A new decree in a US Archdiocese seeks to limit “ad orientem” worship, but it is based on a FALSE translation. Here we go again.

Yesterday I received a PDF of a new “Decree” from the Archbishop of Cincinnati, Dennis Schnurr.


The Archbishop has introduced a new “policy” on ad orientem worship.

There must be in every parish or “cluster” (they say “family”) of parishes at least one public versus populum Mass.


1. When a freestanding altar is present the celebration of Mass – whether versus populum or ad orientem – may take place ONLY on said altar, NOT on the older “high” altar.
2. If the freestanding altar is dedicated, but not fixed (and thus “moveable”), it may NOT be moved from the sanctuary for the purpose of using the older altar.

Here’s the kicker.

The “decree” is based on GIRM 299 and the Responsum of 25 Sept 2000 of the Congregation for Divine Worship about GIRM 299.

I have written often and extensively about GIRM 299, which deals with posture or position of the celebrant and the construction of the altar.  GIRM 299, which is authoritatively IN LATIN, was MISTRANSLATED in the USCCB’s documents about liturgy.  The MISTRANSLATION gave the impression that versus populum celebration was the most desirable posture for Mass.  That is NOT what the Latin says.  And if there were any doubt about that a dubium was submitted to the CDW, which in a Responsum debunked that falsehood and went on to explain the Latin to those who were incapable of dealing with the Church’s official language (99% percent of bishops).

The “Decree” of Cincinnati quotes GIRM 299 as being (and this is a FALSE translation):

In regard to the arrangement of the sanctuary, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states: ‘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.” (GIRM 299)

Since the celebration of Mass versus populum (facing the people) is “desirable wherever possible”, this should be the regular practice in churches, oratories, and chapels of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, nearly all of which have a freestanding dedicated altar.’

Again, this is a FALSE translation of GIRM 299.

The writer of this decree, who put it in front of the Archbishop to sign, must have known that this is a FALSE TRANSLATION because he also cited the Responsum that explains the Latin.

So, what is the accurate translation?

I cannot believe that after all these year I have to deal with this incompetence again. For example HERE

GIRM 299 actually says that what is desirable, when possible, is that the altar be separated from the wall, not that Mass be versus populum.

299. 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. (Emphases added)

THAT’s what the Latin really says.

On 25 September 2000 the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments issued a clarification (Prot. No. 2036/00/L) regarding 299 in the Latin GIRM. That clarification, Responsum, says:

The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in n. 299 of the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which the position of the priest versus absidem [facing the apse] is to be excluded. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:

Negatively, and in accordance with the following explanation.

The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account. First, the word expedit does not constitute a strict obligation but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum(detached from the wall).  It does not require, for example, that existing altars be pulled away from the wall. The phrase ubi possibile sit (where it is possible) refers to, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc.

Expedit refers to a suggestion about the construction of the altar.  It is suggested that, where possible (depending on the topography of the sanctuary, etc.) there he an altar that can be used from either side, that can be used for versus populum Masses.  It does NOT day that versus populum is preferable.  PERIOD.

So, this “Decree” from Cincinnati is based on a FALSE translation.  GIRM 299 is forced to say something it does not say.  Moreover, whereas the Responsum is cited… giving the writer the benefit of the doubt let’s assume he read it… and whereas the Responsum explains the Latin…. therefore the “Decree” is based on a lie.

It is sad that draconian ideological micromanagement is taking over the Church, a positivism which is, ironically, simultaneously antinomian.

The “Decree” does not place an outright ban on ad orientem worship.  However, it does impose, on priests who have more than one Mass – and many priests are alone in parishes – one versus populum Mass.  That means that someone has to rearrange everything.

Furthermore, it means that what a pastor has done to move worship ad orientem has been undermined.

The question is raised.  QUAERITUR: What there an outbreak of ad orientem worship that provoked complaints?  And instead of the Archbishop supporting his priests, he dumped them in favor of the complainers?  (That’s usually how things go, which is borne out by studies and interviews which reveal that priests have less and less confidence in their bishops and worse and worse rapport.)  Or else… one priest started saying Mass ad orientem and that prompted diocesan-wide decree?

Either way, all the canonists I have consulted with over the years agree that bishops cannot forbid or restrict ad orientem worship, which is assumed to be the case in the rubrics of the LATIN edition of the Missale Romanum.

But bishops do what they want.

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  1. RichR says:


    “It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] *and to the celebration versus populum* [toward the people].”

    The whole quote from the document says it applies to both, does it not?

    [Read the Latin FIRST.]

  2. phlogiston says:

    Just what the Church needs right now – more GIRM warfare.

  3. abloomfield says:

    I think the second part is in some ways even worse. Not allowed to use the high altar because GIRM 303 says so.

