No, Mass Facing the People is Not Like the Last Supper


The ongoing debate over liturgical orientation and the direction of the priest at Mass has been given new life in recent weeks thanks to Cardinal Robert Sarah’s address at Sacra Liturgia UK. These discussions have also lead to the reemergence of a long held, but incorrect, specific argument in favor of versus populum worship.

Many proponents for Mass facing the people contend that it best represents the direction of Our Lord at the Last Supper. In his seminal work, The Spirit of the Liturgy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger sets the record straight on this matter, quoting Father Louis Bouyer’s Liturgy and Architecture (Notre Dame Press, 1967). Let us hope that, through greater awareness, we might finally see an end to this erroneous appeal.

“The idea that a celebration facing the people must have been the primitive one, and that especially of the Last Supper, has no other foundation than a mistaken view of what a meal could be in antiquity, Christian or not. In no meal of the early Christian era did the president of the banqueting assembly ever face the other participants. They were all sitting, or reclining, on the convex side of a C-shaped table, or of a table having approximately the shape of a horse shoe. The other side was always left empty for the service. Nowhere in Christian antiquity, could have arisen the idea of having to “face the people” to preside at a meal. The communal character of a meal was emphasized just by the opposite disposition: the fact that all the participants were on the same side of the table.”

Image:  The Last Supper by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne (circa 1678).

Posted on July 17, 2016, in liturgy and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 19 Comments.

  1. Your previous article states it clearly — it’s pride that keeps versus populum alive, an unwillingness to give up what some liturgists see as the most visible sign that the church has moved on from pre-Vatican II worship.

    Most priests have gone back to wearing vestments befitting the office they hold. They no longer look like lay people in albs. There are fewer and fewer parish “directors.” More newly ordained priests are coming out of the seminaries. The only impediment I see to ad orientum is altars that have been moved to accommodate the “new” worship style. In the final analysis the pope is likely to leave the question of when or whether to change up to the ordinaries.

  2. Enrique Castellanos

    The Vatican press office on Monday released a clarification regarding media presentations of an address given July 5 in London by Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

    The cardinal spoke about Masses celebrated ‘ad orientem,’ that is, with the priest facing away from the people (to the east, if the church was built with that traditional layout).

    The Vatican’s statement clarifies that the cardinal’s address was not an announcement of new directives for the celebration of Mass. Here is the text of the statement, with the English translation provided by the press office.


    Some clarifications on the celebration of Mass

    It would appear opportune to offer clarification in the light of information circulated in the press after a conference held in London a few days ago by Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship. Cardinal Sarah has always been rightly concerned about the dignity of the celebration of Mass, so as to express appropriately the attitude of respect and adoration for the Eucharistic mystery. Some of his expressions have however been incorrectly interpreted, as if they were intended to announce new indications different to those given so far in the liturgical rules and in the words of the Pope regarding celebration facing the people and the ordinary rite of the Mass.

    Therefore it is useful to remember that in the Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), which contains the norms relating to the Eucharistic celebration and is still in full force, paragraph no. 299 states that: “Altare extruatur a pariete seiunctum, ut facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit, quod expedit ubicumque possibile sit. Altare eum autem occupet locum, ut revera centrum sit ad quod totius congregationis fidelium attentio sponte convertatur” (“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 facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the centre toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns”.)

    Pope Francis, for his part, on the occasion of his visit to the Dicastery for Divine Worship, expressly mentioned that the “ordinary” form of the celebration of the Mass is that expressed in the Missal promulgated by Paul VI, while the “extraordinary” form, which was permitted by Pope Benedict XVI for the purposes and in the ways explained in his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum, must not take the place of the “ordinary” one.

    Therefore, new liturgical directives are not expected from next Advent, as some have incorrectly inferred from some of Cardinal Sarah’s words, and it is better to avoid using the expression “reform of the reform” with reference to the liturgy, given that it may at times give rise to error.

    All the above was unanimously expressed during a recent audience granted by the Pope to the same Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

    • It’s true that Cardinal Sarah was suggesting that priests adopt the traditional orientation, rather than legislating its universal adoption, but I’m afraid I missed why you pasted that here. It’s not really connected to a blog post that corrects an erroneous argument in defense of the novel orientation.

      That said, I do like how he ended it. I was never a fan of the phrase “reform of the reform”. It’s just a little too…catch-phrase-y. I prefer “new liturgical movement” as a label

      • Well, I sort of don’t like “new liturgical liturgy” either. It sounds like something an aspiring liturgist would say in 1962. I.e., “We need new liturgy in this church.” How about “restoration adjustments,” or something like that?

        Jere Joiner


      • Jared, I explain the connection in the post.

  3. Pope Francis is worried about policing the four word phrase that might “give rise to error” with his track record for confusing remarks?? That is rich.

  4. In any case at the Last Supper if anyone was being faced, it was the LORD and that’s the whole point of Ad Orientam.

  5. So what you’re saying is we need a massively long altar so everyone can be seated at the same side.

  6. Padre Addolorato Maria

    Ave Maria!!!

