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.
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.
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.