The Flame Re-Ignites: Ad Orientem

In the abruptly-curtailed pontificate of Benedict XVI, the issue of the priest celebrating Mass ad orientem became a live topic in mainstream circles. Priests began to summon up the courage to return to the ancient practice which was so needlessly effaced from the life of the Church in the wake of the Council. Then came Pope Francis, who (not least because he is a Jesuit perhaps!) is not much interested in liturgy. This means that in practice he is content not to change any legislation on it (save for the extension to women of the optional mandatum on Maundy Thursday). This hands-off approach is actually a very traditional papal attitude. His sacred indifference has allowed those who had begun to re-align the liturgy with tradition to continue their quiet and increasingly popular work.

So Cardinal Sarah, quite appropriately given his position as Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship, has re-ignited the debate, encouraging priests to celebrate Mass facing East. He makes the common sense observation that during the Liturgy of the Word the priest faces the people, given that he is addressing them, but when addressing God, as when at the altar, he should face East, an ancient symbolic gesture of a turn to God and to the direction whence Christ would return: the Risen Son returning as the rising sun.

Cardinal Sarah

A Benedictine confrère in America has taken issue with the Cardinal. The title of his piece reveals his stance right form the start. What really upsets Fr Ruff is Cardinal Sarah’s statement that facing East complies with the letter and spirit of the Council:

Of all the arguments for ad orientem – and there are valid arguments out there – this isn’t one of them. Anytime anyone makes a claim about what the Council Fathers wanted, alarm bells should go off for all of us. The discussions of the fathers in the aula, and the things said in the documents they approved, witness a range of views. One has to be cautious about suggesting that all the fathers wanted anything unless the evidence supports the claim.

Now Fr Ruff is writing in a liberal blog so it is actually a piece of fair-mindedness for him to concede the fact that there are valid arguments in favour of maintaining this ancient tradition of the Church, though it may seem, when not viewed within this context, as a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Fr Ruff contends that the Council Fathers tacitly approved Mass facing the people and did not need to legislate in any detail for it. He says experimental Masses facing the people—versus populum—were occurring in the decades before the Council and that the Council Fathers would have been aware of then.

I agree: most of them probably would have, though this is by no means proven. But this makes it even more startling that they made absolutely no mention of it at all. They decided explicitly to allow for the possibility of a limited introduction of the vernacular language into the Mass, in the readings for example. Yet they somehow decided it was not worth mentioning a vastly more untraditional practice as Mass versus populum. Likewise they made no mention at all of Communion in the hand, yet this has become universal and even mandatory in some places, at least for a time.

There is little doubt that the reason why versus populum and Communion in the hand were not included in the conciliar texts is that they would not have been approved by the Council Fathers. Not in a pink fit.

Fr Ruff makes the ideological contention that,

The fathers approved a major paradigm shift – from liturgy as Carolingian clerical drama to liturgy as act of all the people – and then left open what the implications of that shift would be.

Leaving aside the caricaturing employed, this is a veiled way of invoking the now-discredited, and never valid, principle of the “spirit of Vatican II”. To echo Fr Ruff in the first quotation above, anytime anyone makes a claim about paradigm shifts or the spirit of the Council or the Council as an “event” living above and beyond its mere documents, you can be sure that the text of the Council (as approved democratically by the Fathers) is being evaded.

The mind of the Council, of any council in history, is to be found in only one place: its decrees and documents. The Second Vatican Council did not countenance Mass versus populum or Communion in the hand and it if did, it would have said so, as it did with the possibility of limited use of vernacular languages in the Mass. We have seen that the old truism, give them an inch and they will take a mile, has operated with regard to the vernacular at Mass. Yet even without an inch being given by the Council Fathers, versus populum and Communion in the hand have become well-nigh universal. The Consilium which was appointed to enact the decree on the Liturgy pretty much ignored both Council and Pope in their formulations, aided by the deceptions of Annibale Bugnini.

The history of this hijacking, and the mis-application of the Council in general, is now being written, and it is causing those who have hitched their wagons to the “spirit of the Council” grave alarm. They are being stood up to not least by the creature they so vigorously sought to bring to life, an educated and informed laity. A truly impartial reader of the Council decree on the liturgy will struggle to find in it much that legitimises the liturgy that was imposed on the Church in the wake of the Council; imposed not by the Council but by the Consilium of experts who bullied and deceived a pope to get their way, and took advantage of the traditional docility of the Catholic laity. You do not need to look far to find the books that are the vanguard of this searching re-evaluation of the implementation of the Council.