    Indeed, by the mercy of God, there is a strong wake for the SACRED LITURGY. The Liturgy must be given back Its sacredness. And I am ready to give my head for that!!!

    I once followed at Rome, a splendid conference of the renowned and pious Prof. Roberto De Mattei which I quote at memory please. This great Roman Catholic Historian, che davvero è in gamba, amongst many objective affirmations noted that once upon a time, the Holy Roman Catholic Church was invaded and robbed of Her material possessions but in our time, it is Her spiritual possession that is the target. Those words made so much impression on me and remain.

    Haven suffered and still suffering from nominalism, the dictatorship of relativism and liturgical creativism-relativism, the sacred possession of the One True Church of Jesus, has been put into a voluntary catastrophic shambles. The worst of it is that, those responsible for this chaos work are in the Church, of the Church and “protectors” of the Church!!! Those who would want to “reform Rome with Rome!” that is, turn the Spouse of Christ against Herself! Construction of destruction!! Doing by undoing what has been sacredly done!!! But they will not go far. They have done enough! We have all arrived at the limit of supportable!! Enough is enough!!! Basta!!!

    As a Catholic Priest from Africa, not African priest but Catholic Priest as replied St. Maximilian Mary Kolbe, I pledge myself wholeheartedly to Robert Cardinal Sarah’s request. Not because, I am, by the mercy of God, an African but solely because, His Eminence tells me the truth. Misuse of the Liturgy has misled many; and now by proper usage should I be led into meeting the Person behind the o Magnum Mysterium!

    For me, a little Priest-Son of our Seraphic Father St. Francis of Assisi, Ad Orientem means turning to Jesus Christ. And I ask myself: Is it a bad act to turn to Jesus Christ? Would I be free from blame were I to accuse him who request of me to turn to Jesus Christ? Has it now become a sin to turn to Him Who is the Author and Perfector my faith? What is my major role as Catholic Priest if not to turn to Jesus Christ and especially in the chief exercise of my ministry?

    Sacred Liturgy is here. Indeed, andiamo avanti!!! Sempre avanti!!! Christus vincit!!! No matter how the forces of evil avec their proselytes would enrage now, THE DAY OF SACRED LITURGY IS HERE! The hour of evil has passed! Amen.

    Ave Maria!!!

  7. To Padre Maria, pledging allegiance to Cardinal Sarah and his Ad Orienem facing east opinion is a sin against our God. And why would you persist on turning to Jesus if He commands Peter (the first Pope) and you to ‘Get behind Me’ in Matthew 16:23. Do you think it disobedient for a Catholic priest to stand infront of Jesus after consecrating the bread and wine into His real flesh and blood in the Holy Mass? Heed Jesus’ warning to those who follow Him with conditions: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Luke 9:62.

    • Billy, I will BAN you from my page if you continue to insist on ignoring Catholic teaching & tradition and instead choose to incorrectly interpret and then misapply scripture to back your erroneous views. We’ve discussed this elsewhere. You NEVER back your statements with the teaching of Holy Mother Church. At this point I have to question the sincerity of your comments.


    • Billy, I would hesitate to tell a true priest like Padre Maria what is a sin for one thing. That diagnosis is up to him. Many signs have been given that God wants the priest to face the people.

      One example is the apparition which took place at Knock, Ireland. The altar remained for three hours in a driving rain. Many people stood in the rain and watched. Nothing moved. There was a little lamb on the altar and it was recorded by one of the witnesses that the lamb was facing east.

    • Padre Addolorato Maria

      Ave Maria!!!

      Honestly, whoever wishes to discuss Roman Catholic Sacred Liturgy must have objectivity as premise to avoid the risk of boo-boos conclusion. Being objective not subjective is the standard of Liturgy guy and so we.

      The Catechism of the Catholic Church, numbers 1179 forward is very consoling and enlightening on our position.

      Ave Maria!!!

  8. My “Holy Mother Church” is the Immaculate Mary, the Mother of Jesus, Mother of God. Is yours the same???

    “Hail Mary full of Grace! The Lord is with you blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus. Holy Mary Mother of God pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

    Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

    O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell and bring all souls into heaven, especially those in need most of Your Mercy. Amen.

  9. It’s not the same because it would be impossible to set up a table large enough for the whole congregation to sit at
    I don’t understand why this is an issue. Really! Don’t we have other more positive subjects to discuss?

  10. Margo and marysong, so you dispute what Jesus said to the woman of Samaria in regards to worshiping God facing east?

    John 4:21, 23-24. ” the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. . . But the hour is coming and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship Him. God is spirit and those who worship him must worship Him in Spirit and Truth.” you “

  11. The myth of Mass facing the people as a practice of the early Church was first exposed by Michael Davies in his book “Pope Paul’s New Mass”. However, the formal challenge to this idea came with “The Reform of the Roman Liturgy” by Klaus Gamber. This was the first work of its kind by a liturgical scholar and the first of its kind to be endorsed by members of the Curia, the then Cardinal Ratzinger being the most prominent.

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