QUAERITUR: Can the priest say the older, Latin Mass ‘facing the people’?

From a reader:

A local retired priest wishes to begin offering the EF of the Mass, but he wishes to offer it versus populum. He honestly believes he has that option. Is there a specific Church document forbidding this? If I can present this good priest with a Church document, I am certain he will comply. Thank you.

Unfortunately, nothing prevents a priest from being silly.

There are rubrical provisions in the older form the Roman Rite for when the altar is so arranged that the celebrant is “facing the people”. For example, I know a number of Roman basilicas which are so arranged.  I can think of some parishes where the mensa/altar, having been detached from the main altar, is so situated that there is now almost a cliff where the priest would have to stand to say Mass ad orientem.

Alas, I can’t right now think of any document that would absolutely prevent a priest from making this weird decision, which would almost certainly annoy nearly everyone attached to the older form.

It would also be interesting to know his thinking. For example, does he think this is a good way to introduce regular versus populum Novus Ordo goers to the older form? Does he think that by celebrating the Usus Antiquior “facing the people” that that would soften the blow? Be a transition?

For what it’s worth, I think this would be a bad choice.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. Rellis says:

    If it is a way to get a liberal parish not so scared of the TLM, I think this is a very good thing.

    If it’s a way to tell people who like to go to a TLM that they’re backwards and stupid, it’s a bad thing.

    All depends on the facts and circumstances.

  2. Bender says:

    Everyone should be facing the same way.

    That is to say, everyone should be facing the altar. If they happen to be on opposite sides of the altar, they are still facing the same way – toward the altar. [You misunderstand the orientation, I’m afraid.]

  3. Mark Nel says:

    Ah, the softly, softly middle of the road, let’s do everything in a sort of wishy washy kinda way that leaves no room for anyone to say we didn’t think of them. Nah, BAD IDEA. Better to do it right and arrange to have therapists on hand afterwards.

  4. Pumpkin Eater says:

    Sorry if this has already been covered, but while we’re at it, [RABBIT HOLE ALERT!] please explain why those of us not on the altar should be impeded from hearing all that is said by the celebrant and servers – why are there three levels of voice, only one of which is clearly audible in the pews? [AND IT’S OPEN!] Also, why are we discouraged from joining in the responses? I am sixty years old and have fond memories of attending and serving mass when it was in Latin. When Pope Benedict gave priests the right to say it again without special dispensation (the indult), our parish priest started saying a low mass once a month on Saturday mornings. I even served couple of them. What I didn’t remember from my youth is how quiet it was in the pews, especially during the low mass. Are you folks who favor the traditional Latin mass all in favor of the congregation not joining in the responses and not even hearing most of what the priest and servers say on the altar? [sigh]

  5. acardnal says:

    “Are you folks who favor the traditional Latin mass all in favor of the congregation not joining in the responses and not even hearing most of what the priest and servers say on the altar?”


  6. mhazell says:

    @Pumpkin Eater: Are you folks who favor the traditional Latin mass all in favor of the congregation not joining in the responses and not even hearing most of what the priest and servers say on the altar?

    [And more people follow down the rabbit hole.]

    That’s really the wrong question, as far as I see it. The better question to ask is the why.

    Why is it somehow necessary that the faithful hear what the priest says at the altar? After all, for the vast majority of the liturgy, we’re not being addressed. The priest isn’t talking to us, but to God.

    The assumption behind requiring (e.g.) all the faithful to make the responses and to be able to hear what the priest says at the altar is, in my view, an assumption that the Mass is primarily didactic rather than latreutic. Or, in other words, that the Mass is primarily about teaching rather than worship – and this is an assumption that I and many others here would consider at the very least damaging to an authentic, properly Catholic conception of what liturgy fundamentally is.

  7. Pumpkin Eater says:

    Thank you, mhazell. So, from the pew, how do maintain your mental presence? Do you read along in Latin or English, or do you try to just keep your own thoughts quiet and your heart open the whole time?

    [The rabbit hole just gets bigger.]

  8. Suburbanbanshee says:

    We’ve had this before. Some EF parishes do more “dialogue” or parish singing with the choir stuff, and some do less. It seems to be based on local expectations mixed with the priest’s training.

    A lot of the old, old devotions for Mass were a sort of lay response thing, like saying little aspirations or poems or prayers at various parts of the Mass, either silently or out loud, depending on the local temper. For example, most people say/think/whisper “My Lord and My God” at a certain point, and that practice is indulgenced. In Ireland, there were all sorts of “Welcome, Lord” poems and sayings at that point. Most devotional handbooks had all sorts of prayers and meditations for people to work through at various points of the Mass also. This is also responsive in nature.

