On the matter of “ad orientem” worship

Over a Southern Orders (you may remember their problem with rats) there is an excerpt from an article by my friend Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, CO, who presently works for the CDW in Rome.  Fr. Lang has been contributing good scholarship on celebration of Holy Mass ad orientem.

Fr. Louis Bouyer (+2004) was Lutheran minister who converted and was ordained in 1939. He was a member of the Oratory (as is Fr. Lang). He was an important figure in the Liturgical Movement and a co-founder of the Communio project.

My emphases and comments.

An excerpt of a longer article on Louis Bouyer and Church Architecture

Resourcing Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy from “The Institute of Sacred Architecture.”

by Uwe Michael Lang,

The Liturgical Movement and Mass “facing the people”

Drawing on his own experience, Bouyer relates that the pioneers of the Liturgical Movement in the twentieth century had two chief motives for promoting the celebration of Mass versus populum. First, they wanted the Word of God to be proclaimed towards the people. According to the rubrics for Low Mass, the priest had to read the Epistle and the Gospel from the book resting on the altar. Thus the only option was to celebrate the whole Mass “facing the people,” as was provided for by the Missal of St Pius V to cover the particular arrangement of the major Roman basilicas. [In many Roman basilicas there is a versus populum orientation based on the model of St. Peter’s.] The instruction of the Sacred Congregation of Rites Inter Oecumenici of September 26, 1964 allowed the reading of the Epistle and Gospel from a pulpit or ambo, so that the first incentive for Mass facing the people was met. There was, however, another reason motivating many exponents of the Liturgical Movement to press for this change, namely, the intention to reclaim the perception of the Holy Eucharist as a sacred banquet, which was deemed to be eclipsed by the strong emphasis on its sacrificial character. The celebration of Mass facing the people was seen as an adequate way of recovering this loss. [“Adequate”.  It seems to have been far more than adequate.]

Bouyer notes in retrospect a tendency to conceive of the Eucharist as a meal in contrast to a sacrifice, which he calls a fabricated dualism that has no warrant in the liturgical tradition. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “The Mass is at the same time, and inseparably, the sacrificial memorial in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated and the sacred banquet of communion with the Lord’s body and blood,” and these two aspects cannot be isolated from each other. According to Bouyer, our situation today is very different from that of the first half of the twentieth century, since the meal aspect of the Eucharist has become common property, and it is its sacrificial character that needs to be recovered[Amen.  And the way to do that is the return to ad orientem worship.]

Pastoral experience confirms this analysis, because the understanding of the Mass as both the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Church has diminished considerably, if not faded away among the faithful. Therefore it is a legitimate question to ask whether the stress on the meal aspect of the Eucharist that complemented the celebrant priest’s turning towards the people has been overdone and has failed to proclaim the Eucharist as “a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands).” The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Since the third century, the Eucharist has been named “prosphora,” “anaphora,” and “oblation,” terms that articulate the idea of “bringing to,” “presenting,” and thus of a movement towards God.


Bouyer painted with a broad brush and his interpretation of historical data is sometimes questionable or even untenable. Moreover, he was inclined to express his theological positions sharply, and his taste for polemics made him at times overstate the good case he had. Like other important theologians of the years before the Second Vatican Council, he had an ambiguous relationship to post-Tridentine Catholicism and was not entirely free of an iconoclastic attitude. Later, he deplored some post-conciliar developments especially in the liturgy and in religious life, and again expressed this in the strongest possible terms.

Needless to say, Benedict XVI does not share Bouyer’s attitude, as is evident from his appreciation of sound and legitimate developments in post-Tridentine liturgy, sacred architecture, art, and music. It should also be noted that Joseph Ratzinger does not take up the later, more experimental chapters of Liturgy and Architecture, where new schematic models of church buildings are presented. Despite its limitations, however, Bouyer’s book remains an important work, and it is perhaps its greatest merit that it introduced a wider audience to the significance of early Syrian church architecture. Louis Bouyer was one of the first to raise questions that seemed deeply outmoded then, but have now become matters of intense liturgical and theological debate.

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  1. APX says:

    At first the concept of ad orientem worship bothered me because I like to see what’s going on. However, once I learned more about it and understood why we do it, it only made sense to do it.

