11 January 2015

versus populum, versus Orientem

Cardinal Burke set a very good example yesterday by celebrating the Mass of Ages facing the people. He did so because he was celebrating in the old Roman Basilica of S Nicolas in the Prison, which is oriented so that Facing The People is  Facing East.

Facing East is what the Fathers of East and West thought was not only proper but pretty well essential. But I know of no evidence whatsoever that it mattered to them whether, as they faced East, they were facing towards the people or away from the people. It isn't easy to prove negatives, but my instinct is that all the arguments modern traditionalists have dreamed up for the importance of priest and people all facing in the same direction were unknown in the first millennium. I would be genuinely interested to see if someone could falsify this instinct of mine. One reason I write this blog is so that I can test things out.

Sometimes people talk about "the ritual East". That's a natural thing to do when the church concerned is facing neither East nor West, like quite a lot of Catholic churches built in the last few centuries in constricting urban spaces. I don't mind the phrase except when it is being used by someone who is in a church so oriented, and decently so furnished, that he could very easily face East ... but doing so would mean that he was facing the people ... and the top all-important overriding priority in his mind is that he should at all costs have his back to the people ... even if that means he has to face West!!

I should make it clear that what I am talking about is not the horrid corrupt practice of putting a coffee-table as close as possible to the people and then standing facing them, with the altar uncluttered so that they can "see properly". When you celebrate facing East=facing the people in the Roman basilicas, there is very definitely no sense of chummy propinquity. You are under a baldachino; between Altar and Nave there is a confessio keeping the people a great distance away; you are probably up a flight of steps; the big baroque crucifix and candlesticks mean that they can barely see anything. In earlier Christian centuries, there would have been curtains all round (in circuitu) the Altar so that they never saw anything at all!! (Papal benefactors loved to donate the sets of four splendid curtains, and the metal hooks to hold them still survive in some old churches.) That is the nearest Western equivalent I know of celebrating in mystical invisibility behind a Byzantine Icon-screen!

Liberals are infested with their endless petty shibboleths and baseless liturgical fancies and fantasies. We should be careful that we don't have too many of our own quaint little fads.


Patricius said...

In the modern world, man's innate geographical sense has been so weakened that actual compass poles carry considerably less weight than certain other forms of visual symbolism. Therefore, for priest and people to face together in the wrong compass direction simply increases the common ignorance.

I can't say I have much sympathy for these dialectical arguments for and against a praxis with considerable auctoritas. Facing the wrong way is possibly the absolute worst thing you can do liturgically, and the Benedictine altar arrangement is a rather silly compromise in my opinion - just as fraught with difficulty as the Elizabeth religious Settlement. In terms of practicalities, it's interesting that churches built since the Reformation, or at least in the UK since Emancipation times, have invariably lost any liturgical sense viz some of the weird axes at which they are built. The London Oratory is a famous example but there are others. I wonder if it was a general malaise? I've seen an engraving of that scholarly gentleman pope Benedict XIV celebrating Mass in Vienna, facing the people; an indication, perhaps, that, at least at the papal court, versus populum celebrations were bethought them of Papal court ceremony like the fistula or a Greek gospel.

Even the 1662 Prayer Book rubric, "standing before the table," retains the traditional praxis...albeit subject to the right interpretation!

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I had some vague memory that traditionalist scholars discovered that where the people were to the East of the celebrant in those ancient churches, the people turned East to pray, away from the celebrant, but I could be misremembering.

However, if it was the case that ALL turned East to pray even in the less conventionally structured churches, the standard traditionalist explanation still works. Priest and people face the same direction, East, so all are symbolically facing God in addressing Him. For the readings etc this symbolism is unnecessary and practical considerations favour versus populum.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Father Kirby: with deep respect, you are ignoring my point in this post. Yes, we have all heard the argument that "Priest and people face the same direction, East, so all are symbolically facing God in addressing Him". What I am interested in hunting down is whether anybody thought that "facing the same direction" and thus "symbolically facing God" mattered before the nineteenth century ... or whether they even noticed that their ecclesial practise had the result of securing that outcome. They did think it mattered to face East.

I am not really terribly interested in going through all the arguments we know so well ... I would like evidence, sources.

Francis said...

Europeans may have lost a sense of geography and directionality, but in the New World, towns and cities are nearly all laid out on a grid system and people remain clear in their minds about whether the street they are on is east-west or north-south, and how they are positioned in relation to the points of the compass. Great raw material for sound liturgical praxis!

fr. Thomas said...