    There are also sorts of ways to put yourself into Mass. There always have been. Some are more oblique or receptive than others. Find what works for you.

  9. John of Chicago says:

    I know that the Pope’s altar in St. Peter’s in the Vatican faces the people but were the papal altars of the other three major basilicas of Rome (Sts. John Lateran, Mary Major and Paul Outside the Walls) also designed with that orientation? Puzzled.

  10. The Usus Antiquior, at least to me from one in the pews, seems to be less about the latin and more about our proper interior dispositions, affections, and devotions towards God which the Usus Antiquior, with all of its rituals, stimulates. The priest ad orientem, the servers reverently assisting, the gestures, and spoken in the language of the Church together with all the other rituals involved increase our interior affections and devotions towards the Almighty – but this is not the ends that the mass is intended for. The Mass is a Sacrifice to the Heavenly Father and latin is used because it is the official language of the Church. When a bride and groom are united in matrimony they share a love that cannot be shared between others, it is a secret affair, a loving relationship that is unique between the Groom and his beloved Bride. This is how I see the use of latin – a secret love language between Jesus, the Groom, and His Bride, the Church. Lovers share a language, with secret expressions of looks, smiles, touches, and gestures that others may not recognize, but the Bride and Groom do.

  11. jhayes says:

    Why is it somehow necessary that the faithful hear what the priest says at the altar? After all, for the vast majority of the liturgy, we’re not being addressed. The priest isn’t talking to us, but to God.

    Yes, in the Extraordinary Form Mass. That is different from the Ordinary Form Mass, in which he is presiding over the assembly and speaking to God in the name of all present. Since he is speaking in our name we have to hear what he says and reply to signify our agreement. As the rubrics say:

    30. Among those things assigned to the Priest, the prime place is occupied by the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the high point of the whole celebration. Next are the orations, that is to say, the Collect, the Prayer over the Offerings, and the Prayer after Communion. These prayers are addressed to God by the Priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ, in the name of the entire holy people and of all present.[43] Hence they are rightly called the “presidential prayers.”

    32. The nature of the “presidential” parts requires that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen to them attentively.[44] Therefore, while the Priest is pronouncing them, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent.

    33. For the Priest, as the one who presides, expresses prayers in the name of the Church and of the assembled community; but at times he prays only in his own name, asking that he may exercise his ministry with greater attention and devotion. Prayers of this kind, which occur before the reading of the Gospel, at the Preparation of the Gifts, and also before and after the Communion of the Priest, are said quietly.


    [And now people are talking about something that is only tangentially related to the topic of the post.]

  12. mhazell says:

    @Pumpkin Eater: I find that, over the years, I’ve gotten a feel for what is said, and when it is said at a Latin Mass. I like my hand missal, though, and I do follow along often, particularly with the texts that change (e.g. the readings, the collect). But I also try to keep my heart open to the moving of God in the liturgy. I try to unite myself to Jesus; I offer my own offerings and prayers alongside the priest’s offering; I pray for myself, my wife, my family, my friends and the dead. I’m not sure I have that many other useful suggestions! But I would encourage you to persevere If you think it would help you, get hold of a hand missal, but make sure you don’t keep your nose in it too much!

    @jhayes: I am aware that the GIRM for the OF specifies that the “nature” of the presidential prayers requires them to be spoken aloud. I think, though, that what that “nature” is and what it means for liturgical praxis is up for debate. :-)

  13. I would offer several thoughts on this idea.

    First, if the hope is that people would “see better,” then they are bound to be disappointed. Remember, the priest will have candles on the altar–but even if not, what about the altar cards? The Missal? And he will spend a fair amount of time bowing–thus lowering his profile. So I’m not sure how satisfying the “seeing” will be.

    Second, about hearing everything. As someone else explained already, the priest will say some of the prayers loud enough to be heard, others not. But I think there is something entirely different at work, that is hard to appreciate when one is only familiar with the Ordinary Form, particularly as it is almost always celebrated. The OF is very talky, and because it’s in ones native tongue, the instinctive, irresistible response is to attempt to comprehend and digest the words. But–please attend!–this is not necessarily the right thing to do!

    The words spoken (or sung) in Mass are of a fundamentally different sort from almost any other words we hear in the rest of our daily lives. Think about it: we read a news item; we listen to a radio report; we enter into a conversation, either about sports, gossip, a family or work matter. All mundane.

