The rubrics of the Novus Ordo Missale Romanum and the tradition of many centuries have the priest at the altar facing liturgical East. That is to say, as he celebrates Holy Mass with a congregation present, there are moments when the priest is instructed to turn to the people and then to turn back to the altar. Hence, the congregation and the priest, when he is at the altar, together face liturgical East.
This arrangement reveals that the priest is the “head” of the congregation, “body. He stands at the head of the physical church as the people are in that church’s body. All of this reflects the invisible reality that Christ is the Head of the Body the Church.
From Church’s earliest days, and in keeping with the prayer practices of the Jews, our forebears thought Christ would return in glory from the East. Moreover, if I remember correctly, after her apparitions at Fatima, Our Lady disappeared into the East.
Celebrating towards the East, ad orientem, is symbolic. It doesn’t have to be the literal geographic East. It is ideal to be able to face the literal geographic East, but we can create a liturgical East in any direction. So long as you are all facing the same direction, you are symbolically facing the East. Thus, we turn to the Lord who is coming.
Those of you will access to a good academic library might look up an article by M.J. Moreton: “Εἰς ἀνατολας βλεψατε: Orientation as a Liturgical Principle”, Studia Patristica 17.2 (1982) 575–90. Moreton demonstrates it was the universal custom of the early Church to face East, even if that meant that at a certain point the congregation itself had to turn around to the East. The great liturgical scholar Klaus Gamber wrote about this as well in The Reform of the Roman Liturgy: Its Problems and Background.
There are great resources on ad orientem worship which also explore the spiritual dimension, the deeper significance of this entirely Catholic way to pray together.
Ratzinger has a deep reflection on the meaning of worship ad orientem.
Also useful is “Turning Toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer” by my friend the Oratorian Father Uwe Michael Lang. US HERE – UK HERE
And one should also read Card. Sarah’s important London speech. He talks about the importance of ad orientem worship. He asked priests – not officially of course – to consider saying Mass ad orientem. HERE
Card. Sarah made the invitation and Lib World threw an authentic spittle-flecked nutty, thus proving the solid-gold value of his vision.
Gamber, by the way, said that of all the harmful things that came from the post-Conciliar reform, turning altars around was the most damaging.
Ad orientem worship is perhaps the single most important (initial) change that can be made in an effort to revitalize our sacred liturgical worship.
Moreover, priests don’t need permission to celebrate ad orientem and, according to law, they cannot be legally prevented. They can, however, be bullied.
I turn now to a pastor’s page in a parish bulletin from St. Edward on the Lake in Lakeport, MI. Fr. Lee Acervo took his parish ad orientem. There was strong positive support. However, there was one complaint and the bishop forced the priest to go backwards to versus populum worship. Fr. Acervo explained the situation in his bulletin. HERE
For your convenience: