He’s not “turning his back to the people”

Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, caused a rumpus earlier this summer by proposing to a meeting of liturgists in London that the Catholic Church return to the practice of priest and people praying in the same direction during the Liturgy of the Eucharist: a change in liturgical “orientation” the cardinal described as the entire congregation looking together toward the Lord who is to come. Cardinal Sarah further proposed that bishops and priests consider implementing this change on the First Sunday of Advent this year, during the liturgical season in which expectations of the Lord’s return in glory are prominent.

As readers of Evangelical Catholicism, my book on deep reform in the 21st-century Church, will remember, I proposed just such a change in the orientation of celebrant and congregation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist: priest and people would face each other during the Liturgy of the Word; celebrant and congregation would then pray together, facing the same direction, throughout the Liturgy of the Eucharist. This seemed a good “reform of the liturgical reform” to me on three counts.

First, it would underscore that the liturgy is not about us. The common orientation of priest and people during the Liturgy of the Eucharist symbolizes – or perhaps better, lives out – the Church’s conviction that the Mass is an act of worship offered to the Thrice-Holy God, in which we the baptized are privileged to participate. Yes, the liturgy builds the Christian community and its solidarity. But that is one of its effects, not its primary purpose. Priest and people praying together “toward the Lord” can thus be a helpful antidote to the temptation to think of Mass as a ritual of communal self-affirmation – a temptation all too common in the contemporary Culture of Me.

Second, if properly prepared by thoughtful pastors and liturgists, the re-orientation of the Liturgy of the Eucharist would help Catholics deepen our appreciation of the Kingdom dimension of the Mass. The Mass is a foretaste of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the New Jerusalem, described by that apostolic seer, St. John, in Revelation 21. By turning together toward the Lord-who-comes – now, under the forms of bread and wine; later, as the Risen Lord who will hand everything over to the Father so that “God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15.28) – the praying Church be regularly reminded that Christians are the people who know how the world’s story is going to turn out. That assurance of God’s victory over sin, suffering, and death should both comfort us and energize us for mission.

Third, returning to the practice of a common orientation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist would help mitigate the continuing problem of the priest-celebrant who imposes his own personality on the liturgy, a problem that has been exacerbated in recent decades by the celebration of the Mass versus populum – “toward the people.”

To these three reasons I might now add that a fourth – that a reorientation of priest and people during of the Liturgy of the Eucharist would bring Latin-rite Catholic practice into harmony with the practice of the Eastern Catholic Churches and the Orthodox Churches – and a fifth: that this re-orientation would place the reformed liturgy of Vatican II in continuity with an ancient liturgical tradition of the Church.

Any such reform of the reform must be very carefully prepared by preaching and catechesis, which will not be a matter of weeks but of months, perhaps even years. But that is itself another reason to take Cardinal Sarah’s basic proposal seriously: liturgical catechesis is imperative today if the People of God are going to understand the liturgy as an act of worship that equips us for mission.

And that catechesis will have to deconstruct the nonsense that a change of orientation during the Liturgy of the Eucharist means “the priest is turning his back to the people.” No, he isn’t. Together, the priest-celebrant and those who have been baptized, in order to offer God proper worship, are facing together toward the Lord who is to come – and who, in coming eucharistically and in glory, brings the human drama to its fulfillment.

Featured photo courtesy of Father Lawrence Lew, O.P.

COMING UP: Joe Biden is Isaac Hecker’s fault?

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U.S. Catholics generally know little about the Church’s history in our country. But whether you’re trying to fill gaps in your knowledge or just looking for a good read, let me recommend a new book by Russell Shaw: Catholics in America – Religious Identity and Cultural Assimilation from John Carroll to Flannery O’Connor (Ignatius Press).

Its formidable subtitle notwithstanding, Russell Shaw’s new book is an easy-to-digest smorgasbord, a portrait gallery of fifteen important characters in the American Catholic story. Three of the heroes of my Baltimore boyhood get their just deserts: Archbishop John Carroll, first and arguably greatest of U.S. bishops; Cardinal James Gibbons, America’s most prominent Catholic for four decades; and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, “Wild Betty” as she once called herself, foundress of the Catholic school system that’s still the Church’s best anti-poverty program.

The politicos (Al Smith and JFK) and the intellectuals (combustible, cantankerous Orestes Brownson and the scholarly old-school Jesuit, John Courtney Murray) are neatly sketched, as are three women of consequence: St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O’Connor. A trio of New Yorkers (one born in Ireland, another in Massachusetts, and another in Peoria) take their turns on stage in the persons of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, Cardinal Francis Spellman, and Spelly’s rival, Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. Then there’s the remarkable Father Michael McGivney, founder of the Knights of Columbus and, I hope, America’s next beatus.

For contemporary purposes and debates, one of the most suggestive of Shaw’s portraits is that of Father Isaac Hecker, another candidate for beatification. Shortly after his death in 1888, Hecker became the subject of contention in Rome, when an ill-translated biography of the founder of the Paulists, and some intra-Catholic brawling among U.S. hierarchs, led to a papal warning against “Americanism” – a way-of-being-Catholic that Pope Leo XIII deemed excessively privatized, insufficiently contemplative, and dismissive of the Church’s magisterium. Ever since, U.S. Catholic historians have been arguing about whether “Americanism” was a phantom heresy.

There seem to be three contending parties in that debate. The canonical view of classic U.S. Catholic historians like John Tracy Ellis was that “Americanism” was indeed a phantasm of fevered Roman minds. Then, in the 1970s, came the revisionist view that Hecker, and bishops like John Ireland of St. Paul-Minneapolis, John Keane of Catholic University, and Cardinal Gibbons, were in fact exploring a new ecclesiology, a new way of thinking about the Church, that Vatican II would vindicate in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church and Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

Now comes Russell Shaw, who, in his portrait of Hecker, continues to press an argument he first raised in 2013 in American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (the man does have a way with subtitles). Reduced to essentials, Shaw’s contention is that Hecker and those of his “Americanist” cast of mind did represent an assimilationist current in U.S. Catholic thought – a tendency to bend over backwards to “fit into” American culture – that eventually made possible Ted Kennedy, Barbara Mikulski, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden: cradle-Catholic politicians who support public policies that flatly contradict basic moral truths taught by the Church on the basis of reason and revelation, justify their votes in the name of “democracy” and “pluralism,” and are supported by a lot of fellow-Catholics in doing so.

To be sure, Shaw acknowledges that Hecker’s great goal was to convert America to Catholicism, not retrofit Catholicism to the dominant American culture of his day (which I think my friend misstates as “secular” rather than “Protestant”). Hecker’s failure, as I read Shaw, is that he didn’t grasp that there were corrosives built into American public culture that would eventually eat away at core Catholic convictions. And if that’s what Russ Shaw is arguing, then he’s implicitly adopting the “ill-founded Republic” optic on U.S. history advanced by such scholars as Patrick Deneen and David Schindler.

My own view is that the failure of Catholics to infuse American politics with Catholic social doctrine has had a lot more to do with creating Joe Biden & Co. than Isaac Hecker and the 19th-century “Americanists.” In any case, Shaw’s new book and its predecessor are good places to begin thinking about what went wrong here and why.