    But that’s now how we “talk” and “hear” and “listen” at Mass. With the exception of the announcements and, more or less, the homily, there is no imparting of information here; no transactions; no attempt to instruct or explain.

    Now, all that may seem obvious, but only seems; in fact, I think more people miss it than anyone realizes–simply because our faculties are attuned to a mundane sort of listening and apprehending, and it’s not really reasonable to assume people can switch into a new–and largely unfamiliar–mode.

    You see, when we’re entering into worship, our encounter with words–spoken or sung–is just so different. Much of the “input” I receive in most mundane listening is mine to do with what I will. Just like the little notes we all write for ourselves, and then throw away when we’re finished. And when I dialogue–when I am in a conversation and I respond–my response is equivalent. You tell me about Uncle Joe, and I tell you about my neighbor.

    But not the Mass. The words we receive are, in a sense, sacramental: full of power and grace. They aren’t measured by their practical application, and it’s presumptuous to think we can really “comprehend” them. They are, truly, mysterious. We aren’t equal to them. Thus, the response we offer are given to us–not ours to shape–because they are part of the same united mystery of the liturgy.

    So this is where translating is a peril–people suppose that because Sanctus, Sanctus is now rendered Holy, Holy, they “understand” what it means to call God “holy.” Really? I don’t. Who really does?

    But back to whether we ought to hear everything. Why? The Mass is like Christ: both divine and human. In the Mass, we are at a unique juncture of heaven and earth; so it stands to reason that what happens is both earthly and heavenly. So tell me: if everything that is said in Mass is spoken in an earthly way, how is the heavenly communication expressed, and made meaningful to us?(Remember, God doesn’t need help in getting the “meaning” of Mass–but we do.)

    Pumpkineater, you see my point? The many words of Mass, spoken yet almost unheard, can serve to communicate that–as does, in my judgment, the use of a sacred language.

    As to how one reacts to the silence: I agree it’s challenging; yet with a different mindset (which I think these elements of the Extraordinary Form cultivate), one can be very intensely engaged, yet be surrounded in silence and mystery.

  14. Oliveira says:

    Fr. Z and readers, what about a Bishop asking explicitly for a priest to say Mass in the E.F. facing the people, because of the position of the church? That happened in a city here in Brazil, where the main altar of the church faces West, instead of East. Explaining better: to a person sitting in the pews, looking at the altar, that person is looking to “earth’s West”. So, if the priest should also turn the same direction, he would be facing West, also.

    The problem is that the local Bishop didn’t accept that, claiming a rubric about the necessity of the priest to face “East”. That is, literally the “real East”. Anyone knows about this specific rubric or law? I thought that “East” meant just the cross and the tabernacle above the main altar in “E.F. style altars”.

    I didn’t ask the priest involved in the situation at the time about this problem because I was not so close to him. The fact is, since that day, he has celebrated the E.F. “versus populum”. Note: the altar of the church was built recently, detached from the wall, clearly made for the Ordinary Form.

    So… any thoughts?

  15. robtbrown says:

    Geoffrey says:
    “Are you folks who favor the traditional Latin mass all in favor of the congregation not joining in the responses and not even hearing most of what the priest and servers say on the altar?”

    No. I think that is one of the weaknesses of the Extraordinary Form.

    It’s a weakness of the EF low public mass–that’s why I favor the dialogue mass.

  16. mamajen says:


    Ad Orientem technically means that the priest and people face east, but there is no requirement for that any longer. Now it is understood to mean that the priest and people face the apse. I think the bishop is a bit misguided, or just making excuses.

    As for the new altar…new or renovated churches are supposed to have the altar built away from the wall so that versus populum is possible (though it is not required that the altar be used that way).

  17. mamajen says:

    The way the question is worded leaves me with the impression that this is not the case here, but every once in a while there may be a church that was designed strictly for versus populum, making ad orientem difficult or even impossible. The church I go to, which is now strictly ad orientem for both the TLM and the NO, was renovated to add steps and a platform in front of the altar, which had been placed for versus populum and was awkward to use the other way around.

    I don’t think there is truly a need for the priest to ease people in to the idea of ad orientem, but I can see how it might be a concern. I really like ad orientem, but not being able to see everything the priest is doing is something I miss a bit–it fascinated me as a young child watching his every move. I ached to be a priest (don’t worry–I never wanted to be a woman priest, I wished I was born a boy!). My sons won’t have quite the same experience, but there are other aspects of the mass that make up for that. The reverence of the altar boys has made quite an impression on my oldest son already. Maybe the priest is (needlessly) worrying that it’s too drastic a change for those accustomed to watching him.

