Why are certain people afraid of “ad orientem” worship?

holy-sacrifice-of-the-mass-freeing-souls-from-purgatoryAd orientem worship in the Latin Rite is important just just because, practically, it helps to keep priests and bishops under control (i.e., Mass isn’t about them), it helps to create the necessary conditions for the apophatic experiences which facilitate an encounter with Mystery.  This encounter prepares us for the Four Last Things, death, judgment, heaven and hell.  We all face towards the symbolic liturgical East, because Christians perennially believed that Christ will return from the East, like the glory of the rising sun.   The “eastward” arrangement, priest and people together, for the Eucharistic, sacrificial portion of Holy Mass, has eschatological force.  Rather than being locked into a closed circle among ourselves, we are more manifestly opened to the Lord who is to come.  Not only are we oriented toward the Lord who will come, but ad orientem worship also orients us back through the ranks and ranks of our forebears who worshiped in the same way for the same reasons.  As we hope to connect with the Lord is His splendor, we hope to rejoin our predecessors in their joy.

First Things has made another contribution to the discussion of ad orientem worship, set in motion by the personal appeal made to priests by His Eminence Robert Card. Sarah – The Sarah Appeal™.

Let’s jump in toward the end…



The real issue, I believe, is not restorationism (which, ironically, was one of the mistaken reasons for the introduction of versus populum in the mid-twentieth century) or clericalism (this layman finds his Christian dignity and equality affirmed by ad orientem worship, which makes visible the solidarity of clergy and congregation, as well as the self-effacement of ordained ministers before the Lord). The real issue is much deeper: the Church’s identity in time and eternity. That identity touches on history, Vatican II and its reception, ecclesiology, and eschatology.


Finally, ad orientem worship raises the issue of the Church’s relationship to its past, present, and future, to its identity across time. Despite Vatican II’s conviction that believers’ commitments as citizens of both the heavenly and earthly cities ought to be mutually reinforcing (e.g., Gaudium et spes, No. 43), we have witnessed a diminishment of the Church’s eschatological awareness. A minor, but telling, example is the title of Chapter VII of Lumen gentium. The Flannery translation, the most commonly used, renders that title as “The Pilgrim Church.” The Vatican website’s translation renders it, more faithfully, as “The Eschatological Nature of the Pilgrim Church and Its Union with the Church in Heaven.” The rejection or marginalization of ad orientem worship feeds this “presentism” and the concomitant eschatological deficit. I am convinced that a significant reason for opposition to ad orientem worship is the sense that it pulls believers away from each other and the “real world,” that it is “churchy” and self-referential. There are, however, few more visible means than ad orientem worship for connecting the Church to its past and future, bodily orienting it in solidarity to its Lord, and thereby contributing to a renewal of the Church’s mission in the world.

Turn towards the Lord.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. majuscule says:

    Need. That. Bumper. Sticker.

  2. StJoansPage says:

    Seconded, majuscule!

  3. Curley says:

    I see opposition to ad orientum worship as well as the TLM, Latin, etc. as people clinging to the hermeneutic of rupture and the belief that if those things that are in continuity with our past are embraced they lose hope for the Church changing teaching (as if it could) on contraception, gay marriage, female priests, you name it.

  4. AnnTherese says:

    I don’t have strong feelings for or against ad orientem, but if the purpose is to keep attention on Christ instead of the priest, I hope the next movement will be to eliminate homilies! They rarely add value to worship and are generally longer than the Eucharistic prayers, which make them seem, really–more about the priest than Christ. I’d rather spend 5 minutes in quiet prayer, or pray a rosary together, or sing another hymn. But, if we’re stuck with homilies, maybe they can be delivered in Latin! While I pray quietly.

  5. ChesterFrank says:

    I don’t know how afraid people would be of an “ad orientem” Mass if said in the vernacular (English) . I think many might be curious about it simply because Mass is rarely said that way. Once experienced people might grow fond of it, and certain priest bloggers have said that is common. It might even encourage the TLM and a bit of a liturgical renaissance. The fear might be in the rearranging of the sanctuary that some churches might require, and the fact that such rearrangement often implies a permanent change. Any change is scary. Personally I would find it interesting to see how some of the contemporary churches would construct their sanctuaries to meet the needs of this type of Mass, especially the instillation of modern altar rails. I would greet this with enthusiasm simply because it is a small but meaningful change. If the request was for an immediate change to the TLM I might be fearful just because that is a dramatic and abrupt change, even though I would like to see the TLM in wider practice.