The earliest relevant comment I know is from Durandus's Rationale, in the 13th Century:-

"The priest turns to the east, since Christ sought not his own will, but his Father’s. Indeed, he turns his back to the people, expressing what our Lord said to Moses, Thou shalt see my hinder parts, but my face thou canst not see."

Joseph Livingston said...

The thing I can't wrap my head around is when the celebrant says the anaphora with his back to the tabernacle. It gives the impression that the whole prayer is a ceremonial spectacle for the congregation's pleasure, not a plea to God on behalf of the congregation; after all, in formal environments, we face the person we are speaking to, do we not?

Jacobi said...

From earliest times the earliest churches were built with the altar towards the East end and therefore with the priest facing East. The Church has always assumed the East was the direction of the Second Coming although this is not specified in the New Testament.

I was able to get to an EF today. The focus of the congregation to the priest and to the Consecration was tangible. As it so happens, the church faces towards the East. It was appropriate.

Our ancestors (pre-Vatican II), had good instinct.

Jacobi said...

p s

On second thoughts, Matthew 24 :27does describe a Coming from the East and is presumably the basis of this early Catholic custom of church building.

Patricius said...

Joseph Livingston, what does the tabernacle have to do with ad orientem celebrations? You don't face the tabernacle (which shouldn't be on the altar in the first place) except by accident; you face eastwards. That's the whole point. Whether the priest has his back to a tabernacle is neither here nor there.

William Tighe said...

Patricius wrote:

"... that scholarly gentleman pope Benedict XIV celebrating Mass in Vienna, facing the people ..."

I don't think Benedict XIV, as pope, ever left Italy. Could it be that you have Pius VI in mind?

Jacobi wrote:

"From earliest times the earliest churches were built with the altar towards the East ..."

Well, yes and no. In the lands surrounding the eastern half of the Mediterranean, almost always yes; in Italy, mostly yes; in North Africa and Libya, sometimes yes and sometimes no. See "Eis Anatolas Blepsate: Orientation as a Liturgical Principle," by M. J. Moreton, *Studia Patristica* Volume XVIII (1982), pp. 575-590. But wherever the altar was situated in the church, the priest always faced East.

Matthew Rose said...

Let's restore true eastward prayer - simultaneous with restoring altar curtains. I think that is an excellent proposal!

Matthew Rose said...

Let's restore true eastward prayer - simultaneous with restoring altar curtains. I think that is an excellent proposal!

Jacobi said...

The tabernacle is specified by the 4th Lateran Council to be in a prominent place. The Synods of Cologne, 1281, and Muenster specified on or above the altar. From the sixteenth century it was customary to be on the altar. This was confirmed in 1863 by the sacred Congregation of Rites.

Despite post –Vat II ambiguous changes, the Catholic custom of having a tabernacle, on the altar since the thirteenth century,(and certainly before), is still fully permitted, was never forbidden and is increasingly called for again since it fosters an ambiance of Sanctity in the church.

It is completely compatible with an Ad Orientem Mass.

Patricius said...

Dr Tighe, you are correct. It was Pius VI. You can see the print here:


Reader said...

Fr. Hunwicke's point is very interesting. If it only matters that the priest faces East, then ad populum will be safe as long as the altar is positioned so that the priest would face East AND toward the people. Traditionalists would have nothing to complain about. I agree with him that it is a vital point.

Joseph Livingston said...

"Joseph Livingston, what does the tabernacle have to do with ad orientem celebrations? You don't face the tabernacle (which shouldn't be on the altar in the first place) except by accident; you face eastwards. That's the whole point. Whether the priest has his back to a tabernacle is neither here nor there."

I don't have any references on hand for a scholarly debate. But almost all Catholic churches prior to the 1950s had the altar attached to the tabernacle (with a reredos decorating them together), so the priest literally faces and speaks to God when he turns to the liturgical east. In the Byzantine rite as well, the altar must be attached to the tabernacle by canon law.

It seems to me that facing the tabernacle is much more important than actually facing east. The point of facing east is because it symbolizes Christ the rising sun, but Christ is truly present in the tabernacle, so why turn your back to the true Christ in order to make a symbolic gesture?

S Thorfinn said...

I find that I am so very behind that I did not realize there were arguments for "the importance of priest and people all facing in the same direction" - per se. Of course if the priest is facing liturgical east that means I will be too (more or less); and if the priest is facing actual east in expectation of the Second Coming, I'd like to keep at least one eye peeled in that direction, just in case.