    I am really tempted to venture down the rabbit hole since I am hearing impaired, and have changed my negative opinions about ad orientem (and the TLM for that matter) but I will refrain :)

  18. (Climbing out of the rabbit hole…took me awhile…)

    Let’s state the obvious: opting to have the priest face the people (i.e., not because you have to, but just for kicks) while celebrating the Extraordinary Form–in the current context–makes no sense. If it were the case that the OFAAAC (Ordinary Form as almost always celebrated) didn’t exist (sigh!), then one could propose this, and then debate its merits. But we don’t live in that alternate universe.

    The idea arises from a failure, of course, to appreciate the complications that ensue from the priest facing the people. The priest, if he is not very vigilant, will distract himself from his essential task, as he thinks about his manner, and his gestures, and so forth, and what they “mean” to the people looking. That’s if he doesn’t go further, and actually enter into a kind of dialogue with the people. I can tell you that it’s remarkably tempting for a priest to be drawn into that mindset–it happens in almost imperceptible ways.

    And I am more and more convinced that the facing-the-people posture creates huge hurdles for all concerned to avoid having the Mass tilted toward a “horizontal” orientation–it’s all about us and the here-and-now, as opposed to being “vertical”: it’s about the ladder to heaven, and the priest, in the person of Christ, is making that ladder present, and standing on it, looking up, looking down, to help the entire assembly touch heaven. It’s the difference between “table” and “altar.”

    It’s also the difference between a campfire circle and a military formation marching toward the enemy. Is Holy Mass all about how lovely we all are, how lovely everything is, and we’re saying thanks? Thanks is good–but that’s only part of what we’re doing. The Mass is the central drama of humanity: the God-Man wading into battle for the souls of humanity. Our souls, and the souls of so many more, especially our family and friends who aren’t at Mass. Gather around the table–let’s tell stories! Or, gather at the foot of the cross and look up and tremble.

  19. Mark of the Vine says:

    A FSSPX priest said Mass at the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fátima some 2 years ago, and it was “versus populum” – the altar there doesn’t really allow for ad orientem.

  20. Panterina says:

    I think that it would be useful to know why the local retired priest wants to offer the TLM “the other way ’round”. If it’s to avoid shocking the congregation, then perhaps one could suggest to celebrate a NO Mass in Latin. That’s how things started out in my parish before Summorum Pontificum; afterwards, the transition to the TLM was a lot easier on everyone.

    If he truly believes he has this option with the TLM, then I don’t think it’s necessary to produce any documents: Just ask him where else has he seen a TLM celebrated with the priest facing the people. If that option truly existed, then we would see many more examples of such orientation.

    Finally, I would add that the beauty of the TLM is that everyone is facing the so-called “liturgical East”, where the focus of our worship should be. By celebrating the Mass the way he wants, he’s depriving the congregation (and himself) from experiencing one of the most beautiful experiences of this Mass. Food for thought.

  21. jhayes says: “Yes, in the Extraordinary Form Mass. That is different from the Ordinary Form Mass, in which he is presiding over the assembly and speaking to God in the name of all present. Since he is speaking in our name we have to hear what he says and reply to signify our agreement. ”

    The 2 Liturgical Forms are the SAME Rite. The priests in both Forms perform the same action as you described above: “presiding over the assembly and speaking to God in name of all present” – we do NOT have to hear what he says because he speaks FOR us. We already know what he is doing – offering sacrifice, and we are there to offer ourselves to God and adore, repair sins, petition God, and thank Him. These things happen in BOTH Forms. We offer ourselves to God in BOTH Forms and the priest, acting in the Person of Christ, offers the PRIESTLY Supernatural Sacrifice, whereas we offer our natural sacrifice. We don’t need to hear every word the priest says. After all do we hear and understand – I mean REALLY theologically understand – every little syllable and action of the priest in the Ordinary Form? No. We are never going to ever fully comprehend the Sacred Mysteries. We only need to do our duty as lay people and actively participate the way the Church INTENDED for us to actively participate: offering ourselves to God in humble adoration, reparation, thanksgiving, and petition.

    But as our host, Fr. Zuhlsdorf points out, we are deviating from topic, so this is all I will say.

  22. robtbrown says:

    Mark of the Vine says:

    A FSSPX priest said Mass at the Chapel of the Apparitions in Fátima some 2 years ago, and it was “versus populum” – the altar there doesn’t really allow for ad orientem.

    I just came back from Fatima, and there were no candles on the altar in the capelinha.

