foley

    EWTN televised a Gregorian Chant seminar from Mundelein. The main person at the event suggested that a priest might want to imitate the altar setup of Saint Peter’s for a public papal Mass. There are six large candles on the altar plus a large crucifix. These almost act as a shield so that the concern of facing the people or not almost becomes moot.

  21. Ceile De says:

    OK so the bishop requires EWTN to have the priest face the people for televised Mass but he didn’t say where the cameras should go. Clearly, problem solved if they go behind the priest.

  22. Banjo pickin girl says:

    Elizabeth, Dorothy Day was very orthodox in many ways. I have recently been reading about her. She was what we might call “complex.”

  23. Imrahil says:

    Some reasons, though no ordinances.

    1. To worship ad orientem is a sufficient expression of the Common Priesthood of the Baptized.

    Of course I heard the prejudices against “the priests of old time, very much feeling their own importance, even turning the back to the people”. But when I first considered the question, what my feeling was is the following: Can it be that the Catholic Church, really, with all her teaching about Special Priesthood and the kind, really should have adopt so equalizing a ritual? Is it Catholic? Nor can I see how the prejudice given above has any basis in fact or unprejudiced feeling.

    Well, of course it is. What was the Catholic Rite for millenia is not un-Catholic; and of course the Special Priesthood is sufficiently expressed in it. Only to get that clear.

    2. God is the counterpart of the congregation praying to Him; as such – leaving aside the theoretical point that he is omnipresent and that he is present among the faithful – addressing him has its proper form in turning away from the people. Or looking to heaven; but what obstacle would set our feelings of not-making-a-show to that.

    3. Some parishes have fittingly adopted the custom to pray the General Intercessions ad orientem. Now the whole of Holy Mass is prayer to God, even though it is more. Hence follows. (Likewise, a good argument for Latin would be that, without interruption by authorities, the People seems to have decided to have the Panem de coelo praestitisti eis plus subsequent prayer in Latin in, what seems to me, the vast majority of instances. Holy Mass is adoration.)

    4. Ad orientem is, most of the time, similarly ad tabernaculum. Now I’ve heard that according to an authority no less than our present Pope, Holy Mass was traditionally never an adoration of the Blessed Sacrament already present (which he is sure to have said in better words), and there’s something to be said for it. But I also think there’s something to be said, under the title of appropriate evolution, that Holy Mass has also assumed the direction to the Blessed Sacrament already present.

    5. The arguments about the appropriateness of the Eastern direction.

  24. Imrahil says:

    And three arguments against versus orientem:

    1. The altar stands in a way that makes it impossible.

    2. Justus judex orbis terrarum; the Ordinary From ad orientem is conceived to be a mixed rite by the populace, and in matters not plainly contrary to law, and possibly even in matters contrary to mere-human law, there is such a thing as the normative force of what-is-fact. Note that this is not an argument against the Extraordinary Form.

    3. It is one thing that to command what is contrary to the law, where there cannot be obedience. It is another thing to command, or persistently wish, something where only commanding so is contrary to the law. In this case, obedience (even to the bishop’s personal feeling only) may be a good idea among other good ideas.

    I don’t personally conceive other arguments; to be sure, outdatedness or “underlining the priest’s importance” is none. And I don’t either think that no. 2 or 3 constitutes a ground for moral obligation, or No. 2 for the bishop to command if by law he may not command.

  25. Centristian says:

    “He warned me that the bishop will give me heck.”

    I wonder why. Where would the bishop find the harm in it? What could a bishop possibly object to about it? Do we need a Summorum Pontificum, now, for priests who want to say Mass in the ordinary form at the original altars of their parish churches? At some point, the madness needs to end and the Church needs to stop being afraid of itself all the time.

    I recommend this video, incidentally, to any who imagine that the ordinary form of Mass, celebrated ad orientem, even in English, even concelebrated, cannot enjoy the same majesty and dignity of the extraordinary form of Mass:

    The Ordinary Form of Pontifical Mass concelebrated “ad orientem”:


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