Jan. 2, 2018
I have written many times on the orientation of the priest for the Eucharistic Prayer. I strongly prefer an eastward (ad orientem) posture, in which the priest and God’s people all face in the same direction toward the Lord as the Eucharistic Prayer is prayed. Rather than restate all the reasons for my preference here, I direct you to what I have previously written (here , here , and here).
While I would like to see the eastward orientation restored, I am aware that many, even among doctrinally strong Catholics, are uneasy about the move. Further, many bishops remain unconvinced of its merits and see the push from individual priests as hostile to liturgical unity in their diocese. That a priest is permitted by the norms to say Mass ad orientem is beyond dispute, but bishops must often field complaints and do have an interest in ensuring that liturgical practice in their diocese not become divided by numerous idiosyncrasies. (Most laity and priests who suggest doing ad orientem to other priests do not realize that diocesan priests must show respect and obedience to their local bishop and his liturgical requests and yes, the bishop can limit certain options that are allowed in general norms.)
Traditionalists have legitimate concerns about a rather selective enforcement of liturgical norms. It seems that every possible abuse is permitted to flourish, but let a priest say Mass facing to the east and suddenly there is great scrutiny and pressure to conform to “norms.” I do understand their concern, even if it only about customs.
All that said, one can’t ask reality to be something other than what it is. The fact is, most people see the eastward orientation as a very big change. As such, it is bound to be controversial; simply presenting scholarly arguments isn’t going to be enough to warm many people up to the idea. Those of us who see value in this orientation are going to have to do a lot more to accustom people to the idea.
A further obstacle is that not all priests, even those open to the ad orientem posture, are willing to withstand the ire of their bishop in such a matter—and perhaps that is a good thing. (Yes obedience to one's bishop on liturgical issues can be a challenge and a cross, but mature priests do it and patiently and lovingly and uncomplainingly.In other words, priests are not in private practice but under the authority of their bishop!) Bishops do moderate the liturgy in their dioceses and priests should instinctively want to maintain unity with their bishop. There may be times when it is best for a priest to accept his bishop’s preference rather than insist upon his rights. This is less a question of law than one of prudence and respect. Upon ordination, every priest promises respect and obedience to his ordinary. Thus, if a bishop indicates that he does not want Mass to be celebrated ad orientem as a general practice, a priest should think long and hard before insisting upon his right to make that consistent change in his parish.
With all this in mind, I wonder if those of us who support the eastward orientation for the Eucharistic Prayer might consider some more subtle ways of acclimating the faithful to it. There are a number of points in the liturgy and in liturgical practice when the celebrant is addressing a prayer to God and can make this more obvious by “facing” God. In some of the examples that follow, I presume a traditional setup in the sanctuary, such that the crucifix is prominently displayed near the center and the celebrant’s chair is off to one side at an angle somewhat facing the people. With such a setup, some of the following suggestions can help us to “edge east” and accustom people to the fundamental norm that we ought to face toward God as we address Him. (None of the suggestions below should be called into question by any diocesan bishop. In fact when I am at my chair it is angled toward the altar and the central crucifix on it and thus I make a point of facing the altar for all prayer by looking at and turning toward the congregation seated on three sides of the altar when I speak to them to invite them to prayer.)
- In the Eucharistic liturgy, the opening rites are most often conducted at the chair, which is often off to the side of the altar and angled toward the people in some fashion. Although the priest rightly faces the people to greet them liturgically and to summon them to the penitential rite, there is nothing to prevent him from turning toward the crucifix and/or tabernacle for the Confiteor and/or Kyrie, when he and the people are together beseeching God’s mercy.
- For the Gloria, too, the priest can face the crucifix.
- For the Opening Prayer, the priest can face the people and say, “Let us pray.” Then, after the silent pause directed by the rubric, he can shift noticeably to face the crucifix and/or tabernacle to offer the prayer.
- At the recitation of the Creed, there is nothing to prevent the priest from doing something similar.
- At the Prayer of the Faithful, the priest can face toward the people to introduce the prayer and then turn to face the crucifix and/or tabernacle while he reads the prayers (or the prayers are read by others).
- The Prayer after Communion can be conducted in a similar fashion.
There are also many opportunities to adopt this posture outside of Mass:
- When a priest enters a classroom of children, he usually leads them in a prayer. When doing so, he can face the crucifix and invite the children to join him in doing so as well.
- The same can be done at most parish meetings. Hopefully most parish rooms have a crucifix prominently displayed. Rather than merely bowing his head toward the people, the priest can face the crucifix.
- Teachers and leaders can and should be encouraged to do this at meetings and gatherings as well.
- Eucharistic Benediction can and should always be conducted with the priest and the people facing the monstrance together. The priest can give the benediction from the people’s side of the altar rather than moving behind the altar to do give the blessing.
- Litanies, rosaries, and other prayers can always be done facing the crucifix, the altar, or an image of the Lord or the saints.
In meeting rooms and classrooms, is a crucifix (or other image of God or the saints) prominently displayed so as to provide a clear focus for a prayer? Ideally all such rooms should have a crucifix displayed front and center.
In ways such as this we can “edge to the east” and introduce a fairly simple insight: that we should face the Lord or an image of Him as we pray to Him. For many, the idea of turning the altar is disconcerting, but perhaps after some steady training in these other, smaller ways the concept will seem less jarring and more of a natural thing to do.
Edge East! It may take time, but patient teaching and diligent example may win the day, whereas introducing abrupt, striking change may incite fear and opposition.
(My final comment: Unfortunately Msgr. Pope doesn't make the recommendation that Pope Benedict re-instituted and Pope Francis continues and that is the so-called "Benedictine altar arrangement." I have had this arrangement for many years and instituted it almost immediately when I started my new assignment. Thus my focus when praying the Eucharistic Prayer is the crucifix before me and i think it is obvious to the congregation that I am not praying to them in any fashion whatsoever but by bodily posture and where my eyes are fixed my liturgical prayer and theirs is offered to God the Father, through the crucified and Risen Lord and by the power of the Holy Spirit.