  23. Mark of the Vine says:


    There generally never are.

    As for the FSSPX priest, he celebrated Mass at 6 AM there :-D

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Fr. Z notes how ” a number of Roman basilicas […] are […] arranged.” John of Chicago follows up with detailed questioning. Oliveira raises the question with respect to Brazilian examples of the celebrant facing the people in the course of facing “literally the ‘real East'” because of the geographical alignment of the church.

    Now, I recall an online discussion (quite some time ago, on another blog) which involved the interpretation of Ordo Romanus I 15-16, including whether the Pope is ‘behind’ the altar facing the people, in which it was suggested that he was, in order to be facing the real East even though that also included facing the people.

    Does literal ad orientem ‘take precedence’ (so to put it) over the celebrant and the people together facing the same way?

    Could that be involved directly in the instance this post addresses?

    And, if celebration literally ad orientem does justify an entailed versus populum, is there any implication that versus populum is therefore a lesser consideration – and so, further, allowing it as a possibility even when not demanded by literal ad orientem?

  25. Cantor says:

    Many of our diocesan churches have been built since V2. The result is altars hanging very near to the first stop. Technically this does permit the priest room to circle the altar for incensing, but it does not provide a safe area to be stepping back, kneeling, or genuflecting as per the EF or OF ad orientam.

    While some have advocated putting the altars on rollers, this is discouraged (if not outright banned) by the Church, as the altar is to be permanently placed.

    There’s one new church to be built soon. Under its founding pastor, I’m certain the altar would be placed so that either orientation would work. While he is on loan elsewhere from the diocese, however, I’m not too optimistic.

  26. Tradster says:

    Maybe I am just being overly cynical but this strikes me as just another example of a liberal, “I know better” priest imposing his own will on the Mass, trying to undermine that horrible, pre-V2 tradition.

  27. Minnesotan from Florida says:

    I like it if the priest and people face the same way when prayer is said to God. I am surprised that the prevalence of versus populum is so near to 100 percent; in, say, 1968 I would have predicted about 70 percent. I experienced versus populum in preconciliar days a few times by special indult at a university chaplaincy. At the time it seemed educational, as I think was intended. I thought little about it, but in 1971 when I visited a Lutheran noncommunion – “The Service” – service I realized how good it was for officiant and congregation to face the same way.

  28. John of Chicago says:

    Earlier this afternoon, I spent some time surfing internet pics of the interiors of the four major basilicas of Rome–bunches of very cool images out there. Every one of the basilicas appears to have been designed with the papal altar facing the people. Then I went to the Google satellite map of Rome and found only one of the basilicas to be oriented east, St. Paul Outside the Walls, while the rest face west (sort of) but I may have gotten myself disoriented while zooming in from above. Scanning the brief histories of these spectacular, historic basilicas I got the impression that sundry Popes through the ages were actively involved in the initial designs as well as later reconstruction/restoration plans.

  29. William Tighe says:

    At St. Peter’s, the Lateran and St. Mary Major the celebrant faces eastwards in facing the people. St. Paul Outside the Walls was originally a rather small-ish shrine church when built originally in the time of the Emperor Constantine, and was likewise “occidentiated.”. When considerably expanded some fifty years later in the time of the Emperor Theodosius it was “reversed” so as not to interfere with the Via Ostiense, and so there for the celebrant to face the people is to face more-or-less westwards.

  30. Simon says:

    It is common knowledge that the vast majority of Cardinals at the 2nd Council believed that the new Novis Ordo mass would be said in the traditional manor of ‘facing east’, ad orientem, as it had been for over 1500 years. And when the first english translations came out the instructions were exactly that, I have a transitional missal from the period which shows this. I have read up on all that went on after the Council and the people who claimed to be ‘experts’ were spreading their thoughts on what they wanted to take from the Council documents, not what the documents actually said. That’s why you have old church’s with no High Altars, the stories of stone masons crying when being told to rip out beautifully craved marble altars so they can be replaced with a table when there was no such instruction from the Council. When you know what went on you can understand why the faith is the complete basket case it is in the english speaking world.