In A Roving Commission, Winston Churchill describes attending service in the Chapel Royal at Brighton while attending St James School. His class sat in pews facing North-South and when the congregation turned to the East during the Creed:

"I was sure Mrs. Everest [his Low Church nurse] would have considered this pracice Popish, and I conceived it my duty to testify against it. I therefore stood solidly to my front."

Next time out the teachers seated his class in pews facing East.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I'm sorry, Father, I'm not sure which part of the now customary argument you contest, the part where facing East symbolises facing God and thus is most apt for prayer, or the part stressing the similarity of orientation for priest and people.

St Basil interprets ad orientum as facing or seeking paradise/Eden, which I admit is not the same image, but is logically equivalent to it if paradise is where God is present. I'm not aware of other explicit patristic evidence, but there are Scriptures which invest the East with such significance, and this, along with the example of the Temple would have encouraged Christians quite naturally to associate facing East with facing God in prayer, whether consciously and explicitly stated or not. Such intuitions in Holy Tradition may take time to be explicated.

As for the second part of the argument, it seems to me not to be another premise at all but simply the logical corollary of the first. If we turn East to pray, we all do. As such, it needs no distinct or supplementary evidence or testimony.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Apologies for the foolish spelling error.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Oh dear! I'll have one last attempt at explaining what I'm after.

I do not "contest any part of the now customary arguments" deployed for priest and people both facing in the same direction. On the contrary, I rather like them. I particularly like Joseph Ratzinger's point that versus populum creates a closed circle in which the community appears to generate what happens inside it and is not open to God's irruption ab extra.

There are two questions, to the second of which I crave answers.
(1)Is there first millennium evidence for it being important to Face East? (Answer: heaps of it.)
(2)Is there first millennium evidence for the importance of priest and people facing in the same direction? (Answer ... YOU give ME the answer ...)

That's my last attempt at making myself comprehensible!

Fr Ray Blake said...

The question is when facing East are we turned to the rising sun or to Jerusalem. Are we facing the place of His Rising and Ascending and place to which He will return? The Magi of course found Christ by being led West.
I don’t know if the growing custom amongst Orthodox of using the Liturgy of St James might give a clue. In this Liturgy of the Jerusalem Church it is customary to set up a table before the iconostasis and to celebrate facing the people.

I have vague recollections of being told [some] ancient Churches east of Jerusalem were orientated towards the West, that is Jerusalem.
Templar churches interestingly were invariably built in the round in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre (or possibly of the church of the Ascension in Jerusalem).

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

I'm sorry to exasperate Father. It is clearly my communication skills that are the problem, as I thought this might be your key question, and thought I had answered it. So, I'll try once more, and then not bother you and those following the thread.

There is no explicit evidence as far as I know from the first millennium of "the importance of priest and people facing in the same direction" per se. What we do have is explicit evidence for the importance of the practice of facing East to pray and implicit evidence that the practice symbolises looking towards the Glory, and was seen as significant of this.

Thus, the importance of priest and people facing the same direction is due to the fact that they are praying together, and thus all facing East. The similarity of orientation is not a patristic justification per se, but a natural and appropriate corollary per accidens of their approach.

I don't see this as a problem for the customary apologetics on the point, because I don't see the argument as

(1) priest and laity should face the same direction when praying to God to show their common focus "outward" to God, not mutually to each other
(2) it is most appropriate to face East to pray
(3) that is why priest and people both face East

but instead

(1) facing East to pray is liturgically appropriate for a number of symbolic and historical reasons
(2) in the liturgy priest and people are often both praying
(3) therefore it follows that they should be facing East together, and so in the same direction, which has the natural benefit of showing a common "outward focus" rather than looking like a dialogue to which God is extraneous.

ansgerus said...

See also the longer study of
Fr. Joseph Kalathil:


Especially in chapter 3.2.3 there are several patristic quotes as follows:

AUGUSTINE, De Sermone domini in monte II, 5, 18 (see above)
TERTULLIAN, Ad nationes, I, 13. CSEL, 20, 83-84; Apologeticum 16, 9-11: CSEL 69, 43-44 (as quoted by U.M. LANG, Turning towards the Lord, 48)
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Stromateis, 7, 7, 43, GCS 3, 32, (as quoted by S. BACCHIOCCHI, From Sabbath to Sunday (Rome, 1977) 255)
and further quotes from
CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, ORIGEN, and GREGORY OF NYSSA, for Details see the literature list of above mentioned study.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear Father

Right! I think we can now clear this up with one final question.

If you are in a Church where the altar is situated at the West end so that you can either face East (and you will also be facing the people) or West (in which case you will be facing in the same direction as the people, with them behind you):

Which will be your preference?

