Focus of Mass should revert to divine worship of Christ

Father John A. Kiley

Bishop Edward Slattery, of Tulsa, Okla., has decided to celebrate Mass at the diocesan cathedral "ad orientem," i.e., facing the altar at the head of the people toward God in the distance in an effort to recapture a "more authentic" Catholic worship.

The prelate added that for centuries, "everyone — celebrant and congregation — faced the same direction, since they were united with Christ in offering to the Father Christ's unique, unrepeatable and acceptable sacrifice."

The bishop observed that this collective position emphasizes the nature of the Mass as an act of worship shared by the priest and the congregation.

The bishop suggested that Mass with the celebrant facing the people lessened this sense of divine worship and compared the priest behind the altar to a teacher behind a desk.

Thus, the new Mass seems to emphasize dialogue over worship, sharing over praying, friendship over sonship.

His Excellency is quite correct in emphasizing the worship of the Father as the primary focus of the Mass. The renewal of Christ’s original worship of his Father on Calvary offered by the priest with the people is the primary action of the Mass.

Catechetical elements during the service of the Word and communal components during the service of the bread must never compromise the orientation of the assembled faithful toward the Father.

The Mass is not chiefly a learning experience nor is it primarily a fellowship event.

The truly authentic Mass abounds with divine worship.

The fashionable trend toward the Tridentine Mass might owe some of its popularity to its almost exclusive emphasis on worship over dialogue and fellowship.

Nonetheless, Bishop Slattery’s turning his back toward his people in order better to face his God reflects a pre-Christian style of worship.

In fact, it indicates a profoundly non-Christian manner of worship.

Thanks to the Incarnation, God is no longer found out there, in the middle distance, just beyond the horizon, east or west.

After the Incarnation, God has become the “beyond in our midst,” as Anglican Bishop Robinson so memorably wrote.

In the light of the Incarnation, God reveals himself through the man Christ, through Christ’s church, through Christ’s sacraments, and, yes, through the Christian community.

God is here, not just hereafter. Through Christ, religion has become very earthy, very material and very human.

Acknowledging the Incarnation, the contemporary congregation rightly focuses its attention on the sacred elements of Christ’s body and blood made visibly present on a central altar.

Through the effective words and elevating gestures of the priest, the congregation gathered before the altar can offer these sacred elements to God who is present there among them just as truly as he is out there beyond them.

Thus Mass facing the people powerfully encourages the worship of God through the fundamental elements of Christ’s body and blood, graphically displayed and compellingly central on the altar.

Honoring God out there or up there in heaven ignores the Incarnation.

Honoring God at the heart of the community celebrates the Incarnation.

One major error committed by many, perhaps most, priestly celebrants since the Second Vatican Council is the practice of addressing the eucharistic prayer, i.e., the Canon of the Mass, to the people instead of to God.

The Canon is clearly addressed to God — “We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving. .... Father, you are holy indeed and all creation rightly gives you praise. … Father, we acknowledge your greatness. …” Yet, celebrants insist on making a lot of eye contact with the people as they offer these prayers.

It is little wonder that the people and some bishops still think of God as being “out there” when celebrants fail to reflect the presence of God enveloping them at the altar.

Celebrants are intent to make indulgent gestures toward parishioners in the pews instead of radiating spiritual contact with God in whose presence they stand in the midst of the assembly.

Even the obvious paternal orientation of the “Our Father” is compromised by hand holding and other shared signs.

Neither prelates nor priests nor people should routinely turn their backs on restoring the presence of God the Father to his proper place around the altar.