Fr Ruff raises the example of the church of his monastery of Collegeville, a modernist structure built on the eve of the Council according to the principles of the avant-garde in the Liturgical Movement. In this church—with monastic community on one side and the congregation on the other in the nave—an ad orientem Mass, he says, is out of the question:

This wouldn’t work – it would feel to everyone in the nave like the priest was celebrating Mass with only the monastic community and ignoring the congregation.

There are several reasons why we do not have to accept this assertion. The church was built before the liturgical changes, and while this progressive community no doubt had a brave new liturgy in mind when they developed its design, there must have been Masses ad orientem in it. Did people explode from confusion, or indignation at being “ignored”? Of course not. They had grown up with Masses celebrated the traditional way; they knew very well what was going on. Moreover, it is a monastic church, and visitors would have expected Mass to be celebrated in the monastic tradition.

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The implication is, though, that people today would not know. And to an extent this would be correct. But why? Because Mass ad orientem has not been celebrated there for decades. No doubt the ancient practice has been labelled there as elsewhere, and with gross misrepresentation, as Mass with the priest having his “back to the people”. The solution is simple and clear: catechesis. As we have seen in the Church so often in the last few decades, so much has not been taught and even many cradle Catholics are in dire need of re-catechesis, not through any fault of their own, but because their pastors have refused to teach the whole and presented only a part, and highly skewed at that.

A few years back, on a Sunday which was also All Saints, I celebrated Mass ad orientem for the rites at the altar. Our choir sang glorious polyphony, including interactive chant settings for the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei which allowed the people to take an active part in the singing; incense smoke filled the air; the tone of the Mass was solemn yet festal. It was the ideal occasion to revisit Mass ad orientem. I preached about it in the homily, linking it to the saints and Christ. After the Mass about 15 laity came up to say how lovely it was, and how powerful they found the symbol of ad orientem once explained to them. None in the monastic community made any comment to me; a couple complained at what they called a major and un-consultative change from the way we celebrate liturgy here. So, needless to say, I have not been able to do it again.

What really irks me is the contention that ad orientem is foreign to the new Mass and its Missal. Those who contend so have clearly never read the rubrics. For the rubrics assume without thinking twice that the priest is, at the relevant times, facing East! Just note the following rubrics:

At the beginning of Mass— 1. “… while the Priest, facing the people, says…”

After the offertory— 29. “Standing at the middle of the altar, facing the people, …”

At the Kiss of Peace— 127. “The Priest, turned towards the people, …”

At the “Behold the Lamb of God…”— 132. “The Priest genuflects, takes the host and, holding it slightly above the paten or above the chalice, while facing the people, says aloud:…”

At the priest’s Communion— 133. “The Priest, facing the altar, says quietly:…”

For the Post-Communion prayer— 139. “Then, standing at the altar or at the chair and facing the people, with hands joined, the Priest says: Let us Pray.”

Before the dismissal— 141. “Then the dismissal takes place. The Priest, facing the people and extending his hands, says: The Lord be with you…”

At the dismissal— 144. “Then the Deacon, or the Priest himself, with hands joined and facing the people, says: Go forth…”

These constant reminders to the celebrant to face the people at the appropriate time only make sense if the priest’s default position for ritual action is not facing the people. The only time the rubrics feel the need to remind the celebrant to face the altar is at his own Communion, which follows immediately after his showing the sacred species to the people.

Versus populum is clearly not the default position for the ritual action the Mass of Vatican II. Clearly, the Missal assumes the ancient and consistent logical position of facing God when talking to God, and reminding the priest (and this is new and sensible) to face the people when talking to them.

The vernacular is not the worst change to the Mass since the Council. The abandonment of ad orientem and the entrenching of the abuse of Communion in the hand are far worse. To change only these two things would return profundity and a worshipful ambience to the Mass. It would also give joy to those young people who are committed to their faith and to the Church. This is from experience.

Cardinal Sarah is to be applauded for doing his job, and doing it so well. We would all do well to reflect in depth on why the post-conciliar Mass, so radically redesigned by experts to “include” the people, has been so abandoned by them. Moreover, we should ask why people, especially the young, are flocking back to Masses in which tradition is honoured and the worship of God is the clear and consistent focus.


30 thoughts on “The Flame Re-Ignites: Ad Orientem

  1. ok Father, here is this non catholic, yet liturgically raised, laity type person’s 2 cents…so forgive me for jumping in as if I had a dog in this fight and for making observations that may seem highly uneducated to this latest rumbling of discontent within the workings of the church….
    First, I think the Mass is a mystical moment—a mystical act of man—priest and people, communing on a vastly deeper level with an unseen God…much more so then what initial observation would surmise. It is a holy moment–a linking, if you will, of man to God—as it represents man’s profound reverence and awe—a humility as we worship God in a fashion that is centuries old—holy and mystical….
    We believe, do we not, that the bread and wine is the body and blood—that we become partakers of His offered body and shed blood—that’s a little mystical I would imagine in the minds of many–of both believers and non believers as that alone has caused rifts within the “church” down through the ages—
    I find that in celebrating the Mass we are invoking God to be in the midsts of the moment.
    We are paying Him His due actually.
    We offer ourselves up to Him—as sinful penitent man—we humbly come before His table and it would only be fitting to reverence Him during the service—in respect we/ you/ turn eastward in an act of yielding to His true presence…..which is as you document, an ancient practice.

    I once attended a mass at an Eastern Orthodox church. I was intrigued to say the least. There was a sense of such familiarity as well as something foreign at the same time.
    As the priests were in and out from behind the iconostasis, I marveled at what was taking place away from the eye of the congregation—what were they doing behind the screen with the cup and the Host as they wove in and out. I was offered a glimpse into something that I felt to be similar to that of the Holy of Holies in which it was only the select priest allowed to enter into the presence of the Ark of the Covenant…as a mystery that was deeper and greater than I was taking place.

    Forgive my naivety Father but to me, it is as though we / man, has attempted to “dumb down” the mass.
    Bring it down to a simpler understanding. We has attempted to make it more for the people than for God, arguing that that what’s mass is anyway, for the people.

    Leave it to an American (this American can say that 🙂 ) to want to equal out the playing field… even in the area of the Mass—we’ve sadly gotten to the point in this country where we level every playing field imaginable —it is our unending quest, or so it seems, to total equality—as we work to become even equal to God Himself—

    Thank you for allowing this 2 bit observation 🙂


    1. Hi Julie!

      Man has attempted to dumb down quite a few things in the last few decades. As a result society is getting dumber every year.

      Perhaps the most essential thing to keep in mind about the Mass, what is truly and most essentially is, above all else: the sacrifice of Calvary made present and effective in the midst of, and for, God’s people the Church. By eating and drinking of the Lamb that has been sacrificed we share in the benefits of that sacrifice. Since the Lamb is also God, its benefits are infinite, limited only by our ability or worthiness to receive them. During the canon we step outside time into eternity, and stand again (mystically but no less really) at the Cross.

      As a priest, when I have to face the people, that becomes so much harder to keep in mind. And when the people have to look at my face, or that of another priest, they no doubt feel the same.

      We tinker with it at our peril. The last 50 years rather prove that!

      Peace and all good things to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Father, I’ve had to fall way back into my reader, finding a post of yours in which I had a comment as it seems your most recent posts obviously have me lurking somewhere in absentia—as I comment and it is no where to be seen—I have fallen no doubt deep into your spam or waiting for approval category–so if you find me, I apologize for any redundancy.

        For whatever reason, the same has happened recently to other blogs I follow (christian and / or catholic…coincidence…conspiracy…hummmm? ) as well as to those who follow me. In fact several blogs have disappeared from my reader all together as I have disappeared from others…leaving us to go on a search, find and recover mission.

        I don’t want to miss my readings of your most insightful posts, as they are food for my soul. You may not always appreciate this non catholic’s “comments” but just know I greatly enjoy the fellowship–
        hope to be found one day—maybe more ways than one 🙂
        Blessings Father—


      2. Julie – pax! For some reason the WordPress spam filter decided to hit your last 5 comments. Since you are a regular here the reason it did so mystifies me. As I am hitting bed now I shall read them properly tomorrow; this is to explain my silence and the comments’ invisibility hitherto.


