Lent is a season of conversion. During this time, it’s common to encounter readings, orations, and teachings from the saints in the Mass and the Breviary that direct us to “turn away” from sin and error and “turn to” God. An example is Joel 2:12-14, which happens to be the First Reading of the Mass on Ash Wednesday:
Now, therefore, saith the Lord. Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God: for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil. Who knoweth but He will return, and forgive, and leave a blessing behind Him, sacrifice and libation to the Lord your God?
Another example comes from the (Ordinary Form of the) Mass from Wednesday of the First Week of Lent. In the Book of Jonah (3:8), the King of Nineveh, hoping to be spared from God’s impending wrath, makes this decree to all the citizens of his city:
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence which is in his hands.
Invariably, texts such as these affirm and respect the relationship of the outward, physical posture of the body and the inward, spiritual disposition of the soul (or heart). The purpose of this physical or bodily turning is to demonstrate the interior conversion (also presumably) happening within the soul. “Be converted to Me with all your heart.” I was pleased to find these same sentiments in the 2017 Lenten Pastoral Letter of the Most Reverend Glen John Provost, Bishop of Lake Charles, read at each Mass in the Diocese on the First Sunday of Lent.
In a few of the observations from his Pastoral Letter, Bishop Provost teaches his flock about the relationship between this external physical turning of the body and the internal, spiritual turning of the heart to God in prayer. Let me now highlight a few of these:
- “When we worship [God], we turn towards the object of our adoration—God. This turning towards God is both a spiritual and physical reality.”
- “Sacred Scripture permeates our Catholic worship. Not long ago (i.e. Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent) the first reading for Mass was taken from Isaiah 45. The passage struck me profoundly. The verse read, ‘Turn to Me and be safe’ (Isaiah 45:22). The reading continued, ‘To Me every knee shall bend; by Me every tongue shall swear’ (Isaiah 45:23). Clearly a physical orientation was implied.”
- “Literally Isaiah meant, ‘Face Me and be safe,’ a fitting admonition for not only Advent but any moment we enter the Lord’s presence.”
The bishop mentioned at the conclusion of his Pastoral Letter that this teaching was not new. When speaking about physically turning to God in prayer, he wasn’t proposing some unheard of novelty. Today, many Catholics know nothing (or very little) of ad orientem. Yet, the Catholic Church has consistently taught of its importance through the centuries and likewise practiced it in her prayer (both liturgically and devotionally). The reasons for this are manifold, but one of them is that ad orientem respects the integrity of the human person; that is, that man’s nature is both physical and spiritual. Both of these natures, moreover, are involved in conversion.
An example of this teaching is that of St. Augustine. The practice at Mass during his time was for the Deacon to announce to all present just after the homily: Conversi ad Dominum. (“Turn towards the Lord.”) Being the dutiful shepherd of souls that he was, St. Augustine explained the meaning of this admonition and gesture in a homily:
Does not God say, ‘Be converted to Me’? The scriptures are full of it: ‘Be converted to Me, be converted to Me.’ For what does this mean: “Be converted to Me”? It does not just mean that you, who were looking toward the west, should now look toward the east—that is easily done. If only you did it inwardly, because that is not easily done. You turn your body around from one cardinal point to another; turn your heart around from one love to another. (Sermo Dolbeau 19.)
As the body turns from one direction to another, so should the heart turn from sin and error to the true and living God. “Turn to Me and be safe,” says the Lord. Agreed. Conversion and ad orientem are the kinds of “safe spaces” our world and the Church really need.
In my own life, I have tried to put these teachings into practice. Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, I expanded ad orientem from the principal Sunday Mass to every Mass at our parish. It is now firmly established here at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church. I sincerely thank God for this blessing. Having several uninterrupted months of “turning to the Lord” at holy Mass has been one of the great blessings of my life. Though my own imperfections remain, ad orientem is deepening my union with God and helping me to pray the Mass with more recollection and devotion. In this way, it is also a blessing to the parishioners here and to all Catholics, because the sanctity of the priest and the people are interrelated.
Experiencing the positive effects of ad orientem has convinced me more than ever that there is something profoundly good and altogether reasonable about turning both the body and the soul to God when praying. Based on this experience and reflecting on the seasonal texts, I have come to question how anyone could doubt that the ad orientem celebration of Mass possesses an integrity that cannot be found when the priest offers Mass versus populum. Granted, a statement such as this could be taken as incendiary. Such is not my intention, and I would hope to allay any concern with an explanation.
In the early days of the Church there was a heresy known as Gnosticism. While more expansive, at its foundation Gnosticism denied the goodness of the physical order. It posited that all physical realities were either evil or not important. While of ancient origin, this error continues in our day under many a subtle guise. With respect to ad orientem, it is not unusual to hear someone say that the physical direction of the priest is of no relevance. What matters is his spiritual orientation. While spiritual orientation is indeed important, so too is the physical. But when the latter is diminished and said to be “not important,” can we not see Gnostic tendencies at work?
In writing this, my hope is that our appreciation for the integrity of the body and soul, a relationship ordained by God himself, will be strengthened and better appreciated. I am not in any way accusing priests who offer Mass versus populum as being neo-heretics. At the same time, I unhesitatingly affirm that offering Mass ad orientem is superior to versus populum, given that the former more fully respects the hylomorphic nature of the human person, whereas the latter can easily (perhaps even naturally) give the impression that the physical realm is of no consequence.
Drawing on the divine inspiration of Sacred Scripture; rooting ourselves in the truths enshrined in the Sacred Liturgy; and taking to heart the wisdom of the saints, my hope is that we—all of us—will aspire to observe practices at holy Mass which are consistent with our beliefs. Such a conversion to the Lord needs to happen. As Bishop Provost stated in his Lenten Pastoral Letter: “He [God] expects more of us.” While not a direct exhortation to his priests to employ ad orientem, I was happy to see His Excellency speak so favorably about turning to God in prayer. It is a welcome encouragement.
We need to be serious, more serious than we have been in recent years about divine worship. We also need to be rationally consistent. As Catholics, we believe in the integrity of the human person. The time has come that we align this truth of the faith with our practice at the altar. Lest we too are to fall into “old” errors, we should stop pretending (by our current practice) that the direction of liturgical prayer has little or no bearing on belief. The bodily postures we employ at Mass matter, and a universal re-turning to the Lord would be a tremendous blessing for the entire Catholic Church. As a priest, I pray that all bishops and priests would turn to the Lord at Mass, not just for Lent, but for life! Such an orientation would be for our own good as priests, and, in the words of the Suscipiat, “for the good of all His holy Church.”
Editor’s note: Pictured above is Pope Francis celebrating Mass ad orientem.