Over at the Catholic Answers Forums, there is a spirited debate on Ad Orientem and how it relates to active participation. While I have treated the subject early on when I began this blog, the matter, I believe, certainly bears repeating.
In his excellent book, Turning Towards the Lord, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang presents a strong case for use of this valid posture. One of the arguments that he puts forth centers around the common posture of the celebrant and the faithful:
It is not essential that I have to see everything that the celebrant is doing in order to actively participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The celebrant is leading us in prayer. He is mediating between God and the faithful. When a shepherd leads the sheep, he does not keep looking back at them all of the time, lest he fall into a ditch or trip on a rock or a branch. As the leader, he needs to look forward, occasionally glancing at the sheep to make sure that they are with him. Granted, the celebrant will look at us when engaging in dialogue ("Dominus vobiscum", "Oremus", "Orate Fratres") and we respond ("Et cum spirito tuo"), but, for the most part, he is engaged in prayer to God on our behalf. We, for the most part, are not pew potatoes; rather, we unite our prayers to his.Taking up the suggestion of Jungmann, Cardinal Ratzinger emphasises that the ancient practice of priest and people facing the same way expresses the nature of the Eucharist as a common act of trinitarian worship. The whole assembly is united in facing eastward, that is, in turning to the Lord, as is conveyed in Augustine’s prayer after the sermon, Conversi ad Dominum. Ratzinger considers it momentous that this cosmic symbolism was incorporated into the community celebration. By means of a liturgical gesture, the true location and the true context of the Eucharist are opened up, namely, the whole cosmos. The cosmic sign of the sun rising from the east has been interpreted in two ways: first, as a sign of the risen Christ and thus also of the Father’s power and the working of the Holy Spirit; second, as a sign of hope in the Parousia. The common orientation in liturgical prayer thus not only conveys the trinitarian dimension of the Eucharist but also witnesses to a theology of hope in Christ’s Coming. It realizes the Christian synthesis of cosmos and history.23The cosmic symbolism of sacramental worship allows the world to remain transparent for transcendent reality. The orientation of prayer reaches beyond the visible altar towards eschatological fulfilment, which is anticipated in the celebration of the Eucharist. The priest facing the same direction as the faithful when he stands at the altar leads the people of God on their way towards meeting the Lord who is to come again. This movement towards the Lord, who is ‘the rising sun of history’,24 has found its sublime artistic expression in the sanctuaries of the first millennium, where representations of the Cross or of the glorified Christ mark the goal of the assembly’s earthly pilgrimage. The eschatological character of the Eucharist is kept alive by this looking out for the Lord; we are reminded that the celebration of the sacrament is a participation in the heavenly liturgy and a pledge of future glory in the presence of the living God. This trinitarian dynamism gives the Eucharist its greatness, saves the individual community from closing into itself, and opens it towards the assembly of the saints in the heavenly city, as envisaged in the Letter to the Hebrews.
Fr. Lang makes the same point when he writes that:
It is argued in favour of the celebration facing the people that it is indispensable for the dialogue between celebrant and congregation. The versus populum position no doubt makes sense for those parts of the Mass where priest and people are in dialogue, especially the Liturgy of the Word. But the paramount principle of Christian worship is the dialogue between the people of God as a whole (including the celebrant) and God, to whom their prayer is addressed. If this principle is not manifest in the shape of the liturgy, the Eucharist gives the appearance of nothing more than a catechetical instruction.35 The synagogue service, one of the roots of Christian worship, was not purely didactic; rather, it had a ritual, indeed a sacramental dimension, which was shown in turning for prayer towards the Torah shrine and thus to the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This sacramental dimension is even more definite in the liturgy of the New Covenant. The face-to-face position of priest and people is fitting for catechesis but not for the celebration of the Eucharist.
It seems to me that this is the point that those who argue against the posture of Ad Orientem miss. Having experienced Mass in Ordinary Form celebrated using the posture of Ad Orientem, I find that this particular dimension to the Holy Sacrifice is an important element. When the celebrant face the same direction, there is actually more unity. He is leading us in prayer.
We also run the danger of making the Mass more about the priest or the bishop (or even the Pope) than about Christ. That is something that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjinth cautioned against in his address before the Gateway Liturgical Conference in St. Louis, Missouri, back in 2008:
Let us face it, all of us priests, bishops, and even cardinals, are human beings and so the temptation to place ourselves at the center makes us feel good — what I call “ego pampering”.Now, Cardinal Ranjinth is not accusing every celebrant who uses versus populum as having this kind of mindset. However, adopting the posture of Ad Orientem gives the celebrant liberty to focus on the Sacrifice and in leading the faithful in worship in spirit and in truth. For the faithful, Ad Orientem helps them to focus on the sacred Mysteries unfolding before them instead of on the celebrant. In my case, such posture actually helps me to concentrate on praying the Mass rather than on looking at what the celebrant is doing. We are all praying together under the leadership of the celebrant.
None of us is exempt from this, and now with the Missa versus populum [Mass facing the people], that danger is even greater. Facing the people increases chances of dis-attention and distraction from what we do at the altar, and the temptation for showmanship. In a beautiful article written by a German author, the following comments were made on the subject:
While in the past, the priest functioned as the anonymous go-between, the first among the faithful, facing God and not the people, representative of all and together with them offering the sacrifice … today he is a distinct person, with personal characteristics, his personal life style, his face turned towards the people. For many priests this change is a temptation they cannot handle … to them, the level of success in their performance is a measure of their personal power and thus the indicator of their feeling of personal security and self assurance.The priest here, as we can see, becomes the main actor playing out a drama with other actors on a platform- like place, and the more creative and dramatic they become, the more they feel a sense of ego satisfaction. But, where can Christ be in all of this?
(K.G. Rey, Pubertaetserscheinungen in der Katholischen Kirche [Signs of Puberty in the Catholic Church] Kritische Texte, Benzinger, Vol 4, p. 25).
NB: I have had a spate of migraines since my last posting. I am feeling much better now and hope, God willing, to keep this blog up with full energy.