  4. TheCavalierHatherly says:

    Push the altar up against the wall, and make sure it never moves again. PL500 Construction Adhesive and Lag Bolts. Deinde, non expedit.

  5. Greg the Geologist says:

    Cincinnatti may ‘limit’ ad orientem Masses, but as I read it, effectively forbids use, ever, of an historic high altar that may still be in place in older churches. Assuming a ‘typical’ territorial parish:

    1. At least one Mass must be versus populum, so there would have to be a freestanding altar, permanent or not. And…

    2. All Masses must be celebrated on said freestanding altar (implying that it’s a permanent installation). So if a priest is inclined to move a portable altar so he can use the historic high altar …

    3. Nope, can’t move it.

    I thought a parish could simply remove the newer freestanding altar in favor of the older high altar, you run back into #1 above. Circular, no?

    Am I missing something?

  6. dahveed says:

    Father, although this is dated, what, the 21st, it isn’t on the archdiocese’s website, nor in the Catholic Telegraph, our newspaper. There are three churches (two families) that might be affected by this. One family is where I assist at Mass, the Vetus Ordo. The other (IIRC) offers the Vetus Ordo, Novus Ordo, et cetera. The only altar is a high altar, as should be the case. I think I’d better step up my prayers for his excellency, as well as in general.

  7. Kathleen10 says:

    Why can the priest not do ad orientem at the VII table. There’s a rubric for everything but if there isn’t in this case, why can’t they. Yes I know it’s not done, but isn’t it better than versus populum and if there’s no rule against it…
    As a general rule bishops have become an unsavory lot, many of them men with no true heart for the faith or the people. Ours is an exception, I was happy to find out, but out of care for him I dare not mention our locale. That is the kind of atmosphere these men have created. Protect your bishop by not advertising his fidelity to the faith. Why put a target on him for the toadies and hirelings.

  8. palestrinadei says:

    In response to your QUAERITUR, I do know of at least one fairly prominent priest (the senior prelate of his family of parishes) who recently incorporated an ad orientem mass into his parish schedule. This was most edifying to a very close relative, who occasionally attends his parish, which is not very far from her home. However, she showed me a picture of the “beautiful” sanctuary there on Christmas Day, and noticing the copious poinsettias completely blocking any use of the high altar, the experience-based skeptic I am could not fully enjoy the “beauty”, but immediately suspected shenanigans. Asking whether Father had still celebrated mass ad orientem at the free-standing altar, I was told he had not, but had reassured her that the ad orientem mass would return in January. Oddly, my relative attended this past Sunday, based in part on “a feeling”, her home (territorial, and in a different “family”) parish, thereby refraining to test the reassurance. Speculation tends to be an occasion of sin for me, so I may be treading on dangerous ground here. However, noting the date of the proclamation, I cannot help but suspect that the people behind the Christmas moratorium on ad orientem at this parish may have also driven the Archbishop, previously very friendly to traditional practices, to intervene against their pastor, or even had some “inside” information when doing the decorating. I pray there are no additional implications, due to the circular logic Greg correctly notes above, for the Cincinnati Oratory and the FSSP parish (its own “family”) in another city within the Diocese, and may comment further on that later, but will stop here for now, since this post is already too long!

  9. Midwest St. Michael says:

    “It is sad that draconian ideological micromanagement is taking over the Church, a positivism which is, ironically, simultaneously antinomian.”


    Yes! A rather rigid and fundamentalist view too, I would say. ? (Now where have we heard that before?)

  10. iamlucky13 says:

    This was brought up yesterday in a discussion elsewhere. Fortunately, I had the benefit of reading one of your previous posts on the topic, was able to find an English translation of the CDW response, and share that in the discussion.

    While I was reading the response, the next paragraph struck me as the most important, considering the overwhelming majority of the readers at the discussion site in question attend Masses celebrated versus populem:

    ” The physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principle orientation of the sacrificial action is [toward] the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is a legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to, be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [towards God through Jesus Christ], as representative of the entire Church.”

    In fact, when our parish had a new priest assigned a year or two ago, I very quickly noticed that during the Eucharist prayer, although he was turned versus populem and he was speaking aloud, his attention was not on us…

    …which then reminded me to stop looking at the priest and direct my attention back to God, as well.

  11. RichR says:

    And don’t get me wrong, I’d be thrilled if every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass be offered as orientem.

  12. Suburbanbanshee says:

    My understanding is that this order only applies to parishes that are part of “clusters,” and not to the designated TLM communities, the special Korean Catholic parish, the college chapels, etc.

    There was a poster on the CatholicMemes subreddit who said that his/her parish cluster had been moving to all Masses at all parishes being ad orientem, because all the priests in those parishes were in agreement that it was great. And so did most of the Mass attendees.

