Thursday, July 7, 2016

"People, look east. The time is near."

People Look East is an Advent hymn, composed in 1928. It is definitely not one of my favorites. A priest friend of mine once called it "the Christmas Decorating Song" because of some of its more silly lyrics. But, like it or not, its opening line just naturally came to mind as I reflected on a recent speech by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, and the widespread chatter that has ensued as a result of that speech.

The Cardinal spoke at a liturgical conference in London. He quoted Pope Francis' 2014 statement that "there remains much to be done for a correct and complete assimilation" of Vatican II's 1963 Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. He highlighted what is obvious from any fair reading of the liturgical Constitution - that the Council Fathers intended a reform (not a radical replacement) of the Roman liturgy they knew. Thus, Cardinal Sarah suggested "the possibility of an official reform of the liturgical reform." The possible reform that has gotten the most immediate attention, however, was his appeal for a prompt return "to a common orientation of priest and people." 

I rather doubt any immediate widespread change is around the corner or that most people's experience of Mass is likely to change ay time soon. But the debate about orientation has been an ongoing one and in some circles an impassioned one, and so deserves more serious discussion.

To be clear, as everyone knows - or should know - what is commonly called ad orientem celebration is possible in the post-conciliar Paul VI rite, just as what is commonly called versus populum celebration was also possible in the pre-Paul VI form of the Roman rite. (In the old Missal's Ritus Servandus in Celebratione Missae, it explicitly stated: "Si altare sit ad orientem versus populum, Celebrans versa facie ad populum, non vertit humeros ad Altare, cum dicturus est Dominus vobiscum, Orate, fratres, Ite, Missa est, vel daturus benedictionem. All this applied most conspicuously at the solemn Papal Mass at the papal altar in Saint Peter's.)

The other thing to be gotten out of the way when talking about ad orientem celebration today is that the term no longer really refers to geography. We may regularly refer to the altar and apse area as the liturgical "East," the main entrance as the "West Door," and the traditional site for the Baptistery as the liturgical "Northwest," but in fact they are often not that at all. In the parish church I grew up in and in the three parish churches I served at in Toronto and New York, the church building actually faced west, while my current church in Knoxville more or less faces south. Better than referring to points of the compass, it would be better, I believe, to speak about priest and people facing the same way versus priest and people facing each other!

Because that is what this really comes down to - not an archaic debate about the geographical orientation of the church building. Once we think of the matter in those terms, then the real issue becomes clear. Should we all pray together facing the same direction? Or should we face each other?

Stipulating that both those ways of celebrating Mass are equally legitimate and may both be beneficial, there is much to recommend the approach that we should all pray together facing the same direction during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. (The Liturgy of the Word, which in the current rite is celebrated away from the altar, is a totally separate matter.) Of course, in my almost 21 years of priesthood, I have only on the rarest occasions celebrated Mass at a "traditional" altar, usually when celebrating Mass in some chapel while on pilgrimage abroad.  Concelebrants often find themselves standing behind the principal celebrant and so experience the unity of praying in the same direction with him, while he typically faces the congregation. For all practical purposes, almost all my experience as a celebrant has been versus populum, although of course I can well remember attending (and serving) Mass ad orientem as a child. 

My main concern, however, is not nostalgia, nor is it tradition per se (since, after all, both forms are "traditional"). My concern rather is that, since versus populum celebration became popular in the mid-1960s, it has coincided with (and may have been itself a major contributor to) a greater emphasis on the person of the priest and a focus on his subjective personality. Even the celebrant who tries very hard to submerge his personality in the liturgy and not attract attention to himself cannot completely avoid the subjectifying effect of the Eucharistic liturgy at least looking like a dialogue between priest and people rather than a prayer offered by the entire congregation together under the leadership of the priest.

In the old rite, even when the Pope celebrated Mass versus populum in Saint Peter's, the psychology of the experience was very different. The Pope celebrated Mass at a great distance from most of the congregation and at an altar on which stood a large crucifix and 7 tall candles, plus 2 large reliquaries. (See, for example, the YouTube videos of the Coronation of Pope Saint John XXIII in 1958.) So even there the sensibility was traditional and not what it has since become.

The Paul VI Novus Ordo Mass has many beneficial innovations. De facto, celebration versus populum has come to be seen by many as one of those. But not only was celebration versus populum never even hinted at in Vatican II's Liturgy Constitution, it is obviously unnecessary for the reverent celebration of the new rite and may itself be an obstacle to further reverent reform. Certainly Anglicans (and Lutherans) have celebrated a vernacular liturgy for centuries and done so ad orientem without experiencing that as any kind of obstacle to congregational understanding and participation!

Perhaps the most sensible solution in the present circumstances would be to provide more opportunities for more people to experience both directions of celebration on a more regular basis. Over time, experience will sort things out; and, if that results in one or other form predominating, so be it!

(Photo: Pope Francis celebrating Mass ad orientem at a side altar in Saint Peter's Basilica.)

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