Ad orientem – by whose authority?

Ad orientem - by whose authority?

Holy Ghost 100th Anniversary – Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, celebrant; Fr. Jay Finelli & Fr. Henry Zinno, principal concelebrants; Raymond Lavesque, deacon

On occasion, I’m asked: “By whose authority can you say the Eucharistic Prayer facing the same direction as the congregation? What Pope said you could do this?”

Up until about 1965, this was a well established practice of the Church. If you were to ask a priest before the this time, why he said Mass facing the altar, he would have looked at you as if you had two heads. Offering the Eucharistic Prayer versus populum (facing the people) is more of an aberration to the sacred rite. It was something never envisioned by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, but one imposed by faulty historical analysis by Liturgists who desired to make our Mass more appealing to Protestants.

So, back to some authoritative source as for the practice of ad orientem worship. The custom in itself is authoritative. Mass was celebrated facing the east (ad orientem) for over 1,900 years. The eastern rites of the Catholic Church, along with our brethren in the Orthodox Church have never deviated from this ancient and venerable tradition.

Aside from this long standing practice, the very ritual of the Roman Rite, known as the Roman Missal assumes that priests are offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ad orientem.

Rubrics are directions in Liturgical books on how the service ought to be conducted. The word rubric comes from the Latin word rubrica meaning red. There are two color types in the Roman Missal, red and black. Red informs the priest what he must do and black, what he must say.

Let me quote directly from the rubrics in the Roman Missal.

The Priest and the faithful, standing, sign themselves with the Sign of the Cross, while the Priest, facing the people, says: In the name of the Father…” (Roman Missal #1.)

The Priest, standing at the altar, takes the paten with the bread and holds it slightly raised above the altar with both hands, saying in a low voice.” (RM #23)

Followed by:

Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people … he says: Prayer, brethren , that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” (RM #29)

The Priest, turned towards the people, extending and then joining his hands, adds: The peace of the Lord be with you always.” (RM #127)

The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly raised above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud: Behold the Lamb of God…” (RM #132)

The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly: May the Body of Christ keep me safe for eternal life. And he reverently consumes the Body of Christ.” (RM #133)

Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the Priest says: Let us pray.” (RM #139)

After the collect:

The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: The Lord be with you. … May almighty God bless you…” (RM #141)

A close reading of the rubrics of the Roman Missal clearly assumes the priest is facing the altar, except for the Liturgy of the Word, and those times where it reads “facing the people,” or “turned towards the people.

A priest must be sensitive to the people he serves. However, this does not mean avoiding, or rejecting our sacred tradition. Our sensitivity must come through proper teaching. We must help our people to have a good understanding of what ad orientem worship is, it’s theological dimensions and the great benefit it can bring to our spiritual life. At the same time, following the directives of the Roman Missal is the only authority a priest needs to celebrate Mass ad orientem. The rubrics and long standing tradition are the authoritative voice of the Church.

17 thoughts on “Ad orientem – by whose authority?

  1. So, you’re saying all the Popes for the last 50 years have been abusing the Mass and the rubrics?

    If the Popes have all celebrated facing the people, then the rubrics must allow it. If they don’t like it, they wouldn’t do it. If they thought it was an issue, they would at least call for it to stop.

    Since none of those things happen, your interpretation is obviously incorrect. Either that, or you must agree that the Popes all knowingly violate the rubrics all the time.

    Given the choice between believing your interpretation and believing the evidence of my own eyes that you are wrong, I’ll go out on a limb and say I believe you are wrong.

    • Don’t go putting words in my mouth! Your response is fallacious. “If they (the Popes) thought it was an issue, they would at least call for it to stop.” If you read what I said in the post you would get the point. The rubrics of the Roman Missal presume that the priest is facing the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. You should read the writings of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) for his thought on this issue.

    • You did indeed put words into Fr. Finelli’s mouth. Nowhere did he say that the popes have been abusing the liturgy by celebrating Mass facing the people. Nor did he state that the practice is not permitted; it is in fact envisioned in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. He DID, however, amply demonstrate that the rubrics of the post-Vatican II missal presuppose a common orientation of priest and people facing “east” (the apse); otherwise they would not instruct the celebrant at various times to face the people. Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI clearly expressed his preference for the traditional orientation (priest and people facing the same direction) because it better symbolizes both the sacrificial and eschatological dimensions of the liturgy: the Church on pilgrimage to the Kingdom of the Father, toward the transcendent, the life of the world to come — with and through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. As Fr. Finelli said, read what Ratzinger says about this (in “The Spirit of the Liturgy” and “The Feast of Faith”). But Ratzinger he did NOT call for a stop to the practice (fad, really, in light of the Church’s long history) of facing the people during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, because he did not want to begin a new season of liturgical turbulence just when the Church had finally gotten past the worst excesses of the first wave of reform (1960s and ’70s, when the “hermeneutic of rupture” held sway); instead he advocated that the crucifix be placed at the center of the altar as a reminder that the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Christ is being celebrated. But it is clear from his earlier writings that this “Benedictine altar arrangement” is a transitional compromise aimed toward an eventual return to “ad orientem” worship.