(Churches I have in mind are the Oratory and the Dominican churches in Oxford; Eynsham just up the river ... churches in which the Altar is right at the West end of the Church, so the people face West in order to face the Altar, and the priest has the choice of facing the same way as the people: i.e. Westwards like them; or going round behind the Altar so as to face East, in which case he will find himself facing the people.

The sole point of my piece was to point out the dilemma we have in churches where the Altar is at the West end, and to suggest that in these circumstances we have to decide which matters to us most: to face East, thereby facing the people; or to face away from the people, thereby facing West. This means one needs to have made a decision about which is the most prescriptive: to face East or to face in the direction the people are facing. Because you can't, in churches like those, simultaneously face East AND face in the same direction as the people.)

So, Father: Westwards or Eastwards?

S Thorfinn said...

"...churches in which the Altar is right at the West end of the Church, so the people face West in order to face the Altar"

But the direction of the people is a choice as well, not a given. If facing geographical East is critically important then the people should do so too, and the priest will face the peoples' backsides.

Kneeling against the direction of the pews is uncomfortable at best (reminds me of Mass in a Baptist chapel where tight pews require one to kneel in the aisle); and then the people are turning their backs on the tabernacle, the altar, the priest .... a wholly unsatisfactory arrangement!

William Tighe said...

Fr. Blake wrote:

"I have vague recollections of being told [some] ancient Churches east of Jerusalem were orientated towards the West, that is Jerusalem."

I have never, ever come across anything to this effect. In the article which I referenced earlier on in this thread Fr. Moreton does discuss a number of ancient Syrian and Palestinian churches: Bosra, in the extreme south of present-day Syria, and Gerasa, in present-day Jordan, directly to the East of Jerusalem, were both constructed in such a way that the celebrant would have faced East with his back to Jerusalem. (He contends that how the Anastasis church in Jerusalem and the Nativity in Bethlehem were originally organized for liturgical celebrations cannot be determined.)

"I don’t know if the growing custom amongst Orthodox of using the Liturgy of St James might give a clue. In this Liturgy of the Jerusalem Church it is customary to set up a table before the iconostasis and to celebrate facing the people."

This seems to me to be wholly a modern conceit, without any historical, liturgical, or architectural evidence to support it.

ansgerus said...

In any case we should direct "towards the Lord" (ad dominum), which is also expressed by the "sursum corda - habemus ad dominum". So, in such relatively modern churches which have the main altar not at the east side, of course ALL should turn to the altar; te priest should never turn to the People except in churches with historic altars placed like in some old Roman churches which do not allow any other direction, because directioning towards the people nowadays gives the wrong impression that we are facing each other in order to form a community with ourselves, instead of a directioning towards the Lord. E.g., the mordernist concept also matters as a subcontext of our today's "liturgical feelings". So, let's turn towards the altar with the back to the People - if you like to express it in this way - which also has the benefit that People can enjoy looking at the cross on the backside of the vestures. And if this direction incidently is geographically west, then "West is our East". We are not used anymore since centuries to turn to the geographical east, and we are also usually not standing all the time in our latin rite churches. The geographical east does not matter anymore in churches which are not "oriented". Instead we have a kind of let's say "liturgical east" if all turn with the priest in the same direction with all faces oriented in one direction, "ad dominum".

Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Dear Fr Hunwicke,

Assuming the question was directed to me, as to personal preference, I would say this:

1) I'm not sure my personal judgement is that important or well enough informed for it to matter that much, however,

2) the ancient practice (according to some but not all scholars) in these situations was for all to turn East for prayer, thus having the priest facing the backs of the people, but this would seem simply too outlandish and impractical in these times, such that any priest suggesting it would be rightly considered obsessive and majoring in minors.

3) Therefore, my tendency would be to prefer facing East and the people, perhaps with a Crucifix on the altar, central, nearest the edge on the side of the laity (i.e., similarly to a suggestion of the Pope Emeritus) even if the Tabernacle were behind me, since otherwise there would be no token whatsoever of the venerable orientation of Tradition. During the Mass it is the altar which is God's seat, so to speak, so the Tabernacle is not disrespected by prioritising the more "dynamic" symbolism during the liturgy.

4) Nevetheless, since all these things are not properly essential matters, I would conform to the other arrangement if asked to by those over me.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Brilliant! Exactly, in every respect, my own view of the matter! But far better worded than I could have made it. It is exactly the conclusion towards which my post was intended yo direct peopl's minds!!!


Kim Andrew D'Souza said...