  6. jameeka says:

    Maybe people are correctly afraid of the domino ( Dominus) effect “ad orientem” Liturgy would have. That tabernacle would have to be back in the center, right? And maybe a large crucifix, easily visible? And then maybe kneeling for Communion, because …God? and…..

  7. Fr. Reader says:

    Many are afraid because they have been told many many times, that in the past, in the dark ages, or similar catastrophic times, the Church was terrible because there were such absurd things as Latin, the congregation not seeing the face of the priest, a dark thing called “the Roman Canon”, the Crusades and the Cross on the altar, genuflections and inquisitions, dogmas and communion in the hand, evil kings and monks, and that the only way of the Church to go into the glorious future is to get rid of “all those things.” All these ideas are still repeated, many times and very often, and we should learn (sometimes is not easy), to disentangle the knots, and expose clear ideas about these topics.

    If you allow me to put another example, in the country in Asia in which I live, some people preach (I think especially 20 or 30 years ago, I’m not completely sure) that we should not genuflect in front of the tabernacle but bow instead, because the latter is “inculturation”, while genuflecting is medieval sign of European decadence. Those who preach this forgot to mention that in this place people would not genuflect in front of the emperor, but touch the flour with their heads and prostrate 9 times, and real inculturation perhaps is to do this. But the objective is to get rid of the genuflection, the inculturation is just the excuse.

  8. EeJay says:

    “I am convinced that a significant reason for opposition to ad orientem worship is the sense that it pulls believers away from each other and the “real world,” that it is “churchy” and self-referential.”

    Totally totally totally totally totally totally totally totally totally AGREE!!! Boy you said it Father!!!

  9. Midwest St. Michael says:

    Fr. Z.,

    Perhaps, as you have done in the past with other issues going on in the Church, a favorite tune could be polled regarding Ad orientem worship?

    Like this one by The Byrds: “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”

    Especially the lines:

    “To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season, turn, turn, turn. And a time to every purpose under heaven.”


  10. As a self-proclaimed liberal (in church stuff, not secular politics), I am all in favor of expanding the practice of ad orientem orientation. We don’t have to use it at every mass, but let’s use it at some masses. Try new things, have some variety, see what works.

  11. gracie says:

    At Mass I try hard to keep looking at the Tabernacle where God is physically present. To do this often requires looking past the left or right ear of the priest. Other things that are looked at – because it’s hard humanly speaking to stare at one thing for an hour – are the stained glass windows, or the stone angels or saints, or the crucifix, or the Last Supper motif under the altar, or the chalice after the Consecration. I look at the priest when he’s directly addressing us but that’s it. This practice involves an on-going effort because it’s only normal to look at a human being who’s looking at me. It’s tiring to keep having to go around a priest to get to God.

  12. chantgirl says:

    Joseph Shaw of the LMS has some thought-provoking comments on the whole affair.


    I admit I am torn. I would not be sad to see the Novus Ordo die off because of its structural inferiority to the EF, and because of the way it has been used to rob several generations of their faith, but it is the form of Mass that most Catholics are familiar with and many are not quite ready for the EF. I wonder if the parable of the fig tree does not apply here. The Novus Ordo has not produced the good fruits that were hoped for, possibly because of the bad root of the tree- the intent to protestantize the Mass. Perhaps God has given the Novus Ordo a chance to start producing fruit, especially by turning back towards the Lords at Mass, and if it doesn’t then He will let it wither. Perhaps the root was so bad that the tree was destined to die anyway. Either way, I worry for those who do not have access to the true reality of the Mass and the truth of the faith. Changes in most Western countries will make it so that it will soon be seen to be as unpopular to be a Catholic as it is to be a KKK member. The Catholic faith is being branded as racist, homophobic, and bigoted. I can see a split coming in all religions- those who accept the new “spirit” of the times will be allowed to flourish, while those who hold to a natural law view of morality will be driven into the shadows and persecuted by various means.

    If it is all of the sudden uncomfortable or even dangerous to be Catholic, who will stay? How many of those who assist at the Novus Ordo are challenged by what they see to face God, to face their own sins and mortality, and how many are so welcomed as to be anesthetized to the approaching four last things? I ask this as someone who assisted at the Novus Ordo until my late 20s. Has the Novus Ordo prepared us to be the Church militant, or the Church compromising, the Church bewildered, the Church frightened? Who will be left in the Church in the west after the faith becomes an impediment to success, friendships, or even becomes dangerous?