    Now that I’m back at the NO Mass for a few more weeks, I can’t stand Mass facing the people. It makes it so difficult to get into the mindset of the Mass being a sacrifice. We share our church with Mennonites, so our church has been stripped of all its distinctly Catholic items (ie: the tabernacle, crucifixes, images, etc) and our priest constantly refers to the altar as a table, and that “Jesus is truly present in the table” (*shudder*) and that we’re sharing in “the c0mmunion meal”.

    I know this has been damaging because when I try to explain what Mass is and why we go to Mass on Sundays to my mom, I get told, “No, that’s the other kind of Catholicism.” (!?!?!) Believe me. She didn’t use to think like this!

    On a happier note, I opted to attend the vigil Mass at the cathedral last night because our bishop was offering Mass, sorry, “presiding over the Eucharistic Liturgy” (Grrr! I hate this new language)and noticed a recent change at the back of the church on the wall just above the baptismal font. A strategically placed mirror, that when looked at from the altar, all the priest/bishop sees is the crucifix hanging on the wall behind him. It’s still Mass facing the people, but whomever is offering the Mass isn’t forced to look at the people. It’s sort of a pseudo-ad orientem for the priest. It doesn’t really do much to solve the misconception of the Mass being a sacrifice and not a meal, but I did get the impression from the bishop’s focal point and the way he said Mass, that it was directed to God and not to us.

  2. Fr Martin Fox says:


    These are my thoughts lately as well. At an upcoming Mass, on Assumption–an unscheduled one, but one I announced–I am thinking seriously of doing ad orientem. I have these unscheduled Masses on feasts that aren’t obligatory, and I “warn” that there will be lots of incense and chant, so those who hate that will know to stay away…Ad orientem has to be introduced gently, I think, but it has to be introduced.

    Readers: I’m not the only priest out there who wants to do these things; if I had parishioners “on” me to do this, it would strengthen my hand. Whose hand can you strengthen near you?

  3. MissOH says:

    Another by-product as the mass as meal (that was part of my RCIA back in the mid-1980’s) approach is that it gets muddied with how most people I know approach holiday meals. Think Thanksgiving- everyone is encouraged to attend and eat the family meal even people not a member of the family (friends) and family members who are currently having disagreements or who have conflicts with other family members. Ergo an approach where those who have serious/mortal sins they have not confessed or who are living lives in opposition to church teachings or even those who are not Catholic have been invited or allowed to receive the Eucharist because “it is a family meal”. Forget Paul’s teaching in the epistles about approaching worthily etc.

  4. mvhcpa says:

    One of the things that puts me off from many , but certainly not all, “traditionalists” is the complete disdain some of those folks have for the Paschal meal aspect of the Eucharist. I agree that the sacrificial aspect of the Sacrifice has been swallowed up by the meal aspect (pun NOT intended) to the utter detriment of the Church’s understanding of the Sacrifice of Christ re-presented through the Mass. Nonetheless, that fact is not a reason to eliminate any celebration of the meal aspect in our Liturgy nor to call the meal aspect a heretical notion, as I have come across in my wandering through some Traditionalist web presences.

    There was one television show (produced by a sedevacanist group, I believe) I saw that featured a commentator mentioning that the worst thing that happened to the Church was the perception of the Eucharist as a meal. This statement was made with the most disgust and contempt I ever saw expressed at a spoken word–bile was dripping from that fellows lips, as I have never seen before, as he spoke the word “meal.” Of course, perhaps that commentator was upset at the fact that many people, including many priests, emphasize “meal” to the exclusion of “sacrifice,” but it seemed to me by the context that he was contemptuous of the suggestion that the Eucharist was anything other than exclusively a sacrifice. That sounds like the “fabricated dualism” mentioned by Bouyer, but on the other side of the issue.

    I also remember one website reflecting on meal-vs-sacrifice which quoted some Saints/Martyrs to support the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist; the funny thing was, all of the cited quotes featured the Saints speaking of needing only the Eucharist for their “nourishment”–which sounds like the meal aspect to me.

    Ad orientem worship certainly connotes the idea of a sacrifice being made to God on our behalf, and we need that fundamental emphasis restored to our Liturgy. Not only that, going ad orientem will de-emphasize the over-emphasis that has been placed on the meal aspect of the Mass WITHOUT eliminating a true understanding and respect of the meal aspect, which is STILL communicated quite clearly through distribution of Holy Communion, even when received on the tongue and on our knees (as opposed to receiving Our Lord like we would pick up a bag of fries at McDonald’s).

