QUAERITUR: Praying “ad orientem” as a family in the home

From a reader:

Since I have found your blog, I have read it with much interest. You
recently had a post regarding “ad orientem” at Mass. What would be
“proper”/traditional way to have a catholic family pray. We often pray in a circle but should a family all be facing the East when praying?

When I write about prayer “ad orientem” I am thinking mainly about our official liturgical worship.

However, when you are praying together in the home, if you have a crucifix or an image of Our Lord on the wall in a prominent spot, why not “orient” your prayer toward it? Seems like a good idea? No? Everyone facing the same way, all towards a nice crucifix, or an image our Our Lady when saying the Rosary (though she always redirects our gaze back to her Son) could also help relieve any sense of self-consciousness someone might have.

That said, how happy I am to have this question be about prayer in the home!

Holy Church has referred to the family home as “the domestic Church”. As an image of the sacred and consecrated place we know as a “church”, the family home should also be filled with prayer. A church or family home without prayer is like a ruin or tomb.

The important thing is to pray, no matter which way you face.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    A few years back I was running a youth group at a SSPX parish. When we said “right, let’s say the rosary” everyone instinctually looked around for some holy picture to pray at. We’d always wind up praying together facing some object in common that was outside any of us.

    I always thought how much this contrasted with protestants (and some more ‘up to date’ Catholics) who seem to instinctively face each other when they pray in a group.

  2. dmwallace says:

    I couldn’t help but think of the prophet Daniel who “went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God” (Dan 6:10).

    In the apocryphal Acts of Paul, in the last moments before St. Paul’s martyrdom, the Apostle “stood with his face to the East and lifted up his hands to heaven and prayed a long time.”

    According to Tertullian in his Ad nationes 1, 13, and his Apologeticum 16, 9-11, Christians prayed facing east both liturgically and in private.

    If we pray facing east in the church, why shouldn’t we do it when praying in the domestic church?

  3. dmwallace says:

    I would remind JP Borberg that those sitting in choro in a monastery or in a seminary chapel, for example, are sitting antiphonally and therefore “facing each other” when they pray the Divine Office or assist at Holy Mass or other devotions.

  4. Ralph says:

    This is a great and timely post for me. We need more family prayer.

    A friend shared with me a statistic that I think is important to this conversation. A common thread held by the majority of saints was active family prayer, especially a family rosary, in their childhood years.

    I suppose we can say weather or not one faces east, toward a cross or in a circle, family prayer has lasting impact on a child.

  5. Choirmaster says:

    Family rosaries from my childhood were done mostly in the car. So, we were all technically facing the same direction.

    When I would lead the choir in prayer before/after rehearsal I would shuffle over beside the sopranos and lead them from there. Facing the same direction, of course. This was just my way of avoiding the “prayer circle” thing, which, coincidentally, looks a lot like a versus populum liturgy.

    And every time I’ve seen/participated in a public rosary said in a church (lead by a layman or woman) the leader has been sitting/kneeling in a pew closer to the sanctuary. Obviously, all were facing east. (I’ve never seen this done in a church-in-the-round.)

  6. Pious families of the Eastern Church set up their Ikon Corner on the North Eastern Wall of the main room. Hence everyone faces East during all prayers.

  7. Supertradmum says:

    We always couldn’t have our icons and such on an Eastern wall, as we mostly lived in apartments, and sometimes the East would be where the bathroom was. This calls for common sense. We did have icons everywhere, including east. But, religious objects, or a prayer corner, or icon wall are all very good ideas, especially for very young children who can easily change behavior for a “special corner”. We always had a May Altar, for example, and a special place in the living room where we changed the icons for the closest great feast or saint’s day, placing the icon representing the feast, or the saint, in a prominent place, with flowers. So, for December 6th, we put out St. Nicholas for a few days before and after, or for the Baptism of the Lord, and so on.

  8. jhayes says:

    dmwallace said:

    In the apocryphal Acts of Paul, in the last moments before St. Paul’s martyrdom, the Apostle “stood with his face to the East and lifted up his hands to heaven and prayed a long time.”

    According to Tertullian in his Ad nationes 1, 13, and his Apologeticum 16, 9-11, Christians prayed facing east both liturgically and in private.

    “ad orientem” refers to “liturgical east”, not the compass direction. “Liturgical east” is whatever direction you look to see the altar from the main part of the church.

    In St. Peters, in Vatican City, “ad orientem” is actually due West by the compass. [Not for the celebrant at the altar. That’s why at a certain point they turned around.] At St. John Lateran, it is Southwest. At the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, “ad orientem” is a few degrees West of due North.

  9. dmwallace says:

    The expression ad apsidem may be used to denote a liturgical celebration which is not literally oriented, i.e. facing cardinal east. You are conflating the expression ad orientem with the expression “liturgical east.” A liturgical celebration at the main altar in the Vatican Basilica is literally celebrated ad orientem, that is, in the direction of the rising sun. The pope celebrates Mass facing East. Historically, in cases like the many Roman basilicas which have altars in the western end of the nave and thus the priest would face the people, the faithful would sit on opposite sides of the nave, antiphonally, and face east during certain portions of the liturgy. The center of the nave is reserved for liturgical expressions.

    I suggest reading Uwe Michael Lang, Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer, ISBN 1586173413.

  10. jhayes says:

    dmwallace said:

    A liturgical celebration at the main altar in the Vatican Basilica is literally celebrated ad orientem, that is, in the direction of the rising sun. The pope celebrates Mass facing East.

    Yes, facing the people – versus populum – as in most churches, when the OF is celebrated.

