Friday, November 27, 2009

Facing God or Facing the Laity--I report, You Decide

Does it really matter which way the priest faces when he celebrates Mass? For more than 40 years, priests in most parishes have faced the laity as they celebrate the Mass. We have two generations of Catholics who think this was the way it was all along. In fact the priest facing the same direction as the laity has about 1800 years of tradition, if not longer, both in the Eastern Rite and Western Rite of the Church.

The move, almost universally amongst Latin Rite Catholics, after Vatican II to face the people was a part of the theology that emerged that everything that the priest does at the altar should be heard, seen and understood. Any hint of mystery (which the Mass truly is) was to be eliminated to make the Mass intelligible to the laity.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm all for the Mass being understood by the laity and I do believe that a good number of faithful Catholics prior to Vatican II understood what the Mass was. But it does seem that the call for "noble simplicity" that was actually carried out by subsequent Vatican documents went beyond noble simplicity to "ignoble" simplicity.

But apart from that, having the priest face the people was a very peculiar novelty even if there was a brief precedence for it in the "home churches" of apostolic times.

What is even more disturbing is that the "spirit" of Vatican II (not Vatican II) de-emphasized the priestly character of the priest as acting in the "person of Christ" at the altar and thus as mediator between God and the laity. In fact, the priest represents both the laity and Jesus the High Priest at the altar. His priestly role of offering sacrifice and mediation is essential to the validity of the Mass which he does in the "Person of Christ" and in the name of the laity which he represents in his person as well.

When the priest joined in the same direction as the laity whom he represents at the altar, it didn't matter who the priest was. His particular gifts, his personality, his looks had no bearing on the celebration whatsoever, save his ability to sing and preach. But even with preaching and singing, the laity understood these as secondary to the sacrifice of Christ which the priest offered.

Now with the priest facing the people, his personality is essential in the minds of many. How he looks, comports himself, even his own pious demeanor all are important for what is perceived to be a "good" liturgy. It all hinges on the priest, not his unique role of representing both the laity and Christ, but how he looks and how he acts. In this mindset, the more personality that the priest shows, the more he improvises and makes the Mass his own, the more successful he is at being a "good" presider.

This post-Vatican II novelty, not really intended by Vatican II or even subsequent liturgical documents has led in many parishes and dioceses to the "cult" of the personality. The priest facing the same direction as those he represents at the altar would correct this egregious development in the Church and return all priests at the altar to a more egalitarian brotherhood.


Templar said...

As I've stated elsewhere on your Blog Father, for me there is no comparison or question. The proper facing of the Priest during Mass is facing the altar and not the congregation, and it should be that way not just because the GIRM supports it, but because the constant eye contact and movements by the Priest with the congregation are constant distractions which actually break our focus. I find myself closing my eyes a lot during Mass, especially during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, to force my participation to remain focused on the words and not the actions.

-Brian said...

I shamefacedly admit to finding cynicism and sardonic humor likably affecting; however, “egregious” is a rather strong term, no? Nonetheless, yeah...It goes back to the centering thing. The concentrated current of private prayer that occurs during mass flows to the Altar & Priest, and then carries on in a forward flow to God when the celebrant faces the altar. This mass focus of heart offerings centers and ascends through the priest. As the celebrant faces us... it seems as if this becomes fragmented, and thus not as beautiful as it could be.

Jon said...

I'm all for the Mass being understood by the laity and I do believe that a good number of faithful Catholics prior to Vatican II understood what the Mass was.

I believe that more of the laity understood the Mass prior to the introduction of the Novus Ordo. (I mean, none of us would disagree that attendance was much higher; confessionals more frequented; rosaries and novenas more common; "Catholic identity" more acute; etc., right? Clearly the folks in the pew were getting something of what was going on up at the altar.) And when I say "understood the Mass" I mean understood what was happening on their behalf. Maybe they didn't "get" all of the Latin--but that was what Missals are for anyway. Even now, of one doesn't follow along in their missal, they miss much of what is said even if it's in English.

I remember clearly my first EF Mass: I left with an unmistakable feeling that I'd just been to a sacrifice a bonafide priest was offering an unseen god on my behalf. Being Catholic, of course, I knew it was not just any priest or any god either--it was the One High Priest offering Himself to His Father for me. I wasn't being asked for anything other than my worshipful gratitude for the fact. I wasn't asked what my opinion was, or what I thought of it all--just a humble "Amen" at the appropriate time if I accepted His Sacrifice for me. I'd never come out of a NO Mass with the same awareness or as utterly humbled. I was two years in a seminary, going to daily Mass, and more than 10 years a Catholic before I "got" the Mass. I'd known, of course, that the Mass was the One-True-Sacrifice that made Calvary present to me in this time and place, but had never felt so completely that I'd been to a sacrifice as I did that wintery Sunday I drove to Columbia, SC for the EF Mass. Nor could I have imagined how Jewish it was going to seem! So much of it felt like I'd entered a time warp that took me into the OT--I was blown away. On the way home, I couldn't help but think of Pius XI's quote: Spiritually, we [Christians] are all Semites. What I'd learned through hours of study the EF Mass made me aware of right-off-the-bat. And I think there are many, many others waking up to this reality.

Case-in-point: This past Sunday the 22nd we celebrated our first EF Mass at Most Holy Trinity over here in Augusta, and when my wife and I pulled into the parking lot, we couldn't believe the volume of cars! The sanctuary looked like a Christmas or Easter Mass! Now, I know that it probably drew many parishioners from the three other parishes in the deanery, and still more who might've been merely curious, but still--Laus Deo! There are folks who "get it"!

Anonymous said...

Well Said, Father!

I remember my first Traditional Latin Mass five years ago, celebrated by the FSSP. I couldn't get over the intrinsic beauty and I had tears streaming down my face. I left there thinking -- Now THAT was a Catholic Mass!