Holy Mass celebrated “ad orientem” – a Q&A
The celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass “ad orientem” may sound “new” to us, but really it is one of two ways to celebrate the Novus Ordo Form of the Mass.
Holy Mass may be celebrated “ad orientem” or “versus populum” – that is, priest and the congregation facing toward “the East”, or the priest facing the congregation. While most people are familiar with the Holy Mass being celebrated “versus populum”, “ad orientem” is both “ever ancient, ever new.”
TOWARD THE LORD WHO COMES: ‘Ad Orientem’
Celebration of Mass ‘facing the East’
In his homily on the Patronal Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Cardinal Burke announced that the Holy Mass at the Shrine will regularly be offered with the priest facing the East… ad orientem [CLICK HERE to read the Homily]. His Eminence offered a catechesis regarding the orientation of the priest and people during the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass. He explained that “the priest at the head of the congregation will, with the congregation, turn toward the Lord during the prayers and, above all, during the Eucharistic Prayer, in order to render more visible our recognition that it is Our Lord Himself Who inspires our prayer and Who acts during the Eucharistic Prayer to make sacramentally present His Sacrifice on Calvary for our eternal salvation. We all turn to Him; we all look to Him.”
One of the four Church Doctors who are honored at the Shrine, Saint John Damascene, writing in the 7th century, gives three explanation for the eastward stance of Christians at prayer:
- Christ is “the Sun of Righteousness” (Mal 4:2) and “the Dayspring from on high” (Lk 1:78). Facing the light dawning from the east, Christians affirm their faith in Christ as the Light of the world.
- God planted the Garden of Eden in the east (cf. Gn 2:8). But, when our first parents sinned, they were exiled from the garden and moved westward. Facing east, therefore, reminds Christians of their need to long for and strive for the paradise that God intended for them.
- When speaking of his Second Coming at the end of history, Jesus said, “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Mt. 24:27). Thus, facing the east at prayer visibly expresses the hope for the coming of Jesus.
 St. John Damascene, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book IV, Chapter 12.
Q & A about the “Announcement” regarding the Celebration of Holy Mass at the Shrine:
Q1. The “Announcement” specifies that “as head of the congregation the priest will henceforth turn toward the Lord.” This raises the question by those inquiring about how we have not been turned toward the Lord for the past 50 years? If Christ is truly present in His Eucharist at the altar, for the period of time since the Council have we not been turned toward Him by facing Him on the altar from any point on the compass?
- A1. The point is that both priest and congregation will face in the same direction, namely, “toward the Lord,” uniting themselves to the Lord as He offers His Eucharistic Sacrifice through the sacramental ministry of the priest. When the priest faces the people, even though he also faces the Lord present on the altar, his orientation can easily be confused as expressive of an interaction between him and the congregation, instead of his leading the congregation, with himself, “toward the Lord.”
Q2. Since turning East is turning toward the Lord (or toward the traditional direction from which He will come in the last days) then at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Crosse, Wisconsin, how is this happening? By satellite imagery it appears that the orientation of the Shrine church is actually pointing due south, or at least between south and south east or west.
- A2. Although the desire was to build the Shrine Church in the traditional manner, facing East, it was not possible for engineering reasons. In fact, many churches, for various reasons, are not built facing the East literally; but, the disposition of the Church and of the faithful in worship can always be “toward the Lord.” In any case, facing East means facing the Lord Who comes in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and Who will come at the end of time.
Q3. Concern about the position of the mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe above the Tabernacle and the priest facing “ad orientem”?
- A3. The position of the mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe is to draw the faithful to the altar and the tabernacle, even as the Mother of God took the wine stewards at the Wedding Feast of Cana to Our Lord with the maternal instruction: “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2, 5). When both priest and faithful turn “toward the Lord” in the Shrine Church, they see the image of Our Lady who draws them to her Divine Son.
Q4. A concern was raised by a priest regarding the confusion he will experience if something like this “Statement” does not come from his bishop as it is now bound to spread diocesan-wide. As one who is called upon as a “fill-in” for his brother priests when absenting their regular ministries, there is the concern that the flock will become disoriented, especially by his preference not to celebrate “ad orientem”. Some will want it, others will not. Without a sense held in common about such things, it can be imagined how liturgical things will fall out of order.
- A4. Both practices on the part of the priest are permitted by current Church discipline. In fact, in many places, Holy Mass is regularly celebrated ad orientem without any disruption of the liturgical life of the faithful. A priest does not need the permission of the Bishop to celebrate Holy Mass ad orientem. It is the ancient practice of the Church and should always be viewed as usual. The practice of the Shrine does not insinuate any Diocesan legislation in the matter. In fact, the “Statement” regarding the practice clearly indicates that a priest who wishes to celebrate the Holy Mass versus populum is free to do so at the Shrine.
Q5. Didn’t Vatican II change how the Mass is celebrated?
- A5. This is a common point of confusion. While versus populum liturgy was popularized after the Council, ad orientem worship still remains the norm for Latin Rite (Roman Catholic) liturgy. The rubrics (instructions) for the Mass still talk about the priest ‘turning towards the people’ because the assumption is that at certain points during the Mass he is facing the altar. The rubrics are very clear that this is a legitimate and time-honored way of offering even the new order of the Mass.
Q6. I have read the document that you sent with Cardinal Burke’s instruction to the Shrine Priests to start going back saying Mass facing the altar and not the congregation. Those of us who looked at the document feel Cardinal Burke does not have that authority. The January/February Catholic Life Official states Most Reverend William Patrick Callahan, D.D. Bishop of La Crosse makes the following announcement. The Reverend Elias Mary Mills, F.I. is appointed Rector of Our Lady of Guadalupe Shrine in La Crosse effective , December 12, 2016.
- A6. The Shrine is an entity within the Diocese of La Crosse, only the Diocesan Bishop can appoint the Rector, and other priests who assist him, and grant them their faculties. Thus, in matters of external governance, it is subject to the local bishop.
- However, the Shrine is also a separate corporation with its own board of directors, so in matters of internal governance, it is subject to the board, of which Cardinal Burke is the president. The local bishop is also a member of the board ex officio. So Cardinal Burke can issue some directives concerning liturgical matters, provided they do not violate the liturgical norms. If the local bishop wanted to challenge this, he could, since he is a member of the board.
- Again, there is no need of permission to celebrate the Holy Mass ad orientem, since it is the ancient and centuries-long practice of the Church, and is, therefore, a usual liturgical practice; the Cardinal, as principal member of the corporation, therefore, can decide that the usual manner of celebrating the Holy Mass at the Shrine will be ad orientem, while also acknowledging that a priest visiting the Shrine may use the legitimate option of celebrating the Holy Mass versus populum.
Praying Ad Orientem, by Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
What’s Behind Cardinal Sarah’s Ad Orientem Call?, by Christopher Carstens
Ad Orientem for Lent, posted on the website for the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee.