Letter on Ad Orientem-Letter 1 of 2

10-28-2018Pastor LetterThe Priests of Saint Thomas the Apostle

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

One of the many great blessing of serving St. Thomas the Apostle parish is the beauty and solemnity with which this community approaches the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. This is a commitment we not only want to maintain but also to continue and to deepen.

To this end, starting on the Feast of Christ the King, we will be celebrating the 11:00 Mass Ad Orientem, that is to say that the Eucharistic Prayer will be prayed with the priest and the congregation turned together to face the apse, a traditional gesture signifying that the whole worshipping community has turned its face toward God the Father and toward our Crucified and Risen Lord, whose coming again we await with joyful anticipation. As a part of our preparation, I would like to address in brief the reasons for this turn in a two-part bulletin letter. In this first letter (October 25 & November 4), we will look at Vatican II’s vision for the Liturgy, and in the second (November 11 & 18) we will examine specifically the question of Liturgical Orientation.

As many of us are well-aware, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for a reform of the Liturgy in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the constitution of the Sacred Liturgy produced by the council and solemnly promulgated by Pope Paul VI. As the Church went about implementing the reform called for by the Council, quite a few things were changed in the way we celebrate Mass. It is very common, in reference to traditional forms in the Liturgy to hear phrases like “Vatican II changed that.” However, caution must be exercised when attributing the adoption of liturgical innovations or the setting aside of traditions to instructions of the Council. Such attributions are often misleading and falsely claim the high authority of an ecumenical council in support for some liturgical preference. For instance, on the subject of the use of Latin in the Sacred Liturgy, while Sacrosanctum Concilium provides for the use of vernacular language in “the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants,” it nevertheless instructs that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (no. 36). In setting out the general norms to guide the reformation and restoration of the Liturgy, the document states that in order “That sound tradition may be maintained, and yet the way remain open to legitimate progress careful investigation is always to be made into each part of the liturgy which is to be revised… there must be no innovations unless the good of the church genuinely and certainly requires them; and care must be taken that any new forms adopted should in some way grow organically from forms already existing” (23). Moreover, no mention is made at all in Sacrosanctum Concilium about the movement of altars, or the direction that priests face in prayer. The fact is that Vatican II did not give us a new form of Liturgy. Vatican II did not itself form a Liturgy. Vatican II called for a reform of the Liturgy and laid down principles and norms to guide this reform. From a historical perspective, the Second Vatican Council is very recent, and the Church is still going through the growing pains of figuring out how to implement its reforms and directives. The task of discerning how best to implement the Council’s vision for Divine Worship was not concluded in the decade following the close of the Council. Cardinal Ratzinger, writing a preface to a book about orientation in liturgical prayer (“Turning Towards the Lord” by Uwe Michael Lang) speaks of the “struggle- necessary in every generation- for the right understanding and worthy celebration of the sacred liturgy.”

So, if Vatican II did not “change everything,” exclude Latin from the Liturgy, and prescribe that Mass be said with the priest facing the people, what were the principles it laid down for reform? The Council Fathers speak of the centrality of the Mass in our Christian faith: “The liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (9). “But in order that the liturgy may be able to produce its full effects, it is necessary that the faithful come to it with proper dispositions, that their minds should be attuned to their voices, and that they should cooperate with divine grace lest they receive it in vain” (10). To this end, “Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that fully conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebrations which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy. Such participation by the Christian people as ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a redeemed people,’ is their right and duty by reason of their baptism. In the restoration and the promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else; for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (14).

Fully conscious and active participation is arguably the most famous phrase to come out of the council. This is the primary aim of liturgical reform, and how we understand the meaning of this expression will largely guide how we go about the implementation of the reform. In what, then, does this participation in consist? “The Church, therefore, earnestly desires that Christ’s faithful, when present at this mystery of faith, should not be there as strangers or silent spectators; on the contrary, through a good understanding of the rites and prayers they should take part in the sacred action, conscious of what they are doing… by offering the Immaculate Victim, not only through the hands of the priest, but also with him, they should learn to offer themselves” (48). The reforms then are ordered toward a greater understanding of the liturgical action so that the faithful can consciously take part and, ultimately, learn to unite themselves to Christ’s offering of Himself to the Father. Cardinal Ratzinger further develops an understanding of rational worship: “It is meant to be indeed a logike latreia, the ‘logicizing’ of my existence, my interior contemporaneity the self-giving of Christ. His self-giving is meant to become mine” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 58).

In order then, to faithfully implement the Council’s intention of recovering a more conscious participation in the Liturgy, we ought to ask ourselves what ritual forms and gestures are most conducive to helping us understand and actively, prayerfully enter into this reality. If you are interested in diving more deeply into these questions, I encourage you to read Sacrosanctum Concilium, a rather short document. You may also be interested in Cardinal Ratzinger’s “The Spirit of the Liturgy” and Uwe Michael Lang’s “Turning Towards the Lord: Orientation in Liturgical Prayer,” both of which can be found in our gift shop.

In our next letter (November 11 & 18) we will look specifically at the question of liturgical orientation; how it came to be that Mass was offered almost exclusively with the priest facing the people, and what might be the positive reasons for preserving the ancient tradition of the priest and the people turning together to face the Lord in prayer. In the meantime, I propose that in our discussion of this issue, we avoid describing this form of the Liturgy as “the priest turning his back to the people.” This phrase has become highly polemicized and, tragically, is often used to vilify those with traditional preferences. When used this way, the phrase represents an entirely inadequate understanding of the gesture, undergirded by an inadequate understanding of the reference point of the Sacred Liturgy, which is neither the priest nor the congregation, but the Lord.

Sincerely Yours in Christ,

The Priests of Saint Thomas the Apostle: Fr. Steve Kunkel - Pastor,  Fr. Musie Tesfayohannes - Parochial Vicar,  Fr. Robert Bolding - In Residence at Saint Thomas, President & Rector of St. Mary’s High School

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