Card. Nichols’ Letter to priests, reacting to Card. Sarah’s ‘ad orientem’ appeal

Francis_Ad_OrientemI was sent the text of the official letter that His Eminence Vincent Card. Nichols sent to the priests of the Archdiocese of Westminster as a reaction to the unofficial, personal appeal made by Robert Card. Sarah, Prefect of the CDW, to priests to say Holy Mass ad orientem.

Here is Card. Nichols, with my emphases and comments:

In response to a number of enquiries, in the light of Cardinal Sarah’s recent personal comments, I take this opportunity of reminding all priests of the importance of ensuring that every celebration of the Liturgy is carried out with all possible dignity. Whether the celebration of the Mass is simple or elaborate, it should always be characterised by that dignity which helps to raise our minds and hearts to God and which avoids distracting confusion or inappropriate informality. [Who would disagree with this?  However, I double-checked Card. Sarah’s talk.  Unless I missed it, Sarah did not speak about dignity or informality.]

I also remind our priests that the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, approved by the highest authority in the Church, states in paragraph 299 that ‘The altar should be built apart from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. [His Eminence cites a widely circulated but inaccurate translation of GIRM 299. We’ve been over and over this ground.] The altar should, moreover, be so placed as to be truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns. The altar is usually fixed and is dedicated.’

A clarification from the CDW in September 2000 addressed the question as to whether GIRM 299 excludes the possibility of celebrating Mass ‘versus absidem’ (ie ‘eastward’ facing), and confirmed that it does not. [That same CDW clarification also explained the Latin of 299.] But it also ‘reaffirms that the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier’. [“Communication” of what?] Thus the expectations expressed in GIRM 299 remain in force whenever the Ordinary Form of Mass is celebrated.  [This is a false conclusion.  More, below.]

Finally, may I emphasise that the celebration of the Church’s Liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste. [His Eminence is right, of course.  However, Card. Sarah’s appeal was based on a great deal more than taste or preference.  To reduce this to a question of “taste” is a disservice to the serious issue of our worship and our identity.] As the last paragraph of the GIRM states so clearly, ‘The Roman Missal, though in a diversity of languages and with some variety of customs, must in the future be safeguarded as an instrument and an outstanding sign of the integrity and unity of the Roman Rite’ (399).

+Cardinal Vincent Nichols

Archbishop of Westminster

On the conclusion the Cardinal makes about versus populum being the “expected” orientation in the Ordinary Form….

With due respect to His Eminence, no.  That’s not right.

A consultation of the Latin edition of the Missale Romanum (which is the normative text) shows that, many times in the GIRM, the priest is described as “versus ad populum… having turned to the people”.  Elsewhere, he is described as “ad medium altare deinde reversus … then having turned back again to the middle of the altar”.

This description of the priest as turning back and forth between altar and people occurs again and again in the GIRM.  Have a look (e.g., 24, 146, 154, 157, 158, and 165; and also look at 181, 185, 243, 244, 257, 268).

This same description (prescription, actually) of the priest turning to the people and then back to the altar is found, for merely one example, at the time of the “Ecce Agnus Dei” at 132 in the Ordo Missae in the Missale Romanum.  The priest is described as “versus ad populum“, which presumes that he wasn’t “turned to the people” before.  After the people respond with their “Domine, non sum dignus“, the priest is described as “versus ad altare… “.   “133. Et sacerdos, versus ad altare, secreto dicit… And the priest, having turned to the altar, says quietly:…”.

The priest (sometimes the deacon) is repeatedly described at turning to the people and then turning back to the altar.

So, no, the GIRM does NOT favor versus populum celebration of the Ordinary Form.

But you have to have recourse to the Latin to see that.

Moderation queue is ON.


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  1. Finally, may I emphasise that the celebration of the Church’s Liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste.

    Really? The majority of priests in the places I have lived have been doing nothing but that for as long as I can remember.

  2. APX says:

    [“Communication” of what?]

    You know, non-verbal communication through facial expressions and eye contact. That sense of community and belonging at the table where all are welcome. It makes it more intimate and personal, don’t you know? Like we’re all gathered around the table of plenty.

    Actually, since many parishes, if not all, use some sort of an amplification system for the priest so being heard better is not the issue. And if it is, maybe do something about the acoustics. Those felt banners and carpet done help sound carry.

  3. arga says:

    “Communication” must refer to receiving communion.

  4. John Ed says:

    What is it that Cardinal Nichols is so afraid of?

