23 October 2009

Versus Orientem

A bit of a rant in the admirable NLM. But I wonder if they are saying quite what they mean.

Take the Oxford Oratory. Currently, their OF masses are facing East; their EF masses they celebrate facing West.

Does NLM think this is wrong?

Putting it differently: are they arguing, like the Fathers of the Church, for Mass facing East; or do they want Mass with priest facing in the same direction as the people ... whatever that may be?

I think people should make up their minds. The Traditionalist Movement runs a real risk of superficiality.


Unknown said...

It is quite clear that the tradition of the church has been for Mass to be said with the canon said with the celebrant(s) facing in the same direction as the people, or at least the same direction as the other clergy. The whole obsession with the actual direction on a compass of where the priest faces seems a secondary point to me.

Fr John Hunwicke said...

OK, it does to you. But to the Fathers, what mattered was facing East. Easwards (not with your back to the people at ALL costs) is the "Tradition".

Dad29 said...


There are at least 2 80 to 100-year-old churches in Milwaukee (ironically, both occupied by 'traditionalist' folk--one EF, one OF) in which, when the priest celebrates Mass, he is facing WEST.

So the Fathers were not in charge of land-acquisition/architecture concerns during that time in Milwaukee.

Bill White said...

And then there are the churches that face north and south. Offhand I can think of seven in our vicariate, all among the oldest churches in the area dating from 1850-1900 (our part of the wild North American prairie was settled in the 1820s).

Unknown said...

Even Jungman recognizes, perhaps with regret, that geographical orientation has lost it's attraction nowadays but he speaks in favour of priest and people facing the same direction.

In North America, churches and even Cathedrals face in all the directions of the compass and geographical oriention became a dead letter at least a century ago.

Shawn Tribe said...

Fr. Hunwicke,

Thanks for your thoughts. I would like to suggest that the issue is more complicated than this, with various angles having to be taken into account.

First, let me state that evidently being turned to the (geographic) East was important, and I don't disagree with your idea here that we should be taking a look at this again, particularly when building new churches.

This said, we have also seen the development of the concept of a symbolic or liturgical East which is not necessarily tied to geography and many churches have been so built accordingly with the apse and altar directed toward any number of points on the compass, including north and south. (And here I would note that this is the root of Jeffrey's piece, which is really an artistic/architectural consideration -- and we must also recall that the later addition of different altars in front of the original altar in these churches did not necessarily orient the celebrant East since that was not really the consideration, even if the basilica model was used as a justification.)

That expression of symbolic or liturgical "Eastwardness" was manifest by the common direction of the priest and the people, towards the apse, altar, cross, etc. which retained at least that aspect of how this was historically manifest. (For let us recall that even, as in the case of the Roman basilicas, where by some reason or circumstance -- in the Roman instances Ratzinger cites topographical circumstances -- the altar was in the Western end, and the priest would go to the Western side of the altar and face toward the nave, the people too, at least at certain points of the liturgy, would also turn to the East; thus the priest and people shared a common, united direction at that point. Bouyer quoting Cyril Vogel: "Even when the orientation of the church allowed the priest to pray facing the people, we must not forget that it was not just the priest who turned to the East, but the whole congregation with him.")

Ratzinger, looking at the situation today, has further proposed this can be the common turning toward the cross:

"Facing toward the East, as we heard, was linked with the "sign of the Son of Man", with the Cross, which announces Our Lord's Second Coming. That is why, very early on, the East was linked with the sign of the cross. Where a direct common turning toward the East is not possible, the cross can serve as the interior "East" of faith. It should stand in the middle of the altar and be the common point of focus for both priest and praying community." [You will note he gives a priority to the turning toward the East, but notes a common turning toward the East and then goes on to consider symbolic manifestations of Eastwardness.]

So we see here two manifestations of turning "East" in a symbolic sense.

Finally, the other aspect I think we must consider in all this (which Jeffrey also raised) is the prudential aspect tied to our experience in the past decades as tied to versus populum. That aspect has been adequately summarized by Ratzinger this way:

"The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle."

Evidently the idea of the altar cross mentioned above as per the "Benedictine arrangement" is one way of beginning to address this, and so too is the shared direction of the priest and faithful as it has been manifest both in our recent history with our understanding of a symbolic, liturgical East, and as it was manifest when this was much more rooted in the geographic East.

In both instances of course, geographic Eastwardness may or may not enter in, and so that aspect of the consideration you are raising yet remains, but it is really a question of whether that development was desirable or satisfactory, and in that regard, is a very broad question. In considering it, I think we now not only have to consider it from a historical perspective, but also as a question of development, and further from the prudential aspect.

The Cardinal said...

What those who enthuse about ad orientem (including Papa Ratzi) have not realised is that the altar is the symbol of Christ. When we are all facing the altar, from whatever point of the compass, we are all facing in the same direction – ie. facing Christ. Whether the presider is on one side of the altar and the assembly on the other makes no difference at all.

Unknown said...

The Cadinal says the Altar symbolizes Christ.

Really? Does he mean it really isn't the communal table that we gather 'round to celebrate the communal supper of the Lord in COMMUNITY?

Seriously Eminenza, some symbols just don't work and yours is obscured by the fact that the people are looking over the altar at each other, as is only natural.

Anonymous said...

The altar does indeed symbolize Christ. It has always done so. But in "versus populum" masses - with the celebrant on the other side, looking at us, that symbol is destroyed. Because one ends up looking over the altar. The symbol works only if both people and celebant are in front of the altar, looking towards it.

- Kjetil Kringlebotten