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Eucharistic orientation according to Vatican II: A response to Dr. Staudt’s ad orientem column

By Father Felix P. Medina-Algaba
Pastor of Queen of Peace Catholic Parish, Aurora, Colorado

After reading Dr. Jared Staudt’s article “Why is Ad Orientem worship so controversial?” which appeared on this site on January 26, 2023, I more clearly understand “the necessity of an authentic liturgical formation” at all levels of the Catholic Church recently emphasized by Pope Francis.1 I agree with Staudt when he says that the practice of having the priest face the East (ad orientem) during Mass, with the altar touching the wall, arises “controversy” among the faithful. He wonders why it is so. Catholics could accept that, under certain cultural and historical circumstances, having everyone facing the same direction might be the only possible orientation that helped the assembly draw nearer to Christ during Mass. In this brief article, I point out why today’s Catholics should not accept Staudt’s arguments and reasons for such a re-orientation of the Eucharist.

First, stating that the Eucharistic orientation “until the 1960’s” was ad orientem (“throughout the entire history of Catholic worship”) is simply historically inaccurate. Staudt claims that “services facing the people arose during the Reformation,” but the “ancient” practice of the Church is ad orientem. Our Catholic Mass has not evolved from the Reformation, but from Christ’s “breaking of the bread” (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7) at “the table” (Mt 26:20; Mk 14:18; Lk 22:14. 21) used at the Last Supper. Most historians agree that “we do not know much about the specific details of the earliest eucharistic celebrations.”2 The available historical evidence on this important aspect of the liturgy is very fragmentary and does not show one single Eucharistic orientation in the Early Church. Theodor Klauser maintains that in the ancient Roman basilicas priests always celebrated “from behind the altar, facing the people.”3 Andreas Jungmann claims that the oldest Roman basilicas (St. Peter’s, the Lateran and St. Mary Major basilicas) were built with the apse towards the West, so that the priest may face the altar and pray the Eucharistic prayer ad orientem (facing the people) at the same time. However, due to the growing devotion to the rising sun-Christ cult, that eventually meant that the faithful turned away from the altar during the Eucharistic prayer. Given the centrality of the altar for the Early Church, by the fourth century, we witness the building of churches “with the apse towards the East, in accordance with what became general custom later on,”4 that is, everyone faced the eastward apse. Robin M. Jensen however describes many archeological examples of North African basilicas of the fourth and fifth centuries where the altar was in the main nave (in some cases at the center of the building).5 Joseph Ratzinger and Uwe M. Lang lay emphasis on St. Augustine’s charge “turn towards the Lord” at the end of three of his sermons, as an invitation to the assembly to physically face East for the Eucharistic prayer.6 But Jensen doubts such an interpretation, since it would mean that the faithful turned “nearly 135 degrees in a clockwise direction to face the right rear corner of the church building,” and argues for a turning “toward a symbolic or ‘liturgical east,’ “people should turn their hearts to the Lord and away from worldly things.”7 By the end of the seventh century, clear evidence of a more generalized ad orientem worship can be seen in the Ordo Romanus Primus.8

Second, it is not true that “no official liturgical document from the 1960s directed” celebrating the Eucharist with everyone in the assembly facing the altar, as the sign of Christ. Staudt erroneously claims that such a reform was done “without directives of a Council or even any deliberation from authoritative bodies.” He omits mentioning the history of the Liturgical Movement that originated in the 19th century and sought to restore the centrality of the liturgy in the lives of Catholics. Within the context of the Benedictine restoration in France, the new liturgical scholars discovered and edited the liturgical books of the Fathers of the Church, in which it was evident that the Christians of the Early Church participated in the liturgical actions of the Mass, and were not “there as strangers or silent spectators.”9 The liturgical theology of this movement was especially confirmed by the Magisterium of popes St. Pius X and Pius XII, influenced the teaching of Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium, and guided to the post-conciliar liturgical renewal. “The particular leader to have emphasized the adoption of versus populum celebration was Romano Guardini”10 (1885-1968). A leading figure in the Austrian Liturgical Movement was Pius Parsch (1884-1954), who reordered St. Gertrude’s chapel in 1935 “to include an altar for celebrations versus populum.11 Guardini promoted this practice among the German-speaking areas where it became quite widespread. In 1956, the reform of the liturgies of Holy Week by Pope Pius XII constituted an “incipient” adoption of versus populum celebrations, which assured that the faithful saw the liturgical actions and participated in them during the Mass: rubrics 5 and 22 direct the priest to pray both the prayer of blessing of the palms before the Palm Sunday procession and a new prayer after it behind the table upon which the palms are placed versus populum;12 similarly, at the Easter Vigil, “Pius XII requires that the [baptismal] water be blessed not at the font but in the sanctuary where the faithful can see it” and “the blessing is recited facing the people.”13

