What do they fear in facing East?

Meetings today, meetings tomorrow. The summary of the key teachings of Sacra Liturgia 2016 will have to wait another day. In the meantime it is hard not to wonder at the muted panic that seems to be spreading in some quarters at the prospect of a resurgence in ad orientem worship. Why such a need to stamp it out so quickly? What do they fear in facing God?

Are they afraid that people, having experienced ad orientem in their own churches might discover that it works far better for worship? Are they afraid people would come to love it, and prefer it? If so, why should that bother them? If it meant a more committed and satisfied congregation, that should surely be greeted with cheers. If it came to pass that the congregations increased in number, then surely we should dance for joy (non-liturgically!).

There are indications that this is not the deeper fear. The fact the Fr Lombardi quite incongruously introduced the topic of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass when “clarifying” Cardinal Sarah’s call to ad orientem suggests, to me at least, that this is their real fear. For them, facing east is inextricably associated with the old Mass. If people come to love their priest join them in facing God at the altar, they might also begin to look to the old Mass themselves. And maybe they might come to love it as well. Is this what they fear?

Is this also why Fr Lombardi felt the need to pour cold water (or was it acid?) on the very phrase “reform of the reform”? Would this, too, be a potential pathway to instilling anew a love of the old Mass?

If this suspicion is correct then there appear a few consequent points to consider.

  1. If people came to love the old Mass, then it is very odd that certain authorities would want to deny them that which would get them into church, bring them spiritual nourishment and increase their ecclesial participation. These things are all desirable in themselves, that is beyond question. So it must be the means to this end (this new evangelisation) they dislike. Why? Is it because the great project of post-conciliar reform as enacted (though not as mandated by the Council itself), and to which so many have committed themselves so wholeheartedly, might be found to have failed? If so, then advocacy of reform of the reform must be pursued with firm vigour but distinct and consistent charity towards those who find it too challenging. Dr Stephen Bullivant’s paper showed that according to the measure the Council Fathers determined for the proposed liturgical reform, that reform as implemented has failed. That will be a tough pill to swallow for many, if they even try to swallow it.
  2. If this is true, and the expansion of the Extraordinary Form is the ultimate fear for these people, then surely they should count their losses, as it were, and give some ground to the reform of the reform. Perhaps the new reformers can make the new Mass work far better as worship, and bring people back to church. Ad orientem would be intrinsic to this reform. If they can effect a new Mass that people can actually love and come to, then this would surely dampen the cause of the Extraordinary Form. I have argued before that the Order of Mass (not properly a Missal as such) from 1964/65 is the closest thing to a Mass that matches the Council’s document, then surely that should be given a chance again. The fearful could then console themselves that, if it worked, their commitment to Vatican II will not have been in vain.
  3. Of course, if their deepest fear is that even the reform of the reform might not work sufficient magic on the new Mass, then the conclusion for many might be that there is no hope for the new Mass at all. The reform of the reform, and facing east in particular, will have only served to show definitively the inadequacy of the new Mass, and lead to the inescapable conclusion that the only was forward is a restoration of the pre-conciliar liturgy. Is it 1962 they really fear?
  4. In comment on a previous blog post Mark pointed out that among his friends, formed totally in the context of the post-conciliar reforms and having known nothing else, there are some who reject outright the idea of a return to the pre-conciliar liturgy and find the debate about liturgical orientation and reforming the reform to be arcane at best, even irrelevant in a world in which so many suffer poverty and violence: is this abstruse argumentation merely fiddling while the world burns? they ask.Coinciding with the crisis of liturgy has been a crisis of catechesis. It is not unfair to say that there are Catholics who know no better than the paltry fare they have been served up under the label of haute cuisine (or to apply Fr Cullinan’s image, those who have been only ever been served gruel presented as luxury). These people will need a gentle and patient re-catechesis if they are to have their eyes opened to the light. The fearful will rely on them being kept content with whatever they have been served up.

None of the above is presented as gospel or divinely-inspired revelation. They are an attempt to understand why facing east, and the reform of the reform in general, have generated such a knee-jerk reaction and made reactionaries out of liberals. It is really most intriguing.

Good night.

An object of fear?


14 thoughts on “What do they fear in facing East?

