Facing East and Papal Fads

Recently I was at a meeting on liturgy when the subject of facing east was raised. One person at the meeting referred to the fact that the Holy Father has clearly stated his preference for facing east, or ad orientem, in the appropriate parts of the liturgy. I was not expecting an enthusiastic response (most present were well over 50 years of age) but I was still quite shocked was one priest started pulling mocking faces at the mention of the Holy Father’s preference and another then asserted that we need to beware of the “fads of popes, no matter who they are”.

“The fads of popes”. Apart from the clearly disrespectful tone of such a remark, what engaged my attention was the number of questions such a remark raised. Can popes have fads when it comes to teaching on liturgy and theology? Why is it that the fads of certain liturgists can be so readily accepted but the alleged fads of popes so firmly resisted? More importantly, how can the universal practice of Latin and eastern Christendom for the best part of 1900 years be reduced now to a “fad”?

So rather than rant, it seems more fruitful to look very briefly at the ad orientem issue, that is, of facing east in the liturgy. The first thing to note is that it has never actually been abolished! The change in the late 1960s was to permit Mass with the priest facing the people, versus populum, without ever restricting the right to face east. Indeed in the rubrics of the new Mass it was clearly assumed at the Offertory that the priest had been facing east, for they specify that after the washing of the hands, the priest then “stands at the centre of the altar, facing the people” before he invites them to pray for the acceptance of the sacrifice. Why specify this all of a sudden unless it was assumed that until this point the priest had not been facing the people? This same specification, “facing the people” occurs again before the priest shows the Host to the people after the Agnus Dei, and again after the prayer after communion and before he gives the final blessing. Clearly the rubrics assume that the priest has been facing east.

Facing east is a most ancient and venerable tradition in Christian liturgy. It is pregnant with meaning. At the time of the early Church Jews spread throughout the world would turn towards Jerusalem, whatever direction that might actually be for them, in order to link their prayer to the worship of the Temple. By contrast Christians prayed facing east, towards the New Jerusalem, the coming of which they awaited and towards which they were spiritually journeying. Facing west was to face the evil of this world. Thus in the early baptismal liturgies described by St Ambrose or St Cyril of Jerusalem, among others, the one about to be baptised first faced to the west to renounce Satan and all his works, and then turned around (conversus in Latin) to face east to profess faith in Christ, that is physically “converted” his or her body as a symbol of turning to Christ, of spiritual conversion. For such a congregation to face west for worship would have been scandalous!

The east is, of course, the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of the incarnation of Christ, as well as Christ’s rising from the dead and of Christ returning at the end of time – “the tender mercy of our God, the morning sun which will rise upon us” (Luke 1:78). So it was clearly appropriate that priest and people all faced east for worship of God and Christ. The celebration of the Eucharist is not only a commemoration of a past event and a renewal of the Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary, but it is also a preparation for a future event, the Second Coming of Christ – “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ” (the prayer after the Our Father at Mass). Thus St John of Damascus could write:

…the Lord Himself said, “Even as the lightning comes from the east and shines to the west, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be”. So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East.

What should be clear from all this is that the Mass, and all worship, is not about us. We might do it, but our object and focus is God. I remember hearing constantly in the 80s the fashionable (faddish, perhaps?) liturgists (usually amateur, to be fair) proclaiming that “liturgy” was a “celebration of community”. In Christian terms this could not be more wrong. We celebrate the glory of God and God’s love for us in Christ, and not ourselves. Self-celebration is an insidious form of narcissism which breeds self-satisfaction. If we are satisfied with ourselves, if we are just fine to the point that we can celebrate ourselves, what need is there for repentance, ongoing conversion and God’s grace? The most potent symbol of such a tendency is found in standing around the altar in a circle – everyone faces each other, and the circle is in effect an enclosure which excludes everyone outside the circle. The dynamics of this, the message it conveys, can hardly be Christian.

When the priest and people are all facing east, and the altar from one side, then the dynamics change, and the focus can more clearly and more easily be placed on God. We are united facing the Lord, even those who come in late at the back of the Church or are too bashful to join the celebratory altar-circle. Moreover, the burden of the subtle expectation that the priest has to entertain the people is removed. It is very difficult when facing a group of people from the front, and usually from an elevated position, not to feel that the focus is on the priest. This surely explains why so many priests feel the need to be constantly talking – all these people focused constantly on them. How many times have we heard mini-sermons at the beginning of Mass as the priest explains the readings, a task which is meant to happen at the homily.

