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Offering the Novus Ordo Ad Orientem


The following guest post was written by a friend who is also a diocesan priest. I recently inquired as to why so few priests offer the Novus Ordo Mass ad orientem, despite numerous books and articles in recent years stating the case for it on both historical and theological grounds. The following post is Father’s response. His only request of me was to have his anonymity maintained, which I have honored. It is my hope that many priests will read Father’s post and prayerfully reconsider liturgical orientation within the Mass and it’s spiritual implications for all of us.

I first attended a Novus Ordo Mass ad orientem in a small chapel at the Casa Santa Umiltá in Rome several years ago, as a layman. The congregation was small, the setting intimate. And something clicked in my head. “This is how we should all be worshipping.”

Since Ordination as a priest, I’ve offered the Novus Ordo Mass ad orientem on a few occasions — side-chapels on visits back to the seminary, or side-chapels at a Basilica in Rome, or a private Mass on my day off, with the altar settings “reversed.” Never once has it been at a public parish Mass, either during the week,or on a Sunday.

Ordinarily, I offer Mass using the “Benedictine arrangement” in my parish. My pastor doesn’t seem to mind, nor do any of the faithful. I consciously look up at the people only when the rubrics call for me to face them, at the beginning, the Orate Fratres, the Pax … Most of my attention is on the Missal, accompanied by, as best as I can manage it, an interior effort to intentionally unite myself to the sacred action unfolding at the altar.

Each time I’ve offered Mass ad orientem, that same feeling has resurfaced. “This is right.” Dignum et iustum est! Fr. Uwe Michael Lang gives a thorough history of orientation in the sacred liturgy in his eminently readable “Turning Towards the Lord” (Ignatius Press, 2009).

Turning the altar around is, materially speaking, not a big deal. Move the candlesticks, the missal stand. Make sure there is a prominent crucifix in the sanctuary that will serve as a focus for the faithful and the celebrant. The servers will need only the most minimal of, well, reorientation. The Liturgy of the Word can be offered facing the people (which certainly makes a lot of sense). However, say the offertory prayers facing the Lord, together with the people. Offer the Holy Sacrifice facing the Lord, together with the people.

On one occasion, I was with a small group at a shrine which did not have a free-standing altar. After Mass, I spent some time explaining the difference in orientation, and the spiritual meaning of people and priest facing the Lord together. Much to my surprise, the largely older crowd agreed vociferously. “Why don’t we do this back home, Father?”

Well, why not? The rubrics presume that the Mass will be offered ad orientem. Absolutely nothing in the law prevents this. So what is the problem?

I really do not think the faithful are a hurdle. If they trust their priests, if their priests love them, and they know it, they will listen. Sure, some, the more ideologically hidebound, will protest. But, as they say, one cannot please everyone.

The real hurdle lies with my brother priests.

Of course each presbyterate is different, and the Church in the US, in general, has tacked much more towards tradition and orthodoxy in recent years, than many other parts of the world. Yet, the idea that one should be offering Mass ad orientem is still considered taboo. Is there any American prelate who does this as a matter of course?

Moreover, it cannot be denied that even until fairly recently, liturgical formation has been marked with a strong sense of “rupture” rather than continuity with the liturgical tradition of the Church. Priests ordained even within a decade ago, do not seem to see the importance of a sense of tradition. Liturgy is not “their thing” as one would say colloquially. Besides, there’s so much to occupy one’s attention in the parish!

For my older brethren, this was one of the nostrums they were taught: the Council enacted this change to bring an arcane liturgy closer to the people, to make it more relevant, to increase active, conscious participation.In many presbyterates, pushing for this change will invite opposition. One will be marked.

Furthermore, I do not think the healthy attitude is simply, “Wait till I’m in charge.” As it is there is a tendency for each parish to be run as an independent fiefdom. A stronger sense of unity, of the common life, of fraternity, of being part of a presbyteral brotherhood, of “having the same mind among yourselves as Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5), is sorely needed in the diocesan priesthood today. Isn’t our unity the evangelical sign for the world (John 17:21)? Is the exercise of dominating power the only way to move ahead? Isn’t that one of the things that has led to our current situation?

Certainly, offering the Holy Sacrifice versus populum is not inherently evil, even though the fruits of this innovation have been quite deleterious. However, if the goal is to really recover a sense of the sacred, and a true “spirit of the liturgy” that Cardinal Ratzinger so beautifully described in his magisterial work by that same name, then a widespread change in mentality, in priestly culture, has to come about. And that recovery, rooted in the authentic spirit of the liturgy, is an important condition for a more fruitful celebration of the Holy Eucharist, a more fruitful, conscious and active participation at the Holy Sacrifice by the faithful, and a more reverent and fruitful reception of Most Holy Communion (nowadays a near universal routine in our English-speaking congregations), so that the Holy Eucharist is not simply a ceremony that has no bearing on the rest of life, is not “intrinsically fragmented” as Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est (14).

Celebration ad orientem is a crucial part of this recovery. This recovery of the spirit of the liturgy is indeed a central part of the New Evangelization. A necessary part, though a minority viewpoint sadly. Yet frankly, I have not sensed that this is the central issue, for so many of my brothers.

How does one start?

First of all there has to be a serious commitment to all that the priestly life entails in general (fidelity to prayer, sacrifice, penance, mortification, a zeal for souls, pastoral charity, spiritual direction, continued intellectual formation, a spirit of obedience and humility). Each of us priests has to seriously discern the will of the Holy Spirit in his own context. How will I aid this movement of recovery in my corner of the vineyard? How will I, lovingly, teach my people about this? Do I pray for the gift of courage to listen to Him and follow Him? What does He ask of me in this regard?

Of course, for a movement of recovery to gain steam, one needs a critical number of like-minded priests, and, certainly, supportive bishops. Even where this is present, however, one has to really embrace the Cross. Am I willing to suffer patiently, even from those within the Church? Not with some kind of melodramatic martyrdom-complex, but with the true embrace of priestly victimhood, always trusting in the Bridegroom of the Church, who has guided, and continues to guide, His Bride through all the vicissitudes of her earthly sojourn.

Liturgically minded priests will have to be priests who are willing to suffer for the good — the ultimate good, the eternal good — of their people. Liturgical reform and recovery, cannot simply be an aesthetic agenda, or one that relies solely on the exercise of dominating power to achieve its goals.

Victim priests who lovingly suffer for their flock. That is, after all, the real spirit of the liturgy.

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