There is a difference of opinion about the posture of the priest during the celebration of Mass. Should he face the people or face in the same direction of the people? Fr. Bus. a priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago thinks it best to celebrate Mass praying in the same direction as the people or to use the technical term ad orientem (toward the East). He was upset by Cardinal Blaise Cupich’s recent interpretation of Pope Francis’ restrictions on the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass that stipulated that all Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo) Masses were to be celebrated versus populum (Toward the people). Fr Bus wrote an impassioned open letter explaining why he wishes to celebrate the Mass ad orientem and in the letter he allowed himself to express his dismay with the present Holy Father and various other tendencies in the contemporary church he finds disconcerting.
It seems that he may have been disciplined for his outburst, but it occurs to me that there has been little real debate or discussion on the particular issue. I am no expert on the documents and procedures of the Second Vatican Council, but from what I have read, the documents nowhere mandate or even suggest that there should be (or even could be) an episcopal ruling that mandates versus populum celebration of the Mass. Indeed, the rubrics of the Novus Ordo assume that the Mass is being celebrated ad orientem. One draws this conclusion because the rubrics call for the priest at the “Pray Brothers and Sisters…”the invitation to the Kiss of Peace and the “Behold the Lamb of God” to “face the people.” Why would he be required to “face the people” at those points unless he were already not facing the people? It seems at least probable that it was assumed that the Novus Ordo would be celebrated in the traditional manner with the priest praying in the same direction of the people. So why fix it if it ain’t broke?
It will be said, I suppose, that ad orientem is now unusual and that virtually all Novus Ordo Masses are said with the priest facing the people, but is this an argument in favor? It sounds to me like nothing more than peer pressure. “All the other kids are doing it!!!” Apparently celebrating the Mass facing the people “just happened.” Nobody mandated it. It simply became the new norm and now everybody does it so it must be right. Right?
As an ordinary parish priest it would be interesting to read a defense of celebrating the Mass facing the people. There are certainly good arguments put forward in defense of ad orientem celebration. Fr Uwe Michael Lang’s Turning Toward the Lord offers historical, theological, Scriptural and liturgical arguments in favor.
I would be interested to know if there is a solid defense somewhere for Mass facing the people. What are the advantages? What are the historical precedents? How does the priest facing the people increase reverence? How does it help the people focus on God? How does it help the priest focus on God instead of himself? How does it help to promote the realization that Mass is a sacrifice of praise offered to God by the priest with and for his people? Does the priest facing the people help them pray? How so?
Is there a solid, academic, theological defense of versus populum celebration or is it just, “everybody does it so we should too” or even worse, “I’m the bishop and I said you should do it so there…and by the way we’re all opposed to clericalism right?”
There are a couple of official defenses for versus populism that I know of, though there may be others.
One is from the 1964 document Inter Oecumenici. Paragraph 91 says, “The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people.” So it seems that Mass facing the people was begun before the Council was even finished.
The other is the GIRM paragraph 299 which says, “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible.”