    So basically, I agree that we definitely need to return to promoting the primary sacrificial aspect of the Holy Eucharist, but not by pushing the “fabricated dualism” too far the other way so that the meal aspect is eliminated.

    Michael Val
    (who recognizes, even in the light of the primary importance of the sacrificial aspect of the Mass, we ARE STILL a people gathering together at the Banquet of the Lord at Mass)

  5. RichR says:

    I would agree that we should not lose sight of both aspects of the Mass as a sacrifice and a meal, but we need to remember that one is the outward form and one is the essence. The outward form is a meal, but it is primarily, in essence, a sacrifice. You cannot place them on equal footing. The Mass is a sacrifice by nature, therefore that is primary. Lose sight of that and you miss the point of the Mass.

    It is much the same as the marital act. Its primary end is procreation, but it has secondary ends of unity between spouses and alleviation of concupiscence. While these secondary ends are good to realize, the nature of marriage can be warped if they are given equal footing with the primary end. Then we start to get some of the excesses that you see in some Theology of the Body gurus.

    With regards to ad orientem worship, I agree with Fr. Fox. Supporters need to come out of the closet and ask their priests to do this. I asked our local priest to try a Latin OF Mass, and he has agreed. It was because my men’s gregorian chant group asked. We have a Missale Romanum (2002) editio typica tertia, I agreed to go over it with him and run through a couple of dry Masses (no bread or wine, just focusing on the texts) and then assist him as an altar server. After he is comfortable, the schola will come in and sing the people’s parts in Latin with the worship aids that Ignatius Press prints for a Latin OF Mass.

    He is willing to do this because there is support for him. We can’t expect the priests to just organize it all themselves. They need help setting this type of stuff up.

  6. Mike says:

    As someone who just served at a Funeral Mass (NO), where the deceased was cremated, and the ashes, by accident, didn’t show up for the Mass, and some of the family weren’t Catholic, and many of the family looked pretty darn un-Churched, and then…you know it…”On Eagles’ Wings”, and then…in the homily, zero mention of purgatory, the sacrificial efficacy of the Mass, the particular judgment, or even praying for the deceased….I think we need fundamental changes….sooner than later…souls are being lost.

  7. ReginaMarie says:

    “The sacrificial character of the Eucharist must find an adequate expression in the actual rite. Since the third century, the Eucharist has been named “prosphora,” “anaphora,” and “oblation,” terms that articulate the idea of “bringing to,” “presenting,” and thus of a movement towards God.”

    The terms prosphpra, anaphora & oblation are all still utilized in the Eastern Catholic Churches, where the Divine Liturgy continues to be celebrated ad orientem.

  8. Fr Martin Fox says:

    RichR said:
    “He is willing to do this because there is support for him. We can’t expect the priests to just organize it all themselves. They need help setting this type of stuff up.”

    True; but there’s more.

    A priest who goes down this sort of road will get a LOT of flak; ad orientem may even draw a phone call or note from his bishop. It helps a LOT when he can say he is responding to needs and requests that were expressed to him. More is better.

    I know, I know: you know priests who won’t listen. I’m saying, there are those of us who WILL. You have no idea how useful it is, for us…if you would simply call/write and ASK. Trust me, it is a useful thing to have in ones hand.

  9. UncleBlobb says:

    I associate the sacrificial aspect of the Mass with the Transcendent aspect of God, vs the immanent aspect of God. Fr. Z. has of course written about this many times already. And I, being one of humanity’s most sensitive of men, apparently, am extremely sensitive to architecture, music, and art, among other things. I relate transcendence of God and sacrificial character to ad orientem worship, central tabernacles, forward facing pews, long processional naves, beauty (not the Bauhaus, bricks, carpet, steel i-beams, concrete blocks, etc), altars and delios’, communion rails, etc. The lack of these things is really challenging my faith at present, since they are so widespread now. Perhaps the unavoidable connection between the sacrificial and banquet aspects of the Mass is an argument for an accent on the transcendent, sacrificial. I really don’t think people in today’s culture have an overabundance of transcendence of God, or sacrifice in their daily lives, so why would this need to be stressed in the Mass, if one takes the view of a balance of the two? Our host here has written about the need for an encounter with mystery in liturgy. I think the communal, banquet accent tends to eliminate this sense of the transcendant, of mystery. And also the current stress on egalitarianism between the celebrant and the congregation diminishes this. I would very much then like to know what Uwe Michael Lang means by the Pope’s “appreciation of sound and legitimate developments in post-Tridentine liturgy, sacred architecture, art, and music”. I like Michael Davies’ little book on the sanctuary, as well as Bishop Athanasius Snider’s book on proper posture for reception of communion (this last recommended by Fr. for explanations.

