Ad orientem

Below are my thoughts expressed to our pastor at Saint Clare of Assisi Catholic Church regarding his announcement that he would shift to ad orientem in the Mass.

As we consider this move to celebrating ad orientem at Saint Clare, I thought I would summarize the arguments I have found in its favor, offering responses that demonstrate an alternative perspective and that highlight some of the deeper issues involved as I, and others who have responded negatively, see them. I hope this serves as a guide to any discussion we might have about the wisdom of making this kind of change at Saint Clare, and I do so with the prayer that the Holy Spirit, whose Church this is, will guide all of us to gracious exchange, to understanding, and to clarity on what we should do moving forward.

Dr. Chris Diffenderfer, October 24, 2019

Regarding ad orientem, arguments for it are in bold, and responses follow:

• The Church still allows it.

Response: This is true, but it is not really an argument for or against it per se. However, this orientation is associated with the extraordinary Mass and is allowed but not encouraged. Responses I have seen from the Vatican tend to emphasize that it should not and will not be supported as an ordinary form.

• Assumptions that the early church celebrated versus populum are wrong (arguments are made based on some references to praying towards the east as evidence that the Mass had been ad orientem in the first place).

Response: While it is very true that many idyllic, oversimplifying assumptions have been made about the early church in many ways, that tendency is not indicative of scholarship as a whole. We do have considerable evidence that versus populum was the more common practice, beginning with the evolution of the eucharistic prayer and Christian worship from the synagogue and including carvings and other images depicting the eucharistic worship of the church at various points in history. Worship in the early centuries of the church was not really uniform in many ways, and so it is difficult to argue to strongly for or against many things due to the variation in regional practice. It is also true that we do not have any overwhelming evidence that ad orientem was common practice until the early medieval period, around the eleventh century, when it appears to have been introduced in the West as a conscious change.

• Facing the East (or at least the apse) more appropriately signifies the leadership of the priest in praying as one with the assembly to God and to Jesus who will return from the East. Conversely, versus populum is praying to the people, not God. Facing the East more appropriately signifies the sacrifice being made to God with priest as in persona Christi, eliminates a visual confusion, and is less disorienting for the priest. Versus populum adds to the elevation of the priest over the laity, creating an orientation of separation and presentation to rather than unity and offering on behalf of the assembly. Facing the East also keeps the assembly less closed in on itself (the closed-circle).

Response: A couple of initial observations can be made, including the fact that the assembly does face the East (or at least the apse) in either case, so there is inherently a sense of anticipation of Christ’s physical return even in versus populum. To insist that the priest must also reorient himself for that anticipation to be fully valid is itself commentary on the priority of priest over the assembled body, as if it is really the orientation of the priest that alone matters. The priest’s comfort or resolution of disorientation is not really the point (and that disorientation can itself be resolved through a more robust theological understanding of worship communicated to all involved).

Notwithstanding those observations, one might question the notion that for prayer to be lifted up to God, we must orient ourselves to a place where God is, as if he is not also among us. Such an argument is especially interesting in a tradition that emphasizes the very presence of Christ himself, not only as the eucharistic species, but alive and active as the real celebrant, as the living Word, as the Holy Spirit who animates and indwells each individual and the body as a whole. It is not really that worship is either about an anticipation of Christ coming some time in the future or about remembering something he did in the past. Worship is really about both the past and future activity and presence of Christ made fully present in the liturgical, eucharistic assembly—in word and table, in prayer and song, in action, posture, heart and mind, body and spirit. Worship is at once anamnetic and proleptic, holding the tensions of the already and not yet in glorious union. In fact, worship is a beautiful symphony of paradox and mystery which is at once past, present, and future. It is earthly and heavenly, it is joy and lament, sacrifice and gift, death and resurrection. Worship is rich with the transcendence of God and his intimate presence as all things are drawn by the Christ of the cross and the resurrection himself, sanctified by Christ himself, offered by Christ himself, and made real by Christ himself, and through him by his people, priest and the assembled priesthood, the very body of Christ.

Rather than closed in upon itself, the circle of priest and assembly hold these tensions in appropriate harmony, as prayer is made to God who is both fully present among us and fully transcendent, not least in the many words, actions, postures, silences, and elements of the liturgy and the sacred space in which it is enacted. In the awareness of the priest acting in persona Christi as the one sacrificing, praying, praising, graciously giving, receiving, speaking, guiding, transforming, making new, humbling, exalting, and more, the assembly and priest together with him are also fully aware of the cosmic assembly of the Church past, present, and future in the very presence of God the Father. All of this is appropriately embodied by the priest and the assembly facing each other, with Christ himself at the center. The circle itself most profoundly evokes eternity, community, unity, and communion.

Ad orientem is an imbalance, an emphasis of but one primary movement in worship, with others grafted through a catechetical insistence perhaps, but without the richness of symbol and movement that brings Christian worship into its fullness.

• People, especially millennials, flock to parishes celebrating ad orientem.

Response: This assumption is one easy to make but more difficult to validate. Many may respond well to the things embodied by ad orientem, but it is also true that many react viscerally to other things it implies, such as actions removed from the assembly and the reinforcement for some that the priest acts as the assembly looks on more as audience, on their behalf and yet without them. The resistance of many has been documented against such an orientation that does not fully embrace the breathtaking theology of Vatican II and that hearkens to a period in the church that was just as rife with attrition, an emphasis on internal piety, and the need for the reforms that were sought in council.

The millennial response, and that of subsequent generations, is itself hardly a measure of value, for those generations often respond to that which makes sense to their personal fulfillment and to things that appear innovative and different. Perhaps a renewal of catechesis and an effort to extol (and embody in music and response) both the joy and depth of current forms, postures, and orientations can bring that same desire to fruition for all generations to worship God in fullness and in truth without alienating others who have come to appreciate the fresh air of the Church renewed and restored, in many ways, to the richness of the worship we now enjoy.

There are many things we can do within the Mass as it exists to help build and reinforce community and draw millennials and others into the joy and beauty of the Mass without making this kind of change that will have, I fear, an opposite impact.

Further observations

The notion that individual priests choose to celebrate ad orientem, over and against common practice, insisting that it somehow enlivens a parish tends to look much like the Protestant tendency to elevate personal and denominational doctrinal choices and practices over the tradition and unity of the church. Variation in local practice does exist, but an accommodation, even an encouragement, of that kind of conscious assertion does devalue the uniformity of faith and practice that speaks to apostolic consistency and communion. While differences in piety reflected in gestures, postures, and patterns do not necessarily take on the weight of dissension or of doctrine, especially at the level of the laity, they can cross into that level of significance when they fundamentally alter the nature and experience of the liturgical assembly and are driven by the priest. That risk is deeply concerning for many of us in relation to ad orientem.