        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oh I am relieved—not doomed to purgatory—I was lost and now I’m found—but this strange coincidence as conspiracy is truly a bit odd 🙂
        rest well Father—and know I’m grateful to remain in the fold—


  2. Fr Bryan Houghton’s great book ‘Mitre and Crook’ is well worth a read. It is formed of fictitious letters from a bishop to his priests as the Novus Ordo is introduced. He eventually arrives at a compromise for his diocese very much along the lines of Cardinal Sarah’s exhortation, or what you might find at the Oratory in London.


      1. A generous and revealing obituary. I now have some idea who he is. In my own little researches into St Edmund’s relics (as part of the project for the new statue St Edmund we now have at Douai Abbey) I recall that Fr Houghton was of the mind that the Toulousien relics housed at Arundel were authentic. Alas, it seems, they are not. This, however, does not detract from his sincere piety and devotion to St Edmund.

        I think I would like to have met Fr Houghton. May he rest in peace.


    1. You are too kind, Dom. But you may be right about the death wish; all this reading I am doing about martyrdom at the moment might be pushing me in a certain direction.

      And of course there is something very liberating in not having prospects for advancement. One truly becomes a free agent (within Holy Mother, naturally).



  3. Dear Dom Hugh,

    I was able to do the NO Mass ad orientem for several years, before I was ordered not to. I, and most of the people whom I’d catechized extensively before I started ad orientem worship, felt that it was, as discerned by Goldilocks, “just right.” As a priest I resisted doing it for years, but when I finally started doing it regularly so many awkward things fell away.
    Firstly, the Mass was no longer about the priest. There was no need to try to perform as I did the sacred rite.
    Secondly, the people were more attentive and more devout.
    Thirdly, I was less distracted. The words of the Canon were addressed to God the Father, and not to the people, so I was turned toward the one we were worshipping.
    Fourthly, since Christ ascended into heaven toward the East, and it was revealed that he would return to us from the East, we were ready for it.
    There are other lesser things, like not having the watch the priest wash the dishes and then drink the dishwater, but I will pass over them.
    Also, as a graduate of St. John’s, Collegeville, and from subsequent contacts there, I know that it would be almost impossible for anyone to overwhelm the pressure to celebrate versus populum. Fr. Ruff would not be pleased.


    1. Dom Gregory – Salve!

      All your experiences in celebrating ad orientem I share. Most especially for me is the relief that comes from being able to focus on the Lord at the altar. For the congregation that is following devoutly there must be relief as well – the celebrant recedes into the background and the drama of the sacred action can takes its rightful prominence. The majority of Catholics, if exposed to this regularly, would find the same. But there does need to be catechesis, active and vigorous.



  4. Father Hugh wrote :
    Versus populum is clearly not the default position for the ritual action the Mass of Vatican II. Clearly, the Missal assumes the ancient and consistent logical position of facing God when talking to God, and reminding the priest (and this is new and sensible) to face the people when talking to them.

    As you know, dear Father, I am a frequent promoter of liturgical Tradition and very much desire to see the re-introduction of the Roman Rite Mass being celebrated “ad orientem”.

    I do not agree, however, with the assertion from your post which I have quoted above. My reason for disagreement is that from the time of his Coronation in 1963, Mass celebrated publicly at a free-standing altar versus populum was the default practice of Pope Paul VI whenever it was possible (of course, the Roman basilicas all have free-standing altars in one sense). This practice, of course, preceded the introduction of the new Missal. My point is that the Papal practice was intended as an exemplar for the celebration of the revised Order of Mass (1965) and the New Order of Mass (1969).

    If the devisers of the New Missal thought they could make mandatory the celebration of Mass versus populum we might assume they would have. I think they already believed that they didn’t need to make it mandatory, because (a) it was the Papal practice and (b) by 1969 it was already very popular.

    We cling to the ambivalence of the General Instructions, but we know that for most people, sadly, this is irrelevant. We look with hope to a time when Tradition is better understood and warmly embraced.


    1. Good morning Michael (well, it is morning here!).

      Thanks for your comment. I am afraid I must strongly disagree with your assertion. The default practice of one pope in a time of liturgical flux is certainly highly significant, and highly deliberate, and was no doubt done in his more innocent days before he realised the full force of the liturgical reforms he had unleashed and begun to regret them.