    But apparently some of the less frequent Mass attendees (probably who had missed all the catechesis leading up to this, but that’s my speculation only) encountered ad orientem Masses while approaching holiday time, and freaked the heck out. And of course those are the people who apparently know how to make themselves heard at the chancery. And that’s why this commenter thinks there was this rule change.

    Now, what I would like to know is if this was just something that happened in one parish cluster, or if a lot of parish clusters were doing this.

  13. mpa says:

    There is an FSSP parish in the Diocese of Cincinatti (Holy Family, Dayton). I wonder whether this covers them.

  14. Ipsitilla says:

    I made a parody of the “Canticle of the Turning”:

    The Canticle of the Turning Ad Orientem

  15. SolarDoug says:

    This happened in our parish. Since July 1, we now are a part of a family of parishes (7) where we previously had been a stand alone parish. Our previous pastor celebrated the TLM once a week and was forced after TC to stop “advertising” this practice. Fortunately, he was able to continue offering a private TLM without putting it on the schedule. He also celebrated the novis ordo ad orientum several times a week including one Mass on Sunday. Our new pastor started all Masses celebrating ad orientum at the beginning of Advent, and our beautiful church has a wonderful high altar that serves us well. This new decree that “bans outright” the use of the high altar is hurtful to the faithful traditional here, and I suspect that it is more of a power play than anything with any spiritual justification. For the time being, thankfully we’re able to keep the practice of ad orientum with the exception of 1 Mass per Sunday (including the vigil). BUT all Masses must be celebrated at the VII table. Alas, there are still members of our parish who complain about the celebration ad orientum. I wish the Archbishop would spend his efforts catechising rather than prohibiting.

  16. Pingback: THVRSDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  17. ProfessorCover says:

    Since celebratio is feminine quod cannot refer to it, can it?

  18. abloomfield says:

    Here is the link to the document on the archdiocese webpage. https://resources.catholicaoc.org/offices/divine-worship-and-sacraments/policies#83-83-top-p2

    Also, it would seem there is a possibly easy loophole. Remove the freestanding altar. In some cases this is easier than others.

    And if as GIRM 303 says it is preferable for there to be one altar, it doesn’t seem logical to recommend installing a new altar and trying to hide the old one.

  19. ProfCover: Right! That quod refers to “Altare maius exstruatur a pariete seiunctum“. The Latin is clear.

  20. Let’s break this down Barney style for those in Columbia Heights…Cincinnati’s chancery:

    299. 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. (Emphases added)

  21. Chaswjd says:

    Actually it could be far worse. Some bishops have attempted to prohibit ad orientem worship altogether. While at least one mass must be not be as orientem, the others can.

  22. Lurker 59 says:

    It seems to me that in looking at the debate over “wall-altar” and “free-standing altar”, there is quite a bunch of malice and/or ignorance that tends to come from those that seek to impose a “free-standing altar”. The “wall-altar” is very much particular to the Roman Rite both as a historical remembrance of the Roman Church, both of the catacombs and the style of offering of the Mass upon the bones of the saints done there, and the wall-altars common to Roman homes. The “wall-altar” is the remnant of the baptized Roman structures used for pagan worship and burial. It is also highly architecturally logical as the West reserves the consecrated Eucharist while the East does not. It makes sense to combine the tabernacle and altar into one structure, which is best done by incorporating the tabernacle into the “wall-altar” structure. When we look at the “free-standing altar”, which is particular to the Eastern Churches, this still exists within the Roman West, though it looks nothing like a “table-altar” as those are missing the canopy, amongst other things, and the Eastern “free-standing altar” has nothing to do with versus-populum. In fact, such are intended to come with an iconostasis that greatly, and intentionally, obscures the liturgical action from the people, far more than a Roman “wall-altar” does.

    When we look at the GIRM with this in mind, the bits about “sensibilities” and “architecture” really come to the surface. The sensibility of the Roman Rite is the “wall-altar” and where a local populace does not conform to this, it is either because they are not properly formed as Romans or there is some other cultural, historical, or traditional issue at play that makes a “free-standing” altar more advisable. (They do exist in historical Roman Rite churches). Architectural, it is more logical to have a combined altar tabernacle, so again “wall-altar”, and if we are looking at new construction, then perhaps we can architecturally construct the building so that it is more advisable for a “free-standing” altar, but even then that must take into account of first the sensibilities of the Rite and secondly the sensibilities of the local populace.

    Nothing of the above says what to do with a bishop that is against the sensibilities of the Rite, the sensibilities of a properly formed populace, and the actual text of the GIRM. What to do other than to continue to form the people about the appropriateness of ad orientem and the “wall-altar” and, where forced to act against the sensibilities of the Latin Rite, make it very clear that the priest’s actions are directed towards God not the people. Say a giant obscuring crucifix on the altar, not some tiny 4in high thing.

