On Facing East During Mass

It is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction—eastward or at least towards the apse—to the Lord who comes.  Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect, Congregation for the Divine Worship, London, July 5, 2016.

Symbols mean something. A nephew of mine recently returned from a business trip to London. He told me that he was surprised to see that the congregation there knelt to receive Communion. Another lady I know in Pennsylvania told me that she kneels when going to Communion. But when she went to another church in her area, the lady distributing Communion would not give it to her because she was kneeling. At a parish in Washington, a friend told me that a disabled priest in the sanctuary, who was not distributing Communion, yelled at a man kneeling for Communion: “We do not kneel in this Church!” Everyone was upset. So the “rigidity” that Pope Francis often speaks of works in both ways. Insisting that one stand for Communion might be called “liberal rigidity.”

In the London Conference, Cardinal Sarah encouraged “kneeling both at the consecration and for the reception of Communion. ‘Where kneeling and genuflection have disappeared from the liturgy, they need to be restored, in particular for our reception of our Blessed Lord in Holy Communion.” These practices, of course, are subject to the health and physical condition of the communicants. I have not been able to bend too far down and rise again in any genuflection for years. Where I live, we have a house of elderly clerics largely in their eighties and nineties, one is even a hundred. The custom is to sit during Mass. It seems reasonable for such a local-motion-impaired group. Most of the men would never be able to get up if they knelt or genuflected. Standing, genuflecting, bowing, or walking in liturgical settings were never intended to discriminate against those unable to perform these normal moves. Most people understand this accommodation with little hesitation. Our service is always a reasonable service that takes into consideration the health and physical conditions of the very young, the elderly, the disabled, and the sick.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Pope Benedict has long been in favor of returning Mass to a form whereby the priests and congregation face the same direction—not just any direction, but the direction in which the Sun arises, in which symbolic direction is recalled the Light of the World, the Word, became flesh. Customs, whether we bow or genuflect, face this way or that, at some point are arbitrary and could be otherwise. But custom and tradition over time mean something, as anyone who has been to a two-hour African Mass with drums knows. Certain moves take on special meanings. In them are imbedded principles, doctrines, and habits that are weighted with profound significance. Constantly changing moves and words usually ends in confusion for everyone. Liturgy is not just any common action. It is the action that is left to us in the Church whereby we intend to have present among us what Christ did and handed down to us. We recognize that the words and gestures that we use today are those used elsewhere in time and place.

If I insist that the language of Mass should be English, the next man, in his land, with equal justice, insists that it should be Spanish, French, German, Chinese, or Tagalog. I read somewhere that, in Los Angeles alone, Sunday Mass is said in some eighty different languages within the city. The argument for a universal language that everyone uses makes some sense in this context. The present practice tends to separate people into language groups even within an official national language. If Latin, Old Slavonic, or Greek were used, few would know them, though if they are consistently and wisely used, with translations in a missal or projected, as they do in opera houses or sports games, most people would become familiar with them over the years, especially if sung.

What the Mass is Not
The history of “Mass with the priest’s back facing the people” has been a long and amusing one. Let it be said from the beginning that no priest ever thought that he was celebrating Mass with his back to the people. No priest of any age or place ever said to himself: “Now that I am about to consecrate the Host, I will turn my back to the people.” He and everyone were turning to the Lord. That whole imagery of “back to the people” was dreamed up to promote a theological cause. It wanted the Mass to be understood not what it is, a sacrifice, but a friendly meal. The priest became a host or a “president,” as he is often called. He is a “presider,” awful term. Even worse is it when the priest is seen to be a “master of ceremonies” or an actor, greeting and joshing everyone.

The Mass is not a one-act play in which the priest takes the part of Christ in a short skit. It is a sacred rite, the way that Christ taught us to be the one proper way to worship his Father. The Mass is not an entertainment designed to keep us alert and amused. The worst effect of Mass with a priest facing the people is that the priest becomes the center of the show. His personality increases when it should decrease. He is the actor who calls attention to himself performing. He is responsible for the action that circles around him. This phenomenon is especially vivid in “theater-in-the-round” churches. The altar should be an altar, not just another table.

What about those paintings of the Last Supper? The Hebrew custom was not to be reclined at a table with diners facing each other. Moreover, Christ was present at the Last Supper. He revealed himself to these particular Apostles as the Son of the Father. He was the center in this world of God’s presence. He wished to make present before them, from then on in the world, a living memorial, a reality of his death and resurrection. It was the Apostles, not everybody, who were told to “do this.” It was through them and those who followed them in the Church that the presence of the Crucified and Risen Lord was to be made present, to be the food and drink of salvation for each who are present.

