Sunday, June 6, 2010

Which way should the Priest face?

"Much could be said too regarding the direction the altar faces. Msgr.Schuler of happy memory, the former pastor of St. Agnes, told me of saying Mass facing the people way back in the early 1950's in a downstairs Church in St. Paul. He thought at the time, “This will never last.” There was no law forbidding the altars from being turned around before Vatican II, and no law requiring them to be turned around after! As Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) quipped in the early 1990's, the fact that the Church never ordered the altars to be turned around is perhaps the reason it happened so quickly!   

When the altars were turned around many other things changed as well. On the upside was more personal connection with the priest, and seeing the words spoken as well as hearing them at Mass. One of the downsides was that the priest tended to become the center of Mass instead of Christ. It opened up to a lot of clowning around and dumbing down of the sacred liturgy. It broadly facilitated what became a refocusing of the Mass from being Theocentric (God Centered) to being Anthropocentric (Man Centered). Church design tended to become theater shaped and often the choir was placed up front. This in no way invalidates the Mass, but takes away many of the transcendent qualities. 

Now with forty years or more of experience many people are craving something more. Those who attend modern casual churches in the suburbs, which all tend to be anthropocentric, look forward to visits to the Basilica. They crave the beauty and dignity of that grand church. But I think they also crave order, with a sanctuary set apart and the focus on the altar. Rectangular 
  churches, much like the Meeting Tent of Moses, the Jewish Temple, and Christian churches, allow everyone to choose how close to come, to be in front or back, on the side or the aisle, to be seen or unseen, all of which is impossible in a church in the round, and in many modern churches.   

Which way should the altar face? The traditional direction is called “Ad orientem.” “Oriens” meaning “the rising sun” -- thus “the East” or “the dawn” – and with the preposition “ad” meaning “to” or “towards.” AD ORIENTEM means facing east. Churches were literally built so that the priest AND congregation both faced EAST during public worship. The reason was that the sun rose each day in the east. The Son of God rose from the dead on Easter morning, when the sun rose in the East. Hence, Christians were keen to respect that by facing east when they worshiped their Lord and Savior. Churches were built from Ancient to Mediaeval times facing east. The priest was not seen as ‘turning his back’ on the congregation, rather, BOTH priest and congregation were facing east TOGETHER. Does the bus driver or airplane pilot have his/her back toward the passengers OR rather is he/she facing the same direction of the destination everyone hopes to arrive at? 

So “ad orientem” is not the priest being bad mannered with his back to the people, but it is the whole people of God looking with awe and joy at the resurrected Lord Jesus and in expectation and hope looking for his coming in glory.   

Therefore, saying Mass facing “ad orientem” is completely lawful as things stand today in the Catholic Church." 

-- Which way should the Priest face? by Fr Thomas Dufner

** Fr Thomas Dufner is pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in St Louis Park, Minnesota. He's a very holy man active in the pro-life movement. For years he has been leading a Rosary praying group on Saturdays next to an abortion clinic - regardless of weather conditions!

1 comment:

Catholic with Attitude said...

If only more priests had the courage and patience to inform their parishioners about this and, in that light, implement the celebration of Mass facing East. I hope one day in the not too distant future that Mass facing East will just be the norm.