Some daily Masses as well as the 9:15 and 11:15 Sunday Masses are celebrated on our historic high altar, with a common direction of liturgical prayer for both priest and people alike. This is sometimes referred to Mass celebrated ad orientem (to the east) or, as may be more appropriate in our church (since it faces south), ad Deum (to God).
Put simply, those parts of the Mass where the priest is addressing God the Father on behalf of both himself and the people, he faces the same direction as the people. Of course, then, the parts of the Mass where the priest is addressing the people, he faces the people. This was the norm for the celebration of Mass in the Latin Rite for almost the entirety of the Church’s history, and is not only permitted by the current Missal of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite but is actually assumed by it, as there are several rubrics that instruct the priest to turn and face the people (which assumes that he wasn’t facing them prior).
Video: Fast forward to 33:20 for relevant part.
A series on Overcoming Objections appeared in the parish bulletins in 2017, and they are included below.
Overcoming Objections / Embracing our Heritage: Mass Versus Deum
Objection: The priest is turning his back on the people and thus being aloof from them.
Response: The priest faces God with the people and prays with them as he offers the sacrifice of the Mass, and thus is more intimately united with the people with a singular gaze upon the Cross of Christ together.
Objection: If the Mass is supposed to be the Last Supper, then this is crazy. Jesus wouldn’t have turned away from the Apostles when he instituted the Eucharist!
Response: While the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist was indeed instituted at the Last Supper, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not a re-presentation of the Last Supper but, rather, IS a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus on Mount Calvary: the sacrifice of his life, for our sins, offered to God the Father. A common orientation of the Christian people at Mass actually best reflects this truth as we all are participating in and offering up to the Father this sacrifice together – people and priest.
Objection: Surely the first Christians didn’t pray like this.
Response: At best, we try to reconstruct what the early Church may (but given limitations, may not!) have done. By the way, the idea that we should only model what we do after the early Church was given a name-antiquarianism-and was condemned by Pope Pius XII in his encyclical ‘Mediator Dei’. As Catholics, we see development within the Church’s history, inspired by the Holy Spirit, as as welcome gift. As it is, we do know for a fact that Mass ‘versus Deum’/facing God together became the norm very early in our history and remained the norm until about 1970 (before in many places, after in others, including here).
Objection: Vatican II changed this!
Response: There is no reference in any of the documents of Vatican II about the orientation of the priest at Mass.
Objection: Shouldn’t the priest turn toward the people even a little bit?
Response: Absolutely, and he does! Even with this ancient form of praying the Mass, the priest is instructed by the Roman Missal to face the people for the following (the rubrics actually assume the priest is NOT facing the people and instructs him to turn around at certain parts): 1) the beginning of Mass with the initial greeting of the people, 2) (assumed) for the Liturgy of the Word, 3) the ‘orate fratres’ prayer after the offertory, ‘pray, brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours…’, 4) ‘the peace of the Lord be with you always’, 5) ‘behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world…’, 6) the final blessing.
Objection: The priest says, ‘take this all of you and eat of it…’; this sounds like he’s talking to the people, so why does he not face them for this part of the Mass?
Response: The priest is repeating the words of Christ at the Last Supper, but the prayer itself, as is the entirety of the Eucharistic Prayer, is addressed to God the Father. ‘On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven, to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to his disciples, saying: take this, all of you, and eat of it…’ If we let ourselves focus on the references to God as the addressee of the Eucharistic Prayer, we may be overwhelmed by just how many there are!
Objection: I don’t like it.
Response: That’s OK. You don’t have to like everything in the Church to be faithful and obedient. The important thing is to keep the focus on being committed and intentional disciples of Jesus and receiving the entirety of the Church’s tradition with humility and openness. The only truly toxic thing here would be to sow seeds of division, discord, anger, and the like. Further, as many parents know well, whether one likes something or not is not the best indicator of whether that something is truly good and beneficial (most of us grow up not liking vegetables, for instance!)