Vatican II, much as the Tridentine reform, did not order the specific liturgical reforms, but established the principles that would guide the whole liturgical renewal process, which would later be executed by the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy: “In this restoration, both texts and rites should be drawn up so that they express more clearly the holy things which they signify; the Christian people, so far as possible, should be enabled to understand them with ease and to take part in them fully, actively, and as befits a community.”14 Against what Staudt states in his article, there is an official document from the 1960’s directing the new Eucharistic orientation: “The main altar should preferably be freestanding, to permit walking around it and celebration facing the people. Its location in the place of worship should be truly central so that the attention of the whole congregation naturally focuses there.”15 Still during the time of Vatican II, the legitimate authoritative body responsible for the implementation of the teaching of a Church council inspired by the Holy Spirit prefers the central position of the altar, with the priest celebrating versus populum, so that the attention of all the assembly may be directed to the liturgical action. The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal has become even more insistent on versus populum: “The altar should be built separate from the wall, in such a way that it is possible to walk around it easily and that Mass can be celebrated at it facing the people, which is desirable wherever possible. Moreover, the altar should occupy a place where it is truly the center toward which the attention of the whole congregation of the faithful naturally turns.”16

Third, Staudt considers that the Mass ad orientem possesses “greater solemnity, transcendence, mystery and a common orientation toward God,” and erroneously attributes the celebration of the Mass versus populum as “more human-centered rather than God-centered” and “a congregation-centered posture.” If that was the case, why would the Congregation for Divine Worship under the authority of popes St. Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis declare the new Eucharistic orientation “preferable” and “desirable”? If the Masses celebrated ad orientem lead people towards God, and the ones celebrated versus populum center us on humanity, why would the norms relating to the celebration of the Mass currently in full force recommend the latter? The Congregation for Divine Worship explained this issue in the following response: “Whatever may be the position of the celebrating priest, it is clear that the eucharistic sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God and that the principal, eternal, and high priest is Jesus Christ, who acts through the ministry of the priest who visibly presides as his instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the eucharistic synaxis. The physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is towards the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Iesum Christum (towards God through Jesus Christ), as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which participates, is entirely turned versus Deum (towards God) as its first spiritual movement.”17

Fourth, the author questions the validity and legitimacy of such a fundamental pillar of the liturgical reform requested by Vatican II, and therefore adds a great amount of confusion and misunderstanding among the Catholic faithful, by going against the expressed desire of the Holy Father in his recent Magisterium on this issue. Pope Francis has legitimately taught: “the liturgical books promulgated by the saintly Pontiffs Paul VI and John Paul II, in conformity with the decrees of Vatican Council II, constitute the unique expression of the lex orandi of the Roman Rite.”18 Since the council of Trent, the final authority on liturgical matters has been reserved to the Holy See, and both the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and the last pontiffs have used their authority on the liturgy to validate Vatican II’s liturgical reform. St. John Paul II teaches: “the liturgical renewal,” including celebrating the Eucharist versus populum, “is the most visible fruit of the whole work of the Council.”19

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Celebrating the Eucharist ad orientem is certainly possible and legitimate today, but not for the reasons alleged in Staudt’s article. His opinions about the history of the Eucharist and the teaching of Vatican II and its liturgical reform should be understood within the context of two major difficulties in the implementation of Vatican II’s liturgical reform: appalling liturgical abuses, like priests placing themselves at the center of the Eucharist or not using the liturgical books approved by the Church;20 and the lack of a deeper desire in the pastors of the Church for an authentic liturgical formation of the faithful. Vatican II requested and St. John Paul II repeatedly called for such a liturgical initiation: “The most urgent task is that of the biblical and liturgical formation of the people of God, both pastors and faithful.”21 We cannot understand the Eucharistic orientation promoted by the Church after Vatican II without the entire conciliar teaching and the biblical, patristic and liturgical movements that prepared it. The new ecclesiology taught by Lumen Gentium presents the Church as “a sacrament for the salvation of the world,” a visible sign of Christ: “Really partaking of the body of the Lord in the breaking of the Eucharistic bread, we are taken up into communion with Him and with one another. ‘Because the bread is one, we though many, are one body, all of us who partake of the one bread.’”22 In George Weigel’s vision of Vatican II, the Church is presented as “communion” with “Christ at the center” for the evangelization of the world.23 Such a missionary approach to the Church as “communio,” that is, a sacrament of the Mystical Body of Christ pulls postmodern humanity out of its “subjectivism,”24 but requires a renewed orientation in which all the faithful, Head and members, are formed by Christ’s Paschal mystery. In determining the position of the priest at the altar, more than the historical information, we need to consider the meaning of the Eucharist as a sacrament, as a visible sign of grace for today’s Catholics. Vatican II teaches: “The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God; because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.’”25