  1. Perhaps their fear is a resurgence in the Church…which they have placidly allowed to decline with the watered-down celebrations. Perhaps that has been their intention? We are told there are enemies within…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is simply that the Novus Ordo celebrated versus populum represents the mental construct that the Council truly was a revolution, or rupture, in Benedict XVI’s phrase, while ad orientem celebration, associated as it has been with the Usus Antiquior, represents the counter revolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your posts on this topic, Father. I’m very pleaded to hear your blog traffic has been on the increase because what you are contribiting to this topic is highly valuable. So thank you. It is indeed extremely intriguing, although not in the slightest bit surprising, that there should be such a reaction, including by prelates no less. I think you are absolutely right about the need for catechesis to open hearts and minds when it comes to the fearful in the pews but, on the part of the likes of those such as Cardinal Nichols, I wonder whether, aside from it challenging their deep seated ideologies, the risk of a significant drop in income from Sunday collections also plays a part in this bizarre reaction? Looking forward to reading your further comments on this and more! God bless you.


  3. Could the key be the re-catechesis of Catholics to understand the Mass is primarily a Sacrifice? Because an argument I’ve heard against facing east is that Jesus faced His disciples around the table at the Last Supper – so the communion meal aspect seems to be their primary understanding. And the Reformed one.

    I arrive in the holy Catholic church to find it has recently given in to the very Protestants I had got away from. Without firing a shot.


  4. Dear Hugh
    I have followed your reports on sacra liturgia with some interest, and note some interesting contributions but am provoked by your latest headline. Attitudes to ad orientem are not a question of fear, but this is a suddenly announced u turn in teaching during the conference of a group with a particular view of liturgical development and the Council’s teaching, and, I would say, giving a somewhat triumphalist impression over the progress being made. I am expecting to write something about all this myself while I have the time recuperating at Ampleforth. Sounds all too like sofa government to me. Cardinal Sarah seems to be a notable man, emerging from a poor background in the evil Sekou Toure’s Guinea. Certainly there has been excess – ladies in leotards doing liturgical dance at Mass in one famous Austrian monastery; and priests disobeying the Council, doing their own thing. When I returned to authorised liturgical practice over a number of things at Easingwold, there was a shrugging of shoulders and I was told I was just another priest and the next would do something else different. I explained that I hoped we would all act as the Church does. The important thing now is that Summorum Pontificum is meant to be a two-way street, something so called “traddies” do not recognise, and I think it is significant that Pope Benedict did not repeat there his remarks in his book about Ad ORIENTEM.

    Since then, we have raised £100,000 for a much needed restoration of our 1831 church. I consulted about re-use of the late 19th century high altar, which was, like a number of things, a heavy modification of a simple early English style church, perhaps the first built in N yorks after Emancipation. There was absolutely no interest, and I would have had to impose such a change. It would have been vandalism to remove it. I won’t describe in detail what we have done, but the restoration has been enthusiastically received, especially a newly insulated roof, and a wonderfully stencilled ceiling – and a permanent stone nave altar. I see the point of Ad ORIENTEM, though actually, oddly, for economy I think, our church is tacked on to the north wall of the PRIORY, and the morning sun streams through nave windows. Anyway there is another way of looking at it. A permanent stone altar emphasises the sacrifice of The MASS, but the altar of sacrifice is also, in the teaching of the Council the place where we have Communion in the Sacrifice. The priest is not some kind of cheer leader for the congregation as he faces versus populum; both he and they are focussed on the body and blood, and if he raises his eyes it is to heaven, not as in the homily on the people. He speaks for the people when he says We offer – but it is at that point their priestly role, of all the baptised, is exercised.

    My study in doing all this depended of course on GIRM, and on the excellent guides of our own bishops, especially on Consecrated for Worship, and on the celebration of Mass.

    In any case, I do not think liturgical excess accounts for emptying churches. For that we have to look at the secularisation of t he age, and above all the relativism, the subjectivism, of which POPE Benedict has spoken so well. All these poor people who are spiritual but not religious.

    As ever



    1. Fr Leo,


      In the main I suspect that we agree on the principal things, if not most things. Yet I would have to stick to my guns, even in light of the points you make.

      Of course many, maybe most, Catholics will not be champing at the bit for the eastward position, because they have never experienced it. It is hard to be mad keen on something you have no experience of. I grew up precisely with the formation that held that facing east and Latin in the Mass were abolished except in a few exceptional (and suspect!) places. It was a given. Yet once I had experienced it I knew I had found a treasure that had been lost to most of us, and the antidote to so many priestly abuses and impositions.

      It is interesting that where I have offered or still offer Mass facing east, at Winchester College or Benedict XVI House at St Mary’s Twickenham it was received without any negativity and indeed with positivity. When I offered Mass ad orientem at Douai for All Saints on a Sunday 2 years ago, the people were very appreciative (some monks not so, and therein lies half the story throughout the Church). I preached on it, of course, and so they were prepared to look for the aspects I alerted them to, and finding them, liked them. One lady came up who felt caught by surprise, but not unpleasantly so; she needed to reflect on the experience. Until then she had had nothing to reflect on!

