The Case for Ad Orientem Worship

“Father, why don’t you smile more at Mass?” It is a question that I am asked at least once every few months. The question is usually posed by a well-meaning older person while I am greeting the faithful after Mass, making every effort to prove that I am not one of the “little monsters” that Pope Francis has warned the Church about. Unfortunately, I am not alone in experiencing such an interaction and many young fellow priests like me have been asked the same question.

The question is often asked innocently enough by the faithful in the pews who, because of the distortion of the liturgical reform, have come to expect a performance at Mass rather than an encounter with the Divine. Sometimes however, the question is asked by embittered and angry pastoral associates who see the ars celebrandi of priests from my generation as a threat and an attempt to “turn back the clock” on all of the liturgical “advances” that the Church has seemingly made in the last fifty years. This ongoing debate has always reminded me of two lines from a 1969 poem by W.H. Auden: “Though with-it sermons may be well, / Liturgical reforms are hell.”

While many young priests have made every effort to celebrate the Mass of Paul VI with the sobriety, precision, and concentration that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass deserves, the very nature of the 1970 Missal makes this difficult. Not only are an extreme amount of options and variations permitted for the celebration of the Mass with the umbrella phrase “pastoral reasons,” but the liturgy is imbued with various subjective elements, including the ability of the Priest or Deacon to “briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day” before the Penitential Act, the choice between multiple Eucharistic Prayers, and the option of four dismissals. Such variations mark an end to the liturgy’s catholicity, since no two Masses in the world need be celebrated in the same manner or with the same words.

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In addition to these variants is the ability of the priest to celebrate the Mass of Paul VI versus populum by which he faces the congregation with the altar between them. This is opposed to the celebration of Mass ad orientem in which he and the people face in the same direction, oriented toward the altar and tabernacle. While the General Instruction of the Roman Missal assumes the celebration of Mass ad orientem while making provisions for versus populum worship, it is obvious that most churches where the Mass of Paul VI is celebrated do so versus populum. This question was reignited in July when Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship encouraged ad orientem celebration of the Mass: “This practice is permitted by current liturgical legislation. It is perfectly legitimate. Indeed, I think that it is a very important step, to make sure God is truly at the center of our celebration.” He even suggested the First Sunday of Advent, a time of hopeful anticipation for the coming of Christ, as the perfect opportunity to implement to introduce ad orientem worship.

While Cardinal Sarah’s words met resistance in a number of circles and even elicited an attempted clarification by Vatican spokesman Father Frederico Lombardi, his proposition has much to suggest. Mass celebrated versus populum has the danger of putting the gathered community and the priest himself, instead of the Eucharist, as the center of worship. At its worst, a cult of personality can be built up around whichever priest “presider” is funniest and most effusive. Like a comedian playing to an audience, the laughter of the congregation at his quirks and eccentricities can even build up a certain clerical narcissism within himself. The celebration of Mass versus populum places the priest front and center, with all of his eccentricities on display. Even priests such as myself who make every effort to celebrate Mass versus populum with a staidness and sobriety easily succumb to its inherent deficiencies. In fact, celebrating the Mass versus populum is just as distracting to the congregation as it is to the priest. Congregants have made observations about me at Mass ranging from a sunburn on my face, my undoubted fatigue because I wore eyeglasses instead of contact lenses, and my decision to shave off my beard. I wonder how many of these thoughts have gone through peoples’ minds during the Eucharistic Prayer.

While celebrating Mass ad orientem would not immediately cure every moment of distraction, it would provide a concrete step in reorienting the focus of the Mass. It would allow for a certain amount of anonymity for the priest, restoring the importance of what he does rather than who he is. By returning the focus to the Eucharist, ad orientem worship would also restore a sense of the sacred to the Mass.

Recalling Aristotle’s definition of a slave as a “living tool,” Msgr. Ronald Knox encouraged this imagery when thinking of the priest: “[T]hat is what the priest is, a living tool of Jesus Christ. He lends his hands, to be Christ’s hands, his voice, to be Christ’s voice, his thoughts, to be Christ’s thoughts; there is, there should be, nothing of himself in [the Mass] from first to last.” Msgr. Knox was right in asserting that the Mass should never be subject to the vagaries or whims of the individual priest:

Non-Catholics who come to our churches complain sometimes, don’t they, that the ceremonies of the Mass seem so lifeless, so mechanical. But you see, they ought to be mechanical. What the visitor is watching, so uncomprehendingly, is not a man, it is a living tool; it turns this way and that, bends, straightens itself, kneels, gesticulates, all in obedience to the orders given to it—Christ’s orders, not ours. We do not expect eccentricities from a tool, the tool of Christ.

In his analysis of the writings of Evelyn Waugh, Fr. Ian Ker notes many similarities between Waugh’s and Knox’s conception of the Catholic priesthood. In Waugh’s masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, when the Catholic aristocratic Marchmain family is visited by Father Mackay, their parish priest, Ker explains that in performing the sacraments, Father Mackay “doesn’t use any special kind of religious voice; indeed, he does things rather than utters words; he is businesslike, matter-of-fact, and practical…. [And yet] the simple things he does—with his hands—are supernatural, for he is a divine craftsman: he knows his trade and does what he has to do in accordance with its rules, simply and without fuss.”

At another instance in the novel, a priest celebrating Mass for the family is described as being “bland.” Ker sees two reasons behind this description: “the desire, first, to stress that the job the priest does has nothing to do with his own personal charisma, as the personality of the craftsman is irrelevant to the execution of his craft, and second, to suggest the self-confidence that results from the serenity of knowing that there is an order in the world and knowing what it is.”

That the priest is at once a living tool and a craftsman reminds us that what the priest does and says at Mass is more important than how he does or says it. As he ascends the steps of the altar to offer the Sacrifice of the Mass he is no longer himself. We would never ask a neurosurgeon why he doesn’t smile while performing brain surgery or a chemist why he doesn’t crack a joke while taking measurements. This is because the dignity and gravity of what they are doing or creating demands concentration, precision, and reflection. The same demands are made of the priest when he celebrates Mass.

Unfortunately, the celebration of Mass versus populum is one of the contributing factors to the loss of the sense of the sacred. This loss has created in the minds of many Catholics an expectation of superficial externals at the Mass. The value and true meaning of ad orientem worship is perfectly articulated by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger in The Spirit of the Liturgy:

[A] common turning to the east during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of doing something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship, of setting off toward the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle but the common movement forward, expressed in a common direction for prayer.

It is this common orientation toward the Lord that can help to free us from the distractions and concerns of daily life so that we might afford to God the worship that he rightly deserves.


  • Fr. Brandon O'Brien

    Fr. Brandon O’Brien is a priest for the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York. He served as the 2012-2013 Editor-in-Chief of The Dunwoodie Review, the academic journal published by students of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York, before his ordination to the priesthood in 2013. He earned an M. Div and an M.A. in Theology from the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington, New York.

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