    RichR: Thank you for this example of a positive action taken.

  10. Imrahil says:

    The Eucharist is a meal (of sacrifice, as if I remember correctly Mediator Dei would say)… but no need to speak of a table. The Communion, after all, is done either at the kneelers or in the pews; not sitting around a table, not even (as I perceive) in the most modern forms of service, and that’s saying something. The same, it is (the Species of) bread only, or first (the Species of) bread then (the Species of) wine, not bread, then wine, then bread again, etc. etc., and some water in between, as would be the way of eating a meal.

    Holy Mass is still another thing: it is prayer; and prayer needs facing to the One who is prayed to. And anybody will recognize as pure sophistry without basis in feeling the (theoretically quite correct) fact that God is everywhere and therefore we could just face the praying multitude. No. The multitude does the praying. Hence, it is not to be looked at in praying.

    With an excuse for the rigorous tone; we have something quite unexplainable to the modern world: a general guideline (as I perceive it to be) that – odd, isn’t it? – may sometimes know of exceptions and still remain what ordinarily should be the way to do it

    I still remember answering the question of my teacher of religion: “What is the difference between big churches and chapels?” Well, chapels are rather for praying… I did correct myself, knowing also then that “technically”, or so, Holy Mass is praying… However, sometimes I’m struck with the thought that to both well known possibilities, “pray the Mass”, “pray in the Mass” a third has been added which is “pray after the Mass”.

  11. Novum Eboracense says:

    Please do read the entire article at “The Institute for Sacred Architecture”.

    Fr. Lang summarizes perfectly the motivations of those who advocated the “ad populum” orientation for the Synaxis of the Word. Initially they saw this as a way of restoring the proclamatory nature of the sacred readings within the rubrics then in force for Low Masses. This was a temporary solution to a much larger goal. Their aim was a noble one: to restore the balance expressed in gestures and movement that had once existed between prayer, praise, supplication, oblation and that of admonition, proclamation, communion. The former to be expressed “ad orientem”, the latter, “ad populum”.

    One could say that only later, as a result of the influence of liturgical and theological trends not in harmony with Catholic tradition, did “ad populum” orientation become the exclusive one for the entire Mass throughout the Roman Rite.

    Let us hope and pray that a comprehensive Liturgical Instruction is forthcoming from the competent authorities that will mandate and explain the necessary restoration of “ad orientem” to the Synaxis of the Eucharist.

    First the new translation of the Missale Romanum, then the reintroduction of “ad orientem”.

    Brick by brick!

  12. dad29 says:

    Well, it is clear that Benedict XVI has limited “appreciation” for “meal-theories.” He referred to them in his book “Jesus of Nazareth” and in essays pertaining to the Liturgy.

    He doesn’t like them, period.

  13. Glen M says:

    Thank you Fr. Fox for your personal insights and ‘call to action’ among the orthodox. While the Internet is a marvelous resource for education and communication, if all the orthodox use it for is complaining about how heterodox their parish is then an opportunity is being wasted. If the Holy Spirit gives someone the knowledge of how our liturgy and our belief has been damaged these past forty years then they have an obligation to use it along with their personal talents.

    If you yearn for a reverent liturgy and your pastor refuses then move. Once I was of the mindset that moving meant admitting defeat and that we should be working towards restoration from within our geographical parish. Sadly, that is a wasted effort. Other than a minor miracle, those who espouse the “spirit of V2” are not about to admit they are wrong. What will get their bishop’s attention is a depleting weekly collection.