Stefan Heid has written: "The priests and the faithful could look up to the apse when they prayed, seeing into heaven, so to speak. ... The church building itself always had to be “oriented” to the east at this graphically depicted heavenly art. The actual geographical orientation toward the east was of secondary importance." (www.hprweb.com/2012/01/cross-altar-and-the-right-way-of-praying/)
Presumably Heid is drawing here on his 2006 article (unfortunately in German, a language I don't know) in Rivista d'Archeologia Christiana, which was so highly praised by Papa Ratzinger in the preface to his Opera Omnia. Without having access to the sources to which it refers, I wonder whether Heid's contention could be supported by De Sermone Domini in Monte, 5.18, where St. Augustine essentially seems to say that what is important is that we all face the same direction. Augustine refers to the evidently well-established praxis of facing East, but seems to take its fittingness for granted and make it serve as an illustration of the common turning to the God.
My own personal opinion is that even if St. Augustine seems here to downplay the importance of an actual orientation to the East, we cannot afford to do the same in a time when the cosmic dimension of religion is increasingly ignored. So, given the "Westwards or Eastwards" choice - a devilish dilemma - I would make exactly the same decision that Fr. Kirby did. I do, however, think that Augustine might offer an example of precisely the kind of evidence which suggests that it did matter that all face the same direction.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Kim's reference to S Augustine is Lib 2 5:18.

I'm sorry, Ansgarus, but I really don't agree. East in Latin and Greek means Sunrise, and West means Sunset. And, in my view, if you say to somebody "You really ought to face Sunrise" and then you add sotto voce "But of course, dear, if you like to say that Sunset is your Sunrise, that makes Sunset the same as Sunrise", you have pretty well reduced the whole thing to gibberish.

ansgerus said...

Thank you, Father, for taking my comment seriously. I am just an ordinary laymen in the pew, sometines playing the organ and singing the propers, and I not at all have the liturgical knowledge of a liturgy expert like you. But when I attend holy mass it is essential for me that the priest and myself are directing with the face in the same direction. This has been common western practise since centuries (except in a few special churches like St. Peter in Rome), even for the Lutherans, and for my opinion there is no reason at all to change this practise, and also the geographical direction of the very church - let it be East or West or whatever - is no reason at all to change this practise. E.g. from my point of view it is much more important that priest and congregation face towards the same direction and not to each other, than facing towards East. If the high altar is in the East, it's fine. If not, let's still face to the same direction, even if it is West or South or North. In case of Oxford oratory especially, because there you have the magnificient chorus with all the saints, and all should face towards there.
By the way, in Germany we have some old churches with high altars in the West as well as in the East apsis, and I guess, that in both cases even in old times all together faced towards the stained glasses in the East respectively in the West apsis when celebrating mass there. Does anyone know any details about the historic uses in such churches with two high altars???

ansgerus said...


Father, please do not misunderstand me. Also for me East matters, and I physically enjoy directing towards East during my prayers especially in the morning in an old, ORIENTed church. I would never say East and West is the same, but if the church unfortunately was build with the apsis NOT towards east, let's still at least have same direction of our faces "ad dominum" during prayer, and not priest towards congregation like in the modern use. I think, this also fits well with St. Augustin, who clearly speaks of "us", e.g. of all People attending, facing in the SAME direction, and not at each other in a circle.

ansgerus said...

In our chapel in North Germany, where I am attending the Latin mass, we are actually facing - yes - a wall. But on that wall behind the high altar there is a large cross. I never checked the geographic direction by use of a compass, but for me (and all of our congregation) there was never a question that we all during prayer are directing "ad dominum".
Praying intentionally "ad populum" is a new, evil use, coming from a misled historicism condemned by Pius XII, and should be abandoned by all means not only at least in all traditional masses, but best also in the Novus Ordo.

Kim Andrew D'Souza said...

Thank you, Father, for completing my reference to St. Augustine. I inadvertently left that "II" out.

Kim Andrew D'Souza said...

Father, this question is not necessarily for publication, but have you see the study on this subject by Robin Jensen in the current number of La Maison Dieu? I happened to glance at the contents of that periodical in the library today, and noticed Robin Jensen, "A la redécouverte de l'ecclésiologie des premiers siècles chrétiens: Emplacement de l'autel et orientation de la prière dans l'Eglise latine primitive," Maison Dieu 278 (June 2014), pp. 51-81. I only had time to skim through the article, but my perusal revealed that she has a section about curtains... and that the edifice believed by archaeologists to have been St. Augustine's basilica at Hippo was apparently constructed at a 45 degree angle. Although I have yet to read the piece in its entirety, my sense is that she sets out refute Gamber, Lang et al.