Mass “facing the people” and priest control freaks

ORIENTEM CAR 01The other day I had the privilege of meeting with a group of the Knights and Dames of the Holy Sepulcher to talk about the Novus Ordo, the TLM and so forth. In talking about celebration of Mass I brought up Jewish mizrah, or “East”, the direction of prayer for the Jews, “oriented” toward where the Temple of Jerusalem was. The misrach is also the east wall in synagogue where the rabbi is, and in a home. Also, their Torah “ark” containing the Scriptures is usually there, in the East, covered with a curtain.

Today His Hermeneuticalness has an interesting post about similarities of Catholic and Jewish liturgical worship. HERE

He made an insightful point about the orientation of the priest whereby he has, or does not have, the sight of the people in the congregation.  One of his points concerned where people sit in some synagogues, men on one side women on the other, as well as other customs such as arrival time and bowing and so forth.   He comments:

4. reminds me of the practice I heard about once, in which the congregation were told to remain standing in their place after they had received Holy Communion, wait until the last person had received, and then all sit down together. The experience of the traditional Latin Mass is not as freeform as Judaism 101’s description of Orthodox Jewish liturgy, but in fact there are no rubrics for the people, only customs. [NB] I think that whether the priest is facing the people or turned to the East has an influence on how closely he tries to control what everyone does. If you are focussed on the altar and the crucifix, rather than trying to make eye-contact with everyone, you are less likely to be bothered if people choose to occupy the rearmost pews.

Did you get that?  It could be that there is a correlation between versus populum celebration and attempts of priests to control the participation of the congregation.  I think Fr. Finigan is on to something here.

I, for example, could care less whether people sit or stand for most of Mass.  Of course there are times when it is most appropriate to kneel.  I think people properly kneel for the consecration, etc.

I could care less about when people come forward for Holy Communion.  Frankly, I’d like the practice of row-by-row Communion to fade away, and the psychological pressure to go forward when you shouldn’t along with it.  So Communion time is a little messy. Okay.

In my experience liberals are far more controlling than traditionals in certain aspects of worship.  Of course we all know some relaxed libs and some controlling trads, no question.  However, in the main, my experience has been that trads – at least those in communities which have finally gotten comfortable and don’t fear persecution any longer – are pretty laid back, while libs are control freaks.

Perhaps the greater structure of the liturgical rites gives trads space to “be”?


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  1. erick says:

    This reminds me of an article I read recently — anyone recall who/where it was? — wherein the author advocates the removal of all pews from churches. I really love that idea, though I can’t see it ever happening.

  2. (X)MCCLXIII says:

    In re priests making eye contact: about ten years ago, the priests at a church in my town wanted to remodel the nave, greatly reducing the capacity. At one point the curate (there were two priests in those days) told me that it was very depressing to look out over such a small congregation at weekday Mass in such a large church. I was friendly with another priest, a parish priest in another town in the diocese, who celebrated both old and new rites (this was before Summorum Pontificum), sometimes versus populum and sometimes ad orientem. I asked him how he felt celebrating the new rite versus populum on weekdays in his big church with small congregations. “I never look at them.”

    Of course, that’s how it ought to be. Another priest I knew who celebrated old and new masses in his small parish church, always ad orientem, very obviously always had his eyes cast down when facing the people in either rite – at least, except when preaching.

  3. Neil Addison says:

    A Jewish Friend has invited my wife and I to several events in his Synagogue when members of his family have been going through Naming, Bar Mitzvah etc events. I noticed that the Rabbi faced towars the Congregation when he was talking to the Congregation or reading from the Scriptures but he faced towards the Ark of the Torah Scrolls (ie ad Orientum) when he was speaking to God by leading the prayers.

