The importance – and legitimacy – of ‘ ad orientem ‘ worship

I bring to the readership’s attention a letter that was issued by His Eminence Robert Card. Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments.  A priest friend reminded me of this letter in an email.

It has a couple great points which all of you should know.

Adoremus Bulletin has a translation HERE
Catholic World Report has a translation HERE
Corpus Christi Watershed has a translations side-by-side with the Italian HERE

One of the most important things in the letter is His Eminence’s support of ad orientem worship for Holy Mass.

The Prefect wrote:

Contrary to what has sometimes been maintained, it is in full conformity with the conciliar Constitution—indeed, it is entirely fitting—for everyone, priest and congregation, to turn together to the East during the penitential rite, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, in order to express the desire to participate in the work of worship and redemption accomplished by Christ. This practice could well be established in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary (cf. §41).

There are no documents which require that the main ad orientem altar of a church be destroyed or that a table be set up in front of it.  As a matter of fact, if the main altar is of note and is clearly the focus of the church and sanctuary, it is absurd and theologically confused to set up a separate altar.

We should all be ready with reasons why ad orientem worship should be reintroduced.

To get up to speed on catechesis you might start by listening to some PODCAzTs (esp. #37, #43, #48, I made about the altar and ad orientem worship.

Every priest needs to have at least these three resources.  Fathers, if you don’t have these books, buy them now with these links.  Readers, get these books.  Start reading groups to study them.  Be the maquis!

Klaus Gamber’s The Reform of the Roman Liturgy.

Michael Lang’s Turning Towards the Lord.

Joseph Ratzinger The Spirit of the Liturgy.


Klaus Gamber thought that the single most damaging change to our Catholic worship and identity after the Council was the switching around of altars.  Surely he was right.

You will also need some clarity about the infamously mistranslated GIRM 299 on the orientation of the altar.  HERE

Good, serious priests, concerned about their flocks and how they are shaped by our all-important sacred worship are making the choice to celebrate Holy Mass ad orientem.   (For example HERE.) Some of them take a lot of heat for it.  Some of them even endure persecution from other priests and even – horribile scriptu – their bishops!  Bishops should be the first to celebrate ad orientem and teach their priests about the value of ad orientem worship.  Of course that means that they will have to, in many cases, learn it themselves and then be willing to feel the heat from liberals who prefer liturgy to be horizontal and closed in on themselves.

These priests need support.  Others need careful, respectful and prudent urging to come around themselves.

Ad orientem!  It just makes sense!


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    A couple of thoughts. First, it seems that the burden is on those who are against ad orientem to justify their preferences, rather than having to justify a normative practice. Let them be the ones on defense. That said, of course have at the ready the various reasons in the PODCAzTs.

    Second, ad orientem can easily be promoted from a liberal point of view anyway, since it makes sense that those with a preoccupation with unity and similarity would prefer everyone to face the same way. From this point of view, a priest and congregation facing each other could be seen as downright authoritarian, and contrary to good progressive values.

  2. The Cobbler says:

    Once we go back to ad orientem and the priest is no longer distracted by the people, can we go back to pewless and have the people no longer be distracted by the people? I feel like that might resolve some of the issues of the “liturgical police” stereotype.

    (Ok… to be honest, I’m mostly just feeling like the whole lining up and sitting and standing in unison thing is the drollest way imaginable to participate in the Sacrifice of Christ. Unity between Christians is an extension of unity with Christ, not something that comes from outward conformity to the “rules” of formalwear, and social decorum has about as much to do with reverence as spitballs have to do with lunar landers.)

  3. vandalia says:

    Well, the top cartoon makes perfect sense for protestants, who believe that the minister is no different than the rest of the congregation. However, Catholic theology teaches that the Celebrant is acting in persona Christi capitis. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that the people address Christ who is facing them. [Nice try.]

    For example, if one views the Throne at the State Opening of Parliament in London, the Sovereign and the people address one another, each facing the other (versus populum). It is, however, extremely interesting to note that in the US, during the Pledge of Allegiance, where there is certainly no personal presence of the “United States”, everyone turns and faces in the same direction (ad orientem).