    In the latest Missal the instructions indicate that the Priest should still be facing east. After the Priest has washed his hands the instruction is “Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, extending and then joining his hands, he says:” and during the Eucharistic Prayer at the time when saying the ‘Take this all of you…” parts he should be holding the item slightly above the altar and be slightly bowed when saying it. (This is the HOC EST part of the EF) It doesn’t say show it to the people while saying it and then elevate. The instruction at the end of the phrase is “He shows the host / chalice to the people, places it on the paten/corporal, and genuflects in adoration.” It is clear that the ‘shows to the people’ is the elevation, just as in the EF mass. During the Communion Rite the instruction is “The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: ‘The peace of the Lord be with you always’ ” And at the Behold the Lamb of God it says “…takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: ‘Behold the Lamb of God…” and when concluded it says “The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly: May the Body of Christ Keep me safe for eternal life” before consuming the host. And at the dismissal it says “Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people…”

    I’m sorry, but it’s pretty clear the mass has been said incorrectly for over 40 years and it’s time to sort it out. If the NO mass was done as the Missal instructs, and as the Church Fathers had intended then we wouldn’t have had the violent break from the past that has brought us to this sad time in the life of the Church. When is someone with the authority to do something going to grow a spine!

  31. Gratias says:

    The NO mass in Latin can be very reverent so one can try that too. We went to a Saturday NO at St. Peter’s at the altar of the Chair and I didn’t realize it was not the EF until the usher said Amen for me before I received the host. There will be mutual improvements, especially now that the future of the EF mass hangs by a thread. These are very delicate times. We should keep building as many TLMs as possible, with money and choirs and servers and faithful, especially sung ones which are the masses that attract new faithful most effectively.

  32. Mike says:

    Regarding the question of, “Does it need to be literal East?”: Wasn’t the altar in the Sistine Chapel that Pope Benedict often used facing literal West? Benedict XVI was a strong supporter of ad orientem. I doubt he’d use a West-facing altar for that if it weren’t permitted.

  33. Rich Leonardi says:

    If it is a way to get a liberal parish not so scared of the TLM, I think this is a very good thing.

    ‘Talk about a recipe for failure! It’ll likely turn off the TLM’s natural aficionados and at best attract curiosity seekers who will move on to the next thing.

    I can’t believe there’s a rubric on this point since no one before the sixties — that gift of a decade that keeps on giving — would have considered it. This strikes me as a “Please don’t eat the daisies” situation for which only a well-reasoned argument has a chance of altering the outcome.

  34. torch621 says:

    I don’t know if this has been brought up before, but wasn’t Saint Padre Pio given permission to say the TLM facing the people?

  35. Fr_Sotelo says:

    The answer I always hear from my brother priests is “I just can’t say Mass with my back to the people!”

  36. robtbrown says:

    Fr_Sotelo says:
    The answer I always hear from my brother priests is “I just can’t say Mass with my back to the people!”

    My guess is that they feel too much alone. Most priests these days have had almost no experience saying mass alone. If they’re diocesan, they head to a parish as soon as they’re ordained. If religious, they’ll concelebrate. In fact, I knew priests in Rome who wouldn’t say mass if they could not celebrate. They see mass as a community exercise, rather than an ecclesial one.

    One of my Roman profs, also the Spiritual Director where I lived, a wise, old German Dominican who died this past Feb 15 at 88, once said: “Rome is very important for a priest because he learns to say mass alone.” Unfortunately, many didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.

  37. BP247 says:

    As I recall from some good book which I read previously, perhaps Uwe Lang’s book on the subject, but in any event I have since forgotten the actual title of it; yet another reason why so many of the altars in Rome have an orientation that we now identify as versus populum, is on account of an architectural feature known as the confessio. A confessio is a shrine to a martyr saint whose ossuary is kept beneath the altar. The classic example of this is St. Peter’s Basilica. The confessio extends out from the main altar, and enables the faithful to descend to a crypt where the place of burial is kept directly under the altar. Many people might look at the main altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in photographs and see a kind of rail extending in front of the altar, this is not for communion, but rather for safety so that people do not fall into the crypt below. At the apex of the rail is what appears to be a communion rail gate, but beyond the gate are stairs for the faithful to descend to the lower level where they may venerate the relics of the martyr, whose confession of faith is attested by the shedding of their blood for Christ. I believe that each of the four major basilicas have a confessio attached to the papal altars where precious relics are kept underneath the altar. In the case of St. Peter’s the relics are of St. Peter, for St. Paul’s without the walls they are the bones of St. Paul. I am not certain what relics are kept at St. Mary Major, but it may be the praesepio of the Nativity, but if memory serves these relics may also be kept in a similar kind of shrine in the transept located to the right of the main apse. I am not sure about the Lateran Archbasilica of the Holy Saviour, but somewhere connected to the altar area are found relics containing the skulls of Sts. Peter and Paul, though these may be above the altar in a reliquary in the ciborium magnum.