And more disturbingly, at the altar itself during the Eucharistic prayer, it is not unusual to see priests show the Host or chalice to the people as they say the words of consecration “Take this all of you…”. The physical dynamic has the unconscious effect on them of making them feel they are talking to the people when in fact the Eucharistic prayer is addressed to the Father! If ever there was a disruption of the meaning and essence of the liturgy it is when this happens.

Occasionally one still hears the argument that it is good for the people to see what is going on at the altar. But really, what is there to see? Physically not much is happening, the actions are few and discreet. And if the people do not know by now what is happening at the altar they never will.

In 2009 the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma in the USA, restored Mass facing east in his cathedral. In explaining his move he wrote:

Unfortunately this change [ie the priest facing the people at the Eucharistic prayer] had a number of unforeseen and largely negative effects. First of all, it was a serious rupture with the Church’s ancient tradition. Secondly, it can give the appearance that the priest and the people were engaged in a conversation about God, rather than the worship of God. Thirdly, it places an inordinate importance on the personality of the celebrant by placing him on a kind of liturgical stage…. [Facing east] ought not to be misconstrued as the Bishop “turning his back on the faithful,” as if I am being inconsiderate or hostile. Such an interpretation misses the point that, by facing in the same direction, the posture of the celebrant and the congregation make explicit the fact that we journey together to God. Priest and people are on this pilgrimage together.

Bishop Slattery has recognised that our actions and posture can either help or hinder the meaning of our words. Indeed it can hinder the proper celebration of the liturgy. When we talk to a person, we face that person. So too in the liturgy it would make things clearer and more logical if the priest faced the people when he talking to them, and faced God when addressing God on behalf of the people.

One small and easy step to restoring the proper dynamic in worship is the use of the upright altar crucifix, which Pope Benedict constantly does whether he faces east or faces the people. This then becomes a visible focus and reminder of the purpose and focus of liturgy: that we are offering worship to the Father in Christ.

More powerful and effective still, I guess, would be a return to facing east. This, however, would meet fierce opposition from those passionately and unquestioningly committed to the post-conciliar reforms (I will not stoop to say fads, if only because many reforms were very sound). Such a change would require explanation. But surely that would be a wonderful opportunity for catechesis and deeper teaching of our faith and its rites of worship.

Whether our worship be at Mass, or at the divine office, Pope Benedict (when Cardinal Ratzinger) made a profound observation relevant to it:

Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: prayer (the oratio). It must be plainly evident that prayer (the oratio) is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the action (actio) of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet him.

24 thoughts on “Facing East and Papal Fads

  1. Everything arising out of the [mis]interpretation of Vatican II could be classified as a ‘fad’, of self-styled liturgists and Neo-Protestant clergy. However did Mother Church manage for all those years, pre-Conciliar, and the packed churches?


    1. Well, yes, it is not as if everything was falling apart prior to the Council. Some people paint such a negative picture of the pre-conciliar Church as to make one think that no one could have been saved in it!


  2. A delight to read, Father. It really sickens me to see the reactions of some when talking about worship facing east, but particularly as you emphasise, from the same side of the altar. My experience has often been that those who dislike ‘facing east’ for worship, for some reason hold in high esteem Muslims and Jews: it is these two groups in particular (not to mention the Eastern Church for the most part) which worship in a particular direction which more often than not involves the Imam or Rabbi ‘having their back to the people.’

    I hope one day that I can speak about facing east in the Mass without people reacting like I’ve just put a mutilated baby in front of them. I find Mass facing the people foreign now as I attend a Sunday Novus Ordo Mass where the priest faces east.


  3. I grew up hearing about how the priest “used to have his back to the people”. However, as soon as I read the description by the Fathers of the entire Church facing eastward I was immediately sold on the idea 🙂


    1. You put your finger on a live issue for me – the power of description, and the way it can skew our perceptions and reactions. If you always hear “the priest has his back to the people” (and those who oppose facing east tend to say it thus) then no wonder one develops a negative impression. But when, as you did, you discover the truth that the movement is not one of back to the people but of facing east with the people, not over and against them, then things change entirely.