    So one must ask, which mode is more consistent with Catholic liturgical theology? The people before the Sovereign’s throne, or the inherently protestant “Pledge of Allegiance”?

    It is difficult to reconcile ad orientem worship with the belief that the Celebrant is present in persona Christi capitis and it is the same Christ who is Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero

    Ad orientem presents its own theological problems. Which is why the Church has not issued a definitive declaration and why the matter is one of prudential judgement – for the Magisterium at least. As an aside, it is important to note that the Church has had ad orientem (geographical, not liturgical, East) and versus populum at the same time.

    (By the way, I raise the same type of objections for tho who argue for versus populum. If it was a simple issue, the Church would not have gone back and forth for 2,000 years.)

  4. Mary Jane says:

    Cobbler, I’m afraid I don’t understand your comment. Ad Orientem doesn’t have anything to do with the priest being distracted by the people. [Welllll… it does, from the point of view of the priest and human nature. Constantly looking out at people puts psychological pressure on the priest to “perform”.] Also, if the rubrics call for standing at such and such a point, or kneeling at such and such a point, well yes if everyone is following along then you will get a large crowd all standing or kneeling at the same time. What’s wrong with that though? Imagine if everyone sang what they wanted whenever they wanted…it’d be chaos. Talk about the priest being distracted. :) Social decorum, as you chose to phrase it, is the beginning of reverence. Okay yes there will be those who go through the motions and don’t actually mean it (“social decorum” with no reverence behind it). Think about how children learn to love God and learn reverence – we teach them to stand, sit, and kneel at the proper times. We teach them to genuflect when they pass the altar. We teach them to sing the hymns and make the Sign of the Cross. At first they won’t understand why they do these things, but eventually they will put the pieces together.

  5. Roguejim says:

    I suppose “ad orientem” worship could be considered one aspect of the “reform of the reform”, at least from the Trad point of view. However, this “ad orientem” reform, or any liturgical reform for that matter, will not come about without legislation from Rome. Neither parish priests, nor bishops, agree on what exactly needs reforming, if anything at all. Just ask your own parish priest if he thinks the Mass, as it is celebrated at his church, conforms to SACROSANCTUM CONCILIUM.

  6. anilwang says:

    Adding to Jonathan’s points,

    From a liberal standpoint, ad populum should be considered to be the highest form of clericalism since it turns the priest into a performer. The priest is now the center of attention rather than God, and it’s up to him and the select few clericalized laity on the liturgical committee to put up a great show. This shows up most clearly in many modern parishes where the tabernacle is pushed off to the side and the priest’s chair takes its place behind the altar so we worship towards the priest’s chair.

    With ad orientum, the priest is entirely replaceable with any other priest and you pay little attention to either the priest or the clericalized laity during the mass since (except for their sacramental role) they *should* fade into the background of the common worship of heaven and earth to Our Lord.

  7. cwillia1 says:

    Ad orientem is also an ecumenical issue for some Eastern Christians.Personally I bow my head and close my eyes during the consecration when I attend Mass in the Latin Church.

  8. majuscule says:

    A priest in a Novus Ordo versus populum parish (who is a proponent of the Extraordinary Form) always stood a crucifix on the altar with the corpus facing himself, so that he was offering the Mass to the Lord. But in the interest of making all Masses at the church “the same” (as I understand it) he was told not to use the crucifix in this manner since the other priests did not. I have not been to one of his Masses at that church lately, but I understand that he now lays a crucifix flat on the altar–so that at least he can see it.

    I’m hoping he will have his own parish someday.

    Jonathan, thank you for those points. I will use them in support of ad orientem!

  9. St. Rafael says:

    This has been talked about for years, but the wait still goes on for this to be implemented by priests in church parishes. There are a couple of good orthodox dioceses and orthodox bishops in America. So far no movement. One example is the Diocese of Madison, where good work is being done and Fr. Z resides. Can we get at least one third participation? Can we have a little over 30% of all parishes, priests, and pastors to regularly celebrate the Mass Ad Orientem?

