The Politicization of Ad Orientem

What are Catholics to think when bishops forbid ancient liturgical practices but allow egregious abuses?

Last week I shared a video on social media that went viral (with more than 59,000 views at last count). What was this video? Was it a cat doing a cute trick? Or a Karen going crazy at an unmasked man? No, it was a boomer priest hamming it up for the camera and engaging in centering prayer and other abuses during his parish’s online Mass.

When I shared the video, I knew it would be controversial, although I didn’t think it would go that viral. Normally I don’t find helpful the “look at this terrible Novus Ordo Mass” videos that pop up periodically on social media, but this one is different.

On January 25, Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice (Florida) issued a letter to his priests essentially forbidding them to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass “ad orientem” (although he misspelled it “ad orientum,” which led to much online mockery). He stated that a priest who celebrates ad orientem (which literally means “toward the East” and liturgically refers to the priest facing the same direction as the people during the Mass) is inserting his “private choice” into the liturgy, which is not appropriate for the celebration of the Eucharist.

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This raised my hackles. You see, I lived in the Diocese of Venice for five years. In fact, I worked directly for Bishop Dewane as the diocese’s Director of Evangelization during that time. Part of my job included visiting the parishes, which often meant attending Mass at those parishes. So I am intimately familiar with how Mass is typically celebrated throughout the diocese. And aside from a few solid (mostly young) priests, the celebrating priest’s “private choices” dominated at those Masses. Personal preference ruled the day, and although Bishop Dewane did not seem to like the abuses, I never saw him do anything about it.

When I first arrived at the Diocese of Venice, my family were happy Novus Ordo-attending Catholics. We explored the parishes around us, but what we found were variations on the same theme: the priest was a performer, celebrating the Mass to please the congregation and to boost his ego. This is the reason we first started attending the traditional Latin Mass—we couldn’t find a reverent Novus Ordo within driving distance and didn’t want our kids exposed to such dismally-celebrated liturgies. We needed an escape from the insanity.

So when Bishop Dewane forbade the ancient liturgical form of ad orientem (which has been the norm since the early Church and is still standard in the Eastern churches) as a priest’s “private choice,” I couldn’t help but think, “What about all those Masses in the diocese dominated by priests’ personal preferences? Why weren’t they ever curtailed?”

After his letter came out, it didn’t take long for me to find a current example to confirm abuses were still rampant. Just a few miles south of where I lived (and at a parish I visited more than once when working for the diocese) is Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda, Florida and pastor Fr. Jerry Kaywell. This parish streams magnificently-produced online Masses, and their YouTube channel has quite a following. 

Looking just at the most recent Mass, I found a performance dominated by the personal preferences of Fr. Jerry. And this wasn’t a one-time incident—all the Masses the parish put online are similar. Every aspect of the production (it almost can’t be called a “liturgy”) reflects all the abuses of the liturgy that Pope Francis claims to be concerned about but lay Catholics have endured for 50 years now. 

When it came to sharing these egregious abuses on social media, I picked one particular part to highlight: Father Jerry replaced the Penitential Rite with centering prayer spiritual breaths. From my experience, I can tell you that centering prayer is very popular in the diocese, so it didn’t surprise me that it was integrated into the Mass. But this was just one of many abuses in 45 minutes filled with them. 

Needless to say, faithful Catholics who saw this were outraged. A bishop who forbids an ancient Christian practice—one that Vatican II did not forbid and is in fact assumed in the rubrics of the New Mass—allows these types of practices at his diocese’s liturgies? (And again, this might be one of the more egregious examples, but it’s not far outside the norm for the diocese. I have stories.) 

Defenses of the performance liturgy were weak. One Jesuit (of course!) argued that the breathing exercises didn’t “replace” the Penitential Rite, but were just an introduction to it, since the Kyrie and the absolution followed it. Before posting the video I was told by a priest I trust (and who exclusively celebrates the Novus Ordo) that it was in fact a replacement. 

Perhaps it was an introduction or perhaps it was a replacement; I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular issue, but that’s a classic example of straining the gnat while swallowing the camel. The issue isn’t whether the centering prayer practice replaces or introduces the Penitential Rite, it’s that it was included at all! Further, it’s just one example among many abuses in that liturgy (which is why I included a link to the entire Mass, to show this wasn’t an isolated incident).

I believe the reason the video and the bishop’s letter banning ad orientem went viral is because they reflect a deep and longstanding frustration among faithful Catholics toward their leaders when it comes to how the Mass is celebrated. 

The parish Mass is the central spiritual activity for Catholics; it’s literally the most important thing a Catholic does each week. Yet most Catholics have to endure some form of a priest’s personal preferences at their parish’s Masses. (Ironically, celebrating ad orientem would likely decrease the priest’s temptation to insert his “private choices” into the Mass.) Masses at different parishes—and even in the same parish with multiple priests—can vary widely, and often Catholics have to search far and wide for a priest who just “says the black and does the red.” Catholics are there to worship God and they don’t want to be distracted by whatever Fr. Feelgood thinks might be fun or interesting. 

Yet for decades Church leaders have ignored this reality. One of the biggest howlers in Traditionis Custodes was Pope Francis’s statement, “I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that ‘in many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions.’” For the average lay Catholic who has had to endure these abuses on a regular basis for decades, such concern sounds hollow indeed, considering leaders have had decades to correct these abuses and have done nothing.

And it would be one thing if prelates simply ignored the abuses—that’s bad enough. Now they seem intent on demonizing and politicizing any attempt to bring reverence to the New Mass as an “attack on Vatican II” and shutting it down. Even though Vatican II never forbid ad orientem (I’m sure the Council Fathers would have been shocked to see later bishops deem ad orientem “anti-Vatican II”) and ad orientem has been the norm for over a millennia in both East and West, it’s now seen as an attempt to go back to the “bad old days” of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. That’s not just benign neglect of the liturgy anymore; it’s an aggressive attack on Catholic tradition.

As anyone paying attention knows, the traditional Latin Mass, as well as the Ordinariate Mass, has seen a surging of interest in recent years. While there are many factors involved, surely liturgies like Fr. Jerry’s are near the top of the list. Catholics don’t want groovy 1970’s retreads forcing their personal preferences into the liturgy; they just want basic reverence. If they can’t find it at the local parish, they will find it elsewhere. To work to root out any attempt at reverence is, frankly, diabolical. Henry VIII didn’t even go as far as some of these prelates are going to rework the liturgy in their own image.

Faithful Catholics, whether they attend the traditional Latin Mass, the Ordinariate Mass, Eastern liturgies, or the New Mass, should be united in asking, even demanding, reverently-celebrated liturgies consistent with Catholic tradition. Each attack on tradition, whether it be against the whole TLM or traditional aspects of the New Mass, is an attack on the fundamentals of Catholicism. Hopefully, the contrast of outdated 1970’s influences on the liturgy and the perennial traditions of the Church will inspire a lay-led movement that will encourage priests and bishops to make reverent liturgies the norm, rather than the exception.

[Image Credit: Sacred Heart Parish (Punta Gorda, FL) YouTube screenshot]


  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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