      However, what a pope did 50 years ago at papal Masses and what ended up in the Missal are two quite separate things. Liturgical practice is not determined by papal practice, though it may be influenced of course. But the real issue is what actually made it into the official document, the rubrics of the Missal. The rubrics are privileged above what one pope does at his Masses, however exemplary and (in Benedict XVI’s case) laudable. And as I have shown, the rubrics even in the latest typical edition of the Missal clearly assume ad orientem. The difficulty comes in that they do not exclude versus populum. This gives the latitude for the General Instruction, liturgical experts, bishops’ conferences etc to make generous provision for, and even promote, Mass versus populum.

      What made versus populum, as with Communion in the hand and muzak at Mass, so universal, was the vigour of the reformers and the silence of the majority in the face of what was being presented as officially approved. The Consilium traded on its status as a Vatican commission to add immune weight to its progressively more radical changes to the liturgy. Liturgists cajoled bishops and produced highly doctrinaire studies and commentaries. Resistance was too scattered, and too uncoordinated to face down this machine which had harnessed the spirit of the 60s.

      Moreover, what you are arguing is a type of the “spirit of Vatican II’ argument, that the letter can be forgotten in light of the practice of Pope Paul in his Masses. Benedict XVI himself did much to undo that in his own Masses. Pope Paul’s example from the mid-60s is no longer relevant to the debate. What is relevant is the rubrics of the Mass interpreted in the light of tradition. They clearly expect ad orientem. However, I agree, they do not mandate it explicitly, to our great loss.



  5. At our university chaplaincy, which has just one weekday and one Sunday Mass, we have this year begun celebrating the weekday Mass ad orientum. Just a couple of observations I wanted to make: firstly, that personally I have found it makes so much sense once you start celebrating ad orientum – for the reasons both you and Dom Gregory evince: the relief, of turning one’s whole attention to the Lord, the lack of distraction from Him, and – ironically, perhaps in view of some of the arguments proposed for versus populum – a new sense of devotional solidarity as celebrant, ministers and people all turn to the Lord. The other observation is more a general one, that, as we at the chaplaincy have tried to tack ever so gently towards the direction indicated by Sacrosanctum Concilium, the only heated objections I have heard have been from people born around the time of the Council. So perhaps there is a generational shift…

    Many thanks for another illuminating post!


    1. I think you are spot on about the generational shift. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt any sort of adequate explanation for this shift, but I suspect some part is played by the postwar phenomenon of youth rebellion, with or without a cause, as well as the exposure of the young to sources of information denied earlier generations, especially about liturgy and theology.

      For at least some of my generation, born in the immediate wake of the Council, there is also the sense that we were deprived of something to which we had a right, and which the conciliar generation took from us in their wisdom. But that may just be me!



  6. In terms of the intentions of the new Missal, the key text is Inter Oecumenici. Long before 1970 vs. pop. is being officially encouraged. But the total destruction of historic altars wasn’t mandated so they expected for the time being both practices to continue side by side. Hence the rubrics had to take account of the possibility of ad orientem. I don’t think more than that can be read into them.

    This was done without the mandate of the Council, but so was a lot of other things, such as the translation of the Canon.

    Celebration vs pop is of course a disaster for all the reasons you state.


    1. Salve, Doctor!

      Much of your point I can accept, and certainly ver.pop. was being experimented with before the Council in many a place (I even have photos!). Pius Parsch, much of whose written work is excellent, is a case in point, using his little chapel at Klosterneuberg for experimental liturgies as far back as the 30s.

      Though I (obviously) agree that the Consilium had a definite agenda, I am not convinced that my point about the rubrics of the NO Missal is knocked down. The otherwise-unexplained reminders to the celebrant to face the people at the appropriate time only make sense in the context of a general assumption that the priest is facing east.

      Naturally I allow that we have sufficient ambiguity even in the rubrics to allow for ver.pop. and so much else besides.

      How ironic to see your letter placed next to Mr Loftus’ in this week’s The Tablet. It idd make me giggle.

      Pax semper.


    1. I just got the Angelico Press’ recent edition but it does not have the epilogue! Who published your edition? I’ll keep an eye out for the typos. Fr Houghton’s works seem not to be in copyright, which is helpful. Pax.


      1. The Roman Catholic Books printing with the 1985 Epilogue has the same copyright information as the original 1979 printing. (Arlington House and Roman Catholic Books are apparently related: father and son. ). Who, if anyone, owns the copyrights to Bryan Houghton in English is, to me, uncertain. The most likely candidate is the French publisher Dominique Martin Morin. Angelico Book must have done some inquiries


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