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Oct 4, 2019

The Case for Ad Orientem

Nicholas LaBanca

When referring to liturgical life, particularly the Holy Mass, the Church’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, emphatically affirms the primacy of such actions in the Christian life. It states:

“Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations … [E]very liturgical celebration, because it is an action of Christ the priest and of His Body which is the Church, is a sacred action surpassing all others; no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy by the same title and to the same degree.”

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It’s no surprise then that our fellow brothers and sisters can get pretty heated up regarding things liturgical. This summer, you may recall a certain liturgical discussion brought to focus again for many Catholics, stemming from a letter promulgated by Bishop James S. Wall, the bishop of Gallup, New Mexico. In his letter, he encouraged his priests to begin (or continue) celebrating Mass ad orientem, which means “to the East”, with the priest facing the altar and same direction of the congregation. 

Rich Patrimony

Just as many Catholics read the words of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, on the subject a few years earlier as “controversial”, so, too, did things get heated up when Bishop Wall released his letter this year.

For me, as a millennial and a descendent of Ukrainian-Greek Catholics, I’ve never honestly understood the reasons why such affirmations of the universal Church’s liturgical traditions produce everything from confusion and mild hysteria, to outright vitriol directed at anyone who would support such exhortations from the hierarchy and laity alike.

The hullaballoo which surrounds the issue is typically very hyperbolic, especially in light of the thousands of years old tradition that spans to the Church’s infancy and beyond into Old Testament times with ancient Jewish temple worship. But for many Catholics in the West today, ad orientem worship is a rarity, if even on the radar at all. Why then, is it such a big deal? By delving into the rich patrimony of both the Western and Eastern lungs of the Church, we will find answers as well as a greater appreciation of the Catholic Faith that has been handed down to us. 

Something that Has Always Been

I never lived through the so-called Liturgy wars which happened immediately after the Second Vatican Council. My grandmother would always shudder remembering that time which saw many abuses in the Mass, with a false spirit of the Council superseding what was actually called for and expected in the Liturgy (see Sacramentum Caritatis 3, 54).

Confusion seemed to reign for a time, and while it can be said we are feeling the after effects of such confusion in our present day, Pope Benedict XVI was clear that these difficulties “cannot overshadow the benefits and the validity of the liturgical renewal”.

It then follows that, for the Christian, a renewal does not include an indiscriminate denial of tradition. As Pope Francis recently noted:

“To be modern, some believe that it is necessary to break away from the roots. And this is their ruin, because the roots, the tradition, are the guarantee of the future.”

It’s striking to observe, then, that others of my grandparents’ and parents’ generations, who would not shudder remembering the same things my grandmother detailed to me, become very concerned when people like Bishop Wall wanted to reaffirm a universal tradition of the Church. As we will see in a moment, worshipping toward the East is something that goes back to the beginning of the Church. “Celebration of Mass ad orientem”, says Bishop Wall, “is not a form of antiquarianism, i.e. choosing to do something because it is old, but rather choosing to do something that has always been.”

East and West Tradition

Secondly, I mentioned that my family (on my mother’s side) is Ukrainian-Greek Catholic. This means they are not of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, but worship according to the Byzantine Rite. The Byzantine Rite is a liturgical expression used by many of the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Growing up with “both lungs” of the Church, East and West, it’s hard for me to see how exhortations such as Bishop Wall’s (or Cardinal Sarah’s) can be seen as controversial. If you walk into, say, a Ukrainian Catholic or Melkite Catholic parish on Sunday, you will see the priest facing the congregation only at three points: the reading of the Gospel, when he turns to bless the people with the Sign of the Cross, and when he distributes Holy Communion. 

The only way Catholics of the Byzantine Rite worship during the sacred liturgy is ad orientem, toward the Lord who comes to the altar! This is why I can’t but help find it bewildering that a number of Latin Catholics become uneasy when their brothers and sisters desire a renewal of such a beautiful tradition shared by both the Christian East and West.

Historic Foundation

If someone is against this tradition in the Latin Rite, does this carry over to the Byzantine Rite? Why or why not? I asked one Byzantine Catholic priest his thoughts on this, and he replied;

“That’s a good question to back them into a corner. Because if they say yes, then that’s prejudice, discrimination, that’s arrogance. That’s elitism; that we [Eastern Catholics] are wrong somehow. They stand on absolutely no historical foundation whatsoever.”

One might then ask the question, what historical foundation do prelates like Bishop Wall stand on?

A Matter of What Is Essential

We must be clear here that facing ad orientem during Mass does not entail a wholesale return to the Tridentine Latin Mass. This was normative prior to the Second Vatican Council, and is now known as the Extraordinary Form. Such a posture of prayer can certainly take place in the Ordinary Form of the Mass in the Latin Rite as well. A good example of this was observed at Mother Angelica’s funeral a few years back, where the Mass was said ad orientem, in the vernacular, in the Ordinary Form, and with some Latin interspersed throughout the Liturgy, as called for by the various documents of the Second Vatican Council. 

As for the historical context of ad orientem worship (and remembering Bishop Wall’s words that it is “not some form of ‘antiquarianism’, but rather, “something that has always been”), we can look to the wise words of Pope Benedict XVI, before diving more deeply into the Old Testament traditions and Church Fathers. In his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, Pope Benedict states (emphasis mine):

“a common turning to the East during the Eucharistic Prayer remains essential. This is not a case of something accidental, but of what is essential. Looking at the priest has no importance. What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue, but of common worship, of setting off towards the One who is to come. What corresponds with the reality of what is happening is not the closed circle, but the common movement forward expressed in a common direction for prayer.”