  5. Sonshine135 says:

    I find it absolutely amazing that people find the GIRM when their perceived notion of what is right and wrong at the Mass is violated. I find it even more amazing when they translate the paragraph improperly to suit their need.

    I find it even worse that they ignore all the other articles such as GIRM 41 about Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony for instance.

    Oh, if only people were so passionate about every article of the GIRM, how much better our liturgy would be. I am now eagerly awaiting the first Bishop to make the suggestion that all of their parish churches will start having Mass ad orientem starting on advent, or at least, giving their Priests the option with their support. Blessed will be that day.

  6. The Masked Chicken says:

    “But it also ‘reaffirms that the position towards the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier’. ”

    Presumably, this might be the case in churches without the benefit of electricity for microphones, such as might occur in a natural disaster or in dirt poor regions of the world or where the Church is being attached by governmental forces and must go underground. So, about 5% of the possible churches in the world?

    Of course, for clown or mime Masses, this rule is indispensable :)

    “Finally, may I emphasise that the celebration of the Church’s Liturgy is not a place in which priests are to exercise personal preference or taste.”

    …but they aren’t! They are exercising the Church’s personal preferences or tastes, one of which is to permit celebrations ad orientem.

    The Chicken

  7. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    The English Wikipedia article, “Roman Missal” (as “last modified on 1 July 2016, at 06:42”) has an External Link to the “2002 typical edition of the Roman Missal”, while the Latin one (“die 19 Iunii 2016 hora 14:38 facta”) has a different external link to a German website with some text of it. Am I correct in assuming there are no official freely accessible online versions (nothing posted by the Holy See, for instance)?

  8. stuart reiss says:

    Fr Ray Blake remarks that Pope Francis likes to see people fight….well I’m backing Cardinal Sarah on this one..despite Cardinal Vincent being my primate…In the Westminster cathedral there is plenty of things that happen at Mass not in accordance with GIRM..and nowhere mentioned in SC…
    e.g. girl altar servers..extraordinary ministers of communion..(some blessing people)..receiving under both kinds (SC55)…self intinction …people receive on the hand and walk upto an extraordinary minister offering the precious blood and dip the sacred Host themselves..drip the precious blood on the floor and walk off..sacred vessels being cleaned by the extra ordinary ministers of communion…concelebration of Mass between priests (SC57 .1)…tourists receiving communion on their hand and walking off with a ‘souvenir’….
    perhaps a more stringent application of SC, which is what cardinal Sarah asked for in his address, may resolve all these abuses..which are far more expedient to address than sending a silly circular that is just blatant posturing because another cardinal invaded his patch…sort out the abuses in your own church Your Eminence..which I have personally witnessed… and put GOD at the front of the Mass..the source and summit of our worship (SC 10)

  9. The Masked Chicken says:

    Although there are many good books on the history of the Mass, a nice readable on-line history by Michael Davies may be found, here:

    I suspect that earlier copies of some of the standard works are, now, in the public domain. I will see what I can find.

    Interestingly enough, in graduate musicology courses, we studied the development of the Mass because it influenced so much of the history of music up until the Counter-reformation, when, because of both the secular influence of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation, music became more, “democratic”. Church architecture and practices had a large influence on certain styles of music up until that time. At some point, I would love to teach a history of church music course.

    The Chicken

    The Chicken

    The Chicken

  10. The Masked Chicken says:

    Opps. Three chickens…a brood of chickens (how come we have the same group name as vipers??)

    The Chicken

  11. Benedict Joseph says:

    Normally I would have my two cents to contribute, but why would I throw my thoughts in when a far more credible estimation of this kind of event can be found at:
    Read well. It is ever so pertinent to the parade of actions and words pouring forth from … from “wherever.”

  12. benedetta says:

    Completely agree and true as to what Anita Moore said.

