I 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.