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

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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).

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