    At one event the Rabbi commented that he had received a number of messages regarding the fact that he was increasing the amount of Hebrew used the service, some people liked it and others didn’t. He actually allowed one critic to address the Congregation who made the point that God understood English so he didn’t need to spoken to in Hebrew. The Rabbi responded that of course God did understand English and it was perfectly proper to pray in English but by praying in Hebrew the Congregation was praying in unison with Jews of the past and Jews thoughout the world. By praying in Hebrew the congregation was being more authentically Jewish

    I chatted to the Rabbi in the social afterwards and mentioned how interesting I had found the discussion about the use of Hebrew, and I said “We Cahtolics have the same arguments over using Latin, its coming back but some Catholics don’t like that”. His reply was “I never understood why you Catholics dropped Latin, it was something that made you distinctive and part of your identity. Dropping it always seemed strange to me”

  4. donato2 says:

    The descriptions in Exodus of the how God wanted the tabernacle constructed and in the subsequent three books of the Bible of how sacrifices were to be made reflect a Divine concern for precise ritual that is very pertinent to today’s debate concerning the relative merits and demerits of the traditional Latin Mass and the new Mass. The traditional Latin Mass has a regard for ritual that is quite consistent with spirit of Exodus and the subsequent three books of the Bible. The reverse is the case with the new Mass. Some I suppose would cheer this quality of the new Mass and justify it with the argument that the New Testament supersedes the old law. I however believe that the Old Testament and traditional Latin Mass sort of rituals correspond to what the spirit of worthy worship should be.

  5. ejcmartin says:

    Sigh, I live in a diocese where we were told to remain standing until everyone has received communion AND the tabernacle doors have been closed. It’s only getting worse with “liturgical ministers” on the horizon… pray for us.

    [The elimination of kneeling in the Presence of the Lord (and how is He more present than immediately after Communion?) is for Catholics a sign of lack of Faith. It is also a tool whereby the supernatural is reduced to the natural, the essence of Modernism, the substitution of the transcendent by the immanent.]

  6. rtjl says:

    “..but in fact there are no rubrics for the people, only customs..”
    I remember attending a pewless Orthodox church. The priest there explained that not having pews was part of their tradition, except for pews positioned around the perimeter of the church for use by people with physical limitations. He explained that part of the reason for that was so that people would not be impeded in their movements by pews. According to him, the people should be free to move about even during services because they are the children of the household: it is not right that the children should not be free to move about as they please in the house of their father. Liturgical rules and rubrics for the most part don’t apply to them because they are the children of the household. The rules apply most strictly to the priests, deacons and servants of the liturgy because they are the servants of the children of the household. Of course this is not intended as a formula for chaos, lack or order or lack of reverence. Nor do you find such in most Orthodox churches, but you do find people moving with greater freedom in Orthodox churches.

    I personally would like to see fewer pews and more open space in churches. It was our tradition too once upon a time. Fewer pews would go along way towards eliminating row by row and what effectively amounts to compulsory communion.

  7. jbazchicago says:

    That silly “custom” after reception of Holy Communion is the rule of law in the Diocese of Cleveland, instituted by a liturgist that well…ummm….well, can’t celebrate Mass publicly. Just sayin’

  8. gracie says:

    “It could be that there is a correlation between versus populum and attempts of priests to control the participation of the congregation.”

    They also use the homily to control people. Last Sunday the pastor told us to turn and say “good morning” to the family member or friend next to us – if no family member or friend, then to think of someone to say hello to. I split the difference and said “how do you do” to a nattily dressed octogenarian sitting next to me – suit/tie/sneakers. Next up – turn to the same person and ask for forgiveness for something we did to him/her – which, of course, means we have to mention what we did. Anyway, that’s where he and I put the brakes on our budding friendship. Then we were told to tell the same person that we loved him/her. At this point, I went into meditation mode, pondering what makes this pastor tick and concluding it’s his belief – probably from his seminary days – that the more Protestant – sorry, ecumenical – our “services” are the better. This pernicious nonsense was introduced at the Second Vatican Council and is so much a part of the fabric of our parishes that it’s not even seen anymore for what it is. Needless to say, the pastor was successful in getting us to focus on each other and away from the worship of God that we were supposed to be there for. And yes, I felt he was trying to control us – all for our benefit, I’m sure. The fact that the people were nervous and embarrassed at being put on the spot to ask forgiveness for something they may not want to bring up again – along with the young people who were there with their friends – you think a teenage boy wants to tell the girl next to him that he loves her? – was pretty dreadful. The sad thing is, I don’t think it’s even in the priest’s DNA at this point to realize what he’s doing.

