At one of the training seminars I attended, the presenter told us that the average person needs to listen to something at least 27 times before getting the message. I think that the same can be applied to liturgical matters.
A priest friend of mine told me that he was at a clergy gathering where the issue of Ad Orientem came up. There were various opinions about this. For any local clergy who read this blog, here is some pertinent that may help clarify this issue.
In the year 2000, a European bishop had the same concerns and presented the issue before the Congregation for Divine Worship. The bishop, in question, asked if the position of the priest facing the apse was to be excluded. Jorge Cardinal Media, then-Prefect for the CDW, responded in the negative.
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.
..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.
This particular document, Prot. No 2036/00/L, was published at the Vatican on September 25, 2000. To date, Rome has held firm to this ruling. Ad Orientem is not only allowed, it is encouraged.
Four years after Rome issued its ruling, a young priest, Fr. Uwe Michael Lang, wrote a book, Turning Towards the Lord, on the same subject. The former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger wrote the foreword to the book. Fr. Lang writes that:
The rubrics of the renewed Missale Romanum of Pope Paul VI presuppose a common direction of priest and people for the core of the Eucharistic liturgy. This is indicated by the instruction that, at the Orate, fratres, the Pax Domini, the Ecce, Agnus Dei, and the Ritus conclusionis, the priest should turn towards the people.7 This would seem to imply that beforehand priest and people were facing the same direction, that is, towards the altar. At the priest's communion the rubrics say "ad altare versus",8 which would be redundant if the celebrant stood behind the altar facing the people anyway. This reading is confirmed by the directives of the General Instruction, even if they are occasionally at variance with the Ordo Missae.9 The third Editio typica of the renewed Missale Romanum, approved by Pope John Paul II on 10 April 2000 and published in spring 2002, retains these rubrics.10 This interpretation of the official documents has been endorsed by the Roman Congregation for Divine Worship.
Thus, even the rubrics in the Roman Missal assume that the celebrant and the faithful hold a common posture, facing the altar.
To further his point, Fr. Lang also cites the future Pope Benedict XVI when he notes that:
Cardinal Ratzinger draws a useful distinction between participation in the Liturgy of the Word, which includes external actions, especially reading and singing, and participation in the Liturgy of the Eucharist, where external actions are quite secondary. He writes:
This viewpoint is also held by the current prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Robert Cardinal Sarah, who observes that:Doing really must stop when we come to the heart of the matter: the oratio. It must be plainly evident that the oratio is the heart of the matter, but that it is important precisely because it provides a space for the actio of God. Anyone who grasps this will easily see that it is not now a matter of looking at or toward the priest, but of looking together toward the Lord and going out to meet Him.19
It is entirely consistent with the conciliar constitution, it is indeed opportune that, during the rite of penance, the singing of the Gloria, the orations, and the Eucharistic prayer, everyone, priest and faithful, should turn together towards the East, to express their will to participate in the work of worship and of redemption accomplished by Christ. This manner of doing things could opportunely be put into place in cathedrals, where liturgical life must be exemplary.
In fact, as I noted in an earlier blog post, Cardinal Sarah has even proposed inserting this clarification into the Roman Missal so that it can be clear to everyone that Ad Orientem is not something that should be dismissed.
I hope that this blog post can help clarify what Ad Orientem really means and how, according to the Roman Missal and the interpretation of the Congregation for Divine Worship, it is certainly a legitimate posture for the celebrant to employ.