ASK FATHER: How to have ‘ad orientem’ Mass in a gymnasium church?

From a reader…


We currently have a gymnasium-like church, with a wooden table for an altar.
We have no high altar behind it. How would we face east and Cdl. Sarah suggests for Advent if we don’t?

First, I hope that for Father’s sake and for the sake of the congregation, you will indeed have the chance to benefit from ad orientem worship.

Remember that celebrating “towards the East” is symbolic.  It doesn’t have to be the literal geographic East.  So long as you are all facing the same direction, you are symbolically facing the East whence our forebears – from the very earliest days – thought Christ would return in glory.  Thus, we turn to the Lord who is coming.   Given that the liturgical season of Advent is about getting ready for the “coming of the Lord”, really for the Second Coming more than the First, the beginning of Advent is an appropriate time begin offering Mass ad orientem.

There’s no need for reredos. Just put six tall candles on either side of the crucifix (and tabernacle if possible) on the back of the altar.  The priest can then simply step around to the front.  Instead of facing the congregation like an adversary or an entertainer (Mass adversus populum?), he and the congregation will be united in their orientation in a highly effective, manifest way.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in "How To..." - Practical Notes, ASK FATHER Question Box, Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Andrew D says:

    I’m glad I read this post and thank you Fr. Z. for explaining that ad orientem doesn’t have to mean the churches need to be re-constructed so that everything points literally towards the geographic east. Here in Philadelphia where there are many beautiful churches built in the 1700s and 1800s, many of those have alters that if standing in front of it, one would literally face west, north or south. In fact, the very beautiful Our Lady of Lourdes church where I attend the Sunday TLM (9:30 for those of you in metro Philly looking for a TLM Mass in a good location, at a good time) is built on a patch of land that results in the alter looking to the literal west.

  2. jsing says:

    This is just an observation, nothing theological. A lot of Last Supper pictures show the first Mass as “ad orientem”.

  3. cwillia1 says:

    I used to attend a church built in the early seventies. The altar was so far forward that a priest standing ad orientem would risk falling back down the steps. Then as the pastor got older they put a handrail leading up the steps to the center of the altar so that the aged pastor could process.

  4. anilwang says:

    Piggy backing off of cwillia1’s comment,….

    I notice in many parishes, the altar gets excessively decorated during certain seasons, like the following:

    As such, there is no place in the sanctuary, even on the steps to celebrate ad-orientem. I’d imagine that such decorations are deeply embedded in the culture of the parish so removing them would face resistance. In this case, what should a priest do? Avoid the altar and use the sanctuary for consecration? What if the tabernacle is on the side but still in the sanctuary as it is in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto?

    It’s good that Cardinal Sarah is urging ad orientem, but given modern architecture more guidance and wider exposure is needed if he wants it to succeed. Pope Benedict’s Benedictine options can handle those cases, but it never took off, IMO because it doesn’t really solve the ad orientem issue, it only obscures it.

    Major architectural renewal is definitely called for in these parishes, but given that many of these parishes are operating under perpetual heavy debt, any proposal needs to be low cost and adaptable to many modernist architectures.

    I don’t know if Cardinal Sarah will take the step to write such a document, but if he doesn’t, could some formal society write a good low cost, practical guide to ad orientem, distribute it widely (or make it available so the laity can do it), and preferably get the endorsement of Cardinal Sarah along with his speech about starting at advent?

    We have an opportunity. Let’s make the most of it.

  5. Makemeaspark says:

    It saddens me to hear so many parishes do not even have the tabernacle front-and-center on the altar. At our parish the marble altar is in the center of the space, and another table is on the back wall with the tabernacle on it. We are instructed to bow to it before entering the altar for a reading or singing a psalm, and he does not allow EMs on the altar until after the consecration is complete. Fr. Steve has added the six tall candles, and a matching crucifix on the altar and he faces that center crucifix. There used to be flowers or a seasonal display where he now stands, I didn’t even notice they were gone until I read this post.

    I have one friend who is uncomfortable with the ad oreintem worship, she seems to think he might perform some magicians trick, since we cannot see the priests hands.

    I love it, I did not know how much I would like the liturgical eastward orientation, but it seems just right, somehow, and now when I see mass the other way it seems more like a performance. Father told us it would make him “decrease so that Christ could increase” and that is what has happened. He seems far more the humble servant of the sacrifice rather than the leader or MC.

    Another gradual transformation has occurred also, Fr. added four kneelers to the center aisle where communion is received and then he steps to them if someone wants to receive at them. Over time, they became popular so the he initiated pushing the four together in the center aisle, NOW all kneel unless they cannot. Since I am usually in the choir loft, this summer was the first time I encountered this. I stood over the kneelers and it was just fine. since then I have noticed an occasional person, like me who can no longer kneel (I assume), standing and it is no problem.

    Additionally, I notice, that at the kneeler it is awkward to put your hands up to receive, so there has been a subsequent move to just naturally receive on the tongue! Alleluia! Nothing has been said to discourage in-the-hand, but it is happening!

  6. cl00bie says:

    Fr. Z, thanks for addressing my question. That will really help. When our new pastor took over a year ago, I was at the parish council meeting where he asked: “Who would like the tabernacle in the center of the sanctuary?” I almost dislocated my arm raising my hand.

    Originally the cathedra flanked by two chairs were centered behind the altar. He moved the tabernacle to the back and center behind the wooden altar, with three candles on each side, with a crucifix hanging above and center. He moved the cathedra and flanking chairs to the right of the altar and a little in front (to take the focus off of him), and moved the baptistry to a permanent place in the alcove the tabernacle had resided.

    He might very well decide to face east for Advent, and he will be very careful in his catechesis beforehand.