    I don’t know how all of this will play out. Part of me is relieved that the tinkerers have had the Novus Ordo as a diversion, something to fulfill their desire to tweak while leaving the EF Mass pretty much alone. The other part of me is angry that the majority of Catholics have been malnourished by the mangling of the Mass, and robbed of something beautiful. Is God calling the Novus Ordo to reform or die off, or is He allowing a bad tree to wither? I don’t know but I don’t want to see all of the malnourished die.

    Priests, wherever you are, please feed your flocks with true liturgy and real catechesis. Please make whatever Mass you say as reverent as possible. Please consider ad orientem, the actual propers, communion rails. Give people the truth, and a choice. Let them see the true, the good, and the beautiful, and maybe they will choose it. And please, consider offering the EF. Joseph Shaw may be correct that it may now be easier to implement the EF than the reform of the reform.

  13. Ipsitilla says:

    You shall not receive the Chalice, but you shall not die of thirst
    You shall move beyond the Sixties, though you do not know the way
    You shall hear words in the Latin tongue, and you will understand
    You shall see the backs of priests…and live!

    Be not afraid…

  14. KCFleming says:

    The Etz Hayim ( Torah and commentary) discusses the Hebrew word ????? (shuv), meaning “to turn back, return”. It occurs 1000 times in the Hebrew scriptures.

    The Jewish High holidays are based on “teshuvah” which is translated as ‘repentance,’ but is more accurately a ‘turning back’ (shuv) to God, and thus turning away from evil.

    As in the article quoted above, ad oreientem will turn believers away from each other and the “real world”, and back toward God.

    I like to think of ad orientem as both a literal and metaphorical turning back: repentance and re-orientation, humility and honor.

  15. KCFleming says:

    Sorry, Hebrew text was not recognized.

  16. Cincinnati Priest says:

    Thanks, Ipsitilla. That’s hilarious, and it says it all.

  17. robtbrown says:

    Austin Catholics says,

    Try new things, have some variety, see what works.

    We have tried vernacular, versus populum celebration for almost 50 years–and have seen that it obviously doesn’t work.

  18. Mojoron says:

    When we took our diocesan planned wedding anniversary present to ourselves pilgrimage to France, Portugal, Span and Rome, and when our Archbishop said Mass, often the altars were ad orientum, especially those in the Vatican and Paul’s Place. So at home, do as the Romans do. There is no reason NOT to.

  19. Colette says:

    I tried to send this in your question box, but it kept telling me to make corrections and I couldn’t find anything to correct. I’m not computer savvy, so perhaps I was just doing something wrong.
    This was the question: We attend Mass in the EF at St. Joseph’s in downtown Topeka. A priest from our local FSSP presides over it. The local parish lets the Fraternity use the church. It is a beautiful church that was built in 1898. The church and the altar faces West. How does this apply with all of the talk regarding Ad Orientum? I’m not sure why the church was built facing West. The local SSPX in St. Mary’s also has their chapel/altar facing West.

  20. Gaz says:

    Ironically, this is very similar to my view on the development of the extraordinary form. Communities that have built a durable return to what is now the Extraordinary form have not simply gone back to what the old people remembered from 1958 Low Masses celebrated by Fr Joseph Patrick Ciaran Finbar O’Connelly (God bless his fictional soul). Instead, they have cast into the deep, plumbed the depths of tradition, and rediscovered the ancient treasures of the rite and made it once again new.

  21. Nathan says:

    I think the author of the article is on to something. I noticed something similar when I first introduced the TLM to a person close to me who had grown up in the Novus Ordo–their first reaction after Holy Mass was “it makes me feel unworthy.” I wonder if, in a practical sense, attending Holy Mass in the OF offered ad orientem might have a similar effect upon those who have grown up having never experienced it.

    While my first reaction was “well, of course, part of the worship of Almighty God is the recognition of who He has revealed Himself to be, which we actually are unworthy to see.” (This was not particularly helpful to the person, but patience was.) However, due to the practical implications of versus populum worship–the diminishment of the Church’s eschatological awareness–it’s tough to see even those who haven’t bought into the assumptions of the hermeneutic of rupture buying into restoration without significant instruction.

    In Christ,

  22. Truth Seeker says:

    I would so love the return to the ad orientem to be implemented in our parishes, and at the very least for one of the Masses – so people can choose to attend that form. We lost our Latin Mass, which has been moved to out of town and difficult to get to, a great loss.

