Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) — During Advent again this year, priests all around the world will celebrate Mass ad orientem in response to a request by His Eminence, Robert Cardinal Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. This will include priests in the Diocese of Lincoln, all of whom are invited to celebrate the Mass in this way during Advent.
“Ad orientem” means that priests and other altar servers stand on the same side of the altar as the lay faithful. When the priest and the people are facing the tabernacle together in worship, all can focus more fully on Christ.
The cardinal made his request during his opening address at Sacra Liturgica UK July 5.
“I believe that it is very important that we return as soon as possible to a common orientation, of priests and the faithful turned together in the same direction…” he said. “I think it is a very important step in ensuring that in our celebrations the Lord is truly at the center.”
He added, “Dear Fathers, we should listen again to the lament of God proclaimed by the prophet Jeremiah: ‘They have turned their backs to me and not their faces’ (2:27). Let us turn again towards the Lord!”
Bishop James Conley addressed this liturgical practice in his November 21, 2014 column in the Southern Nebraska Register.
“The symbolism of the priest and people facing ad orientem—to the east—is an ancient reminder of the coming of Christ,” he wrote, “Since ancient times, Christians have faced the east during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to remember to keep watch for Christ.”
He noted that this orientation also applies when the altar is not situated on the east side of the building.
“Even in Churches that did not face the east, the priest and people stood together in the Mass, gazing at Christ on the crucifix, on the altar, and in the tabernacle, to recall the importance of watching for his return,” he said.
This symbolism is especially appropriate during Advent, the season during which all Catholics eagerly await the coming of the Lord.
“Today, at a time when it is easy to forget that Christ is coming—and easy to be complacent in our spiritual lives and in the work of evangelization—we need reminders that Christ will come,” the bishop reasoned in his 2014 column.
He is already leading by example.
“Currently, when the Bishop celebrates Mass at the Cathedral, he celebrates ad orientem, which he will plan to do for Midnight Mass this year,” said Father Daniel Rayer, chancellor.
Of course, it is far more common for Catholics to attend Mass celebrated versus populum (or “facing the people”). In this posture, the people see the face of the priest as he prays and are thus encouraged to enter into worship of the Lord. Likewise, the priest sees the faces of the people, which encourages him in celebrating the Mass.
As Bishop Conley explained in his column, “These positions can have important symbolism too. They can remind us that we are a community—one body in Christ. And they can remind us that the Eucharist, at the center of the assembly, should also be at the center of our families, and our lives.”
Neither orientation is particularly preferred by the Holy See, so there is no need for any layperson to feel any sort of discomfort whether they attend Mass celebrated ad orientem or versus populum. Also, modern technology enables all the lay faithful to hear priests praying the Mass through the use of microphones.
Some laypersons miss the face-to-face connection with the priest at an ad orientem Mass, but Father Rayer assures that the unity of worship is still there.
“This is not about, as many tend to say, the priest turning his back to the people,” he said. “They are facing the same direction toward the Lord.”
Father Rayer emphasized that Cardinal Sarah’s request to resume ad orientem during Advent is completely optional. It’s up to each priest to decide what is best for the lay faithful, and also what the physical space around the altar allows.
Bishop Conley has requested that any priest who chooses to celebrate Mass ad orientem during Advent provide appropriate catechesis to the faithful before doing so. For more information, please consult your pastor.