  7. JabbaPapa says:

    Facing the altar, the tabernacle, the geographic East, the rising Sun, the Host all partake of the same symbolism.

    It saddens me to hear so many parishes do not even have the tabernacle front-and-center on the altar

    A church not built East-West could certainly have the tabernacle in an easterly chapel, as is the case in not a small number of European churches.

  8. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Given the “ut facile circumiri” of GIRM 299, how much more space is required to celebrate versus apsidem ad orientem at a free-standing altar than to circumambulate (censing the altar)? With “a wooden table for an altar” as specified here, presumably it would be easy enough to move it further east if more space is needed (unless it is somehow clamped to the ground).

  9. Prayerful says:

    I heard a Mass of All Time in an old church with an entirely Novus Ordo table style altar. There was no problem whatsover, except perhaps altar rails could have been improvised from one of the benches/kneelers – I cannot get up from a kneeling position without a rail or some sort of aid. The parish priest (from another parish) is immensely fussy, and would not have said Mass there if the Mass could not be said properly. Now it is easier in Dublin as nearly all altars follow specifications which give space for the Mass of All Time (Archbishop McQuaid must have known the Mass would one day be restored). Liturgical east is something I should know of, because where I hear Mass the priest would be facing sideways, if ad orientem meant strictly east. Pugin did not have the space for the traditional alignment. The church and most of its side altars face north. No harm done.

  10. Gail F says:

    I find people’s confusion about this odd. It was the universal practice of the church before Vatican II, so it was obviously fine for everyone to face a different way in old churches that don’t actually face east. If decorations around the altar are a super big deal to parishes, then they can add little decorative columns or something a few feet away from the altar and put the decorations there so that the priest can walk around the the table. Challenge the decorating people to use their talents to makes something even more beautiful than they already do — put it like that, not like “you can’t lean things against the altar anymore.” And one that hasn’t been mentioned here but that often comes up is that there isn’t a nice big beautiful altar on the back wall of many churches. There doesn’t have to be one. You could even put up or paint a big faux marble mural or something if you wanted to. Some of this becomes clear when you think about it. The rest is just, I think, a problem of overthinking things. After all, you can celebrate Mass in a TOMB, or in a private home — as they did before the Church was legal. It’ll work in our churches!

  11. As many of you know, I have visited probably close to a thousand churches over the last twenty years. The church where a Mass absolutely cannot be offered ad orientem (in the broad sense of congregation and priest facing more or less the same direction) is rare. I do know of one such parish near me; the altar would probably be over the head of a priest facing the tabernacle, which remains in its customary location at the center of the sanctuary. That is the exception, though. In most cases, all that is necessary is to remove any portable obstacles and just do it. Sometimes, a bit of relatively inexpensive construction to add space for the priest to stand without falling down may be helpful– nothing that would require a capital campaign. I really can’t imagine too many scenarios where it just could not be done without a bit of imagination and a bit of will. “No excuses, sir!” Just do it!

  12. Father K says:

    I wish people would stop referring to the EF of Mass as ‘the Mass of all time.’ Simply because it isn’t.

  13. mo7 says:

    Andrew S. in the local parish near me, the tabernacle is nowhere near the altar, it’s on the side of the church. In a neighboring parish it’s actually in a glass enclosed room off on the side of the church. In fact, I cant think of any of the suburban parishes in my area where it is directly behind the altar. It has always disturbed me that the priest, during the Agnus Dei walks away from the consecrated host, to go to the tabernacle. Another reason to get yourself to the EF.
    Conclusion – So they should spend some capital returning the tabernacles to where they belong.

  14. One of those TNCs says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong – the take-away here is that “ad orientum”, though translated “to the East,” in actual practice simply means that “all – priest, servers, congregation – are facing the same way, regardless of geographical NSEW, and that way is towards the altar.”

    If I want to be able to reassure those whose church building does not “face East,” is there some document that spells that out, and if so, what is that document? Thanks.

    [It’s “ad orientem”, please. Everyone? Say it together….]

  15. JabbaPapa says:

    “ad orientem”, though translated “to the East,”

    Dawnwards, oriens literally meaning “rising” (including sunrise) rather than “east”.

    It’s still frequent practice in dawn Masses after a night vigil to pray facing the rising sun.

  16. jaykay says:

    Yes, One of those TNCs, it is perfectly ok if your church does not face geographical East. For instance, only one of the 19th century Catholic churches in my town here in Ireland (and there are four of them) actually faces geographical East. This is for the very practical reason that Catholics at that time, not long after Catholic emancipation, had to make do with whatever land they could get and it was rarely possible to get a site, in a town centre anyway, that could accommodate an East-oriented church. Certainly it was difficult in our town because, being medieval in origin, space was at a premium, and an expensive premium at that, so of our four churches one is oriented East, but the others are: South, North and West. And thankfully, all still have their original High Altars, although only two have kept the communion rails.

  17. Adaquano says:

    One thing that has been confusing me is when people are making the arguement that they want to make sure everyone is in unity. Have they not seen how differently churches are arranged and liturgies are conducted currently?

  18. Makemeaspark says:

    Liturgical East (not necessarily physical east), not possible in our parish.

  19. Precentrix says:

    Might I suggest that the enquirer go to Youtube or Gloria tv and search for “metamorphose d’un autel”? In time-lapse, it shows how to do this stunningly well.

  20. Erik Bootsma says:

    Venerator Sti Lot says:
    12 July 2016 at 2:23 PM
    Given the “ut facile circumiri” of GIRM 299, how much more space is required to celebrate versus apsidem ad orientem at a free-standing altar than to circumambulate (censing the altar)?

    You would think! As an architect I justify making enough room for ad orientem by just this point. A priest ought to be able to incense all the way around the altar without tripping.

Comments are closed.