    Sadly we have one parish in our city that was remodeled and expanded recently. In doing so, to enlarge the main church to be able to seat more – they took out a glass window/wall on one side where the Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle was kept. One could see it easily from the main church. That was better than not being visible in the center behind the altar of course…but at least Jesus was present! Now they added on a chapel – behind the altar wall, to the back (west side of church ironically). They now have the Tabernacle in the chapel (in the center which is good), and a large crucifix. No statues, no stations of the cross (cannot access during Lent) Those items remain in the main church, which is locked and only used for Sunday Masses, and I assume weddings/funerals/etc. The chapel with the Tabernacle is used for weekday daily Masses, and other devotions. So at this church, no Jesus is present until the consecration of the Host, (so for ad orientem here would have the priest facing a mere wall/crucifix, no Tabernacle – right?). Also the EM leaves the main church, exits through a side hallway through to the newly attached chapel to obtain the ciboriums and hosts from the Tabernacle and bring them back into the church and to the altar for distribution of Eucharist. It was so strange and surreal to me…I just cannot describe how I felt knowing that His presence was not really there with the priest and congregation in the Tabernacle which was in another location and invisible altogether until the Consecration! I also attended a Saturday morning Mass with a group in the chapel with the Tabernacle – and there was a Mass in the main church as well; and when it came time for Communion, the priest had to wait as we waited in the chapel until the minister came and took the hosts/ciboriums to the main church, and then returned after their Communion was completed there. That was odd too. In another parish I attend, the EM’s are called up – “all” of them present, to the altar, sometimes as many as 14 of them go up, and very least is 8 to 10 (Sunday Masses). They stand behind the priest on the altar – facing the congregation. At the children’s Mass, all children are called up to sit all over on the floor in the front of the altar, making distribution tricky too for the EM’s. I could describe other scenes but that will suffice for now. The main topic here is regarding which way the priest should face, and all the controversy over that now – which to me is sad. When I grew up – there was no problem and no one seemed to mind we were facing our Lord too, and we followed along the priest’s prayers in our Missals, and with Latin on one side, English on the opposite page – you eventually learned some Latin. It was a beautiful, and still is for those who are blessed to attend a Latin Mass, and very reverent way to attend Mass, which is supposed to be centered on Jesus Christ – Who should in my view be front and center of our lives at all times! The silence! I miss the silence before, often during, except for a real choir singing beautiful hymns, and during Communion and afterward! Today it is very difficult to find those moments (I’ve tried five different churches in our area…all the same). The chattering and visiting about everything not to do with Mass before it begins and after it ends is absolutely maddening and frustrating, and then I feel I have to go to Confession right after for my impatience and not-so-charitable thoughts about those around me who do not seem to realize where they are. I have tried ear plugs, but cannot adapt to them. Oh for the sacredness of Holy Mass to return! For people to realize the beauty and the meaning of attending – why we are there; for this I pray, in addition to praying for all priests who need our prayers and those who speak truth – our support. Thank you Father Z for all you do too. Blessings.

  23. Jonathan Marshall says:

    Whenever someone trots out the old slander of the priest “turning his back to the people” I ask them whether they think my great-uncle Leonard, a young officer in WW1 who was killed in action, died “with his back to his men”. I remind them that he was leading his troops towards their objective – which is exactly what the priest is doing when he celebrates Holy Mass ad orientem.

  24. Filipino Catholic says:

    I can count on one hand exactly how many Novus Ordo churches I have been to that offer the Holy Mass ad orientem, and that number is 1. The chapel in question has altar and wall unseparated (as it was in the olden days), so it does double duty for offering both EF and OF Masses. There was also one I went to for the Christmas Vigil Mass in 2014 which had a freestanding altar, and six candles with a central crucifix on it, but was still versus populum.

    I feel like I’m quibbling about minor points just talking about this — which is why I’m hesitant to broach the topic even at the university I attend. While the Philippines remains strongly attached to its Catholic heritage (for whatever reason may be the individual case), the liturgical mayhem found in the US does diffuse towards our shores as well. All that is traditional about the Mass (ad orientem, Latin, Gregorian chant, etc.) likely evokes negative memories of our Spanish colonial past, and yes, of the idea that the Church/hierarchy in those days was obsessively rules-oriented, focused more on penance and punishment than love and mercy, and forbade the laity from reading the Bible.

    At least the US has the likes of Cdl. Burke, Bp. Morlino, and Abp. Cordileone to support the Sarah Appeal. Here there is nobody among the bishops who would back it as far as I know, even though there are a handful who permit Masses in the usus antiquior to be said in their dioceses.

Comments are closed.