    It’s always nice to hear from a higher up, I guess, although it is odd for one cardinal to hunker down against another. It’s hard to find the coherent thread though, as to whether liturgy matters or not. Certainly the vast majority of abuses embarked upon in the liturgy in the last some decades were exactly personal preference of priest and had no foundation in tradition whatsoever. One can look at lots of things that really are not at all grounded in sacred tradition of the Church but are innovations which through the die hard threatened attempt to establish it as custom where you are start to morph into “always done this way”, such as, doing away with purifying vessels, doing away with altar linens, paten, barking at people attempting to receive on the tongue and/or whilst kneeling, praying for strange things/persons/entities in the intentions of the faithful, singing secular music during communion, citing from other religions or political figures in homily, altar girls, priests making up consecration prayers, lay people or non ordained delivering the homily, consecrating pitchers and pouring the Precious Blood,not letting people kneel, ever and so on and so forth etc etc…

    Kind of strange and funny to assert that apart from faith and morals it is the very GIRM itself which reigns supreme for all time over all matters. It’s one thing if people wanted the priest to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice while sitting back in an easy chair or barkalounger. It’s quite another when drawing from millenia we call the GIRM a bit of a very tiny blip on the eternal radar of the Church’s sacred worship. It’s not like we’re saying, sing this but not that, for heavens sake (LOL) but it is something at the very core and heart of our worship. A lot of people actually desire it and like it, and despite the backside comments do not at all countenance such, and, it happens to be not a little legitimate but completely valid given thousands of years of tradition.

    What’s next, will people want to do away with Adoration as old hat? Or, confessions next? Tear out all the confessionals? Ban black vestments for a Requiem Mass? Oh wait…

  13. Someone please be the Garrigue says:

    The insistence on “makes communication easier” made me wonder what, after all, the ambo was for. Perhaps Cardinal Vin would have the ambo turned the other way. That would make for even better communication “a posteriori” [shakes head].

  14. stuart reiss says:

    Anita Moore OP great point to start the comments. Hadn’t seen yours before my above post. But you are dead right.

  15. Wiktor says:

    Out of curiosity, I checked official Polish translation of GIRM 299. The text is unambiguous in that what is desirable is the placement of the altar.

    [That’s interesting. Could you send that to me? Use the contact form at the top of the blog.]

    Fr. Z's Gold Star Award

  16. MrTipsNZ says:

    It would seem Cardinal Nichols favours a procedural “Lexit” from the GIRM and 2000 years of proven active worship? And taste, like good cheese, is all about the maturity of the participant and a scientifically proven, highly skewed variable.

    [It could simply be that His Eminence had some bad advice on what GIRM 299 really says and he, trusting it, went with it.]

  17. JeffLiss says:

    I look at it this way. When, on Yom Kippur, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice and incense in the presence of the Lord, do you suppose he ever turned his back on the Ark?

    No, neither do I.

  18. Hidden One says:

    It strikes me that the good elements in Cardinal Nichols’ letter–especially the implicit notion that the GIRM should be followed–could (should?) be used by capable priests of the Archdiocese of Westminster to introduce (even before Advent) the consistent and dignified saying of the black and doing of the red to any parishes in their care where adhering to the GIRM is not already the way things are done. ¡Hagan lio!

    [Which we all know would be “brave” of those priests.]

  19. Jean-Luc says:

    It is true that in favor of the ad orientem celebration we have the following texts:

    IGMR § 86 (at the beginning) : “Deinde ad populum conversus et manus extendens, sacerdos eum salutat …”

    Ibid. § 107 (Orate fratres): “ad medium altaris deinde reversus, stans ad populum conversus, extendens …”

    Ibid. § 115-6 (Domine non sum dignus and communion of the priest: “Versus ad populum … ad altare conversus.”

    So it’s quite clear, the celebrant turns towards the faithful (“conversus”) if needed, because he is facing the liturgical East otherwise. This is how the drafters of the first version of the IGMR in 1969 envisaged the normative celebration of Mass. BUT and this is the big BUT, this belongs to the past because in the last edition (2002) of the IGMR those passages have been “corrected”.

    § 86 becomes § 124 : “Deinde versus ad populum et manus extendens, sacerdos eum salutat…”

    § 107 becomes § 146 : “Ad medium altaris deinde reversus, stans versus populum, extendens…”

    Although they forgot to modify § 115-6 (now § 157-8 but the text has not changed) it is now clear, unfortunately, that the IGMR has been deliberately “purged” of every indication suggesting that the celebration ad orientem is normative.

  20. Peter in Canberra says:

    I suspect arguing from the GIRM is pointless.
    The de facto situation – versus populum – is so entrenched in the hearts and minds of the very, very great majority of Catholics, clergy and lay alike, that I cannot see anything that will change that in a less than generational timeframe.
    Paul VI and his successors and foot soldiers did their work too well.

  21. jhayes says:

    The 2000 CDW Letter points out that it is important not to confuse the direction in which the priest is looking with the spiritual orientation of the priest and congregation, which is always versus Deum

    The physyical position especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is [toward] the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is a legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual ahttitude ought always to be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [toward God through Jesus Christ], as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which participates, is entirely turned versus Deum [towards God] as its first spiritual movement….