    At the Church of the Twelve Holy Apostles, the confession leads to a rather large crypt wherein is found the tomb of St. Philip and St. James the Lesser (Son of Alphaus, sometimes identified as the Brother of the Lord, and the Bishop of Jerusalem (the other St. James is older and hence called the greater, he is the first one martyred and is older brother to John, both are sons of Zebbeddee).

    Several other ancient basilicas in Rome have a confessio style altar, and in each case if memory serves, the only way to celebrate mass upon them is to say mass in a style we refer to as versus populum. The phrase versus populum – facing the people – can be somewhat misleading especially if we apply it to the ancient church, for basilicas had chancel barriers which divided the people into various groupings. According to some of the ancient Roman Ordines different classes of people were assigned different areas where they could stand – sorry folks, no chairs, no pews, unless you were a widow in which case you would be a back bencher. The Schola Cantorum was often placed within the nave of the basilica such that its members faced each other antiphonally. We can see evidence of the placement for the Schola Cantorum with its placement is the Church of San Clemente, Santa Maria in Cosmedan, Santa Balbina, Santa Sabina on the Aventine, San Giorgio in Velabro??) Interestingly enough – rabbit hole alert – a point of contact between the ancient Roman Rite and the Byzantine rite are chancel barriers. The chancel barriers of the east developed into the Iconostatsis, whereas in the west they developed into the rood screens and pulpitums found in England. The great rood screen donated by St. Louis the IX was torn out be the Canons of the Cathedral in Chartres. The communion rail or altar rail is a descendant of the chancel barrier. In the ancient basilicas these barriers were used to create different sections of the basilica. The Senatorial class had their own section as did the Matrons who were wives to the Roman Senators. They did not have the same section. The plebs had their own sections as did the penitents and catechumens. They were also divided by sex in each case. The clergy also had their section – the presbyterium – which is another name for what we call the sanctuary. Another purpose of the chancel barrier was to ensure their was enough room for the great processions as well. Thus in San Clemente directly in the middle of the Schola Cantorum is a pathway for the procession of the Sacred Ministers and acolytes.) With all of these different areas you may have had some who faced the celebrant in the arrangement we would call versus populum. Even today at St. Peter’s Basilica depending upon where you are in the Basilica you may have the celebrant with his back to you, you may find yourself facing him, or you could see the celebrant from one of the transepts in which case you face neither his face nor his back. It seems to me that to apply the concept of the versus populum altar to the ancient basilicas is somewhat anachronistic. The idea of looking at the priest was irrelevant in these ancient places. Another feature of these seating deficient basilicas was the ability to orient physically to the east during the Canon. It must be noted that whether everyone did this is still debated by some scholars.

    Because of these altars there are special rubrics within the older Roman Missal for how to celebrate Masses upon them, even Solemn Mass. I recall being present at an ancient Roman Basilica above one of the catacombs where even solemn Mass was celebrated at what we would call a versus populum altar. Everyone one of these altars would have had at least since the Renaissance period candle sticks and the Altar Cross on a freestanding altar.

    The important thing, in my opinion, for those attached to the traditional rites is to be careful about what is identified as the tradition. For example – rabbit hole alert – the Roman Canon is what defines the Roman Rite, as opposed to the particular preparatory prayers recited by the priest at the foot of the altar at the beginning of Mass – Dominicans had their own tradition which we can call part of the Roman Rite per se, as did the various Uses in other sees which also had different arrangement for these parts of the Mass, but all of these Latin rites are Roman without exception save the Ambrosian and Mozarabic which can be classified as certainly distinct from the Roman Rite especially in the case of the latter. (bottom of rabbit hole here.)

    A free standing altar can be more ancient than an altar attached to a wall with a great reredos. There are also some freestanding altars that are detached from the wall of the apse but because they also have gradines and a central tabernacle, Mass can only be said versus apsidum. The baroque altars with the central tabernacle that serves as a kind of architectural throne – in many cases a eucharistic throne – are likewise important for the tradition. All are part of the tradition of the Church, and hence important. We all have preferences, but personal preference does not define the tradition. Thus ancient forms and later developments are equally important when it comes to divine worship. That is why I can say that I love baroque vestments, as well as gothic revival vestments, and conical vestments, and all sizes in between, the same goes for Church architecture and Church music. What they all share in common within the tradition is beauty. That which is beautiful as opposed to banal is what enables us to contemplate the mysteries.