  9. majuscule says:

    The comment about remodeling the church so that the priest didn’t have to see how small the congregation is brought to mind something I was thinking the other day.

    I have attended a priest’s private (low) Masses where there may be no servers and only one or two to make the servers responses. And again, High Solemn Masses with filled pews. But there have also been sung Masses with a procession and a choir and only a few in the pews.

    My thought is that it does not matter if there are only a few at the Mass or if the priest is alone. Certainly having more people there praying the Mass is best. But even the poorly attended Mass, offered with dignity and respect must be so pleasing to God! I see this reflected in the demeanor of the priest offering these sparsely attended High Masses. He’s not there for himself.

    Even if there’s only the choir to come up for communion, it’s pleasing to God. It’s not some sort of failed Broadway performance.

    (I am speaking about honoring our creator, not about the sad decline in the number of those attending Mass. That’s a whole other topic!)

  10. Blaise says:

    Surely the answers to the priest whof doesn’t like seeing a small congregation include saying Mass ad orientem and getting more people into the Church. But they also include not worrying because you cannot see most of the people at Mass: the heavenly hosts, the whole company of saints. The Church is always full at Mass if you know where to “look”.

  11. smauggie says:

    The first time I learned that there was such a thing as the priest facing ad orientum was in reading a biography of St Jean Vianney. There was a point at which it described him as being ad orientum interceding for his flock. The symbolism touched me deeply and I long for the day when this practice returns to being the normal practice in parishes. It speaks volumes symbolically and even psychologically about the relationship between the people, their priest and God.

  12. Joe in Canada says:

    The GIRM has the congregation standing through the entire Eucharistic prayer, except for from the Epiclepsis to the Anamnesis (when the congregation should kneel), and through to the post Communion prayer. The CDW responded to a query about this and replied that the text of the GIRM was not intended to overrule the pious and common custom of kneeling after individual reception of Holy Communion. Unfortunately for liturgists, this response overrules the possibility of actually ordering people to keep standing. Unfortunately for Canadians this response was addressed to Americans as the Canadian edition of the GIRM had not yet been promulgated. Fortunately for everybody the actual texts of the Church are available on-line even if liturgists try to enforce ignorance.

  13. Ages says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t pews mainly a Protestant innovation? It makes sense because their “worship” mostly consists of listening to long lectures, but it makes no sense for Catholic worship and isn’t authentic to the tradition (although by now I guess it might be).

    I wonder why they started using them back in the day. A misguided effort to attract Protestants? If so, we can see how that program can cause long-lasting effects of dubious value.

  14. Boniface says:

    I’d love to see a return to pewless churches. It would help eliminate the horror of row-by-row approaching for communion – whicg, I’ve noticed, never caught on in Europe.

    Gracie, none of the unfortunate things you experienced have any origins whatsoever in Vatican II. Read Sacrosanctum Concilium:

    Rubrics for the postures of the people are a very recent phenomenon. I recall this when I assist (as I mostly do) at the Extraordinary Form, where I sometimes just prefer to kneel during everything but the gospel. As someone mentioned above, the Novus Ordo does not prescribe any particular posture post-communion. If I am asked at the Novus Ordo to violate any rubrics or to do something I am not required (that’s the key point) and (much less importantly) do not like, I just politely ignore it.

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  16. motherof6 says:

    Hello, Fr. Z,
    Your response about kneeling in the presence of the Lord brings to mind a question I have had for a long time. I go to Mass at a church that has 24/7 exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, except for during Mass, of course. My question concerns the end of Mass. The practice is for the priest to return to the altar at the recessional and stand in front of the Monstrance while the host is being returned to it. My husband and I have it in our heads (we are pre-VII catechised) that we are supposed to stand until the priest leaves the sanctuary, indicating the end of Mass. Most of the other people kneel before the priest even gets to the altar. Am I making a mountain out of an ant hill??

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