      Also, I do not see this in any way as a u-turn. What I (and others) have been at pains to demonstrate clearly is that facing east at the altar is actually assumed by the Missal’s rubrics, which are conveniently ignored. Communion in the hand was a time-limited experimental concession never formally prolonged and now made nearly universal. The banishment of Latin was against the express wish of the Council. Young people today have been forced in part by the drivel they too often find in many churches to seek out what there must have been that made the Mass worth dying for after the Reformation. With regard to the common eastward position, so many have found it uplifting especially if they have not been poisoned against it. A u-turn, no; a return to the rubrics, yes.

      A prudent course would be for parishes to introduce one Mass of a Sunday ad orientem, with catechesis, and see how it goes over say 6-12 months. My money is on people finding it a real boon and improvement, as long as the clergy do not subtly poison them against it by half-measures and subtle insinuations. People will choose soon enough. Young people in large numbers are showing themselves attracted to tradition where it is vigorously and healthily presented to them.

      The priest as cheerleader is a caricature and I think you can do better than that. The altar is the place of sacrifice clearly (and how a sense of the sacrifice has been lost these last 50 years or more). That it is the place of communion is not so clearly asserted. Communion in the sacrificial meat did not take place at the Temple altar to the best of my knowledge, though I will need to do some digging on that. What is clear in our tradition is that from the primitive Church onwards the concept of sacrifice was the dominant understanding of the Eucharist. It was even called “the Sacrifice” for short. The meal aspect is functional and secondary. When the meal came to be exalted it was by protestants keen to remove any concept of sacrifice from the Eucharist. So it became not the representation of the Cross but a replication of the Last Supper. This is not a return to the early Church’s understanding at all; far from it.

      As as had been amply demonstrated these last few days the English translation of GIRM is highly deficient, suspiciously so. The French translation on the matter of the altar and versus populum celebration (#299) is crystal clear. We need a new translation of GIRM.

      Lastly, while I agree that it would be simplistic to reduce the decline in the practice of the faith to the liturgical changes, it is just as simplistic to shrug our shoulders and blame secularism, relativism and subjectivism. Or rather, we can blame these especially since they are precisely what have scarred the liturgy of the last 5o years. When secularism et al are strong there will soon be a quiet yet strengthening desire to experience the transcendent and the eternal. It is in the new liturgical movement’s restoration of these qualities to the liturgy that we find young people, and not so young, flocking to drink it in. It is from them we find our vocations. This must tell us something if we are paying attention.

      So I cannot but wonder at why there is so much resistance to allowing the traditional option some space. If it is not of God, it will fail. If it is of God, it will prosper, and who are we to stand in its way? The post-conciliar reforms, intended above all to include the faithful more and more yet so unfaithful to the Council’s express wishes, suffer badly if judged by their fruits. This is the source of the fear.

      If it is of God, what is there to fear but our opposing it?

      Peace to you, and all blessings on you and your parish.



  5. Surely, Fr Hugh, celebration ad orientientem was never either mandated or proscribed even by Vatican 2? As with many parts of the Council papers it was misread (intentionally) by those with an axe to grind. One of my favourite sayings is “if it ain’t broken don’t fix it” but whilst (IMHO) the pre Vatican 2 was not broken some decided (although it wasn’t broken) to break it. I fear that no-one has come up with a sensible reason for the changes & the state of the Church presently re numbers of priests & people tends to support this. Whilst it is impossible to prove that the Church (sizewise) has gone down as a result of Vatican 2 it is surely an almost unbelievable coincidence that that is when the ‘rot’ set in. Convince me otherwise!!!


    1. Hi David. See my reply to Fr Leo’s detailed comment above (or is it below?!).

      In brief, ad orientem was never proscribed, and, as I am at pains to point out, has remained the normative position if one reads the rubrics honestly. Which is why I feel it quite wrong of those who speak of Cardinal Sarah turing the clock back etc. He is actually arguing for the normative position to be allowed at the privilege of being an accessible option!



  6. Hi Father, glad my comment was of use to the discussion. I often see a ‘return of ad orientam/Latin/chant/incense…’ trumpeted because “it’s what the youth want.” That may be true in some cases (like mine), but most of my peers, who are faithful, Mass-going, Rosary- praying, pro-life Catholics, are certainly not clamouring for these things. Those of us who have left Plato’s Cave and seen what reality could/shod be like have a hard time describing it to those who never left the cave – and my generation was born and raised in that cave, so it’s doubly difficult.


    1. Which is why if every church would offer at least one Mass ad orientem, the uninitiated young (and older) could see and hear, and learn to love a liturgical treasure that nourished the Church for 1900-odd years.


  7. Pingback: AD ORIENTEM »

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