Vatican liturgy chief calls for a return to Mass facing the east

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PROVIDENCE — In a recent interview with French Catholic magazine Famille Chrétienne, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, encouraged priests to return to the practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem, or “toward the east,” with the priest and the people facing the same direction during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The comments, as reported and translated by Catholic Herald of London, call for a return to a liturgical tradition practiced since the early days of the Church, as well as another look at the intention of the texts released following the Second Vatican Council.

“The Council Fathers wished to emphasize the need for all to enter into participation of the mystery celebrated. In the years since Vatican II, the Church has sought ways to implement this intuition,” Cardinal Sarah told Famille Chrétienne.

Following the Second Vatican Council, many churches abandoned the practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem in favor of the contemporary practice of celebrating Mass with the priest facing the people, which was seen as more participatory. However, according to Cardinal Sarah, the documents of the council did not require this change, nor does the practice necessarily adhere to the spirit of the Council Fathers.

“Celebrating [Mass] facing the people has become a possibility, but not an obligation,” said Cardinal Sarah. “The Liturgy of the Word warrants face-to-face reader and listeners, dialogue and education between the priest and his people. But as soon as we reach the moment when one turns to God — from the offertory — it is essential that the priest and faithful look together towards the east. This corresponds exactly to what the Council Fathers wanted.”

According to Cardinal Sarah, communities that only ever experience the celebration of the Eucharist facing inward toward each other risk losing sight of the true orientation of the sacrament and placing their own needs, rather than God, at the center of the liturgy.

“The liturgy is the door to our union with God,” he said. “If the Eucharistic celebrations themselves turn into human self-celebrations, the danger is immense, for God disappears. We must begin with putting God at the center of the liturgy.”

Cardinal Sarah also referred to an article he wrote last summer for the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano in which he offered guidelines for priests wishing to celebrate Mass ad orientem and suggested that the practice could be “implemented in cathedrals, where the liturgical life must be exemplary.”

Within the Diocese of Providence, the vast majority of parishes follow the common contemporary practice of celebrating Mass with the priest facing the people. However, a few have retained or re-instituted the practice of celebrating Mass ad orientem, where the priest turns during the Liturgy of the Eucharist so that the people and priest face a common direction. Among these is Church of the Holy Ghost, Tiverton, where Pastor Father Jay Finelli re-instituted the practice three years ago.

“We’re worshipping with the people in a common orientation,” he said. “We’re going toward the Lord.”

Initial reactions to the changes at Holy Ghost were mixed, but Father Finelli said parishioners have come to enjoy the practice. More importantly, he said, returning to their liturgical roots has benefitted the parish spiritually.

“In the beginning a few people had difficulties,” he said. “But now it seems to have led to a — how can I express this — a deep spirituality. There’s more of a reverence, there’s more of a prayerfulness on behalf of the whole congregation.”

Father Finelli said the practice is also beneficial for priests, who are reminded of their role in the liturgy by facing God as the people do.

“It shows us that we, the priests, aren’t the focus,” he said. “We’re not important. We’re just a vessel of the Lord being used by him for the people.”

Though he said he thinks the celebration of the liturgy ad orientem could be practiced in any parish, Father Finelli advised priests considering it to thoroughly teach the meaning behind the practice before instituting any changes. He believes that much of the discomfort with changes following the Second Vatican Council as well as discomfort with the return of pre-Vatican II practices in recent years stem from a lack of education.

“After the Second Vatican Council, there was no discussion and it caused a lot of anger, pain and hurt,” he said. “But if we teach the people as we should — why are we doing this, why is this important — of course some might not like it in the beginning, but eventually I think it really sinks in.”

Father Jeremy Rodrigues, director of the Office of Divine Worship, encouraged priests considering altering their liturgical practices to think about how best to convey the theological reality of the priest and the people walking together toward God during the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

“No matter where the priest stands at the altar, theologically we believe we are always walking toward God,” said Father Rodrigues. “How that’s expressed by the way the priest stands should also be expressed by the way the priest prays.”

Father Rodrigues did not name one practice as better than the other, but he encouraged priests and parishioners of the diocese to be open to learning the theology behind their liturgical practices and worshipping in ways that emphasize these theological truths.

“I think it’s important that pastors consider liturgically if the people understand we are working toward God. It shouldn’t be seen as the priest having his back to the people,” he said, adding that both practices are rooted in tradition but emphasize different aspects of the theology.

“The question should be had, are we capturing this theological truth expressed in the way we pray and the way we worship? If that reality’s being expressed by the priest on one side of the altar than the other, so be it.”

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