    But which way would he face if he were celebrating the EF?

    In the case of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the celebrant is facing either North or South depending on which side of the altar he stands on.

  11. FXR2 says:

    In our house we usually set up numerous statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Michael, The Holy Family, Our Lord, and various other saints and light candles surrounding them. We then sit around the kitchen table and pray the rosary. This arrangement helps to keep out six children occupied and is almost a prefigurement of the ”Benedictine” arrangement.


  12. JP Borberg says:

    @dmwallace: I was talking about what Catholic kids did instinctively. I don’t think what priests and religious are instructed to do by the rubrics is particularly relevant.

  13. mike_e says:

    I grew up never having experienced Mass ad orientem, and yet when I did for the first time, it felt strikingly familiar and comfortable. I realized later that it felt so “right” because it paralleled how my family prayed the rosary together when I was a child… my mother or father leading us, and all of us facing the crucifix, supplicants before God.

  14. James Joseph says:


    It might be worthy to note that the men in the choir-field are not facing each other, keeping vigil. They are standing at attention along the King’s Highway awaiting His arrival.

    With that said, prayer circles frighten me. They make for too captive an audience.

  15. NoraLee9 says:

    I am particularly blessed to have matching pictures of the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts, hung over a sliding terrace door, facing due east. After hubby trots off to work, I am able to pray as the sun rises. Very inspiring.

  16. Blackfriar says:

    jhayes, when the Pope celebrated in St Peter’s pre-Vat II (ie EF, but it was not ‘E’ then!) he always faced actual East, ie towards the people. Mind you, scholars like Jungmann and Bouyer held that the people also faced East, ie away from the altar (which was partly obscured by a curtain, anyway) during the Canon. Of course, they didn’t have our crowds, and may have stood to each side. The altar in the Constantinian basilica, too, was originally not over the Confessio (above St Peter’s tomb) (as the modern altar is) but further down the nave… at least, I read that somewhere. Such was certainly the case in Carthage, as we know from a homily of St Augustine. Interestingly, Augustine criticises the youths for slouching on the altar rail during his homilies! Sometimes he preached from there, near the altar, but if the crowd was large, he used a wooden pulpit in the apse, near the cathedra. In any case, for the Christians of late antiquity, facing East for prayer was considered very important.

  17. Blackfriar says:

    Origen (died mid-3rd century) makes an interesting comment on this subject: [citation?]
    Suppose a man has a house… facing another way and prefers to turn that way when he says his prayers, on the ground that where the doors and windows do not face east, the sight of the sky is more conducive to recollection in the soul than the sight of a wall. He should be told that… his house faces this quarter of the globe or that because men have decided that it should, whereas the superiority of the east to the other parts of the world comes from nature. What is of natural law must be considered superior to what is laid down by positive law.

    So clearly for the Christians of Origen’s acquantance, at least, turning East was important for prayer at home, as well as in Church. But, as everyone agrees, I’m sure, don’t fuss too much about which way you are facing… it’s just wonderful that as a family you are praying!

  18. Blackfriar says:

    Here in Papua New Guinea (whence I write) people are still generally buried in such a way that they will be facing East when they rise on the Last Day. Is that custom common elsewhere, I wonder? (I have heard it is so in parts of Europe …)

  19. ReginaMarie says:

    Dittoing what Hieromonk Gregory said — it is a common practice for Eastern Catholics to have their family icons on an eastern wall so that all family members would be facing east while praying. The iconostasis & altar in Eastern Catholic Churches also tend to be built facing eastward.

  20. jhayes says:

    To answer my own question about a church oriented North-South, I looked up the photos of Bishop Slattery’s mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (on the FSSP site)

    He celebrated “ad borealis” by the compass, but “ad orientem” by the convention that “liturgical East” is the direction people in the nave look to see the altar.

    The result was that he and the people sitting in the pews bolted to the floor in the nave were looking in the same direction (North).

    St. Peter’s doesn’t have the problem of having fixed seats bolted to the floor. If the celebrant stands behind the altar, facing East for the EF, it would be possible to set up the movable nave seating with people facing each other across the aisle. To look in the same direction as the celebrant during the Canon, the people would have to look sideways away from altar and the celebrant.

    Having the celebrant face West for the EF would avoid that awkwardness. It will be interesting to see what choice is made when an EF mass is celebrated at the main altar of St. Peter’s.

  21. PaterAugustinus says:

    The Tradition is that even private and home prayer should be oriented towards the East, when possible. “For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west: so shall the coming of the Son of man be.” We expect our Saviour to return from the East, and He is the Sun of Justice, rising in the East with healing in His wings. Christians have always situated themselves to the East when praying, when possible. In Orthodox homes, every reasonable effort is made to put the main icons (the “icon corner”) on an eastern wall, and families all pray facing it, in the same direction.

    Of course, God hears our prayers in any direction! But, it is a good reminder to us, to keep our focus towards the East. That exterior focus should help our interior focus, which, in the long run, is the main point.

  22. heway says:

    How wonderful to hear that a family is praying together. All we hear about is that they don’t have meals together! We face west as our house shrine is mostly on the mantel. ‘Light of the World” centered on the wall, Blessed Father Baker, Blessed Kateri, St. Charbel, the Sacred Heart, statutes of Our Lady of Victory and the Black Madonna. Our East wall has shelves with many ‘santeros’ on them. They are made by local New Mexican artists.
    We have a small cemetary alongside our country church and the gravestones all face East. So it looks as though the bodies face East also. Have to admit that I never thought about it before…thank you!

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