Vatican II has offered us the rediscovery of the liturgical signs in the life of Catholics: the bread and wine are “taken” and placed on the altar; the prayer of thanksgiving by the priest over the bread and the wine; the bread is broken; the Communion. It is certainly beneficial for today’s Catholics to see, immerse themselves and be transfigured by Christ’s Eucharistic actions. Perhaps today, in a world flooded with artificial light, it is not so vital to turn toward the cosmic symbol of the East (i.e., the rising Sun), but “it is absolutely vital that all who celebrate the Eucharist face Christ and through their participation in the sacred mysteries proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again (see 1 Co 11:26).”26

  1. Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio” Desiderio Desideravi on the Liturgical Formation of the People of God (June 29, 2022), 62.
  2. Neil Xavier O’Donoghue, Liturgical Orientation: The Position of the President at the Eucharist. Joint Liturgical Studies, 83 (The Alcuin Club: London, 2017), 7. See also Pere Farnes, “Una Obra Importante sobre Liturgia que Debe Leerse en su Verdadero Contexto”, Phase 247, XLII (2002), 55-76.
  3. Theodor Klauser, A Short History of the Western Liturgy: An Account and Some Reflections. 2nd edition (London, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 165.
  4. Andreas Jungmann, The Early Liturgy, to the Time of Gregory the Great. University of Notre Dame. Liturgical Studies, V. 6 (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1959), 138.
  5. Robin M. Jensen, ‘Recovering Ancient Ecclesiology: The Place of the Altar and the Orientation of Prayer in the Early Latin Church,’ Worship 89 (2015), 104-8.
  6. See Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 82-5; and Uwe M. Lang, Turning toward the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009), 51-2.
  7. Jensen, “Recovering Ancient Ecclesiology,’ 117.
  8. Alan Griffiths, ed., Ordo Romanus Primus: Latin Text and Translations with Introductions and Notes, Joint Liturgical Studies, 73 (Norwich, UK: Hymns Ancient and Modern, 2012), 41.
  9. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium
  10. (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1963), 48. Hereafter, SC. O’Donoghue, Liturgical Orientation, 31.
  11. Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council (Farnborough, Hants.: St. Michael’s Abbey Press, 2004), 111.
  12. Patrick Regan, Advent to Pentecost: Comparing the Seasons in the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 2012), 112.
  13. Regan, Advent to Pentecost, 211.
  14. SC, 21.
  15. Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction on Implementing the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy Inter Oecumenici (September 26, 1964), 91. Latin version: “Praestat ut altare maior exstruatur a pariete seiunctum, facile circumiri et in eo celebratio versus populum peragi possit”.
  16. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 299. https://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/the-mass/general-instruction-of-the-roman-missal/girm-chapter-5 [Accessed on February 8, 2023].
  17. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, ‘Response to Questions on the New General Instruction of the Roman Missal’, September 2000, quoted in Lang, Turning toward the Lord, 26-7.
  18. Pope Francis, Letter that Accompanies the Apostolic Letter “Motu Proprio” Traditionis Custodes (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2021).
  19. Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Vicesimus Quintus Annus (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1988), 12; hereafter, VQ.
  20. See VQ, 13; and Baldovin, Reforming the Liturgy, 112.
  21. VQ, 15.
  22. Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church Lumen Gentium (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1964), 7. Hereafter, LG.
  23. George Weigel, To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2022), 291.
  24. Weigel, To Sanctify the World, 286.
  25. SC, 59.
  26. O’Donoghue, Liturgical Orientation, 68.

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