The priest is there in the person of Christ, not as his own charming, obnoxious, learned, or ordinary self. There is only one Mass in the history of the world. It is made present when it is again “remembered” by the priest. After each consecration before those who believe and are present, he again remembers. The words of the various canons tell us what is taking place. They are not our words but words handed down to us in the Church. We say them; we understand them. The Mass is not intended to be unintelligible gibberish, but clearly articulated truth of a mystery in the Godhead in which it originates. If a priest makes up his own words or gestures, everyone is lost. The faithful are not there to listen to novelties or admire personalities. They are there to worship God with the priest in the way that Christ evidently wanted to be remembered. He is the God who came, through his crucifixion, death, resurrection, and assentation, each of which is immediately recalled after the consecration.

Preparing the Way for Restoration
Cardinal Sarah would like parishes to worship ad orientem (toward the East) by this coming Advent. No doubt, there will be much resistance. A lot is at stake theologically, the whole understanding of Vatican II, as something revolutionary or a continuation of the same Church in time. The Mass “facing the people” has become for many to be a symbol that rejects something that went before. Benedict reminded us of the continuity of the Mass in time when he reinstated the celebration of the Tridentine Mass.

Few under fifty or sixty, to be sure, have ever seen a Mass said facing the east or the Tabernacle on the Altar. They have not been taught why the ancient orientation is now to be preferred. It was not just the silly old idea of some ancient bishops. Some will say that Mass in the great Roman basilicas faces the people. But actually this facing was only an accident of the way the church was built on its axis. The priest was facing the East, not the people except accidentally.

If Cardinal Sarah’s instructions are to be put into effect by Advent, we must remember that “Mass facing the people” is by now a habit or custom, something that is just done. Everyone is used to it. Altars and sanctuaries were rearranged and reconstructed, often at great cost, to accommodate this “Mass facing the people” ideology. We probably do not want a situation in which one parish does one thing and the next one does something else, though, under the present dispensation; there is much of that already. Bishops conferences will have to provide guidelines.

Unless the Holy Father comes out in firm support of Cardinal Sarah’s proposal—which would surprise me if he did—things will differ from country to country or diocese to diocese. Some will say: “Well, what’s wrong with the present?” The answer is persuasive: the basic structure of the Mass, in particular its “orientation,” should be the same for all and recognizable to anyone.

If any visible change takes place, it will need to be gradually prepared for and, above all, explained. What is behind this concern of Cardinal Sarah is a proper understanding of what the Mass is. This is what needs to be emphasized first. Silence, reverence, attentiveness, worship are founded in our understanding of what the Mass is. The focus is not friendly converse with others but our common quiet attention to what is going on in the Mass, the Sacrifice of the New Law. As Cardinal Sarah wrote in his God or Nothing: “The Mass is an act of Christ, not of men…. Even if we participate actively in the Mass, it is not our action but Christ’s” (275).

Once it is again clear what the Mass is, what the priest is, why a priest and not just anyone, we can more easily suggest and explain why everyone facing the Tabernacle, the Lord, is a better way for us all to understand what is going on in the worship that is the Mass. I am always struck by the richness of the teachings in the Canons of the Mass, especially the first and fourth. In a sense, our worship presupposes and includes our understanding of what is going on at the Altar. The first part of the Mass, the hearing of the Word and the listening to what is handed down to us is both a common listening and a teaching.

The third part of the Mass, the Communion, in which the one body and the one blood of Christ is received, is today also confused by notions that everyone can receive, whether Catholic or not, whether active sinners or not. We are told not to “discriminate”; we are told not to “judge.” Everyone is welcome at the “table.” When carried out logically, such notions deny the essence of what revelation teaches us about why Christ came and what the Mass is. With such presuppositions, the Church is not really necessary. The Mass is little more than a strange ritual of some sort if we do not know what it is.

So, Cardinal Sarah’s initiative to restore and reinvigorate the more solemn and central notion that we are present at the one Sacrifice is a good one. This divine presence that is the Mass is the focus of our belief and worship. In it, we acknowledge who God is. That is, he is the Father who sent his Son into the world to redeem our sins through the Cross. He points us not to this world but to eternal life for which we were created in the first place.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...