When the 2000 GIRM was issued (now usually cited as 2002 GIRM because it is in the 2002 Missale Romanum), a question was put to the Congregation for Divine Worship: Can a bishop, in his role as moderator of the Sacred Liturgy in the diocese, forbid ad orientem worship?
On 10 April 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship issued an official response (Protocol No. 564/00/L) about GIRM 299 (my emphases):
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.
There is no preference expressed in the liturgical legislation for either position. As both positions enjoy the favor of law, the legislation may not be invoked to say that one position or the other accords more closely with the mind of the Church.
In a nutshell, bishops can’t overrule universal laws, including rubrics. Bishops cannot forbid legitimate options.
The rubrics of the modern Roman Rite, the Novus Ordo, the Ordinary Form, do NOT favor celebration of Holy Mass versus populum, so-called “facing the people”.
That said, one bishop after another is tumbling headlong into the trap laid in the purposeful mistranslation of GIRM 299. More HERE. Alas, most bishops these days did not have any training in Latin before, during or after seminary, including those trained after the 1983 Code of Canon Law laid down in can. 249 says that seminarians are to be be “very well-trained” (bene calleant) in Latin.
We are now beginning to see what damage can be done when clerics depend on translations.
The mistranslators, and those who are in the trap pit with them, say that GIRM 299 reads in such a way as to favor Mass “facing the people”. The false, erroneous translation reads:
299. The altar should be built separate 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. …
No. That last clause, introduced by the relative pronoun quod, does not refer to the orientation of the celebration of Mass. Rather, it refers to the first clause and separation of the altar from the wall. And I refer everyone to the quote from the Congregation at the top of this post.
What does 299 really say?
Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. …
The main altar should be built separated from the wall, which is useful wherever it is possible, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out at it.
Recently in the Diocese of Little Rock, the local bishop sent a letter to priests in which he says that he “expects” that priests will say Mass “facing the people” because of what GIRM 299 says. HERE He didn’t try to impose that, because, well, he can’t. Bishops cannot forbid the legitimate option of ad orientem worship and impose Mass “facing the people” only. However, they can torture priests who say Mass ad orientem in a thousand ways. But that would be abuse of power. And that would be something new, wouldn’t it!
Now I read that another bishop, in Davenport, IA, has written to priests. HERE He cites, again, the erroneous English version of 299 and then writes: “To be clear, this is the posture [“facing the people”] that priests are to take when celebrating the liturgy (in the Ordinary Form) in the Diocese of Davenport.”
BTW… Bp. Amos says that the “normative” posture is “better”. Why? Because the priest and the assembly are “facing the altar together”. Ummmm….
While Bp. Amos’ language doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a formal decree, and the letter isn’t framed in a juridical form, the bishop takes a step beyond that of the Bishop of Little Rock.
The good news – if there is good news in this development – is that some bishops might issue preemptive statements like this because they think priests will listen to The Sarah Appeal™!
Here’s the deal.
It is surreal to have to write this, but we now have to defend ad orientem worship in the Roman Catholic Church!
To be clear, while we have to acknowledge that versus populum celebration is an option in the rubrics (as it also is and was in the Extraordinary Form), given our tradition, ecclesial realities today and, yes, rubrics, I agree with Card. Sarah and strongly believe ad orientem would be of great benefit to the whole Church.
I and others, therefore, are left with the bizarre task of writing again and again that ad orientem worship cannot presently be prohibited. And neither can be versus populum!
It is unfortunate that the poor English (and Italian, etc.) translation of GIRM 299 lead unsuspecting bishops and priests to think that worship versus populum, “is desirable whenever possible.” It was this very confusion that lead to the submission of the question, the dubium, to the Congregation some 16 years ago and, consequently, to the official response which I quoted at the top. Back then, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship (who was not acting merely as a private citizen, btw…) made clear that, according to the law, Holy Mass in the Novus Ordo could be celebrated in either position.
Two final points.
Confusion flows from the poor English and Italian translation. However, the French, German and Polish managed to get it right!
FRENCH: (299) Il convient, partout où c’est possible, que l’autel soit érigé à une distance du mur qui permette d´en faire aisément le tour et d´y célébrer face au peuple.
GERMAN: (299) Der Altar ist von der Wand getrennt zu errichten, so dass man ihn leicht umschreiten und die Feier an ihm dem Volk zugewandt vollzogen werden kann. Das empfiehlt sich überall, wo es möglich ist.
POLISH: (299) Ołtarz winien być zbudowany w oddaleniu od ściany, aby łatwo można było obchodzić go dookoła i celebrować przy nim w stronę ludu. Wypada go tak umieścić wszędzie, gdzie to jest możliwe.
PORTUGUESE (299) Onde for possível, o altar deve ser construído afastado da parede, de modo a permitir andar em volta dele e celebrar a Missa de frente para o povo. Pela sua localização, há-de ser o centro de convergência, para o qual espontaneamente se dirijam as atenções de toda a assembleia dos fiéis.
But I, friends, don’t need translations to be able to read 299, and neither should any other priest or bishop of the LATIN Church.
Next, way back in 1969, when the first Novus Ordo Missal was released, the 1969 GIRM 262 (the predecessor of 2002 GIRM 299) said:
262. Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit.
The main altar should be built separated from the wall, so that it can be easily walked around and a celebration toward the people can be carried out at it.
Note well that the pesky quod clause, which has caused such confusion in the 2002 version, is absent.
So, you might be asking, WHY was that quod clause inserted into the 2002 version? It was probably an attempt – ham-fisted – to curtail the wide-spread destruction of existing altars that was going on. There is NO LEGISLATION that requires that existing altars be reworked or destroyed or detached or chopped off or … anything. That quod clause expresses a suggestion that, if it is possible, altars should be constructed far enough from the wall that they can be circumnavigated and Mass can be said from either side. That’s it.
Fr. Z’s position: All things being equal, ad orientem worship is superior, but both ad orientem and versus populum are provided for in the rubrics of the Ordinary Form. Attempts to forbid ad orientem worship today are based both on erroneous scholarship from decades ago that promoted versus populum worship (later repudiated by some of the scholars who proposed it), and on bad translations of present day liturgical legislation (which were subsequently clarified the Congregation for Divine Worship).