‘Back to the Congregation’

To paraphrase one archdiocesan priest I know who regularly celebrates Mass ad orientem:

“It just feels better. I can focus more on God.”

The priest, in the person of Christ, leads us to God the Father. Our focus is squarely on our Lord during the Eucharistic Prayer. This is “essential”. Is it any surprise that a priest would like his focus to be squarely on our Lord, too?

Many critics of ad orientem worship will pejoratively state that “the priest has his back to the congregation”. This completely misses the point. We are praying together, toward the Lord who comes. Think of how it works during Eucharistic Adoration and benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. In most parishes, the priest faces the same direction as the people, particularly during the Divine Praises. Similarly, many parishes pray the St. Michael the Archangel prayer together immediately after Mass. I have noticed (and I’m sure you have, too) that many priests and deacons will turn around, putting their backs toward the people, for the duration of this prayer.

Origins Preceding Origen

Again, no priest’s back is to you any more than the back of the person in the pew directly in front of you is. All members of the Body of Christ join together in ad orientem worship to make that common movement forward. This is not, as Pope Benedict later says, “a romantic escape into antiquity, but a rediscovery of something essential, in which Christian liturgy expresses its permanent orientation.”

Now as was noted above, not only does the Christian Liturgy express itself in this way, but so does the liturgy of the Jewish people in the Old Testament.

In a very eye-opening essay entitled “The Nuptial Meaning of Classic Church Architecture” by Dr. Helen Ratner Dietz, she observes the following:

“The practice of the Christian priest’s facing east when offering the Eucharist, one may surmise, bears some relationship to the early Christian understanding of the Epistle to the Hebrews in which Jesus is likened to the Jerusalem Temple high priest….

… the Christian liturgical practice of facing East … was already a longstanding practice at the time Origen wrote and some scholars trace it back to the early second century. The practice could conceivably have been adopted before AD 70 … when the Christian Eucharist was presumably still celebrated in private homes.”

Unwritten Tradition

The high priests of the Old Testament would enter the “Holy of Holies”, analogous now to the sanctuary in our churches, and would face the tabernacle containing the Presence of the Lord.

With the adoption of this practice in the early Church, it’s clear that such an orientation did not come out of the blue, but from the roots of Jewish tradition. (For more on this connection between the Temple and the Church, you can follow this link.) But the deeper theological reasoning for a common orientation of both priest and congregation is both captivating and voluminous. When looking to the witness of the Church Fathers, there is no better place to start than with St. John Damascene, a Doctor of the Church, in his Exposition of Faith:

“It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East … Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West.

“So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon, the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him.

“And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said, As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.

“So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.”

Delivered in a Mystery

Indeed, as Pope Benedict recognized, facing East for prayer and worship is not accidental in the slightest. There is much to be gained from diving into each Scriptural reference St. John mentions here. It is also imperative to understand the importance of the apostolic tradition. St. John mentions how this tradition is “unwritten”. As Catholics, we believe that Sacred Tradition, while distinct from Scripture, is very closely connected. As our faith is transmitted through Sacred Scripture, so, too, is it through Sacred Tradition (see CCC 78). St. Basil the Great, another Doctor of the Church, expounds on these two forms of teaching, (emphases mine): 

“Of the beliefs and practices whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined which are preserved in the Church some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force…

“For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals… For instance… who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? For we are not, as is well known, content with what [St. Paul] or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching.”

Focus on God

We as Catholics do not need to fear our traditions. While it is perfectly acceptable and valid to have Mass said versus populum, or toward the people, we do have to admit that such a practice is still relatively novel. We have a rich liturgical patrimony, in both the Latin Rite and Byzantine Rite.

As we can see, ad orientem worship is not something just for Eastern Catholics, but for all Catholics. This common orientation helps us to turn our focus back to God. As our Lord Jesus tells us:

“For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.”

Matthew 24:27

We turn our faces toward him in hopeful expectation.

It is my own hope that we all can take the opportunity to get more in touch with the Church’s traditions and liturgical practices, because they are certainly something to be retained and cherished, instead of derided. Facing toward the East during Mass, whether it be in the Ordinary Form, Extraordinary Form, or the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, is one of those holy traditions filled with deep meaning and significance.

How We Pray Reflects What We Believe

There’s an old saying in the life of the Church: “Lex orandi, lex credendi”. This means, “The law of prayer is the law of faith”. The Church believes as she prays. St. Augustine sums this up in our present context:

“When we rise to pray, we turn East, where heaven begins. And we do this not because God is there, as if He had moved away from the other directions on earth…, but rather to help us remember to turn our mind towards a higher order, that is, to God.”

Liturgy is a constitutive element of the holy and living Tradition (CCC 1124). Bishop Wall’s (as well as Cardinal Sarah’s) encouragement is just that; an encouragement to come to a deeper faith through the traditions of our ancestors who went before us in the love of Christ.

If you haven’t had the chance to experience the Mass in this way, perhaps not in a long time or ever before, consider visiting a parish that worships ad orientem. Consider even dropping by a Ukrainian Catholic parish for the Divine Liturgy. Instead of thinking the Church wants to impose a supposedly outdated practice upon us again, we should consider that we can learn from these traditions, and—understanding such things better—grow in holiness.


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Nicholas LaBanca is a cradle Catholic and hopes to give a unique perspective on living life in the Catholic Church as a millennial. His favorite saints include his patron St. Nicholas, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Mary Vianney, and St. Athanasius of Alexandria.


CORRECTION: This article originally made the mistake of mentioning that the Diocese of Gallup is in Texas, when the diocese actually straddles New Mexico and Arizona. This was a mistake by the editor and not the writer. The Ascension Blog regrets the error.

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