The orientation of the priest during the celebration of the Mass is a liturgical flashpoint. Traditionalists consider the “ad orientem” position to be more reverent. They think that it better represents the transcendence of God. They hold that the “versus populum” position is irreverent and produces a casual, shallow attitude towards the Liturgy.

The topic has recently assumed a new relevance after the publication of Traditionis Custodes. On the one hand, the use of the ad orientem position (and other traditional liturgical elements) in the newer form of the Roman Rite can help traditionalists to integrate into the wider Church. On the other hand, the use of ad orientem can be promoted in a spirit of division. This is particularly likely when traditionalist Catholics see the versus populum position as being inherently inferior or irreverent. To promote greater unity, I’d like to explain how the symbolism of the versus populum position reflects traditional Catholic spirituality—and how some of the criticisms leveled against it are actually based on a flawed understanding of the liturgy.

The Sign is not the Thing Signified

All liturgical elements are signs or symbols. Signs and symbols, like words, don’t bear a one-to-one correspondence to ideas. This makes it impossible to claim that one particular gesture is reverence; at most, any particular gesture is a sign of reverence, and many signs can point to the same idea. Signs can also change their meaning over time. The debate noted at the opening of this essay indicates that ad orientem worship is no longer an unambiguous sign. It has entered the realm of contested symbols, which no longer have a single socially recognized meaning. And if the perceived meaning of a particular symbol changes significantly, the symbol may no longer be useful. In the liturgy, the underlying meaning can not be changed, but the symbols chosen to represent this meaning have always varied with time and place.

Is Versus Populum Clericalist?

In the modern world, ad orientem worship is often seen as clericalist and exclusionary. Ironically, traditionalists make the same accusation against versus populum worship. They say that it is clericalist because it gives the priest center stage.

Is an emphasis on the interaction between the priest and the people a symbol of clericalist self-importance? Or does it symbolize something else? Some priests argue that ad orientem worship is superior because it gives them privacy and a feeling of intimacy with Christ. I understand this; if I was celebrating the liturgy I might feel the same way. It might be awkward to face a sea of staring faces, faces that can be extremely distracting.

The priest, however, has chosen the hard but noble calling of becoming “another Christ.” Christ came from the intimacy of heaven, and for 33 years He showed us his face — even when we ignored Him, rejected Him, mocked Him. The priest’s mission is to let Christ’s love for the people become visible in him. Shouldn’t the priest show us his face when he stands in for Christ?

The Mass is a sacrifice, but also a meal, and our heavenly Father has left the priest in His place at the head of the table, as his steward and representative. The chief quality of a steward is to be faithful to his duty — and serving the laity is the priest’s duty. At the funeral of a layperson, the casket is oriented so that the body is facing the altar. For the funeral of a priest, however, the orientation is reversed, with the body facing the congregation. Traditionally, this difference was often extended to the actual burial itself. The lay faithful were buried facing East, toward the rising Sun of Justice. The priest was buried facing west, toward his people, for by his care for them he will be judged. According to this tradition, the Last Judgment would resemble a final versus populum Mass.

Turning Away From God?

Traditionalists argue that by turning toward the people, the priest turns his back on God, who is represented by the crucifix and present in the tabernacle. They say that we should all be praying together in the same direction, toward Christ. After the Consecration, however, Christ is truly present before the priest no matter which way he is facing.

Also, I think a certain symbolism can be seen in the position of the crucifix and tabernacle behind the priest. The priest is an apostle, one who is sent. The presence of Christ in the tabernacle behind the priest is the source and strength of his priestly ministry. The priest goes forth from his relationship with Christ to feed the flock that has been entrusted to his care.

The Horizontal and the Transcendent

Another criticism of the versus populum position is that it overemphasizes the immanence of God and downplays his transcendence. Or, as some say, it is “horizontal” rather than “vertical.” I don’t think it necessarily entails a total loss of the “vertical,” however. The liturgy is where the vertical line of God’s eternal existence intersects our horizontal world of time and human relationships. The liturgy is the “vertical” worship of God, but it is the worship of God as performed by a community. The amazing thing is that God enters into our daily lives! Isn’t the distinctive thing about Christianity this focus on God’s immanence in the Incarnation and the Mystical Body? Are we primarily the people of a veiled, distant, mysterious God, or the people of the torn veil, with access through our Great High Priest into the Holy of Holies? Obviously, we need to preserve a sense of both immanence and transcendence. The greatness and incomprehensibility of God must be kept firmly in mind, but precisely so that we can understand how amazing Christ’s incarnation really is and can appreciate his coming among us.

Avoiding Polarization in the Liturgy

The two different liturgical orientations are not incompatible; they could exist side by side, each showing some different facet of our rich theology and spirituality. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “The mystery of Christ is so unfathomably rich that it cannot be exhausted by its expression in any single liturgical tradition.” (CCC 1201) It goes on to say, however: “Liturgical diversity can be a source of enrichment, but it can also provoke tensions, mutual misunderstandings, and even schisms.” (CCC 1206)

To achieve this enriching diversity without producing division, each liturgical orientation would have to be celebrated, understood, treasured equally. Neither form could be the preserve of a particular faction or clique. Neither form could be seen as flawed or inferior. They would have to be used much as the many Eucharistic Prayers of the Roman Rite are used, interchangeably. Without this mentality of mutual respect, such diversity inevitably becomes divisive and provides rallying points for the development of factions. Such division politicizes the liturgy, making it subject to ideological struggles. Pope Benedict XVI favored the ad orientem position. But, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, he advised against turning the altars around, precisely to avoid such ideological conflicts. He said, “nothing is more harmful to the liturgy than a constant activism, even if it seems to be for the sake of genuine renewal.” For this reason, he instead recommended placing a cross on the altar in front of the priest, providing a liturgical “east.”

Unity in love is what Christ prayed for before his passion, and we have to be willing to sacrifice to make this happen. St. Paul warns against allowing inessential things to become a stumbling block; this issue has already contributed to the growing rift in the Church and therefore needs to be depoliticized. An excessive focus on symbols can cause us to lose sight of the reality that the symbols indicate. Whatever our liturgy may signify, if we don’t have unity and love in our hearts, our worship will not be acceptable before God.

Image: Max Pixel.

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Malcolm Schluenderfritz hosts Happy Are You Poor, a blog and podcast dedicated to discussing radical Christian community as a means of evangelization. He works as a graphic design assistant and a horticulturalist in Littleton, CO.

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