  23. TonyO says:

    Agreeing with everything said above about the foolish mistake by the Archdiocese, I would ask “why would a bishop do this to begin with?” That is: it is a good thing for a bishop to be concerned about the liturgy being done right, and if it is done wrong he should take thought for how to correct it. But, goooooooollllllllY! there’s a hulluva lot of other things wrong in liturgies left and right before descending into this issue. How many abuses does the bishop fix in a year’s time regarding clear and blatant mistakes of not following the rubrics? How many times does he correct priests who are being show-offs or otherwise saying mass in a way that says “it’s all about me”? How much does he attend to making the mass reverent and beautiful? Has he made one single iota of effort to ensure that gregorian chant and Latin be used correctly, as Vatican II insisted? What about retaining cadres of male-only altar boys as Pope St. John Paul II directed? ANY of this?

    Since I have never heard of this bishop or his diocese, I think it extremely likely that no effort of these sorts has been made in his diocese. In which case, how is it that he imagines (assuming that he has gotten the mistaken notion that “this is wrong” about the altars) that this is the TOP ITEM on the agenda right now to address? Again, given that nobody imagines that Cinci is a hotbed of conservatism, are there more than, hmmmmmm…, TWO parish priests trying to say an ad orientem mass for SOME of the Sunday masses? Probably not. In which case, he is attacking a problem the size of a dust-mite sitting on a flea sitting on a cat, using a wrecking crane for the job. A phone call to the one parish priest who landed on his radar would have been enough.

  24. Not says:

    How many great and beautiful Churches have large altars made of stone that you can walk behind? I have seen many in my lifetime. If the Novus Ordo Priest wants to go behind it and say Mass facing the people, who am I to tell him no.

    P.S. love the Girm warfare.

  25. Suburbanbanshee says:

    If you haven’t “heard” of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati but you live in the US, it’s very likely that your own archdiocese descends from it, because the bounds of the archdiocese used to extend from the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, as well as sending out missions farther than that.

    Archbishop Schnurr came to our archdiocese as the successor not just of heroic bishops of the past, but of the notorious Bernardin and the not so great Pilarczyk. (Although at least Pilarczyk was not as bad as Bernardin.) We have a ton of crazy liberals, and an equal ton of stubborn conservatives (that’s a good thing), and in some places the loss of Catholics is really huge.

    Schnurr has done a lot of repair of the damage, and recruited tons of people into the priesthood. But there’s at least two generations of Catholics that didn’t receive good catechesis, and I think he’s afraid the whole thing could come flying apart at any moment. (Especially after the entire archdiocese was just reorganized, although people seem to have put up with it so far.)

    So yes, the screechers do have power. OTOH, the TLM communities have been protected a lot better than in other places, and “doing traditional things” seems to be acceptable or favored by all the newer priests.

    I don’t know what the heck is going on with the altar instructions, though. There are some strange things that come out of that chancery.

    (Re: Latin, it was the academic specialty of Pilarczyk, but he pretty much refused to teach it at the seminary or promulgate its teaching in Catholic schools. This is how messed up things were. It is being taught at the seminary now, IIRC.)

  26. Here’s my thinking:

    The Decree’s wording is ambiguous and the orientation of ad Deum or versus populum can be inferred. Depending on who does the interpretation. Given the Cincinnati situation as described, this does give a priest a certain leeway he can use to his advantage. Provided he treads carefully and some karen doesn’t complain to the Archbishop.

    The insistence that at least one public Mass is celebrated versus populum strikes me as political digging in one’s heels on liturgical progressivism. To me, that’s suspect.

    Personally, I find high altars to be the best altars ( I am horrified at the idea of calling an altar a “ table “. We’re Catholics for God’s sake; not Protestants. ) and probably the progressives hate high altars. As they can’t be moved to fit their agenda and is a clear statement of Roman tradition.

    Again, hated by the progressives.

  27. diaconus_in_urbe says:

    As people in moderately large cities know: you may have plenty of technical, legal standing to ignore some alderman’s annoying letter, but when you do, all of the sudden somebody shows up and finds all sorts of ‘building code violations.’ Your building is then deemed ‘unsafe,’ and it’s closed until further notice.

    Same could happen in other non-civil legal jurisdictions, FYI – so probably want to Mt 10:16 this. Ad Orientem definitely helps center the emphasis on God in the liturgy, but it won’t accomplish much of anything if the parish is closed.

    How does one help the confused (likely angry) children born the 1940’s and 1950’s (still living inside much of the clergy, it seems), understand that whatever they experienced in those years has nothing essentially to do with older forms? I don’t know. Until somebody figures this out, however, it won’t be the last time we see a bishop born in the 1940’s or 1950’s demand something like this.

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