“Ask a Priest: Why Is the Direction the Priest Faces at Mass Such an Issue?”

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Q: During Lent our priest is offering daily Masses facing the tabernacle (during the Liturgy of the Eucharist). I understand that this was the common method prior to Vatican II. I have seen online that lay people often feel very strongly about it one way or the other. Can you explain to me why this would be controversial to people? Thank you! – Christina

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: It’s unfortunate that something that is meant to unify us — the Mass — has become a source of division in some areas.

Let’s attempt a short answer to your question.

Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the Mass was celebrated ad orientem (“toward the east”). In practice this meant that the priest and the congregation faced in the same direction.

The east was where the sun rose, and the sun was sometimes an image for Christ, who rose from the dead and who brought light into the world.

Vatican II called for some adjustments to the Mass, such as more use of vernacular languages, a wider variety of biblical readings (especially from the Old Testament), and more active participation on the part of the congregation.

Vatican II never explicitly called for the priest to face the congregation. This custom crept in for various reasons. Suffice it to say that eventually it became the norm for priests to face the congregation.

Some people found that this change made the Mass “warmer” because the priest and people could see one another.

It also had its disadvantages, in that some priests started to celebrate the Mass as a kind of performance. The personality of a priest sometimes become too much a center of gravity, rather than Christ and the act of worship being carried out.

Put another way, the Mass could be perceived as more human-centered than God-centered. Mass could seem like an enclosed circle rather than a transcendent action that lifts the spirits of everyone beyond the physical confines of the church.

Some people, tired of the “performances” and of liturgical abuses, saw the ad orientem approach as a way to help recover the solemnity and dignity of the “old days.”

This is partly what led Pope Benedict XVI to allow for wider use of the traditional Latin Mass, even as he himself continued to celebrate the Novus Ordo Mass, which is what most people attend.

The Novus Ordo is also celebrated in Latin and could, in principle, be celebrated ad orientem.

In recent years, the ad orientem approach has generated some intense loyalty and opposition, for various reasons — hence the disputes.

Moreover, some bishops have banned or limited the ad orientem Masses. So, the differences go on.

I hope some of this helps. Let’s pray for more unity in the Church.


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  1. Facing the altar, the priest leads the congregation in prayer. Facing the people can place undue emphasis on the congregation, taking the focus off of God and placing it on the people when the Mass is supposed to be about offering thanks and prayer to God with Him being the sole focus.

  2. I also don’t understand why this is such a source of division. It seems there are many who think “their way” is clearly the best and woe to those that think otherwise.

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