  4. Fr. Hugh,
    Whilst I agree with you over the question of orientation it is not true that the practice of versum populum appeared only in the late 1960s after the SVC. The fashion, or indeed it probably deserves the appellation ‘fad’, originated in the early part of the twentieth century among certain cognoscenti. It became a popular practice in parts of Europe and the USA (particularly those parts with a strong Germanic heritage) in the 1940s and 1950s. I have posted about it on my blog several times featuring photographs from Ellard and others here, here and here.


    1. I take your point and agree with you, but to be fair to myself I never asserted that versus populum first appeared in the 1960s, nor did I even call it a fad. It is the attitude of those who champion it as a cause on which to stand or fall that strikes me as faddish. Versus populum is not unknown in history, and was practised in some places even in the early Church. But sometimes when practices change and old ones do not recur it is for a very good reason. Here I would suggest that it is because the Church became ever more aware that the dynamic of worship, its choreography and geography, must reflect and enhance the theology of what we are essentially doing. Those in the Liturgical Movement of the 20th century who promoted versus populum I think did it for noble reasons, but they had let antiquarianism replace the wisdom learned over the centuries.

      So really my point was not that versus populum was a recent fad, but that facing east was ancient and anything but a fad. I enjoyed your blog and found the photos fascinating. Pax!


      1. Dear Fr. Hugh,

        Et cum spiritu tuo!

        I was not suggesting you were calling versus populum a fad but I most certainly am. IMO it is a classic example of a fad that lacks any reliable historical or theological support and something that has done immense damage to the Liturgy.


  5. I think we are in agreement! Your concern to emphasize that many of the changes found in the Novus Ordo Mass did not suddenly appear from the hand of Paul VI but had been prepared for over previous decades is a healthy. It is easy, and far too simplistic and indeed unjust, to make Paul VI into a scapegoat for everything we do not like.

    Your reply forced me to see some shocking typos in the my previous comment which I have now corrected. Mea culpa.


  6. Ye’re going to have your work cut out for you telling this to the EXTRAordinary people from the parish where I go to Mass when they land on your doorstep for a day of recollection soon, Father!!

    I can’t begin to tell you the fads that are perpetrated at Mass and in catechesis. All I can say is thank God you’re saying what you are saying. Carry on loud and clear because they seem to be impervious, and believe me they are a very powerful lobby.


    1. Thanks for the warning!

      Indeed they are a powerful lobby, and this post of mine has seen me denounced to the abbey’s webmaster and this blog removed as a link for vocations on it – all because I defended facing east. But have faith – the times, they are a changing.


  7. “this post of mine has seen me denounced to the abbey’s webmaster and this blog removed as a link for vocations on it”

    You seem to have been reinstated already LOL 😀

    Have they turned theyir backs to you or are they still spinning?!


    1. Oh, you are right! Perhaps I have under-estimated the webmaster.

      Let’s hope they are still spinning; after all I am not the only monk here who takes our good Pope seriously, or put another way, I am not the only “extreme papalist” here (and yes that phrase was used of me – never was an insult more gratifying!).



  8. Wonderful article, Fr! I too am convinced that, as the Holy Father said, ad orientem worship is one of the most important changes that can be made to make the post-conciliar liturgy more theocentric.

    It is just a shame that the Holy Father hasn’t taken more of a lead himself, I believe that he only regularly celebrates one ad orientem Mass a year (publicly) on the feast of St John the Baptist.

    Keep the Faith!


    1. Ciao Francesco! I think we must recognize that the Holy father is in a position in which discretion is essential. He is a patient man, as the Church is patient, and is taking the Church step by step. His task for now is re-acquainting us – re-orienting us indeed – to the concept of liturgical east. Once we have grasped that concept, he can move on to geographical east in the liturgy. I think we can trust his judgment! Thanks for your kind words. Pax!


    1. I agree that it was an excellent compromise, though probably not a permanent solution. It helped remind us that the focus of the action at the altar is neither priest nor people, but Christ and his sacrifice on the Cross. I suspect the concept of liturgical east is too subtle for many, if not most, of the general run of massgoer – without catechesis that is.



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