    [Ehem… many people just wait for Father to do something without ever getting off the ever-flatter hands they are sitting on. Get to work, everyone!]

  10. The Cobbler says:

    Mary Jane, if I may clarify myself:

    I didn’t mean that the point of ad orientem was avoidance of distraction, but merely that an issue with versus populum is distraction.

    As for kneeling, standing, etc., I get that reverence demands a certain amount of order, my point is just that said order itself is neither the whole of nor the point of reverence — I can’t work with the cart before the horse. As for rubrics for the laity, however, I beg leave to point out that there is — or was back in the day? — a differing view on that. I guess the main thing I was trying to say about pews and distraction is that I suspect pews contribute to people paying attention to each other and whether other people are doing the “right” thing, which, rubrics or not, is really missing the point.

  11. frjim4321 says:

    Practically speaking, in the U.S. I doubt that we’d be returning to wholesale to liturgies celebrated by a priest with his back to the people. The horse is out of the pasture … it’s just not going to happen.

  12. Mary Jane says:

    Fr Z and Cobbler, thank you for replying and clarifying; it’s very much appreciated. I now understand and see what you’re saying. Thank you again!

  13. Imrahil says:

    Fr Jim,

    but we might, even today, return to pray the Prayer of the Faithful from a seperate ambo turned towards the altar, mightn’t we? (I’ve seen that in a firmly NO versus-populum context – though not in the U.S.). For after all, this is prayer, not announcement.

    Well, all of Mass is prayer.

  14. ProfKwasniewski says:

    Absolutely right on target.

  15. Gerard Plourde says:

    Dear Imrahil,

    In my OF parish in the U.S. the General Incessions are usually made by the deacon at his place at the presider’s right at the chair which is positioned far to the left of the altar, tabernacle and ambo. The church’s design (it was built in the 1950’s) allows for broad separation of the areas and a renvoation done in 2010 was carefully planned and executed. There is no question that the free-standing altar located front and center and the raised tabernacle behind it housing the Blessed Sacrament are predominant. The Mass is celebrated in a dignified, reverent manner.

  16. Michael says:

    Fr. Jim, with the current crop of priests being as they are, we might. The now-departed parochial vicar at my church (now a pastor of a couple churches) said Mass ad orientem while with us, and will no doubt continue it as pastor of his own churches, where he has more control.

  17. Nan says:

    We have young priests, toddlers, newly assigned to parishes, learning EF because they want to. I’d be surprised if some of them don’t start habitually facing God for Mass.

  18. Nan says:

    I meant newly assigned as pastors so are in good position to change hearts.

  19. JonPatrick says:

    I don’t agree with Fr. Jim, as we see (1) a new crop of more traditionally minded priests gradually replacing the priests from the 1960’s and 1970’s who are now retiring (2) the shrinking of the church meaning those who are left tend to be those more serious about their faith. Eventually those young more traditionally minded priests will start becoming bishops as the older bishops now keeping the lid on the “reform of the reform” start to retire, and things will finally start to change. I may not live to see it but I have faith that my children will, and they will need it as the society around them continues to disintegrate.

  20. The Masked Chicken says:

    For those advocating versus populum on the excuse that this was the position of Christ at the Last Supper (thereby, biasing the Mass as more a meal than a scarifice), this is an example of cherry-picking. Christ was not standing during the Institution Narrative – he was reclining, most likely, as was the posture for the Passover meal. Shall we, then, have our pastors recline, as well, hmm?

    Also, the idea that the priest is turning his back to the people is strange in the same context, because, who were the priests at the Last Supper? They were the apostles. They were certainly sitting face-to-face with God, since they were all facing towards Christ! I mean, the idea that any priest should say Mass versus populum based on the meal argument is pure hokum. By that argument, they should be reclining on pillows facing the Altar. I mean, that is how it was done at that first meal, after all.

