The biggest problem today is Mass “facing the people”

I’ve written about Prof. Robert Spaemann before (e.g., HERE).  Even though German theologians today set a low bar for clarity and orthodoxy, Spaemann is clearly the best working theologian among them.  And he is faithful.  He is quite close to Pope Benedict and has participated in his annual Schülerkreis for decades.

Prof. Spaemann gave an interview to Fr Claude Barthe, which appears on the French language site Paix Liturgique.  Fr. Barthe, a serious scholar and gentleman, has done everyone a real service in helping to organize the annual Summorum Pontificum pilgrimages in Rome at the end of October.  If you have a chance, GO!

In Barthe’s interview, Spaemann breaks open some issues about which I have written with frequency.  Spaemann talks initially about some changes and adaptions that can be made in the Extraordinary Form. For example, he says that changes should be made so slowly that they are hardly to be perceived.

This is in keeping with the reflections I heard from Joseph Ratzinger in the late 80’s and early 90’s. This is, I think, at the heart of his implementation of Summorum Pontificum and his desire for an ultimate mutual enrichment. Because the Novus Ordo was artificially created on desktops by liturgists with scissors and glue pots, there was an unfortunate break in our tradition. This discontinuity and rupture did untold damage to our Catholic identity, the results of which are plain before our daily eyes. Benedict’s vision was that side by side celebrations would result, eventually, in a jump-start of the organic development of liturgy which the Church always knew. This is a slow and patient process, one that is never to be forced. In his interview Spaemann said something very wise (my translation):

FR. BARTHE: You said at the beginning that the Tridentine liturgy is not a final(ized) form in itself. It could have changed and could change.

SPAEMANN: The changes have to be so slow and so imperceptible that everyone arriving at the end of his life, has the impression that he is still using the same rite as that of his childhood, though if this rite had in fact changed.

Concerning ad orientem, or versus populum worship, which topic has been much discussed since Card. Sarah made he appeal to priests begin offering Holy Mass facing the liturgical East this coming Advent, Spaemann invoked the work of Klaus Gamber. I’ve mentioned time and again in these electronic pages that Gamber, a great scholar and liturgist of the 20th c. who strongly influenced Joseph Ratzinger, thought that the single most damaging change perpetrated in the name of the Council (in the “spirit of the Council”) was the turning around of our altars. Hence (my emphases),

FR. BARTHE: What would you suggest to begin to modify the liturgical lot of ordinary parishioners?

SPAEMANN: I believe that the most important problem is that of versus populum celebration. Mass facing the people changes the way of living that which is happening profoundly. One knows especially through the writing of Msgr. Klaus Gamber that this form of celebration never existed as such in the Church. In antiquity, it had a completely different sense. By facing the people, one has today the impression that the priest says some prayers in order to make us pray, but one doesn’t have the impression that he himself is praying. I’m not saying that he isn’t praying, for some priests, in fact, manage to celebrate Mass versus populum while visibly praying. I have in mind John Paul II: one never had the impression that he was talking to the people during Mass. But it is very hard to get to that point.

I was at a procession for Corpus Christi… in the diocese of Feldkirch in Austria, at which a bishop, a member of Opus Dei, presided. At the stations of repose, [usually along the route of a Eucharistic procession there are altars set up along the way where the Blessed Sacrament is placed, incensed, and then Benediction is given, before continuing the procession] the bishop turned his back to the monstrance when saying the prayers. I remarked to myself that if a child would see this, he would not be able to believe that the Lord is present in the sacred Host, because he knows quite well, that little child, that when one talks to someone, one doesn’t turn his back on him. Things like this are very important. A child may well study the catechism, but that comes to nothing if he sees contradictory actions right before his eyes. Hence, I believe that the first thing to do would be to turn the altar around again. It seems that this is more important than a return to Latin. Personally, I have numerous reasons to stick to Latin, but this is not the most fundamental issue. For my part, I would prefer the Traditional Mass in German than the New Mass in Latin.

There is quite a bit more to the interview, but that’s what I have time for now, and I think these are the essential bits.

We MUST make changes to our sacred liturgical worship!  However, we must do so carefully, prudently, patiently, with lots of catechism and explanations.  I firmly believe that no initiative we undertake in the Church will bear lasting fruit unless it is rooted in our sacred liturgical worship.  Our liturgical worship MUST be revitalized.  This is why we need many celebrations of Holy Mass and Hours side by side with the Novus Ordo.  One big step we can take is to take Card. Sarah’s appeal for ad orientem worship to heart and DO IT.

Ask your priests and bishops to return to “Eastward” worship!  Be ready to put good resources into their hands.  Be ready to help in any way necessary to make it happen.  And PRAY for it.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. optiksguy says:

    Witnessing the hysterical, political style campaign waged against Cardinal Sarah after his ad orientem comments was a real eye opener for me. I realized that the modernists view ad orientem as their line in the sand. They fear that restoring ad orientem will be the break in the dam and that there will be no stopping the other small steps needed to return to tradition that will follow.

    Therefore I believe that restoring ad orientem worship is the hill worth dying on. It is worth good priests being persecuted by their bishops. It is worth laity being forced to have uncomfortable conversations with fellow parishioners defending ad orientem. We need to win this battle.

  2. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Professor Spaemann says, “In antiquity, it had a completely different sense. By facing the people, one has today the impression that the priest says some prayers in order to make us pray, but one doesn’t have the impression that he himself is praying.” Apparently in antiquity (and later) in all the various multifarious celebrations ad orientem versus populum, at St. Peter’s, at Santa Maria Maggiore, and so on, this was never a problem. Nor was it a problem to alternate this regularly with ad orientem versus apsidem at some other, stational church. What happened? And how best to undo it, whatever it is? Perhaps Monsignor Pope’s words in his recent post could be applied: “while avoiding antiquarianism, we who advocate ad orientem ask that this research be taken into account.”

  3. un-ionized says:

    Venerator, is what happened that people became completely self-absorbed?

  4. Charles E Flynn says:

    Even when the priest has no intention of being in any way irreverent, the versus populum mass can have problems.

    I recently attended a mass in which the priest had a microphone set to a much higher level than the deacon or the lector. I was prepared, with earplugs.

    The priest cannot be blamed for the way he sings, but a singing style that was suitable for the shower or an opera did not make it any easier to worship Almighty God. Hamming it up and the mass do not go together.

  5. Venerator Sti Lot says:


    It may be – but, in how far (as it seems) (higher-)clergy driven! – ? And I suppose there must at least have been competing understandings, with any sinister esoteric one(s) having an exoteric ‘cover story’…

  6. un-ionized says:

    I dunno. God knows though, because he is omniscient and omnipresent. He also knows how we are reacting to it all and He will take account of that. His angels take notes, I hear! It’s hard to just soldier on but we must and not let it get to us (well, not too much). Maintaining our peace is the short-term goal. Seeing Him face to face forever is the long term goal.

  7. Sixupman says:

    Penultimate Para: “We Must make changes ……. we must do so carefully, prudently, patiently …………. .”.
    Just like the post-Vatican II changes and the strong-arm tactics and re-education of recalcitrant deployed against clergy and treating the laity with complete disdain? And we have what we have to-day!

    [You might review what I wrote.]

  8. Stepheno says:

    Very insightful post. I have been going to Opus Dei benedictions,Masses, retreats for over 30 years and have never seen a priest pray facing away from the Blessed Sacrament when exposed on an alter or otherwise. Not saying it didn’t happen but it would be very odd to most people present.

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