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  39. mibethda says:

    I recall that shortly after the old Congregation of Rites issued de Musica sacra in 1958, the Benedictine monks at our prep school decided to implement the instruction by converting the daily student Mass (but not the monk’s conventual Mass) to a Missa recitata or dialogue Mass in accord with stage four of the instruction. It was decided that doing so from the high altar was impractical due to the large size of the sanctuary and the presence of the monk’s choir (some 80 or 90 stalls) between the sanctuary proper and the nave. The decision was made to place a movable altar outside of the choir and to offer the Mass versus populum since it was thought that that orientation would facilitate the dialogue (this was prior to V. II and more than 10 years prior to the N.O.). I suspect that the monks at our Abbey were influenced in this, and other liturgical matters, by those of St. John’s , which is where much of the liturgical experimentation and innovation was coming from in those days. As I recall, it was determined at the time that nothing in liturgical law forbade a versus populum orientation and it was thought that the underlying philosophy of the 1958 instruction implicitly favored it – whether this was an accurate deduction or whether it was simply a rationale to implement further experimentation, I am will leave others to decide. Fortunately, the novelty soon wore off and after a few weeks, we were back to Mass ad orientem from the high altar. That experience does suggest, however, that there might have been some connection in its pre- Vatican II origins between concepts for the dialogue Mass and the versus populum orientation.

  40. Roguejim says:

    I didn’t mention the retired priest’s reason for the versus populum option because I didn’t think it was relevant to my original question. But, since the question has been asked, the retired priest has stated that he does not like facing the wall. Sorry I didn’t post this earlier.

  41. Mike says:

    To BP247 and mibethda, thank you for some very interesting comments. Regarding the latter, I wonder what the congregation thought of Mass facing the people back then.

  42. John of Chicago says:

    Thanks to William Tighe for his earlier info, as well.
    According to several church history sources, Pope St. Sylvester I presided over the opening of the 2 oldest Basilicas in Rome in the early 4th century–Old St. Peter’s and the original St. John Lateran– also with their main altars facing the people. Buildings and people were oriented approximately west, the celebrant east. Apparently, the surviving physical traces of John Lateran’s original outline, however, are difficult to discern.

  43. Panterina says:

    Thank you, Roguejim, for the additional bit of context.

    In that case, hopefully the priest isn’t just staring at a blank wall. Right in the middle there should be the crucifix and the tabernacle. Those two objects alone should put the mind of the good priest at ease. In our parish, the fixed tabernacle is on a side of the sanctuary, but a portable tabernacle is set up on the altar when a TLM is celebrated.

  44. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thanks, indeed, to John of Chicago, William Tighe, mibethda, and especially BP247, for their most recent comments!

    I am pretty sure I had heard of Uwe Martin Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord (of which I see a second edition of the English translation is available), but lost track of its, and his, name before trying to catch up with it – it sounds very interesting (whether it indeed turns out to be what BP247 was remembering or not).

    Remembering the Ordo Romanus Primus being discussed in this context, I had gone to the Internet Archive to see if there was a translation online and found E.G. Cuthbert H. Atchley’s 1905 edition and begun browsing its extensive introduction, to then find this reading filled in and illuminated by BP247’s comment! (Patrick Griffin, in his 1912 Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Rites” said that “England led the way and still takes the foremost place” in “liturgical science” (then) and that Atchley was one among “many others [who] keep up the English standard.”)

    Somewhat tangentially to Mike’s asking,” I wonder what the congregation thought of Mass facing the people back then” (in 1958), I think I recall a discussion (here?) where someone referred to examples related to the ‘Liturgical Movement’ earlier in the Twentieh century, including ones involving Pius Parsch.

  45. . . . funny how nobody complains when the bus driver has his back to his passengers . . .

    . . . do the passengers really need to see the bus driver’s hand actually move the left turn signal? or apply the gas pedal? or watch the RPM dial? . . . no, because the bus driver is taking the passengers to their destination, the passengers trusting in the driver and his responsibility of navigating the passengers out of danger and into the promised destination.

  46. Pumpkin Eater says:

    East, west, north, south, vertical, horizontal, facing the people, facing the crucifix and tabernacle, priest audible, barely audible, or inaudible, congregation silent or responding out loud, Novus Ordo, Extraordinary Form, Folk Mass, Gregorian chant. One way to look at this is to enjoy the richness and variety – for a glimpse into what the future may bring, consider attending Rome’s Congolese Roman Catholic Mass, a run down church in Piazza Pasquino called Natività di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo degli Agonizzanti. It gets started at around 11:00 Sunday morning. “The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition.” (CCC, #1201)

  47. Pumpkin Eater says:

    . . . at a run down . . . . Sorry.

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