    That whole free-standing table thingy (it was a Lutheran addition) – ah, that. The original table at the Last Supper was 18 inches off of the floor. The best one could do was crawl around the table. It was designed for reclining. We have a high altar instead of a table precisely because the Mass is a sacrifice. It was the altar of sacrifice, where the lamb was slaughtered, that required the priest to stand in the Old Temple.

    This, boys and girls, is how one might argue against the quasi-historicity arguments that gave us versus populum . There is no strong history of versus populum with regards to architecture of Churches, either. The priest faced east in the early Churches, while the congregation turned towards the east during the Consecration. Who does not understand that the genesis of liturgy involves aspects of time and space. Just as the temporal aspect of the liturgy specifies that Christians celebrated Mass on Sunday (the day of the Resurrection), just so, the spatial aspects specified that Christians celebrated Mass towards the rising (resurrecting) sun. One cannot, at a deep level, have a Sunday without, also, having an ad orientem. They go together.

    As, then, Cardinal Ratzinger said in, The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg. 75:

    “Despite all the variations in practice that have taken place far into the second millennium, one thing has remained clear for the whole of Christendom: praying toward the east is a tradition that goes back to the beginning. Moreover, it is a fundamental expression of the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history [see below], of being rooted in the once-for-all events of salvation history while going out to meet the Lord who is to come again.”

    The Chicken

  21. “Ehem… many people just wait for Father to do something without ever getting off the ever-flatter hands they are sitting on. Get to work, everyone!”

    One way lay people can “work” to introduce ad orientem celebration in a parish lacking it is to seek and support an EF parish Mass. However, since an OF celebrant’s orientation is his own decision, I wonder how a layman can “work” effectively to attain ad orientem OF celebration in his parish.

    More generally, reverent and beautiful EF Masses are de rigeur nowadays, but a beautiful and reverent OF Mass is a pearl of great price. What are some examples of ways a layman in the typical liturgical desert parish can “work” to attain to rectify this situation? (As opposed to a priest, who need only turn towards the Lord.)

  22. Uxixu says:

    I very much await the day that ad orientem is required in the same manner versus populum was imposed.

  23. BillG says:

    At the end of the article, Cardinal Sarah says: “It would also be desirable in a future edition of the Missal to insert the penitential rite and the offertory of the “usus antiquior” for the purpose of emphasizing that the two liturgical forms illuminate each other, in continuity and without opposition. ” This is a remarkable statement if, as I presume, it means giving the OF priest the option of saying the EF Offertory Prayers and the Prayers at the Foot in a future edition of the OF Missal. The new improved by the old (no mention of changing the old Missal). Couple this with the June 3 statement from the same Cardinal: “When the Holy Father, Pope Francis, asked me to accept the ministry of Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, I asked: ‘Your Holiness, how do you want me to exercise this ministry? What do you want me to do as Prefect of this Congregation?’ The Holy Father’s reply was clear. ‘I want you to continue to implement the liturgical reform of the Second Vatican Council,’ he said, ‘and I want you to continue the good work in the liturgy begun by Pope Benedict XVI.’” Again, the new improved by the old. These three things: ad orientem, (old) penitential rite, and (old) offertory would certainly enhance the worship, humility before God, and anticipation of the Sacrifice in an OF Mass – even, alas, in the vernacular.

  24. John Nolan says:

    GIRM 299
    Altare extruatur a pariete seiunctum ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit.

    I think that most people are now in agreement that the Latin is not ambiguous; since the relative pronoun takes its number and gender from its antecedent, it would have to be ‘quae’ if the antecedent was ‘celebratio’.

    However, few have commented on ‘ut facile circumiri’. This suggests that there should be an adequate footpace on both sides of the altar which would make ad apsidem celebration possible. Yet in many cases the altar has been pushed so far forward as to preclude this legitimate option. A prime example of this is the Jesuit church in Farm Street, Mayfair. Immediately in front of the altar are two steps so one cannot maintain that it is easy to walk round it.

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