  2. The use of the word “Tradition” in this post is misleading.
    Tradition may be described as small “t” or capital “T” in the Church, in order of their importance.
    For example, Apostolic Succession is a crucial “T”radition in the Church, whereas, advent wreaths are a small “t”radition.

    Are you proposing that “ad orientem” is a large “T”radition?

    • What I said is very clear! This is a tradition in the entire Church – Roman Rite universally until 1965 or so and Eastern Rite to this day. I did not say tradition in capital or lower case. I just said tradition. Everything we hold sacred is not all “T”.

  3. On a side note. Did you know that both Blessed John Paul II and Benedict XVI said their daily Mass ad orientem. I concelebrated with JP II in the Papal apartments just a week after my ordination. Benedict XIV continues to celebrate that way. In every picture of the chapel in his newly renovated monastery, there is not a free standing altar.

  4. But the difference has to do with the definition of the Word of God (Jesus), and strictly human “t”radition (which is mostly good, but not God).

    So, if we agree that the Word of God is composed of both Scripture and Tradition (Apostolic Succession/teaching of Magisterium), and is of chief importance, why emphasize an “ad orientem” custom to the exclusion of greater truths?

    • You could say that about many things in our faith. In fact, you could say that about many aspects of the Mass itself. Jesus said the first Mass at the Last Supper. Almost everything we do today is an add on. The Church/ the Pope has the authority to change, add, remove things, but does that give him the right to do so? If traditions of the Liturgy are so superfluous, than we can strip away/ add anything to the whim and fancy of the local community. I suggest you read a “Reform of the Roman Liturgy” by Msgr. Klaus Gamer. Cardinal Ratzinger called him the greatest Liturgist of our times. I would dare to say that “strictly human tradition” is part of the organic development of the Liturgy. What has grown and developed through centuries of Catholic worship are more than “human tradition,” but come through the work of the Holy Spirit.

      Thanks for your comments. Discussion is important!

  5. Thank you for the suggestion

    Likewise, I suggest you read Von Hildebrand’s “Liturgy and Personality” available in pdf here:

    Written during the pre-conciliar era (which I detect is your cup of tea), Von Hildebrand does not get caught up in the small “t” traditions of the Mass, but rather the persons involved in its celebration, chiefly the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–& the priest and his congregation–

    He stresses the importance of “in Persona Christi” during the consecration–something you do not mention in your post. Why? Wouldn’t that be the most crucial element to why “ad orientem” is a valid argument, namely, Christ faces his Father?

    • You must read my other posts on ad orientem. This one was written in response to a question, and so is only to demonstrate that the priest is allowed to celebrate ad orientem by the authority of the Roman Missal.

      Of course the most important point of ad orientem is that the priest is offering sacrifice to the Father and not to the people. The people offer their sacrifice in union with that of Christ (the priest in persona christi).

      I wonder why this makes the pre-conciliar era my “cup of tea”. Actually, I find the whole of our Catholic faith my cup of tea.

  6. Thanks Fr. Jay,
    Great reflection full of grace… I kind of got bombarded by yesterday by Ad orientem folks on this issue and it was nice to see it presented with grace.

  7. Father with all due respect to your sacred office I must say you are wrong about what the Missal says. Yes it includes rubrics if Mass is said towards the East however GIRM 299 says

    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. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.

    Clearly the Pope Paul VI intended for Mass to be said facing the people and said it was desirable. I think it is doing a disservice to your readers to only include the parts of the rubrics you cited. I would also say as a bit of a history buff that saying The East facing orientation is almost as old as Christianity requires some serious proof and citation and I do not believe those exist

    • Sorry Walter, you are wrong. Pope Paul VI never intended that Mass be celebrated facing the people. Only that the altar be away from the wall so that the priest could easily walk around it, and if necessary, celebrate facing the people. All serious scholarship has disproved that the in the early Church the priest faced the people. From Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), to Msgr. Klaus Gamber, to Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, just to name a few sources. History is on the side of ad orientem. Liturgists after the Second Vatican Council were dishonest, using false historical evidence that has now been proven for what it is. They tried to use St. Peter’s as their example. Sound scholarship has demonstrated the opposite. During the Eucharistic Prayer the grand doors would be opened, the Deacon would exclaim “Conversi ad Dominum” and the congregation would turn to face the the east along with the priest. The priest and people faced the same direction during the Eucharistic prayer from the time of Our Lord until roughly 50 years ago. This is one tradition that has not been broken or changed in most of the Eastern Rites, including the Orthodox.

      • But purely on the rubrics which say it is desirable ie not just allowed but encouraged you have admit he intended if he did not why would he sign off on that rubric being there.

        • You cannot always just quote the English translation to know the meaning of the text. To do that, you must have a clear understanding of the original text, that is the Latin typical edition. I dealt with this in my brochure on ad orientem, “Ad Orientem: Toward the East” and I quote: “This was something that Vatican II never intended, nor was this innovation ever even talked about. The Council at no time ordered or even suggested the destruction of high altars. The cause of this misunderstanding began with a mistranslation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. A correct translation would be: ‘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” (translation from Fr. John Zuhlsdorf). The desire was that the priest could easily incense all the way around the altar, and if needed, Mass could be celebrated facing the people.”

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