    Parish shopping can still be done by visiting a parish on a Sunday to see their liturgy in person. It can also give you the ‘vibe’ of the community. Now that most parishes have websites you can save yourself some time by checking it first. In the quest for a reverent liturgy here are some good signs: an Extraordinary Form (obviously), a young pastor, Confessions offered more than thirty minutes Saturday afternoon, Adoration, Rosary, seminarian(s), catechesis. Not good signs: older pastor (60+) disinterest in Confession, social justice, abundance of ‘pastoral ministers’ or titles to that effect, many EMHCs, etc. Red flags include the words: welcoming community, relevant litury, vibrant faith, Council this, Council that, Eucharistic meal, near absence of the words ‘Catholic’ and ‘Mass’.

  14. benedictgal says:

    I got to meet Fr. Lang back in January during the Society for Catholic Liturgy conference in Houston. The man radiates holiness, humility and humanity. It was though I were conversing with a very young Fr. Joseph Ratzinger (I never told him that, but, it sure felt like it). As much as he is a scholar (and quite a learned one at that), he is just as spiritual and that was most evident in the manner in which he celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the EF and when he concelebrated with His Eminence Daniel Cardinal DiNardo and the other priests. The Church is certainly blessed to have a priest of his calibre and sanctity at the CDWDS.

    As for Ad Orientem, we, as the sheep, need to do what we can to prod our shepherds into restoring this venerable posture. Sometimes, the shepherds need to be reminded that they are leading the sheep and that we all need to be heading in the same direction. When the Lord passed before Moses, He had his “back” to him and Moses and the Ancient Israelites all faced the same direction, they were following the Lord. A shepherd can’t very well lead if he is always facing the sheep. If he starts walking backwards, he’s going to fall into a pit or trip on a stone.

    Pope Benedict XVI is trying to re-orient us in turning towards the Lord. Good and holy priessts like Fr. Lang are doing their part to help the cause. The sheep need to do their part and get their shepherds going.

  15. robtbrown says:

    A few points:

    1. The Mass considered as as Divine or Heavenly Banquet has little to do with the Mass as Meal theology that has been so prominent in the Church the past 40+ years. The former has roots in the Eastern Church and is eschatological. The reference is future glory. To anyone who has ever attended Eastern Rite liturgy the transcendental emphasis is obvious–the celebrants are separated from the congregation by the Iconostasis.

    2. On the other hand, the Mass as Meal concept has Protestant roots. The reference is not future glory but rather a past event–not the Passion and Death but the Last Supper. Protestantism adopted such an explanation because it allows for the denial of not only the Eucharistic Sacrifice but also Transubstantiation. The Eucharist, therefore, merely recalls the Last Supper, and the emphasis is on Communion, which symbolizes Christ giving Himself. The Eucharist as memorial (Hæc quotiescúmque fecéritis, in mei memóriam faciétis) in Protestantism is merely symbolic, a likeness only in the mind. In Catholic doctrine, however, the memorial is not merely a symbol but rather a sign (signum) in which there is actual participation–thus Transubstantiation and the Holy Sacrifice.

    3. For hundreds of years the maxim was that the Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s Passion and Death that was instituted at the Last Supper. In a Wednesday audience Paul VI tried to change that, saying that it was a double memorial–both the Sacrifice and Death of Christ and the Last Supper. This attempt at syncretism is no where to be found in the new catechism. Deo Gratias.

    4. Rather than the Meal and Sacrifice couplet so popular for some years, I prefer the Sacrament and Sacrifice couplet.

  16. Supertradmum says:

    Bouyer was required reading when I was doing my Theology degree. Most of the priests of my generation still call the Mass a “meal”, which used to cloud my eyes red, but now I just pray for those priests to come to a deeper understanding of what they are doing. I honestly do not believe that some of them believe they are offering the Unbloody Sacrifice of Calvary. Perhaps if they had infused knowledge from the Holy Spirit, instead of clinging to their old theological nonsense from the ’70s, they would be better priests. As it is, they are Protestants in theology as well as in practice. One wonders how many Eucharists are valid in certain dioceses, especially in the Midwest and in western Canada, where this fuzziness and insistence on the Mass as a “family meal” seems to persist.

  17. robtbrown says:

    Supertradmum says:

    One wonders how many Eucharists are valid in certain dioceses, especially in the Midwest and in western Canada, where this fuzziness and insistence on the Mass as a “family meal” seems to persist

    I don’t think that would affect validity.

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