    There is no need to give excessive importance to elements that have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance

    It also gives a reference to explain what it means by “makes communication easier” although I have not been able to find a copy of Notitiae 29

    ” the position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (Cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29 [1993] 245-249), without excluding, however, the other possibility.

  22. Allan S. says:


    As I have been unsuccessful in finding an address to which we, the faithful, may write personally to Cardinal Sarah such that our prayers, sacrifices and mass offerings may become known to him or his trusted (personal) staff, would you be prepared to act as a conduit and receive and deliver or forward the mail for us? Or alternately suggest an appropriate mailing address for His Eminence?

    I have carried a homemade holy card with me for a few years now with the Cardinal’s picture and Coat of Arms (Episcopal motto: Sufficit Tibi Gratia Mea”).

    [His Eminence
    Robert Card. Sarah
    Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship
    Palazzo delle Congregazioni
    Piazza Pio XII
    00120 VATICAN CITY]

  23. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Thanks to The Masked Chicken for linking yet another online book! (The three Chickens made me think of “Et clamabant alter ad alterum”.)

  24. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Benedict Joseph,

    Thank you for the link to the article about Monsignor Michel Schooyans’ paper, with a link to it! (I see that the Internet Archive has scans of an English edition of the French text and (at least) two different English translations of Pascal’s Provincial Letters, which he discusses.)

  25. Scout says:

    According to the Corpus Christi Watershed (, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments had this to say on the matter in Protocol No. 564/00/L (10 April 2000):

    “This Dicastery wishes to state that Holy Mass may be celebrated versus populum or versus apsidem. Both positions are in accord with liturgical law; both are to be considered correct.”

    “It should be borne in mind that there is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.”

    Jorge Arturo Cardinal Medina Estévez, Cardinal Prefect

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  27. kekeak2008 says:

    The reaction to his speech is very telling. For everyone’s consideration, I’d like to post the following article by Phil Lawler. The following is an excerpt that will hopefully pique your interest:

    “In the process, the cardinal clearly hit a nerve. The overwrought reaction to his speech showed how very nervous some Catholic leaders are about any possible change to the liturgical status quo. (And by the way, is anyone completely happy with the current state of the Catholic liturgy?) Even the Vatican’s response appeared wildly disproportionate. Cardinal Kasper suggested a dramatic change in Church teaching and sacramental practice, and the Pope offered him a forum at a meeting of cardinals. Cardinal Marx suggested that the German bishops were ready to write their own rules, and drew only a quiet demurrer from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Cardinal Sarah makes a suggestion—for a practice that is already allowed under existing liturgical guidelines, and that was championed by Pope Benedict XVI—and immediately the Vatican press office blew the whistle and called a foul.”

  28. kiwiinamerica says:

    Hilarious. Since when is celebrating Mass according to the immemorial tradition of the Church ” a matter of personal taste”?? This is how most of the blesseds and saints of the priesthood celebrated Mass; ad orientam.

    It’s time to get out the pitch-forks, folks. When this nonsense first came down the tubes in the ’60s, we did nothing. We sat by silently as they destroyed the altars, ripped out the altar rails, moved the tabernacle and completely trashed the Roman Rite. We passively allowed them to destroy sound catechesis and liturgy. It aint happening again. There has been something of a hiatus during the pontifcates of JPII and BXVI but now the deconstructionists and modernists have returned with a vengeance. This is the end game for them. This is the final push for the “spirit (small “s”) of Vatican II” gang but we’re “MAD AS HELL AND WE’RE NOT GOING TO TAKE IT ANYMORE!!”

    Thank goodness for the Catholic blogosphere! Now wonder people like Rosica hate it so much because we use it to marshal the resistance and they can’t control it. Vote with your feet, folks! Wherever it is available, attend the Extraordinary Form of the Mass and vacate this Novus Ordo sham. Don’t write those checks for bishops such as Nichols who work to perpetuate this oppression of sound liturgical practice. Cut off the $$$$ and send them instead to traditional religious orders and priests. It’s time for the faithful remnant to turn its back on these faithless rogues!

  29. JMody says:

    At what point does consistent misrepresentation of the liturgical rubrics, canon law, catechism become proof or even just evidence of a poor attitude or catastrophic lack of competence that is actionable?
    Because only two things can explain the consistent error — crippling incapacity or malevolent intent, so which is it, Excellency?

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