Letter on Ad Orientem Letter 2 of 2

11-11-2018Pastoral ReflectionsThe Priests of St. Thomas the Apostle

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Starting on the feast of Christ the King, we will begin to offer the 11:00 Mass “Ad Orientem,” which is to say that the priest and the people will together turn to face the Lord in the Eucharistic Prayer. In our last bulletin letter, we began to address the reasons for this decision, starting with a brief analysis of the Second Vatican Council’s stated ends in proposing a reform of the Liturgy.

The chief aim was 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 (Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 14). We further examined how “fully conscious, and active participation” is to be understood. Since Jesus Christ is the true Eternal High Priest, the essential action of the Mass is the representation in an unbloody manner of the Holy Sacrifice on Calvary, in which Jesus Christ, priest and victim, offers Himself to the Father. Therefore, the council fathers intended that “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). A proper understanding of participation, then, hinges not on more people doing more things, but on a deeper awareness of what it is that we are doing in the Liturgy, which is “the ‘logicizing’ of my existence, my interior contemporaneity the self-giving of Christ. His self-giving is meant to become mine” (Ratzinger, Spirit of the Liturgy, 58).

The external forms of the Church’s prayer matter. We are not angels, but rather spiritual and material beings. What we do with our bodies, the physical environment we are in, the music we use, how we dress are all things that will have an impact on our interior dispositions and movements. Ritual is particularly important because it forms and teaches us on an unconscious level. It stands to reason, then, that when addressing the question of the direction of liturgical prayer, as with any liturgical question, we ought to ask what external forms best express and help us to understand the reality of the Mass and direct our interior actions most faithfully.

The turning of the priest at Mass to face the people cannot be understood as reflecting a change in Liturgical or Eucharistic theology. The primary character of the Mass is not a meal, but a sacrifice. The Eucharistic Prayer is not a closed dialogue between the priest and the people, but rather a prayer offered by the people, through the hands of the priest. And this prayer, as all Christian prayer, is offered to the Father, through the Son, and in the Holy Spirit. These are the realities the Liturgy ought to express and, through its ritual forms and gestures help the people of God understand. Regardless of the practical reasons that may in some circumstances make Mass facing the people desirable, the Congregation for Divine Worship makes it clear that the “physical position, especially with respect to the communication among the various members of the assembly, must be distinguished from the interior spiritual orientation of all… 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 may here be worth drawing attention to a problem that has arisen, perhaps unforeseen, through the liturgical innovation of the priest offering the Holy Sacrifice while facing the people. As we have said, ritual teaches us on an unconscious level. Many have come to feel that Mass versus populum has more of a communal feel to it, perhaps giving them a sense that they are more involved or closely connected with the action of the priest. But when this sense of connection is brought about by communication between the priest and the people, by an interaction or appearance of an interaction between the priest and the people during the Eucharistic Prayer, than we have already gone astray and lost the central focus of the Mass.

Our main intention of reintroducing the tradition of priest and people turned together toward the Lord is to reorient our focus to God. It may be worthwhile to quote Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) at length on this point:
“In reality what happened was that an unprecedented clericalization came on the scene. Now the priest- the ‘presider,’ as they now prefer to call him- becomes the real point of reference for the whole liturgy. Everything depends on him. We have to see him, to respond to him, to be involved in what he is doing. His creativity sustains the whole thing. Not surprisingly, people try to reduce this newly created role by assigning all kinds or liturgical functions to different individuals and entrusting the ‘creative’ planning of the liturgy to groups of people like to, and are supposed to, ‘make their own contribution.’ Less and less is God in the picture. More and more important is what is done by the human beings who meet here and do not like to subject themselves to a ‘pre-determined pattern.’ The turning of the priest toward the people has turned the community into a self-enclosed circle. In its outward form, it no longer opens out on what lies ahead and above, but is closed in on itself. The common turning toward the east was not a ‘celebration toward the wall’; it did not mean that the priest ‘had his back to the people’: the priest himself was not regarded as so important. For just as the congregation in the synagogue looked together toward Jerusalem, so in the Christian liturgy the congregation looked together ‘toward the Lord…’ It was much more a question of priest and people facing in the same direction, knowing that together they were in a procession toward the Lord. They did not close themselves into a circle; they did not gaze at one another; but as the Pilgrim People of God they set off for the Oriens, for the Christ who comes to meet us.” (Spirit of the Liturgy, 80)

Finally, it is our sincere hope that this practice will help us enter more deeply and consciously into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and to respond more fully to Sacrosantum Concilium’s call that we learn more to offer ourselves with Jesus to the Father. It is unnecessary, and not our intention, to exclude the forms that have developed in the past several decades. Hopefully, the restored practice of offering Mass Ad Orientem, side by side with the continued newer form of versus populum will give all of us a deeper and broader sense of the Church’s worship.

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