The subject of Ad Orientem seems to hit the blogosphere and different liturgical forums every January, especially when the Holy Father employs this posture when celebrating the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the Sistine Chapel. This time around, there's a twist. Evidently, a forum member from a Catholic website expressed concern that a priest at a parish he visited used this particular posture.
"My family and I went to a different parish this weekend...When we walked in, I noticed that the Altar was set up 'backward'. The priest 'said' Mass with his back to us. When I say that the priest 'said Mass', I mean he literally said it. No emotion. No inflection. Very matter of fact. He walked in from the Sacristy and walked out through the Sacristy. He used no Altar servers. No extraordinary Eucharistic ministers (Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion). He did not even offer the Cup to us. The whole thing felt not like a prayer or a celebration, but more like a performance. And not only a performance, but a performance from which we were all deliberately and explicity excluded. It was quite jarring and cold...Having read the post, I shuddered. Subsequent replies appeared to me to not have an understanding of the actual rubric and the role of the bishop in all of this. Here is an example:
...(W)hy such a drastic (and may I say rigid) change? ...Are such changes authorized?"
"Of course a bishop may direct the priest how to celebrate the Liturgy since the Liturgy in the diocese is under the authority of the bishop."Still others wondered why this posture even exists in this day and age, as they seem to think that it is a "throwback" to preconciliar days. "Vatican II changed all of that" appears to be the consensus among these folks. However, a reading of the documents, namely the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and the actual rubrics do not indicate this to be so.
Unfortunately, for better or for worse, the Second Vatican Council is blamed/credited for a lot of what has transpired insofar as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is concerned. Did Vatican II really say that we could no longer kneel in order to receive Holy Communion? Did the Council Fathers mean for the Mass to be stripped of Latin? Is it a liturgical abuse for a priest to "turn his back" on the people? The answer to these questions is a resounding "NO".
Over a year ago, I wrote on the subject, quoting both Pope Benedict XVI and Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, OP, author of the excellent book Turning Towards the Lord. Both the Holy Father (who, incidentally, wrote the foreword to Fr. Lang's book) and Fr. Lang point out that Ad Orientem is completely legitimate. Furthermore, the rubrics assume that this would be the posture taken by the celebrant, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. If versus populum (facing the people) were the set mode, then why would there be specific references in the rubrics indicating when the celebrant is to face the people?
Even the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments weighed in on the matter. In 2002, the CDWDS wrote that:
Prot. No 2036/00/L
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments has been asked whether the expression in no. 299 of the Instituto Generalis Missalis Romani constitutes a norm according to which, during the Eucharistic liturgy, the position of the priest versus absidem [facing towards the apse] is to be excluded.
The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after mature reflection and in light of liturgical precedents, responds:
Negative, and in accordance with the following explanation.
The explanation includes different elements which must be taken into account.
It is in the first place to be borne in mind that the word expedit does not constitute an obligation, but a suggestion that refers to the construction of the altar a pariete sejunctum [detached from the wall] and to the celebration versus populum [toward the people]. The clause ubi possibile sit [where it is possible] refers to different elements, as, for example, the topography of the place, the availability of space, the artistic value of the existing altar, the sensibility of the people participating in the celebrations in a particular church, etc. It reaffirms that the position toward the assembly seems more convenient inasmuch as it makes communication easier (Cf. the editorial in Notitiae 29  245-249), without excluding, however, the other possibility.
However, whatever may be the position of the celebrating priest, it is clear that the Eucharistic Sacrifice is offered to the one and triune God, and that the principal, eternal, and high priest is Jesus Christ, who acts through the ministry of the priest who visibly presides as His instrument. The liturgical assembly participates in the celebration in virtue of the common priesthood of the faithful which requires the ministry of the ordained priest to be exercised in the Eucharistic Synaxis. The physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all. It would be a grave error to imagine that the principal orientation of the sacrificial action is [toward] the community. If the priest celebrates versus populum, which is a legitimate and often advisable, his spiritual attitude ought always to be versus Deum per Jesus Christum [toward God through Jesus Christ], as representative of the entire Church. The Church as well, which takes concrete form in the assembly which participates, is entirely turned versus Deum [towards God] as its first spiritual movement.
It appears that the ancient tradition, though not without exception, was that the celebrant and the praying community were turned versus orientem [toward the East], the direction from which the Light which is Christ comes. It is not unusual for ancient churches to be "oriented" so that the priest and the people were turned versus orientem during public prayer.
It may be that when there were problems of space, or of some other kind, the apse represented the East symbolically. Today the expression versus orientem often means versus apsidem, and in speaking of versus populum it is not the west but rather the community present that is meant.
In the ancient architecture of churches, the place of the Bishop or the celebrating priest was in the center of the apse where, seated and turned toward the community, the proclamation of the readings was listened to. Now this presidential place was not ascribed to the human person of the bishop or the priest, nor to his intellectual gifts and not even to his personal holiness, but to his role as an instrument of the invisible Pontiff, who is the Lord Jesus.
When it is a question of ancient churches, or of great artistic value, it is appropriate, moreover, to keep in mind civil legislation regarding changes or renovations. Adding another altar may not always be a worthy solution.
There is no need to give excessive importance to elements that have changed throughout the centuries. What always remains is the event celebrated in the liturgy: this is manifested through rites, signs, symbols and words that express various aspects of the mystery without, however, exhausting it, because it transcends them. Taking a rigid position and absolutizing it could become a rejection of some aspect of the truth which merits respect and acceptance.
Thus, as we can see, there is no liturgical abuse if the priest chooses to celebrate Mass Ad Orientem. When the question was brought up at a liturgical conference concerning whether or not a bishop could put a stop to Ad Orientem, the response was in the negative. The basis for the response was the aforementioned document of the CDWDS. Thus, the celebrant is in his right to use this very legitimate option.
Now, regarding the matter of the Holy Father celebrating Mass versus populum at St. Peter's and in other locations, a point that was raised by a member of a liturgical forum, the pope places the focus of the liturgy not on himself, but on Christ, and, hence, he chooses to use an altar crucifix. As Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, The Spirit of the Liturgy, wrote:
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.This explains why, whenever he celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass at St. Peter's or at any other church or venue (field, stadium, or square), there is a crucifix (most of the time, a large one) in the middle of the altar. It should be noted that St. Peter's layout actually faces East. Furthermore, the way the Altar of the Confession (the altar reserved for the Holy Father) is situated, it is virtually in the round, so, at some point, the Holy Father would, if we subscribed to the forum poster's original statement, be "giving his back" to the faithful located in the area behind him.
Regarding the original statement about the Mass being more of a "performance" than a celebration, these remarks stand in stark contrast to those made by now-Cardinal Ranjith when he was the Secretary to the CDWDS:
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.
(K.G. Rey, Pubertaetserscheinungen in der Katholischen Kirche [Signs of Puberty in the Catholic Church] Kritische Texte, Benzinger, Vol 4, p. 25).
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?
As I have written on a few occasions, I have had the privilege of assisting at Masses where the priest has celebrated Ad Orientem. When he celebrates in this manner, the celebrant is no longer the focus of the Mass; Christ is. As St. John the Baptist said, "He must increase, while I must decrease."
When the priest celebrates ad orientem, he is leading us towards the Lord, in the same manner that Moses led Ancient Israel towards the face of God.