Why Aren’t More Masses Offered Ad Orientem?
Posted by Brian Williams
This was the question that I recently posed to several priests: why aren’t more masses being offered ad orientem? As we have seen numerous books and articles in recent years convincingly argue for a return to ad orientem worship, it is unfortunate to see how few priests have actually returned to the traditional orientation. Despite well received scholarly works by Monsignor Klaus Gamber, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger arguing in favor of it, few Catholics ever see the Novus Ordo offered ad orientem, with the notable exceptions of two dioceses: Arlington (Virginia) and Lincoln (Nebraska).
Discussing the topic with several diocesan priests, an explanation for the continuing reluctance to offer the Mass ad orientem can be broken out into five categories:
1. There are still priests who incorrectly believe that the Novus Ordo should only be offered versus populum (facing the people); often this is argued by referencing the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) #299. There are also priests who, while understanding that the Mass can be offered ad orientem, believe that the “spirit” of the modern liturgy argues against it. As one diocesan priest reminded me, the quality of seminary formation (as it relates to the liturgy) has been quite poor for decades.
2. Some priests truly think that facing the people is a good thing. They contend that it brings people closer to the Mass because it lets people see what is “going on”. Unfortunately, there are many who have likely accepted the false narrative that offering the Mass ad orientem amounts to the priest “turning his back on the people”.
3. At the same time, there are priests who tend to be conservative regarding faith and morals, but who are either uneducated on the subject or simply disinterested in matters regarding the sacred liturgy. While these priests will try their best to offer a reverent Novus Ordo, “hot button” topics such as the use of Latin, Gregorian Chant, Communion on the tongue, and ad orientem are either ignored or viewed as unimportant.
4. Then there are the true “progressives” who have welcomed these changes to the Church’s worship, and who now hope to see doctrinal changes too (lex orandi, lex credendi).
5. Finally, there are priests, often ordained in the last ten years and with some exposure to the Latin Mass, who would offer more Masses ad orientem but are simply afraid to. Some fear the reactions of their parishioners; some that of their brother priests; most often, however, it is their bishop who they fear. Sadly, there are still dioceses where any semblance of liturgical “traditionalism” is strictly verboten.
In the short-term there will be no widespread change, no return to the historic liturgical orientation of the Mass, without it being mandated either by Rome or the USCCB. Of course no one expects this to happen. Unfortunately, regardless of what Cardinal Robert Sarah might say in interviews (in his capacity as prefect for the Congregation for Divine Worship), or the liturgical examples given by both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis on several occasions, nothing short of a mandate changes the current environment.
So, are those of us who recognise the theological and liturgical importance of this matter simply left to despair? Thankfully, the answer is no. What we can do now is to continue encouraging our priests and bishops who know the significance of liturgical orientation to renew their effort to reform the rite.
In the past I have written about liturgical game changers as well as those elements of the Liturgy which help to restore a sense of the sacred. It is interesting to note that, as far as the faithful are concerned, this matter of ad orientem worship might be the easiest change to implement.
Several priests I spoke with said that integrating more Latin into the Novus Ordo Mass, or reintroducing traditional hymns (or sung Propers) to their parishes, was a much greater source of conflict. In many places, parishioners are more vested in their seventies folk hymns and Haugen and Haas music than the direction of the priest during the Mass. Likewise, the reintroduction of Latin has at times resulted in greater pushback, as many Catholics incorrectly view the Novus Ordo as the “vernacular only” Mass (an idea declared anathema by the Council of Trent).
Priests who already offer the Mass ad orientem told me that the faithful (by and large) accepted the change following targeted catechesis, both through homilies and bulletin inserts. This isn’t to say that some parishioners didn’t leave; rather that their departure was offset by the arrival of new families intentionally seeking the sacred. In addition, the change was at times preceded by a return to male only altar servers, kneelers brought out for Holy Communion, and a general overall return of reverence. In some cases the introduction of ad orientem was made during an abbreviated liturgical season such as Lent or Advent, and often with daily masses at first.
So much of Pope Benedict’s papacy was directed toward implementing authentic reform and renewal versus the discontinuity and rupture so widespread in the decades following the Council. In the liturgy of the Roman Rite there may be no greater visual representation of discontinuity than the near universal abandonment of ad orientem Masses in the Novus Ordo. Conversely, there may be no better way to immediately begin restoring a sense of liturgical continuity than for the priest to once again face the liturgical east together with the faithful. Let us dare hope that, as more holy priests and bishops take this into consideration, we might begin to see more Masses offered ad orientem.